NYU Gallatin Travel Blogs

Reflections from Students Traveling on Gallatin Programs

Category: Africa House Fellowship

Grace Easterly, Africa House Fellowship, Ethiopia

When you look at a map of the newly inaugurated Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, it looks relatively straightforward: from Point A to Point B. From Sebeta, a suburb on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital, to the Port of Doraleh, a newly built port in Djibouti along the Red Sea’s important maritime shipping route. But the relationships of connectivity that this railway has inspired and will inspire are far greater than just these two dots on the map. Instead, it’s becoming more and more clear that the building of this railway resulted in a complex network rather than a straight line, and is representative of political and economic relationships on the local, national, regional, and global scales.

Map of Addis Ababa Djibouti Railway

Map of Addis Ababa Djibouti Railway

My research project this summer is to examine two dimensions of this new railway, which was just finished in January of 2017 and is still in trial service. One side of my research addresses the question of what this railroad represents on the more political, economic, international relations level. The other side is what effect this project has on local, informal economies, asking how people living along the railway use and take ownership of this new infrastructure.

So far, as I’m still in Addis, I haven’t yet been able to begin the second half of my research in the towns along the railroad. But I’ve been catching glimpses of three different initiatives that this railroad might represent, through newspaper articles, the conference I’ve attended, and formal and informal interviews:

China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative… Sometimes called the modern-day Silk Road, the “Belt and Road Initiative” is China’s strategic and economic plan to integrate the world’s economy through infrastructural projects such as railways and ports, pipelines, and planned maritime routes. Built by two Chinese state-owned companies and funded by a loan from China’s Exim Bank, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway is a part of this initiative.


Chinas Belt and Road Initiative

The reviving of the Silk Road map

Conferences like the one I attended earlier this week, “China Trade Week,” represent China’s strong relationship with the Ethiopian government and investments in the economy.

Ethiopia’s Plans for Economic Growth… I’ve heard it often repeated in the past week that Ethiopia’s government stakes its legitimacy on economic development. Following a model of state-led development, the Ethiopian government has a deep involvement in the managing of the national economy. 5-year “Growth and Transformation” Plans (GTPs) are the mechanisms through which the government pushes through large economic development goals, including huge infrastructural projects. The railroad has been a featured project in a couple GTPs and in many ways represents what the government is capable of, serving as a source of pride and achievement.

A Transnational Africa Rail network… There’s been a long-held vision for a rail network that links together all of Africa in order to encourage intra-African trade. In many ways, this is a response to the type of economies that European colonialism created, markets that faced outward instead of inward. To this day, trading between African countries is relatively low. A rail network connecting multiple countries across the continent would help to encourage more intra-African trade. As a transnational rail line, linking Ethiopia and Djibouti, this railway is one step closer to making this pan-African dream a reality.

Ethiopian flag with China trade week flag

Ethiopian flag with China trade week flag

Pamphlet on China Trade Week

Pamphlet on China Trade Week

Newspaper on Djibouti's inauguration with Ethiopia

Newspaper on Djibouti’s inauguration with Ethiopia

Grace Easterly, Africa House Fellowship, Ethiopia

The train departs from the station at five in the morning, after the merchandise, suitcases, covert bags of khat, and plastic gas cylinders have been loaded on to fill the overhead compartments, under the seats, and in the spaces between the aisles. More than 100 years old, with graffiti in Amharic, English, French and Somali tracing the walls, the heavily loaded train takes off slowly and then rumbles down the tracks as it begins to rain, leading many of the passengers, including myself, to close the windows and cover themselves in blankets as we get in a couple more hours of sleep.

Later on, as light slips through the cracks in the windows, the train stops at one of the largest towns along the route, Adi Gala, for a lunch break. Some of the merchandise is passed in and out of railway car. Children run onto the train carrying plastic bins of roasted goat meat and bags of cooked spaghetti for our lunch break, as well as large bottles of cold water to sell. Selling lunch food to passengers is just one example of how the railway inspires economic transactions in the towns along the route.

We are traveling from Dire Dawa, a city in eastern Ethiopia, to the border of Djibouti. More than one hundred years ago, this train was built by the French partly as a colonial maneuver to gain access to Ethiopia’s market from the port of Djibouti, where France had its colony, French Somaliland. Throughout the lifespan of the train, small towns have sprung up along the train’s route, with the mostly pastoralist Somali communities in this region of Ethiopia relying on the train for survival, as it both provided access to markets as well as served as the main means of transportation for people who were either traveling from one town to the next, or to the far ends of the route, Djibouti or Addis Ababa.

