Marion Péhée was in Ethiopia with her Leica Q. She travelled to the country in 2022, to explore the background of the commonly used drug, khat. Extracted from the shrub of the same name, the mild intoxicant is widely chewed, smoked or consumed as a tea with a stimulating effect. Like many other products – khat is mainly shipped via what used to be the country’s only railway line between Dire Dawa and Dewelé. During a conversation, an anthropologist spoke to Péhée about the trading route, which is now only maintained by a dozen or so employees. Péhée speaks about how she learnt about the subject, the importance of the train line, encounters she had in the railway workshops along the way, and her approach to her work.
What was your original intention in travelling to Ethiopia?
I went to Ethiopia to do a report on khat sellers in the Horn of Africa as part of a Lagardère Foundation grant that I was awarded in October 2021. Khat is a drug with active ingredients similar to amphetamines, which has been used legally for centuries in the Horn of Africa. The saying goes: “Khat makes men docile and impotent, but makes women rich”. With men consuming it on a daily basis and becoming “addicted” and idle, it is the women who partly manage this lucrative business.
So khat plays a central role in the everyday life of Ethiopians.
Thousands of women retail khat. To cover this story, I had to go to Dire Dawa, which is Ethiopia’s second largest town – one of the most important redistribution platforms for the plant, but also one of the stops on the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway line, once the scene of khat smuggling. So I knew when I set off that this line was going to be part of my subject.
How did you learn about the railway line?
Before leaving, I met Céline Lesourd, an anthropologist who wrote the book La puissance Khat. She lived in Dire Dawa for several months and told me about the railway repair and maintenance workshops in the town, which I absolutely had to visit. So I went there as soon as I arrived in Dire Dawa. At the time, I was impressed and fascinated by these timeless places.
What was your approach to the topic?
Before I left, I had a very precise idea of what I wanted to do, the places I wanted to visit and the people I wanted to meet; but my main subject was khat sellers. This railway line was a discovery, and I wanted to cover this subject as well, to tell the story of the end of a railway line that crossed an entire country, to photograph at that moment, something that is destined to soon disappear. It was a subject that was a bit more improvised and less prepared. Before taking the train, I had no idea what to expect.
You visited the railway workshops. Please tell us about them.
To work in the railway repair workshops, the employees had to speak French. Thus, French is still used by most railway employees. The atmosphere in the large spaces of the Dire Dawa workshops is almost ‘museum-like’. Light streams through the glass roofs, highlighting the antique pieces. There are few people around, and the mood is relaxed but conscientious, despite the reduced activity. You can imagine the buzz that must have existed just a few years ago. Since the end of the 1990s, activity has been very limited, employees are often busy working on things outside the station. Today, there are 14 people keeping this line alive.
How do you connect with people, and why is it important for your kind of photography?
I’m rather shy, but I think that’s an asset for the work I do. That said, I find it easy to talk to strangers. I’m discreet and people trust me quite quickly. For this assignment in Ethiopia, I travelled by train without anyone to translate or introduce me. Only one person in the carriage spoke a little English, and the others just smiled at each other. The people were very intrigued by my presence, rather curious but not against the fact that I was taking pictures.
Does being a women photographer help get into social structures and connect with people?
Being a woman does make things easier. People trust me even more quickly. Sometimes they’re surprised by my presence, but the people in Ethiopia were quite welcoming.
You travelled from Dire Dawa to Dewelé, which is on the Djibouti border. Tell us about the journey.
I arrived at the station at 5am for a 6am departure. When I got into this old locomotive it was pitch dark, people were sleeping on the floor. The train started to fill up, the merchants got on with their big sacks, bottles, sheep, etc. There were lots of children and a lot of noise from the big diesel engine of the locomotive, but also from branches rubbing against the metal walls. It was very lively both inside the train, with people chatting, laughing, listening to music and drinking khat, and outside the train, with kids running alongside the locomotive, catching on to it and then releasing it a few kilometres further on. The scenery in the desert heat is also very beautiful, and, by taking this train, you discover local life outside in bits and pieces. The journey is an incredible experience, even if it is physically demanding: 12 hours for a 200km journey to get from Dire Dawa to the Djibouti border at Dewelé.
Born in Chartres in 1989, Marion Péhée has a Bachelors in Design and a Masters in Photography and Contemporary Art from the Université de Paris 8. In 2021 she won the Lagardère Foundation photography scholarship for Horn of Africa: From Merchants to Khat Baronesses, and in 2022 she was nominated for The Economist Courage in Journalism Award by the International Women’s Media Foundation. Her reportages have appeared in The Economist 1843 Magazine, Elle, La chronique d’amnesty international, Gare de l’est, The National, and Spiegel, among others, as well as on the Spicee video platform. Péhée live in and works from Marseille. Find out more about her photography on her Instagram profile.