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

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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.

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