Now, a century later, the train still runs twice a week through the desert environment in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Over time, the state of the train has declined significantly. Twice over the journey I observe the locomotive at the front part of the train break free from the passenger car and proceed down the tracks, leaving the passenger cars stranded. After reversing back toward us and re-hitching the passenger trains to the locomotive, we continue on.

But even the decline of the train has benefited towns along the route in unexpected ways. One interviewee explained that when the train broke down–which happened pretty often–the towns’ hotel and restaurants industries would benefit from passengers having to get off the train and spend the night. There were even ways in which the decay of the train cars, such as broken seats or doors, provided places to hide contraband goods. Because the train ran slowly, people were able to pass contraband goods from the windows to people walking alongside the train in order to hide them from an upcoming security checkpoint, as another interviewee described. Contraband goods were transported by train from Djibouti to Addis, becoming a huge part of the economy for the towns along the route. This benefited the people living in the towns as they could gain access to cheap clothing and grain from Djibouti and could also sell their agriculture projects to Djibouti without the added cost of taxes. These histories are undoubtedly emotional: When I’ve interviewed people about the history of this train, people call it their “mother and father” and a “life line”—and compared it to the Nile in Egypt as a source of life and sustenance.

As the old train passes from town to town, I begin to see a line of new railroad tracks running parallel to our train, maybe two or three kilometers away, a radiant line in the desert. These are the tracks of the new train, the subject of my research—the “modern” train as many people call it. Although not yet operational, this new train runs almost parallel to the old one. Built by Chinese construction contractors in collaboration with the Ethiopian and Djiboutian governments, the train represents a government-led transformation of Ethiopia’s economy to be more manufacturing-oriented. The differences between the old and new train could not be clearer: “There is no comparison,” one government official told me. Most likely, contraband will be strictly regulated and discouraged. Tickets will likely be more expensive, something that some of my interviewees who hope to be passengers have mentioned and fear.

And unlike the old train, the new train is high speed—that means it doesn’t stop in as many small towns as the old railway. The speed of the train has also reportedly caused some serious problems hitting livestock–sometimes two or three times a month, one worker for the Chinese company reported. Hitting livestock is just one of the disruptions for people who live along the route. There has been a land seizure and compensation process for people whose land fell along the route of the railroad tracks.

Already, the train has had an impact on societies and economies along the route. Some of these changes imply an expansion of cities’ industrial sector, offering hope for new jobs and economic renewal. In the neighborhood where the new railway station was built on the outskirts of the city of Dire Dawa, an industrial zone has been built, as well as new hospitals and buildings, accompanied by higher property values. “The new Dire Dawa will be there,” one interviewee predicted in reference to the neighborhood. What this train will mean for the future of these communities, and what sorts of economies will spring up around it once it becomes operational, remains to be seen.

Dire Dawa, Industrial zone

Dire Dawa, Industrial zone


Florence, a Home Gardener in Makhaza, South Africa

Nina Weithorn
Gallatin Africa House Fellowship
Cape Town, South Africa

Its midday in Makhaza, one of the many former townships established during Apartheid, and I am in the backseat of a passenger van with my supervisor who is trying with great difficulty to direct the driver through the narrow and sporadically marked streets. Although apartheid ended more than two decades ago, its legacy still stands strong. Cape Town, to me, seems to exist as two cities in one—one of upscale restaurants, museums, casual surf culture, bustling nightlife, and suburban mansions, and another of informal settlements that often lack access to basic amenities. The division is extreme and undeniably racialized. It is almost exclusively the black and “colored” (a term used during Apartheid to identify people of mixed race) South Africans that live in these settlements, and it is also the people in these communities that often struggle with food insecurity and subsequent issues, such as malnutrition and obesity.

We were en route to the home of a woman named Sileka Florence Ruka. Florence was born in the Eastern Cape and dropped out of school after 8th grade due to severe asthma, which she has continued to struggle with throughout her life. She moved to Makhaza in Cape Town where she now lives with her two sons. Florence completed Soil for Life’s home gardening program almost a year ago, but Soil for Life continues conduct follow-up visits for at least three years following completion of the program, which was the purpose of our visit. At this point I was about 5 weeks into my 2-month internship with Soil for Life and had seen a substantial amount of home gardeners that had successfully implemented Soil for Life’s techniques and were in the process of establishing a fully functional home garden. However, I had yet to see a garden like Florence’s.

woman standing in her garden

Florence in her home garden in Makhaza, South Africa.

