Friday, December 24, 2010

A Conversation with Author Jennie Street

Author Jennie Street

Issayas: Can you briefly tell us about yourself? When and where were you in Eritrea?
ennie: I'm pleased to answer your questions as that way more people will get to know about the book. But remember, although I put the book together, and published it, my co-author is an Eritrean, Amanuel Ghebreselassie, who is General Manager of the Eritrean Railway, and we could not have written this book without each other. Amanuel supplied a great deal of information -technical, historical, and personnel - and he made available all the ER archive to me, wrote Chapter Six almost entirely, answered hundreds of queries, sorted out lots of difficult problems, and copy-edited the entire book. It has been a great collaboration between us, and I am proud to have been a co-author with Amanuel.

I am an English woman, and have been both a development worker and writer all my working life. I wrote to speak of my work and to draw attention to aspects of social and community life wherever I worked. I have worked and written in Sheffield, UK, Hong Kong, China, the Sudan,Ethiopia and Eritrea. For my features I have always written from direct sources, never
from secondary sourcing, because I consider this more credible and valid. I can check my material, ensure veracity and get what I need, rather than what someone else has deemed worth eliciting.

I worked in the Sudan from 1986 to 1990, firstly being sent by a Consortium of NGOs to work on the issue of unaccompanied refugee minors in East Sudan, later working on the cross-border operations, and then with UNICEF. I visited the liberated areas of the Sahel in 1988 during the liberation struggle, and was in Tigray immediately after the collapse of the Dergue in Tigray in February 1989. In 1991 I worked for NOVIB, (the Dutch Oxfam) looking at development (as opposed to aid) needs in Ethiopia and Eritrea immediately after the war ended. I continued to visit Eritrea annually for my son Hadish, whose father is Eritrean, to know his Eritrean family.
In 1995-96 I was employed in Asmara by the PFDJ to prepare a review of the first five years since liberation.

Issayas: How and why did you get interested in the Eritrean railroad?

Jennie: While there I also wrote, to inform the world of Eritrea, about 40 features on a wide range of business, economic and social life in Eritrea for African magazines and features services, some of which were syndicated round the world. In early 1995, after hearing about the rehabilitation of the ER, and being driven by Amanuel down the bed of the line from Arbaroba to
where tunnels were being cleared out, I wrote the first article on the rehabilitation of the Eritrean Railway which was published in New African. I followed the progress of the railway rehabilitation and then, after telling an Eritrean friend in England about it and finding his father drove the last steam train before the line was closed in 1975 and hearing about some of his father's often horrendous experiences, I realised there was an untold story that needed recording.

In 1999, after hearing various other stories about life on the line, I persuaded Amanuel Ghebreselassie, the General Manager of the ER, that we could write a book about the Eritrean Railway together. His reaction was that his English was not good enough, but - apart from the fact that his English is good enough to correct mine in the drafts of the book - that was not the point, we were a team complementing each other with our different knowledge and experience.

Book cover of RED SEA RAILWAY

Issayas: What kinds of reaction are you getting from people about your book?

Jennie: I started the book more or less from the social history point of view, recording the incidents and life on the line for the railwaymen, but as time went on it became apparent that the book had to cover all the technical information which railway enthusiasts and experts require in a book about a railway. This was hard for me, as I am in no way technical nor have an engineering background to understand it. At times I fell asleep over my keyboard inputting data that I found very boring! But I wanted to make sure every single fact was checked and re-checked, and every photo was correctly captioned, dated where possible and attributed correctly.

However, I have been supported not just by Amanuel, but over the 10 years of researching the boook, by about 30 railway enthusiast men in many countries who have helped me get the technical specifications correct! Many of them were, I think, rather surprised that a woman
should write a book on a railway! I have never seen any other railway book written by a woman, though I guess there must be one or two somewhere.

