The Infrastructure of Amnesia
Coloniality off the road – from Massawa to Asmara and Addis Ababa

Asmara, Massawa, Addis Ababa


Mauro Sirotnjak, Soroor Notash, Mouna Abdelkadous

To answer the question of the heritage of colonial relationship persisting today we are studying a network of locations and histories that are being built.

We start with the unfolding of the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in summer 2018 and look back to the period of colonial investments in infrastructure and extensive building in this area of the world by the foreign investors (mainly Italian) from 1850s until 1940s. The course of events this parallel shows is both telling and risky at the same time. Telling in terms of remembering how investments of the built infrastructure were used for subordination of the communities and how this might be done again. The risk, however, lies in our external gaze that is not fully aware of the processes that unfolded from mid 1940s and onwards in terms of how the relationship with the colonial past and the concept of heritage related to it has developed.

To visualise an active heritage of colonial relations we have taken into consideration the politics behind infrastructural projects, industry and architectural history connecting Massawa port with Asmara and further Addis Ababa, in order to show how relations established in the colonial period persist.

After visiting Addis and Asmara in 2019, we started exploring the existing roads and transportation system in these territories. This study was simultaneous with the news about the EUs investment on the very specific road connecting Massawa to the Ethiopian border.

The railway infrastructure of Eritrea was designed and built by Italian engineers in 1936 to allow faster and more efficient transportation of goods and military equipment to easily dominate the territory and the local communities.

Building the Massawa line to Asmara was a difficult project. The construction of the railway required the construction of 65 bridges and viaducts and they were basically designed to carry Italian military equipment to the Ethiopian front. However, due to the steep territory the railway was deemed too slow for the colonial needs of transportation and mobilization, so the intensive construction of roads in 1930s have resulted in an extensive network of standardized roads which enabled the quick distribution of the military throughout the territory of the colonies. The road from Massawa to Asmara and the modern trucks and buses available to local people have diverted rail traffic to road traffic. In 1975, the railway was destroyed by the Derg regime in Ethiopia and the infrastructure was subsequently demolished during the war with Eritrea. However, after eight years of rehabilitation most of the railway line was rebuilt and reopened around 2006 between the capital and the coast.

Today, in the making of new political constellations, it is interesting to look at the stance of European diplomacy, manifested by the visit of an Italian delegation being the first ‘western’ one after the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
In February 2019 a press release by the European Commission bearing the name ‘Roads to peace’ can be read as a new attempt at establishing the foremost extensive trade relationship between the countries, but the fact that the EU will finance a new road from Massawa to the Ethiopian border is telling. Reading statements such as “This will boost trade, consolidate stability, and have clear benefits for the citizens of both countries” and “… improvement of human rights… pursuing development cooperation to tackle root causes of poverty” with decolonizing gaze is easily interpreted as an imperial manifestation of victory.

The visit of the Italian prime minister to Addis and Asmara but also to the AMCE-IVECO car factory (70% in Fiat ownership) in Bole district of Addis Ababa is showing the contemporary routes of industry and capital which is needed to lay upon the symbolic images of architectural heritage, specifically the Fiat Tagliero building in Asmara, the Bank of Italy in ruins in Masawa and the contemporary infrastructure connecting them in order to understand their relationship.