Lying far to Ethiopia’s east, near the border with Somaliland and Somalia, and surrounded by dusty plains and low hills, Dire Dawa’s slow-burn delights are easily overlooked.
Nearby Harar, with its ancient walled inner sanctum and hyena men, hogs the limelight – not entirely unjustifiably – and most visitors immediately return to Addis Ababa, the national capital, 500km to the west. What they are missing is a surprising mix of Arab, French, Italian and Greek architecture, a rare international mishmash in the only African country that was never fully colonised.
The city’s vibrant shopfronts and tree-lined thoroughfares make Dire Dawa a natural refuge from the often frantic nature of getting around in Ethiopia, as well as the chaotic hustle and bustle that can dent the morale of travellers in some of the country’s other towns.
Divided by the seasonal Dechatu Wadi, which is usually dry, Dire Dawa is made up of two settlements. To the northwest of the wadi is the European-influenced newer part of town, Kezira, a quarter in which to rest, recuperate and sip macchiato coffees while watching the world slip by. To the wadi’s east you will find the vibrant old town of Megala, which has a distinctly Muslim feel, and lively markets that continue late into the night, haggling conducted in Amharic, Oromiffa, Somali and Arabic under bare light bulbs.
Harar’s dominance on the tourist trail could be considered revenge for what happened more than a century ago. The Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway – then a marvel of engineering – was supposed to be built through Harar, a town with a long-established commercial role in the region, but rising costs resulted in the decision to bypass the Chercher Mountains and lay track on the lowlands only. A new city was thus required to service the railway and, in 1902, Dire Dawa was born.
What remains of the once great Imperial Railway Company of Ethiopia can be found – and clambered over – at the city’s train station, on the northern edge of Kezira. When the line closed, in the early 2000s, most of the rolling stock ended up in a museum of sorts, established behind the station’s yellow facade, which bears the name of the company that once ran the line: Chemin de Fer Djibouto-Ethiopien.
Here, French signs hang in crumbling workshops that look out onto the carcasses of engines sat amid overgrown grass, rusting tracks and railway memorabilia slowly falling apart beneath the Ethiopian sun. Decaying along with the rest of the rolling stock is the private train that Emperor Haile Selassie used to escape to Djibouti, following the 1935 Italian invasion.
Following the closure of the old railway, some assumed Dire Dawa would be doomed to a spiral of increasing inertia. With a new, Chinese-operated railway connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti having opened in January, however, the city may well be looking at a small renaissance. With any luck, the easy-going ambience associated with the days of the Imperial Railway will not be lost.
The few buildings in Dire Dawa that rise above two storeys can be found in Kezira, along the road that leads from the train station and serves as the city’s main thoroughfare. The road is paved, although as you cross the bridge over the wadi from Kezira to Megala, its pavements become dustier and more cracked.
African Village Hotel is perhaps the pick of the many station-serving hotels in Kezira. Its rooms are built in the style of tukul huts surrounding a communal courtyard – and may look traditional, but come with air-conditioning and satellite television. The Swiss owner is a font of local knowledge and history, although he keeps a strictly dry property.
A drink is not difficult to find in Megala, however. Despite being Muslim in character, the old town boasts plenty of drinking holes, most little more than a string of flashing neon lights around a dark doorway leading to an even darker room with a few tables and a refrigerator full of beer.
On the main road through Megala is Al-Hashimi Sweets, the shop thronged with confectionery junkies snapping up baklava, halva and mushabak – sugary treats popular throughout the Middle East, and eastern and northern Africa.
On the southern edge of Megala, before the ground dips to the wadi, lies the enormous Kafira Market. Delving into the organised chaos of its lanes, beneath corrugated iron sheeting, is an assault on the senses, especially in the morning, when the market is at its busiest and noisiest. Tough Afar and Somali herders, Oromo farmers and Amhara merchants jostle for prominence amid rows of stalls piled high with dried peppers and riotously colourful spices.
If the heat becomes oppressive, there is always a three-wheeled blue-and-white Bajaj taxi – the type typically associated with Indian cities – on hand to take the weight off a visitor’s feet, and you cannot explore the city without noticing the green leaves of the khat plant, usually as they are going into someone’s mouth.
The mildly narcotic leaves have a long history in the Horn of Africa and surrounding region, having been viewed as sacred by the ancient Egyptians, and Sufi religious men chewed khat to remain awake during nocturnal meditations on the Koran. Much of Ethiopia’s prime khat grows in the hills around Dire Dawa. What is not trucked inland or to neighbouring countries, or flown farther afield, finds an eager clientele in the cut and thrust of Chattara Market, on the eastern edge of town.
Gesticulating hands, impassioned expressions and rapid-fire haggling among piles of khat-filled plastic bags colour the tight alleys that thread through Chattara. Buyers who have grown tired of bargaining lounge on street-side carpets plucking leaves from stalks and squeezing them into increasingly bulging cheeks.
All the haggling and chewing distracts attention from the only foreigner in the market, although I am hailed by the occasional, “Inka, inka, ferangi! (“Take, take, foreigner!”) as women offer me khat.
Amid the melee, I am taken under the wing of a 12-year-old girl, her large brown eyes framed by a hijab, who leads me to her father’s small restaurant, built of corrugated iron. I am served a bowl of soup with what seems like dollops of peanut butter in it – simple yet tasty – as darkness descends on the market and business becomes brisker.
Beyond the town’s eastern edge, the ground rises sharply. The following day, boys are only too keen to lead me on a steep climb that threads through humble homes – mud walls beneath corrugated-iron roofs, many with chickens and goats outside. From the hilltop, after I’ve got my breath back, I marvel at Dire Dawa in all its dusty, unpretentious glory, as black kites hover in the thermals at eye level, their wide wings silhouetted against a bright blue sky.
The view reinforces the myth and exoticism that envelop eastern Ethiopia – indeed, the entire Horn of Africa – and derive from the days when the area attracted powerful merchants, artisans, Islamic scholars, mercenaries and adventurers.
Ethiopian Airlines flies directly from Hong Kong to Addis Ababa, where a connecting flight to Dire Dawa can be boarded.