However, I have been very touched by positive comments and reviews of RED SEA RAILWAY. A German rail enthusiast and engineer who originally told me that I should not attempt to write a book on a technical subject I did not understand, later wrote after publication and told me that
it really was the definitive book on the subject! Another man phoned me specially to tell me that though he has hundreds of railway books, he thought RED SEA RAILWAY was among the best in scope and quality of information and images, and he had never even been to Eritrea! I have
only had two problems pointed out so far: one was a failure to mention a signal west of Keren, and the other was a wrongly described timetable. I am hoping that I shall get more information for a later edition about Italian railwaymen in the early days of the line, after Italians buy the
book, as Italian archives have been the most elusive to find.

Issayas: What makes Eritrea railroad different than other countries?

Jennie: The Eritrean Railway is like many other narrow gauge railways in that in runs through spectacular mountain scenery, as narrow gauge was the best way of tackling that sort of country. As you will be able to read in RED SEA RAILWAY, the Eritrean Railway is now known among railway enthusiast circles as the Darjeeling of Africa as its mountain scenery and engineering brilliance are similar. It has attracted quite a lot of enthusiasts to return time and again to enjoy it.

There is no doubt that there is something a little magical in the power of steam, and everyone of all ages finds travel on steam trains compelling. The Eritrean Railway cannot compete with modern tractive power, as it is not a line that permits speed or heavy engines, so its attraction
is the old steam engines. For faster travel on the line there is of course the littorina - the rail car introduced in 1935 by the Italians, which cut the journey from Massawa to Asmara by several hours.

Issayas: Why should people be interested in Eritrean railroad?

Jennie: I hope that RED SEA RAILWAY may inspire Eritreans across the world to pay more attention to their railway, not only from the heritage point of view, but as a potential economic resource for the country. It needs financial backing to update engines and rolling stock, and it needs support to enable it to restore the rest of the line from Asmara to Agordat and even beyond. The railway opened the country's trading and agricultural links, and was the biggest employer of labour in Eritrea, and it could again be a force in the economy. In addition, a railway museum is needed to record this history for posterity.

I hope that there will be something for every Eritrean in RED SEA RAILWAY. For those who have no memory of the line and the trains running I hope they may learn something more in depth of the history of their country, and for some older people I hope it will offer good memories or insights. I am open to comments on the book, both positive and negative.

For further information check out the following :

Issayas: Thank you for your time and comments. Good luck with the book.

Jennie: You're welcome.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dr. Dominy's and Gillian Moritz's Presentation at the Eritrean Community Center in Oakland: A Summary

On June 12th 2010, Dr. Nathaniel Dominy of UC Santa Cruz and his colleague, first year Ph.D student, Gillian Mortiz of UC Santa Cruz, presented the findings of their research to the Eritrean community in Oakland. It must be recalled that they first announced their findings to the world at the 61st ARCE (The American Research Center in Egypt) annual meeting which was held in Oakland from April 23-25, 2010.

Dr. Nathaniel Dominy at the Eritrean Community Center in Oakland, CA.

The Eritrean Community Center in Oakland, CA.

The title of their presentation was entitled, “Baboons, stable isotopes and the location of Punt”. Dr. Dominy started his lecture by stating that Egyptologists have been looking for the “Land of Punt” for over 100 years. He presented detailed theories that had surfaced over the aforementioned period. According to Dr. Dominy the locations varied from Sinai, Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Uganda to Mozambique. The theories of the location varied because

* Ancient Egyptian records indicated that the land of Punt was located to the east of Egypt and to the south of Nubia.

* Egyptologists have been using biological, botanical, linguistic, and archaeological and other
evidence to come up with their respective theories.

What makes Dr. Dominy and his colleagues’ results different from the previous theories is that:

* His team is made up of scientists of various disciplines. (Dr.Dominy studies primates, Gillian
is one of the few people in the field to capitalize on new techniques to study oxygen isotopes and Dr.Salima Ikram is a specialist in animal mummification).

* This is the first time that hair samples from mummified baboons have been analyzed in a mass spectrometer to pinpoint the location of Punt.

