6 January 2014

Southern Africa: Tazara, the Moody Wanderer, Its Meanings As Transient As Its Boxcars

Photo: Wikipedia
Tanzania-Zambia Railway (Tazara)

Even when the story of the Zambia-Tanzania railway is is one of triumph and togetherness, there's still a current of anxiety flowing beneath the surface.

The train starts with a clattering lurch. In the kitchen of the dining car, a pool of grease slops up against the side of a blackened pan. Beer bottles clink in the bar car and a semi-inebriated hoot of triumph rings out from one of the first-class sleepers.

The Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA) is in weekly express mode, wheels chugging against the tracks as it departs the blazing hot afternoon of Kapiri Mposhi, around 200 km north of Zambia's capital Lusaka and around 1,800 km southwest of Dar Es Salaam, the rail's historic departure point in Tanzania.

The whole trip is supposed to take three days, but it could take four or five, and maybe even longer if there's a breakdown. And as TAZARA's debt mounts and an overdue feasibility study looms like a storm cloud, it's feels more and more like the journey may soon not happen at all.

Twiddling the cord of his headphones, Larry Pangani looks worried. He's been making the trip with resigned regularity ever since his father took a job in Dar and he and his mother stayed back in Lusaka. He knows how temperamental the machines can be, and it makes him anxious. "If the train breaks down," he says, a semi-ironic smile on his face, "they'll run out of food and beer. It happens too often."

A shaky track record

If you want to translate TAZARA's patois of meanings and associations into one key word, then 'anxiety' is probably your best bet.

It's the word that tells us why the railway was built, about how the lived space in the cars changes shape and significance as they rattle along, about how race and class and language blend, buckle and boil, and about how business, family and tourism fuse in the bar car and then diffuse on the station platforms.

Even when TAZARA's story is one of triumph and togetherness, there's still a current of anxiety flowing beneath the surface.

If you want to understand what TAZARA means - and what it'll mean if Tanzania and Zambia decide to decommission it - anxiety is the place to start.

Historically, Zambia's trade routes were southbound conduits, with copper shovelled out of the country's southwest and shipped to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa.

But Rhodesia's 1965 unilateral declaration of independence overturned all that, separating the colony from the British Empire, and triggering a whole new trade paradigm for the region.

With the route south now blocked, Zambia looked to Tanzania's ports, but it was unable to efficiently truck its copper up the muddy Great North Road all the way to Dar Es Salaam. As the newly-independent country began losing money at a handwringing rate, the idea for the railway was mooted.

President Kenneth Kaunda went West, pleading unsuccessfully with uninterested parties to fund the project and rescue Zambia's single-commodity economy. But Tanzania's Julius Nyerere went East, attracting Chairman Mao's attention and securing a no-interest Chinese loan for the project.

In 1970, a team of Chinese workers - prisoners, say many - began construction, each one a human symbol of how anxious disintegration in the south inspired ambitious integration, however self-serving, further north.

Those two words - 'integration' and 'disintegration' - also tell us a lot about the TAZARA story. The railway integrates urbanites and villagers, the wealthy and the poor, products with markets, Westerners and Africans, and industry with nature. At the best of times, it does this remarkably well.

You see scruffy village kids shriek and wave as the train hammers past, overjoyed by the sight of it, this semi-regular colossus from some far-flung industrial abstraction. At the stops, you get petty traders in tatty clothes transacting with slick business types in unbuttoned collars.

You get Swahili mixing with Bemba mixing with English, German, and French. You get Peace Corps volunteers pissing it up with migrant workers in the dining car.

Out the windows, you see a galloping giraffe and a lounging monkey; you see a profoundly touching sunset behind a range of lush, green mountains.

In the evening, people jostle against the tumbling bar, competing to buy each other rounds. They swap stories and the purposes of their journeys, and you learn that one person is going to buy goats at the border, another is on his way to pick up a car from the port, and a third is just travelling, just loves train rides and wants to experience as many of the world's railways as she can.

All throughout the day, there's the steady din of friendship and friendliness. Ideas like local and foreign become porous and a little bit silly.