Florence greeted us as we arrived outside her home and immediately led us into her experimental, thrifty, and flourishing garden. Her yard, which wrapped around nearly the entirety of her home, was filled with found objects—tires, kitchen sinks, bathtubs, plastic crates, the hollow shell of old desktop computers, Tupperware containers, plastic bottles—all of which she had filled with compost-rich soil and converted into planters. She had even built a small structure that doubled as a covered area for propagating seedling and a vertical garden for growing lettuces. In the remainder of the space were trench beds that were overflowing with various greens days away from harvest. Florence led us around her garden proudly, giving an explanation of every plant and structure. Florence described how her garden has been so productive that she has more than enough food to feed both herself and her family,

“Because my garden got a lot of food, I give even my neighbors. Some veggies for example I give to some people who have nothing to eat.”

Vertical planter system.

Vertical planter system.

Tires and other repurposed containers used as planters.

Tires and other repurposed containers used as planters.

Florence hopes to not only share her food with her neighbors, but to teach other people in her community how to grow their own food, and potentially sell her produce one day.

Sustainable development, especially in terms of food security, is often difficult to adequately address, especially since the cause is often related to structural issues, such as a large amount of cheap, but nutritionally-deficient foods on the market and an insufficient amount of affordable, healthy whole foods. Grounds-up interventions such as Soil for Life’s that provide a solution for the specific issues afflicting marginalized communities, such as a technique for improving soil quality so people are able to grow their own food in their own homes, and various other techniques such as seed-saving and composting kitchen scraps, which both enable home gardeners to spend less on gardening materials, ultimately allow people to achieve a greater level of food insecurity. However, it is people like Florence, who then share their knowledge and educate others that really make the entire system sustainable.

woman holding planters

Florence with her seedlings grown in recycled styrofoam containers.

Sustainable Agriculture in Cape Town, South Africa

Nina Weithorn
Gallatin Africa House Fellowship
Cape Town, South Africa

Just east of the main city center of Cape Town, South Africa, in the Constantia region, lies a tiny agricultural haven among vast wine vineyards and suburban homes. Soil for Life, a non-profit organization that teaches subsistence farming in township communities, established their main offices on a plot of land where they began testing out a myriad of growing techniques in what is now their official demonstration garden. Many of these techniques adhere to basic permaculture principles, meaning they utilize natural processes to create sustainable and if possible, self-sustaining systems for food production.

large garden

The Soil For Life Demonstration Garden

In a country with such a high prevalence of both food insecurity, malnutrition, and increasingly, obesity, interventions like Soil for Life’s, that teach people not only how to sustainably grow their own organic food, but also how to adequately feed themselves and their families, are much needed.

When I first arrived in Cape Town, the pervasive greenery that seems to line every square kilometer of the city, from the top of the iconic Table Mountain to the shores of Hout Bay, gave no indication that the soil in Cape Town is in fact unsuitable for growing most varieties of edible plants. Many trees, shrubs, and grasses are able to grow in Cape Town’s sandy soils, however plants like the ones grown at Soil for Life, beets, broccoli, arugula, carrots, onions, etc., require soil that is more capable of retaining moisture and nutrients.

The first technique Soil for Life teaches in their training programs is digging a trench bed, which essentially involves filling a three-foot-deep trench with compost materials mixed with the original soil to provide a bed with nutrient-rich soil sufficient for growing food (shown in Fig.1). For the program participants, improving the health of their soil is just the first of many steps in establishing their own home garden and for Soil for Life, the home garden is just the first step in teaching people how to improve their diet, health, and level of food security.

graphic showing components of layers in a trench bed


“Are You Obruni?”

Mariah Young-Jones
Africa House Fellow 2015
Ghana and Senegal

“Are you obruni?” a young schoolgirl asks as I walk down a dirt path in Dixcove, Western Region, Ghana. I’m staying in the neighboring town of Busua, about a twenty minute walk away, but I’ve come here for the day to visit Fort Metal Cross. It’s an over three hundred year old British fort (also at one point controlled by the Dutch) that usually held around 100 slaves at a time—not many compared to the thousand or so that Elmina or Cape Coast Castle in the Central Region could hold. Today it is being leased from the Ghanaian government to a white British businessman named Bob Fidler. He plans to turn the fort into a luxe resort.

white fort against cloudy sky

The side entryway of Fort Metal Cross.