Before going into details of their scientific result, Dr. Dominy pointed out why the land of Punt was important to the Ancient Egyptians. Dr. Dominy stated that the relationship between Ancient Egypt and the land of Punt was the first peaceful interaction between two “countries”, and that it was also one of the earliest and longest lasting trading relationships in human history, spanning over 1300 years. This relationship started from 2450 BC during the reign of Sahura (as evidenced by the Palermo Stone) and continued through the reign of Pharaoh Ramasis III (XX Dynasty). Dr. Dominy showed a picture of a hieroglyphic tablet of a custom’s official record that was taken at Marsa Gawasis, a port in Egypt where preserved Ancient Egyptian ship components were found.

A custom official's hieroglyphic record found at Marsa Gawasis, Egypt

The commodities that were imported from the land of Punt included:

. Gold and electrum ( a compound for gold and silver).
. Plant tissues (Ntyw: myrrh; Comminphora; Sntr: Pistachia and ebony
. Animals and animal products (baboons, short-horned cattle, leopards and ivory)

Punt Expedition bas relief from Dar el-Bhari (Queen Hateshepsut's temple)

Even though some or all of the commodities were and are still found in the Sinai (baboons were not found), Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Uganda and Mozambique, two commodities; sntr (incense made from pistachio plant tissue) and baboons were important in determining the location of Punt. It was previously believed that the incense that was highly prized in Ancient Egypt was frankincense, but now it has come to light that it was sntr (pistachio). Actually, Dr. Dominy indicated that when Somalia got its independence in 1959, it issued a stamp in reverence and in reference to itself as the land of Punt. On the stamp, a frankincense tree is carried by two people.

As indicated above, the second commodity was the baboon. The Ancient Egyptians had high reverence for baboons. In the mornings, baboons face to the east and announce the rising of the sun by making a “wa-hoo” vocalization. It has been hypothesized that baboons face the rising sun in order to warm up digestive bacteria in the gut. It is not known whether the ancient Egyptians knew the above mentioned scientific fact or not, but for them baboons were symbolically associated with the rising sun). Dr. Dominy indicated that the Ancient Egyptians (especially the Pharoah’s and their families raised the baboons as pets).

A picture taken by Eric Lafforgue in Eritrea.

An x-ray of a royal pet baboon without his canine teeth.

A mummified baboon

Going into details of their research, Dr. Dominy explained that there are different species of baboons (Papio papio, Papio hamadryas, Papio anubis, Papio ursinus, and Papio cynocephalus), but there were two baboon species that were mummified and were depicted in Ancient Egyptian paintings. They are Papio hamadryas and Papio anubis. Dr. Dominy explained that his team got hair sample from two mummified baboons. The hair sample from one of the mummified baboon could not be used to determine the place of origin, because the baboon had been in Egypt as a pet for a long time. However, the hair sample from the mummified baboon from the British Museum did help to determine its origin. Since baboon populations vary isotopically, by analyzing the ratio of oxygen stable isotopes from the hair sample, Dr. Dominy explained, his team determined that

* All the other places that once were believed to be land of Punt were eliminated (Siani,
Yemen, Uganda, Somalia and Yemen)

* The oxygen isotope (O18) analyzed through hair sample of the mummified baboon was
consistent with the oxygen isotope (O18 )and types found on the baboons from Eritrea.

Biographic distribution of baboons

Papio hamadryas


Finally, this is a major scientific breakthrough. The audience was so fascinated by the presentation; people were still asking them questions up to 9:30 PM.

staying after the lecture.

coffee ceremony with incense

 One of the most highly sought after commodity by the ancient Egyptians was incense from Eritrea.

Pictures courtesy of Dr. Nathaniel Dominy.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Conversation with Anthropologists Dr. Nathaniel J. Dominy and Gillian L. Moritz

Issayas: Can you briefly describe about yourselves.

Nathaniel J Dominy: I'm an Associate Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, UC-Santa Cruz. I received my BA from Johns Hopkins University in 1998 and PhD from the University of Hong Kong in 2001; from 2002-2004 I was NIH Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago. I'm currently a Fellow of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

(Note: Dr. Dominy was ranked by Popular Science magazine (2009) as one of ten "Brilliant 10" scientists younger than 40 years old. )

Gillian L. Moritz : I'm a PhD student in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, UC-Santa Cruz. I received my BS from Saint Louis University in 2008. I have research interests in stable isotope ecology, sensory systems, and primate behavioral ecology.

