Returning to Dire Dawa

Frédéric Garnier, 72, is a retired French dentist who lives in the suburbs of Paris, Chantilly-Gouvieux. He spent his early parts of his life in the eastern town of Ethiopia, Dire Dawa, where his father was working for the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway line. Coming back to the city and childhood home sixty years later with his wife and grown-up children, he was struck by the place that revived many fond memories-yet the inevitable changes left him feeling disoriented. He told Ethiopia Observer his story. (Video in French.)

I came to Ethiopia when I was two years old. We arrived by boat in Djibouti. Back then, there were no planes. The only civil airport in France was the Bourget. (A city located 7km north of Paris). We travelled on Cargo liner. We stopped at Port Said (Located in north-eastern Egypt at the spot where the Suez Canal joins the Mediterranean Sea.) We arrived in the port of Djibouti and disembarked. We took the train to Dire Dawa. My father was named the Controller of management of the Franco-Ethiopian Railway. So I lived from the age of two to the age of ten in Dire Dawa where he used to work and stay. At first, it was my mother who taught me to write and read at home, of course. Then I went to the school of the l’Alliance Française which was located a few streets away. I had Ethiopian, American, Italian, Greek and Armenian friends. And then I went to the French Mission which was a further away from where I learned the catechism. I made my first communion, my confirmation. The classes at the Alliance Française were in the morning, they started around 7 or 8 in the morning until noon. In the afternoon, I returned on foot from the Alliance Française to my home which was located just next to Empire Cinema, which is still there, not far from the Greek Church.

Greek Orthodox Church in Dire Dawa Photo F.G

In the afternoon, I went to the stadium, which was 200 metres walk. I played with my friends. Then, I would go back home. Water for the bath had to be heated in a heater that worked on a wood fire. I had a nanny called Elizabeth whom I liked very much. I lived like that until my ten years.

During the holidays, we went to Harar, stayed at Ras Hotel, which was then surrounded by trees and garden but unfortunately today by concrete building. I used to go Addis, since my father was a controller, when he did his duty from Addis to Djibouti, he would add a wagon with berths. We would leave late at night and we would arrive in Djibouti on the next morning. In Djibouti, we stayed at what then was called a rest house which was located on the beachside. I learned to swim in the Indian Ocean. We could not walk barefoot on the sand because the sand burned one’s feet. I had to put shoes. When I went to Addis, I was happy because it was an occasion to wear trousers because of the damp chill of Addis. Similarly, we had a rest house just in Addis close by La Gare. We used to eat at the Buffet de la Gare which was owned by a Greek man we used to call Papa George. So I lived like that until ten years old. It was paradise on earth. At age ten, my parents did not want they I joined Addis Lycée, even though there were friends who proposed to host me. Thus, I came to France to continue my schooling. In one shot, I found myself, in Nogent-sur-Marne, (a commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris). My parents stayed in Ethiopia. I saw them every six months. I had my sister who came to look for me every weekend and bring me back every Monday. During a very long time, I’ve been wanting to go to Ethiopia for some time. I could not do it because people said, ‘there were dangers, there were demonstrations, conflict’. The fact that Emperor Haile Selassie was disposed of and replaced by the Derg, because of those things, we were not all sure. Thus, I waited, I waited for years. Finally, I ended up deciding in 2017, that means 60 years later. Even then, we heard there were demonstrations in the Oromia region. I said if I listened to all that, I would never go back. We returned there thanks to an agency called Monpays Tours that organized the trip that I wanted to do. I returned with all my children. They were able to see where I passed my childhood.

Cinima Empire Dire Dawa photo by F.G

We first went sightseeing in the south of the country, then to the east, Awash, which was crossed by the railroads. We found Madame Kiki’s pizzeria. (A Greek woman who used to run the restaurant, Buffet d’Aouache for more than 60 years. ‘Aouache’ being the French spelling of Awash.) Then we headed to Harar, a city which I found has not much changed, at least the old town. On the other hand, Ras Hotel, there is no longer a green space around it. I was also disappointed to find about the fate of Lake Haromaya because i had memories of stopping by between Dire Dawa and Harar.  Today, it has not more than its name, as it is all dry.

After Harar, we went down to Dire Dawa. I had the impression of finding all turns, the rocks with the elephants shape in it, excreta. Arriving in Dire Dawa we spent the night in a hotel whose names escape me now. In the terrace of the hotel, I saw the two towers of the Greek church. I said, ‘here I am at home’. The next morning we went off to see the house. We were with a guide called Abay Seyoum. At this moment, it was me who guided him. I recognized everything. Everything has been engraved, those happy days in Dire Dawa. We went on foot from the hotel. We went past the Greek Church, past Cinema Empire, and we arrived at my house.

Frédéric Garnier and his wife Marie Ange Garnier waiting to enter the house.

I found my house and I rang. Thanks to a contact I had, I was told we could visit it. The current tenants were nice and welcoming, I was told. I managed to visit the inside of my childhood home. It has changed a lot, the garden. There are several things that no longer exists. The garden was in the state of abandon. Had my mother has seen the garden, she would have been sad. Escorted by the owner, we visited the interior of the house. I found my bedroom. They transformed the window into a bay. We walked through the bathroom, the kitchen. There was a veranda where I started learning to ride a bike. The living room. We went around the house on the other side. It used to give a view to the banana tree. Now, it gives on nothing at all. There was always the garage. There was a big flamboyant tree in which I climbed. But it was dead, it was cut, I learned. The owner’s son told me that when he was a kid, he used to climb up that tree. That was fun.

So, finding the house and showing to my children was a great moment. We went on foot to the l’Alliance Française. We were welcomed by the school director who made us visit it. I found the class where I was in C.P. (the first grade of primary school in France). We also saw kids who are learning. That was also a great moment. It was the classroom i attended while i was six. And then we continued on foot until the Catholic Mission. Abay arranged for me to meet Joseph Petros, the former president of l’Alliance éthio-française. We discussed a lot. It was very nice to find him.

With Joseph Petros

We, of course, visited the railroad yard. The train line has stopped running, including the wagons of goods. Now there is only a line to transport goods between Djibouti and Dire Dawa. The compound is almost abandoned.

Next, we headed to the stadium, where I had fun when I was a child. I also tried to go to the hospital. Because some of the physician’s children had been close to me but the guardian refused to let us enter. We did all this, all the same.

That evening my children celebrated my 70th birthday at the hotel with a candle put on papaya. I think it was a moment when I cried. It was extraordinary. Then we returned to Addis Ababa. We also visited La Gare in Addis because I had also memories of it. I went often to Addis. I discovered Buffet De La Gare, which is today owned by other persons. We were with railwaymen. We played pétanque (the game of boules) with them. It was also a pleasant moment. And then I visited the train car of the Nigus. Unfortunately, the lounge car we used with my father, it no longer exists. It was all ruined.  Here is, the next day I would leave for home. Now I wish to go back to Ethiopia to do sightseeing in the north of the country.

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Returning to Dire Dawa