6 January 2014

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

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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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