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

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

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

Source : allafrica.com

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