I’m used to being called obruni at this point, but it still makes me uneasy. The word, often uttered playfully to me by young children on the street, leaves what can only be described as a faint and uncomfortable tug deep within my chest. Obruni means an outsider, someone with no roots or ties with the locals. It means someone who is not to be trusted. It is essentially synonymous with “white person.”

Being in Ghana has made me confront my history as a member of the African diaspora in ways that I had not anticipated. People constantly question the tone of my skin. “Is your mother white?” they’ll ask. “What are you mixed with?” “Both of my parents are black,” I answer, and I know it’s not the answer that they’re looking for. But to truly explain to them the color of my skin would be to trace back hundreds of years of history, framed by the Atlantic slave trade.

fishing boats with flags on the ocean

The colorful fishing boats in Dixcove.

I’ve visited over ten forts and castles at this point, which means that I’ve seen over ten sets of slave dungeons, over ten governor’s quarters, and over ten half-hearted and often problematic attempts at explaining how slave women were raped in those quarters. I am tired, and I am tired of explaining myself and what I am doing here.

At this point the fort’s stark white walls are in view, towering over the fishing bay beside it. I could keep moving, but I choose to stop because the young girl is still looking at me, and it finally dawns on me that she had asked a question and was still expecting my answer. I turn to face her.

“Are you obruni?” she asks again. She’s puzzled; she has not come to any conclusion. “No,” I say assertively, almost sighing in frustration. And after scanning me over, even with my skin and my hair and my clothes and my DSLR camera, she says “Oh!” and smiles.

And it’s a revelation for both of us.

An Introduction: Slave Forts and Castles in West Africa and Heritage Tourism

Mariah Young-Jones
Africa House Fellow 2015
Ghana and Senegal

Hello Internet World! My name is Mariah and I’m a rising senior at Gallatin studying Legacies of Race and Empire.

When I first heard about the Africa House Fellowship, the earliest stages of my project quickly began to take shape. Fueled by a long-time fascination with the European forts and castles that are dotted along the West African coast (“slave castles,” as they’re often called), I knew that I wanted to center my research around these historical sites as contested spaces.

With one of the highest concentrations of slave castles in West Africa, as well as recognition from UNESCO as being home to World Heritage Sites, Ghana was an obvious destination. I have been in Ghana for about a week (at the time of writing this blog post) and will travel westward along the coast for another three.

Passport and vaccination certificate

My passport and proof of yellow fever vaccination. Yellow fever vaccination is required for entry into many West African countries.

After about a month in Ghana, I will head to Senegal for a week. My decision to go to Senegal centers around Dakar’s Isle de Gorée or Gorée Island. Once considered a supposed hub for slave trade, it has recently come under scrutiny by academics who are beginning to question its actual historical significance in the Atlantic slave trade. It is nonetheless a major tourist attraction for Senegal’s capital.

Though I initially wanted to center my research around the slave castle tourism industry (and to what extent it can be understood as an industry), I’ve begun to see the slave forts and castles as part of a much greater contested narrative between people and governments on either side of the Atlantic that are informed by a number of complex historical, cultural, political, and economic conditions.

My research has thus involved analyzing closely the way that these forts and castles have been preserved and restored, what they are being used for, how the Ghanaian and Senegalese governments seek to represent them and their histories, and how those of the African diaspora would like to see them preserved and represented.

My plan is to collect some qualitative data, such as entrance fees, number of tourists at each site, and condition of the forts/castles to add concrete knowledge to my study.

In addition, I’m framing my research with a number of broader questions. I’ve been asking government officials, tour guides, professors, and tourists the following: What is the national narrative surrounding the slave trade and slave history? How do you think the legacy of colonialism has affected these narratives? How do you personally feel the forts and castles should be preserved? What are tourists’ expectations when visiting these forts? What are some of the political, cultural, and economic barriers that stand in the way of easing the tensions between local people and people of the African diaspora?

I will return with some updates in a couple weeks as my trip and research progress. I can’t wait to see what I will uncover.