TANZAM JOURNEY

From Grand Tazara – Mukuba Express; notes for a documentary (internet posting by Simone Salvatori):

“Tazara Railway – rolling and shaking somewhere between Makambako and Mbeya, Tanzania, April 2010.”

“By early morning we stop in Makambako, and the weather is quite cold and windy. The view is very enjoyable as we start climbing and it gets even more interesting as we approach the main stop of the whole trip: Mbeya. The region around Mbeya is definitely different from the first leg of the trip, showing a wide array of cultures all over, in stark contrast with the open land we saw the day before. It should not be difficult to show through the images the difference between this area and the plains closer to the ocean. Some of our travel mates say that the land here was bought by (or given to) very industrious farmers chased away from Zimbabwe, and they did the best of it. That’s a story that wasn’t in our plan but that deserves some further research.

“After Mbeya the only other significant stop is Nakonde, right after the [Tanzania/Zambia] border, and not much for the visa and the controls but for the confusion and the great number of people and goods going on and off the train. After that there is only another night and a sleepy day rolling through a boring Zambian landscape (maybe it is because we are actually tired). In any case, we are talking about two days and two nights of travel that can’t be seen and told all at once. It is necessary to break them down in some convenient way, so the first theme is “the stations”, and some of the views between them.

“Mbeya’s stop also stands alone, at least because it’s a long one in a major centre and final destination for most of the passengers. Some of the life on the train also deserves some note, especially because over two-three days it gets kind of familiar: morning toilette, the daily cleaning of the cars, the restaurant kitchen, the tables, the bar, the surveillance guys, and the mzungus. All this among the signs in English and Chinese, suspended between the cold war past evoked by the train itself, with its cars coming straight from that era (and so are the stations and surrounding buildings), and a future that is happening now (artistic licence), as real and yet distant as the white clouds above us, with the tens of million Chinese dollars in investments in this very railway, and many more in the economy of these countries.

“In terms of impact of the passenger train it is easy to verify all the thesis of Jamie Monson [Africa’s Freedom Railway, reviewed in Railways Africa, September 2009]. In addition to the small trades around the stops the train supports a very active community of individuals and small enterprises transporting parcels, we can see them at almost every station in Tanzania and we spoke with some of them transporting goods all the way to Lusaka and Ndola from Dar-es-Salaam.

“After a few hours and some manoeuvres another engine is ready to pull us for the rest of this trip. We leave before night, for a total delay of less than 24 hours. We can even text and adjust our reservation in Lusaka for the delay. Not too bad.

“On the second day we have some time to look at the train. I believe these cars are still the original ones, or at least as old as those. Last year the government of China granted a $40 million loan for refurbishment and improvements of Tazara. This October 2010 a Chinese company won a $5 million contract to build 90 open wagons for Tazara. Last July another $39 million deal was signed to fund the purchase of six new locomotives and the repair of 1,200 coaches. Soon this ride could look very different, but not by much unless they improve the railway itself, which as of now allows only for a slow, bumpy ride very prone to derailments, and a derailment is precisely what we find in the morning.”

[See also “Mishaps” on www.railwaysafrica.com ].

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