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.