Wednesday 6 November 2013

o : TAZARA Railway

Seat 29, Carriage 2019
TAZARA Express Train
Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi
Somewhere near Mbeya

Dear o,

Something reminds me of home.  The sensation has been gradually building for the 30-odd hours I’ve been sitting aboard this train.  Last night we watched a thunderstorm in the forward distance.  It never made noise, never came any closer or faded further away, but just flickered yellow and orange, staying static and steady, visible over an intervening gap of highland shrub and grass.  This morning the new landscape came into view: dry, crusty, brown hills marked with low bush or stretching grass or outcroppings of rock.  The earthy-brown mud-and-thatch villages are gone, replaced by sturdy rectangles of hard red brick walls and regular blue tin roofs.  There are no crowds anymore, but individual bodies running or walking or standing beneath a wide horizon.  They wear parkas, trousers, gloves and touques, though most of the children still go barefoot.  The sun is hot and strong when high but its heat doesn’t last when it comes level with the earth.

It’s been night for a few hours now, and the cold has crept in.  At the end of this letter I’ll have to decide how to sleep.  Last night the seats were all full and there was little room to stretch, but I learned this afternoon how little comfort there is when I have this two-seat bench to myself.  I look at the flat floor and daydream of sleep: my head under the seat away from the light, my legs spread, dangling under the table, my body wrapped in the layers I never thought I’d use in Africa as layers.  Maybe it is just the temperature that reminds me of home, the cold and all the things it makes us do and build and be.  I’m not nostalgic, and I’m certainly not comfortable.  I just feel right.

This morning our train stopped at Makambako for about six hours to change the engine.  The replacement, hooked on at around sunset with a few dozen crashes and bangs, is older, less flashy, and a lot less smooth.  We’ve been grinding on or stalled ever since, and I can’t imagine we’ve traveled more than I could have jogged in the past few hours.  A few minutes ago a man walked by and laughed, “express!”  Indeed, this is the express train from Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi, cut down from 41 hours instead of 48 because of fewer stops.  Unless the driver has a few tricks up his sleeve, or the timetable takes engine failure into account, I have a feeling this journey is going to take a little longer than either the express or the ordinary route.  We’re 30 hours in and not quite halfway through the 1850km trip.  And, there’s another rumour floating around of a derailment down the line – driving too fast around a corner, probably.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining.  I love traveling by train, and they are a rare luxury in Africa, especially for such distances.  Buses can be a lot faster, but I’d rather double my travel time on the iron road than snuggle into the can of sardines, unwelcome to walk around, unable to catch the breeze from the big windows at the carriage-ends, and unable to read if the road gets too windy.  Maybe it’s the very act of riding a train that makes me feel at home.  But if that’s the case, home has changed very much.

When I was a kid I used to be able to hear the long freight trains pull in through the river valley at night.  I’d listen to the regular rumble on the tracks, the traffic crossing bells sounding off, and the driver occassionally pull the horn.  I loved to watch trains snake by as any kid, but moreso I loved to look at the parts.  The engines, the smoke, the caboose, the wheels, the spiralling metal shocks, those massive black underbellies of machine.  The angular metallic world wrapped around and into and amongst itself in such a beautiful, progressive intercourse that I could feel myself molt down and join in on its supreme forward purpose.  My grandfather’s train set added to the fascination: where to lay the curved track?  Where to place the battery?  How to get the highest speed?

Still, trains weren’t a part of my daily life until I moved to Europe.  I remember taking an old-fashioned one around or to the Grand Canyon, though more for the history of it than for the practical reasons of needing a ride.  I voyaged once by VIA Rail across the prairie from Winnipeg to Saskatoon, vowing to myself as I looked up at the stars through the glass ceiling of the communal car that I’d travel by train every chance I’d get, not quite recognising how few those chances are to a typical North American.  I marveled at the Montreal metro, long blue beasts riding on rubber wheels, and snatched a real train or two in Quebec.  But despite the cold of winter and the colour of autumn, these voyages remained exotic.  Trains belonged to another world: perhaps a century gone or an ocean away, but not my world.  Not yet.

When cities like London and Paris became home, so did their trains.  When Germany, Hungary and Spain became weekend or weeklong stomping grounds, it was on their criss-crossing multicoloured networks of high-speed, normal-speed, rural and sleeper trains that I stomped.  London to Paris through an underwater – underocean – continent-binding tunnel.  Krakow to Prague in time for an Easter sunset.  Vienna to Budapest in time for a winter fog.  Rome to Florence, Milan and Assizi; Paris to Nice, Geneva and Grenoble; Brussels to Cologne, Berlin and Bruges; Madrid to Sevilla, Valencia and Barcelona; all in time for something, sure, but more importantly, all awarding the time to see out the windows, experience the shift in colour, culture and country, and to play a game cards with your neighbour.