In their place you imagine this train throttling along, unloading human psychological baggage as it goes; what it takes on instead is all that 1960s hippy Pangaea stuff that usually seems impossible after just 20 minutes of the evening news. But here on TAZARA, not only is it possible, it's actually happening.

Except, of course, when it's not. After all, anxiety and disintegration are never far away. They can rear up and punch through the hippy mojo like nails through flesh.

The most alarming symbols of this are the crashed cargo cars abandoned in the forests, phantom limbs of the industrial complex, so odd and out of place in such an otherwise pristine environment.

Ever since construction was completed in the mid-70s, the rail line has been gradually collapsing. Labour strife and structural dysfunction have compounded over the years, propelling it into a state of debt nauseating enough for one politician or another to perennially pronounce TAZARA's imminent demise.

Seen through a prism of freight economics, it's almost farcical, hauling less and less copper all the time. Strikes have paralysed it. The Zambian government prefers to invest largely in roads, even as it makes deals with Congo and Tanzania to facilitate shipment by rail.

Chinese cash injections can't seem to turn around its fortunes, and it'll cost an estimated $1 billion to recapitalise the network.

It loses millions of dollars a month, and past efforts to privatise have been hopeless, although that hasn't stopped management from recently passing a new five-year, $211 million plan reliant on 15% private sector sourcing.

Tension in transit

Small-scale tourism stubbornly persists, however, contributing at least a little bit to the inevitable tensions that develop when two classes are lumped together in a confined space.

That tension sometimes spills out the windows of the train, like when a young black woman tries to give her baby to whites, like when tourists anxiously stare at each other, pretending, however absurdly, that 15 children with rags for clothes aren't crowding the window asking for money.

That tension thickens at night, when third-class passengers make incursions on the sleeper cabins, pounding on the doors, shouting furiously that they too have tickets on TAZARA, that they too want to lie down and sleep. In fact, the whole train gets angry at night.

The hallways look stark and grey and stained. The only people around are drunk, bobbing ludicrously on their stools as the cars bounce over buckling contours in the rail bed.

Exterior doors slam open and closed, the world outside a pitch black eternity that could suck a person in whole, no trace, no future, just a suitcase in the cargo hold.

Except there are people out there too, aren't there? Some of the poorest ones, far beyond the reach of either country's electrical capacity, alone with just each other and their brick kilns and windows. "I don't know what they do," Pangani says, peering into the night, his normally sly features smooth with wonder. "But they're there."

With that, the whole Pangaea thing disintegrates. Here we drift apart, off to occupy our various corners of a vast and emotionally disturbed sea.

In the morning, a slight edge remains, an uncomfortable memory of last night's negativity that takes a few hours - and beers - to wash away.

Amity returns by noon, even as the iconography morphs again, as the currency shifts from kwacha to shillings, as the guards change national uniforms, as the flatlands leap into the clouds. TAZARA is a moody wanderer, its meanings as transient as its boxcars.

Travellers from Zambia may reach Dar at any time, day or night. The train wheezes into the terminal and its cars are mobbed by taxi drivers and boda-boda riders, straining hawkers and grabby totes, all shouting, waving their arms, reaching for luggage, bidding for business.

Passengers pour out the doors. They pool up on the platforms and push through the throngs. On the other side of the guarded exits, one of East Africa's central port cities awaits, textured with religious diversity and rife with its own anxieties, its own collisions of friendliness and deception, its apparent beauty and occasional violence.

This place is every bit the bustle of the train, except that here everything's unpackaged. Everything's sprawling, sticky, and still.

For that special breeze to pick up again, you have to wait for TAZARA to head back south, for its porters to load the cargo and its passengers to fret the journey.

That's supposed to happen every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, but it could take longer. Nothing is certain.

Paul Carlucci is a Canadian writer and journalist based in Lusaka, Zambia. He has reported from Ghana and Ivory Coast for Think Africa Press, IPS Africa, Al Jazeera English, the Toronto Star, and the Toronto Standard. His short fiction has been published in Canadian journals and magazines. His collection of short stories 'The Secret Life of Fission' is available through Oberon Press.

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