Issayas: What is the significance of your findings?

Dr. N. Dominy and Gillian Mortiz: Our preliminary findings narrow down the range of possible geographic locations for Punt. We can rule out some hypothetical locations such as Mozambique and Uganda. And the evidence we have so far is inconsistent with a location in Somalia or Yemen. Instead our results favor a location in Eritrea and eastern Ethiopia. Such results are significant for contributing to our knowledge of the earliest maritime trading networks in antiquity

Q: Why was Punt important for the Ancient Egyptians?

A: Punt was important because it was an emporium for highly valued, exotic goods. For the Ancient Egyptians, the most important commodity of Punt was incense.

Q: The location of Punt had been a mystery for a long time, why was it a mystery?

A: Because the evidence is mixed. The textural evidence differs from the artistic evidence; and, until recently, the archeological evidence was too scarce to be much use. By nature, scholars are creative, argumentative people... so in the past century at least 5 geographic hypotheses have been advanced

Q: Why was Punt called "God's Land?"

A: For the Ancient Egyptians, Punt was a wildly productive region with numerous valuable mineral and biological commodities. Punt was the best emporium on earth.

Q: For a general audience can you briefly describe how a mummified baboon can hold the secret for the location of the land of Punt?

A: The chemical composition of baboon hair reflects the chemical composition of plant water, and plant water reflects the chemical composition of rain water. So we can create a chemical map of eastern Africa based on rainfall patterns. Fortunately, each hypothetical Punt location carries a distinctive rain-driven chemical signature that we can match to living baboons as well as the mummified ones from Ancient Egypt.

Q: Why were baboons important for the Ancient Egyptians and beside baboons, were there any other mummified animals that you wanted to research on?

A: Some baboons were mummified because they were beloved royal pets whereas others were mummified for religious purposes. Mummified short-horned cattle and antelopes might have been interesting to study.

Issayas: Thank you both for your time and comments. (Note: For further information on the subject and their research, please check out the following two links:

To check Dr. Dominy's lab:

Dr. Dominy and Moritz will be presenting their findings to the public at Oakland's Monthly Public Forum on Saturday June 12th 2010. Check out the flier below for details.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pictures from May 3 , 2010 Santa Rosa Junior College Eritrean Event

I was invited to screen my film entitled "Asmara:City of Radiance" to Santa Rosa Junior College students on May 3rd 2010. The occasion was sponsored by the Eritrean Students Association whose main purpose was to introduce Eritrean culture to Santa Rosa Junior College students. It was an indoor and outdoor event.

Here are some pictures from the outdoor event.

Below are pictures from the Eritrean basketry workshop that was held on the same campus on April 3, 2010. The pictures below are courtesy of Solomon Gebretensae.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Pictures from "Eritrea:The Oldest New Nation" lecture at Santa Rosa Junior College on Feb. 8th, 2010.

At the invitation of Santa Rosa Junior College Museum, I gave a lecture entitled "Eritrea: The Oldest New Nation". The title is from my on-going documentary on Eritrea. The lecture started at 12:30 and lasted an hour. The lecture included a 12 minutes film and power point presentation. It was standing room only and after the door of the auditorium was closed, people were turned away. The lecture started with a moment of silence. There were two sign language translators present. Briefly, I talked about how Eritrea is a new country and continue to talk about how Eritrea is an old country, hence the title of the lecture.

Here are some pictures from the event.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Exhibit Opening Reception at Santa Rosa Junior College Museum

Santa Rosa Junior College Museum's Exhibit opening reception was held on February 4th 2010.
The exhibit was a kick-off for various Eritrea-related exhibit and lecture series. The exhibit will run from February 4th 2010 through May 9th 2010.

The event was well attended, organized and received. Kudos to all the people who made the event a success. Of course, no Eritrea-related event would be successful without the full participation of Eritrean women.

Here are some pictures that I took at the event.