Before I sat down to write this letter I was teaching gin rummy to my neighbours and learning a new game from them.  The Bemba-to-English language barrier didn’t stop us from learning the rules and getting competitive, but it was too much when it came to trying to figure out the name of the game.  What is this?  Cards.  No, no, what is the name?  Laughter.  This is my name, this is her name, this is your name; what is the name for this?  More laughter.  So, I call the new game Njuka.  Njuka is cards.  You deal each person three, and then you go around in a circle.  The first person to get two of a kind plus two cards in sequence (7 and 8 or Jack and Queen) wins.  Apparently, the winner is supposed to slam the cards down on the table in brief victory before racing, plunging, forward into the next game.  We played Njuka with as many as six at one point, holding our cards up to the light from outside (the train’s inside light wasn’t working yet) as a crowd of as many more watched around the seats.  There are Njuka sharks, and I’m trying to figure out if it has anything to do with how much you bend your cards in your hand.  That’s another thing about trains: community comes easy.

The TAZARA (TAnzania ZAmbia Railway Authority) line, originally called the Great Uhuru Railway (uhuru is Swahili for freedom), is an uncommon exercise in creating a larger African community.  The train connects two former British colonies which today are rich in wildlife and scenery, stable in government, and growing in economic terms, but vastly different in people and pre-colonial history.  While Zambia’s tribal languages share a common ancestor with Swahili, Bantu, to an outsider they are as distinct as French is from Italian.  Tanzania hedges its bets with mass tourism, natural resources and a weird, undefined post-socialist socialism, Zambia has avoided the development trap and instead embraced unrestricted international investment, especially in agriculture, from Europe as well as Japan, America as well as China.  The TAZARA line is a rather old symbol of Chinese partnership in Africa, which has soared in the last decade.  Chinese planners, engineers and workers helped build the extensive, single-track railroad from 1970 to 1975, several years before China itself adopted mass market reform.  You can feel the age inside the train carriages, with their broken armrests and jammed doors, and on them as well.  Every time we stop we don’t glide on the tracks, but bang to a halt.  Every time we start the engine tugs hard and the carriages crash back and forth into one another, three or four times until the inertia is overcome, and then the ride gets smooth again.

When you look outside you can see how the train’s path was laid: through grassland, forest, hills, mountains, and farms.  The path sometimes snakes, sometimes plows straight, sometimes tunnels through; for hours it will be raised several metres above the ground, and then for hours more it will weave through a valley of earth held together by mortar and found stone; sometimes the view of boabab trees and waving villagers and distant mountains is unobstructed, and sometimes there is only deep forest; some stations are long-since abandoned, the glass broken through and the name-signs missing all but one letter, and others are bustling with passengers, well-wishers and food-sellers.  As with the European, Canadian or whatever train line you wish, the TAZARA line is a voyage through culture as well as time.  What has changed since the first track was laid?  What will change when they extend the line, say to Lusaka?  Why has it changed, why will it change?  What are the forces which shape the lives of the people as well as the lines of the track?  What binds and what cuts off?  What stays the same, what tries to change, and what seems to move but actually remains?  You can ask those same questions from a plane or bus or history book, but I get the feeling you won’t look as long or as hard as you do from the placid, breezy, inviting windows of a rolling metallic beast like this.

That being said, I find it a lot easier to fall asleep on a train.  It could be the steadiness which beats as time should.  It could be the rocking rhythm of the wheels, swaying me to rest like a baby in mother’s arms.  Or it could just be ‘home’.  Whatever that is, be it shivers or highlands, you can’t find it anywhere.  For example, this cushioned, laid-back, double-seat all to myself is not homely at all.  But the spot of pale blue floor beneath, sticky with what could be a spilled pop or beer or anything else, covered with shoe marks, wedged between the metal feet of my seat, colder than the seat or the window, is also so wonderfully, magnetically flat.  There’s something foreign now about flatness, something far away.  Yet there it is, right at my feet.  I think now it’s time for me to lie down and go to sleep.



Dar es Salaam station

The view, morning of Day 2

Makambako Station





Derailed carriages, Makambako

The newer engine, later replaced with an old one

Carriage 2019

Past Makambako

Past Makambako

Baobab trees