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On the Eritrean Railway

Train on the Asmara-Massawa rail


As I write time and again about the legendary Eritrean railway, some may see see it as a nostalgic, while others see it as a reminder of our historical past. All in all, it cannot be viewed apart from our national experiences that shaped our consciousness in an age of decolonization era.  
To begin with, the construction of the majestic Eritrean railway during the first quarter of the last century was a major achievement of colonial Italy. The Italians planned it, but the workers were Eritreans  who accustomed to back breaking labor (lavoro pesante)  under the scourging heat of the Red Sea sun. It took more than a decade to finalize the Asmara-Massawa railway due to rugged mountains with multiple short and long tunnels extending from Nefasit to Inda Qirqos, about a mile away from Bet Ghirogis Middle School.
Our forefathers,  as Askari or  native colonial armies were herded like cattle in  smoky train (ጸላም ባቡር) headed to Massawa where they were transported to Tripoli by sea. The desperate mothers and wives who came to the railway station to bid them good bye were singing as the following:-
ባቡር መጸት ትኪ ተኸዲና
ጓል እኖኻ ትበኪ ደኒና።
The smoky train is approaching
While your sister is crying.
And those who were unwilling to go to Libya campaign…
ጸላኢና ትሪቡሊ ይኺዶ
ኣብኡ ሰብ ኣለውንዶ
ብኻራ ገዲፎም ብጋየዶ።
How we wish our enemies
March to Tripoli
For there are people
Who live there
Willing to fight
With a knife and spade.
However, these Alpanian people were not satisfied with slow railway line winding like a needle through chain of mountains. In the thirties, the Italians constructed the longest airal ropeway in Africa which was dismantled following the British Military Administration in Eritrea. The spare parts were sold to South Africa by ruling Britons. In the early sixties, one could see some remaining parts down the horrific ditch of Shegrini about seven kilometers away from Asmara.
On the occasion of annual pilgrimage to Debre Bizen, the trip by train was the cheapest, and the most enjoyable to see the Eritrean landscape with many scattered hamlets, wild animals and fruits such as figs (በለስ) including short trees  with their refreshing scent. At night, one could see from the top of Debre Bizen overlooking the mountain scenery of Azienda with zigzag country roads and railways illuminating and flashing by approaching big trucks and trains. Early in the morning, it is possible to see Massawa   with a powerful binocular.
On the morrow, it was and still is fearsome to go down the mountain hurriedly in order to catch the afternoon train from Massawa bound to Asmara. At times, it was hard to find unoccupied seat, and those who could not afford to pay for train ticket had to hide under the seat. As the train departing under cloudy afternoon, we were singing as the following;_
መንበሩ’የ ወርቂ መንበሩ
ፊሊጶሰይ ወርቂ መንበሩየ።
Implying the golden chair of Abune or Father Filipos who is supposed to be  a patron saint of the monastery of Debre Bizen.
And when we arrived in Asmara railway station……
ዓመት ንዓመት የድግመና
ዓመት ንዓመት የድግመና።
Which means next year in Debre Bizen.

I hope ones the railway service resorted in Eritrea, the younger generation in the Diaspora will have an enjoyable trip with exotic mountain scenery, and a group of monkeys to see. Yes, down, down the Massawa road.

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On the Eritrean Railway Reviewed by Admin on 6:43 PM Rating: 5

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