TO her mild surprise Totley’s Jennie Street has found herself in demand as a guest speaker at such places as the Altrincham Electric Railway Preservation Society as the leading authority on trains in the African nation of Eritrea.
A writer and development worker who has known the country since 1985 and lived and worked there in the Nineties after its independence from Ethiopia, she is the co-author of Red Sea Railway, the eventful history of a railway originally built by Italian colonists, destroyed by years of civil war and then rebuilt in modern times.
She will be talking giving a talk on Saturday afternoon as part of the Off the Shelf history festival. “There many groups I would never have imagined myself talking to and they are mostly interested in the technical side but the Off the Shelf event is different.
“I will be talking about how I came to write the book and the journey it took over 10 years,” she says.
“Where it started was the same as when I am anywhere. I am always looking for features to write, often on African political and environmental issues, but it’s interesting stories that are really what I am after. People are always telling me things.”
In this case it was an Eritrean friend in Manchester who put her on the trail of the driver of the last train before it closed having to survive ambushes and this intrigued her sufficiently to return to the country and find out more about the railway.
The key was contacting Amanuel Ghebreselassie, general manager of the Eritrean Railway, and persuading him to help.
He became her co-author, not only providing the technical information but also finding and encouraging people to talk to her.
What interested Jennie Street were the people and their stories about building or rebuilding the railways, fighting for independence or trying to keep the trains running in difficult conditions through natural, technical or internecine causes.
She talked to a man who worked as a boy in the pre-war railway and even tracked down the commander of a band of ELF freedom fighters who had blown up trains in the Seventies.
“Although very old he had a phenomenal memory,” according to the author and he had mixed feelings about the political gains of the sabotage set against the destruction of a wonderful piece of engineering.
Red Sea Railway, an illustrated talk by Jennie Street, is at the Quaker Meeting House on Saturday afternoon.