Sunday, February 1, 2009

A View From the Train

photo by ARIKO

Something is amiss on the express train from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Kapira Mposhi, Zambia. As I awaken I want to urinate but struggle to dismiss this urge, as the train is stopped and one is only supposed to use the commode when the train is in motion, as to better disseminate waste. It is just after eight in the morning and everything is very still and soundless. Lying there for several minutes wishing a return to deep sleep, I overhear a passenger talking to one of the conductors; his english isn't good and the duration of the dilemma is not clear. He may have said it was a six-hour delay or six hours to our destination. The locomotive is broken down and they are waiting for someone to arrive and fix it.

The Tazara line between Dar es Salaam and Kapira Mposhi is one of Africa's most famous railways. It's nearly 2000 kilometers long but not long enough. It finishes in Kapira Mposhi, a depot for copper transport but rather inconvenient for most travelers as a terminus goes. Kapiri is the hub of the region's copper belt but commuters and wayfarers must take a three-hour bus ride to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, for all ongoing transportation options. Thus the railway feels uncompleted, as if the money just ran out.

No matter, the Tazara line is the technological pride of Zambia, as the country, fetal-shaped and perhaps its potential unborn, is large but landlocked and without the rail system could not conduct its commerce with nearly as much efficiency. Zambia is poor in comparison to its southern Africa neighbors, especially Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, who have benefitted from lucrative amounts of diamonds and uranium under their terrain. Zambia is at the mercy of the copper market which fluctuates more often towards depression than boom and the country often collapses into famine. Unlike other African nations it has a crisis of resources and lacks its neighbors' potential for growth.

Built as a socialist project co-sponsored by the Chinese, the Tazara line has fallen into disrepair. Millions of dollars are required to rehabilitate tracks and the locomotives themselves. Workers' paychecks are overdue. Of course, the financial crisis has affected the price of copper and volume of traffic, underperforming at all levels. Ironically, the service will betray its people's power intentions and be privatized, most likely sold to foreign capitalists from... China.

The train has been stopped for nearly three hours when I rise from my couchette to investigate. Outside my window on the adjoining rails, children wiggle in discarded secondhand rags in an attempt to stay warm. It is quite cold in the winter morning-- the train had traveled a great distance from Dar es Salaam and we were probably close to a thousand kilometers south of the equator and well into the region's Southern Highlands-- but the kids giggle and hop. They are twirling. That was the thing about Africa that struck the visitor, the streams of joyful children, dressed in scuzzy hand-me-downs, bereft of baubles, doohickeys and knickknacks who had but their own bodies to bid play, a joy of movement, of jumping and leaping and laughing. It's not at all easy to romanticize-- too many are pushed into labor at a young age. Education is something they will never have. Instead, they carry baskets of bananas, oranges, potato chips; the stronger ones wield buckets of bottled juice and soda. They hustle for trade wherever the train slows to dislodge passengers. Many have a habit of standing still, trying to look you in the eye long after you have turned their offers down. There is a vast range of emotions to draw from the window of the train and the casual observer can be confused as to whether his hopefulness can be substantiated or is just plain wishful thinking.

photo by ARIKO

There is nothing to look at beyond the depot where we are broken down and so the children don't intend to leave in spite of the windy winter chill. It is unlikely they see many foreigners and they cast playful glances at the window. It is an eventful day when the locomotive breaks down near their village, a spectacle to be appreciated. This is backwater country and mostly the train charges past imperviously, not disclosing its myth or mystery.

The train begins chugging again but we're several hours late. You take arrival times in Africa as optimistic conjecture-- an arrival time is a great variable.

The train's compartments are somewhat cushy and travel in first class isn't crowded as each room contains four beds. My girlfriend and I are sharing quarters with an elder Englishman and his African paramour, a young Tanzanian with beautiful plaited hair and jackpot eyes. Bearded, portly, and a gentleman rough around the edges, Raymond the Englishman, conveys his opinions with a frank earnestness and upon complicated questions elaborates for Judy, his beloved, so that she can follow in on his talk. He is patronizing at times, offhandedly acknowledging socioeconomic discrepancies and her coming up in the world with his numerous references to Judy's matriculation in a computer course. He's old enough to be her dad and probably big enough to crush her but there is something honest and intimate in their relationship nonetheless.

Raymond often refers to a detailed topographical map. You could almost picture him as a lieutenant for Mr. Cecil Rhodes, the great imperialist and diamond magnate, who once envisioned a transcontinental Cape-Cairo railway that had it been realized, would have been a fairly profitable crown jewel in the British empire.  Raymond's giddiness peaks as we zoom past some godforsaken station so that he can correspondingly zero in on the map. Only do the curmudgeonly aspects of his personality come out when dealing with moneychangers, bureaucrats and dangerous traveling logistics. "Thieves," he snarls at me, under his breath when stray African eyes linger as they pass our compartment: "Will you please shut the door?"

There are few Western travelers. Some Australians have a problem with two intoxicated customs authorities who board the train and demand $25 for a Zambian visa when it is clearly not required. These officials are very drunk and stubborn and only become more angry when the afflicted Australians point out the absence of any documentation to prove their point. There is a middle-aged American academic traveling onwards to Botswana; she is performing a comparative study between HIV/AIDS in that country and Tanzania ("Do you want me to go into this disaster...?"). Otherwise, the other passengers are Africans, many of whom crowd the dining car: inebriated commuters hollering to be heard over the thundering din of the locomotive. They yell for more beer from exasperated waiters, suffering these humiliations in kitschy uniforms of slacks, bowties, and leopard-print vests. The beer is flowing but otherwise the kitchen suffers issues of privation. There was no coffee loaded onboard in Dar es Salam. And culinary selections run the gamut from fried chicken to fried beef to fried fish. Being that the chicken is woefully undernourished and the fish terrifying, I subsist on beef, requiring serious mastication for its leathery toughness.

Upon awakening, I had originally surmised that our train's delay had not been due to an engineering malfunction but that the police had mandated our delay in order to investigate. For the night before the breakdown a passenger had been caught stealing from the cupboard. Thrashed by an angry mob, the offender was marched down through the train to the caboose and involuntarily expelled to the abyssal night. This was not uncommon in Africa, where vigilante justice compensates for inadequate investments in security.

This uproar is a brief spark of frenzy. Mostly I sit back and watch the countryside. The railway runs through the Selous Game Reserve but despite my best efforts for the thrill of a herd of giraffes or elephants viewed from a rushing train there are no lucky sightings. But after so much looking, it hits me: there is so much space in Africa! All one hears on the other side of the ocean is the common refrain of a population spiralling out of control. But the revelation gathered from the train window is that there is space, so much space and Africa is big, so big, you can't write the continent off. Violent dictators, misuse of agricultural land, and the AIDS crisis have done damage but none of it irreprable. There is potential here. Its mark is the untouched land, which reminds me of a 19th century America on the verge of breakthhroughs.

For the moment, however, wintertime grips the land in signature despair: yellow grass, weeds, skeletal, half-dressed trees-- and land not yet touched, farmed, irrigated. So much of it. Occasionally the train zips by the occassional village composed of mud and straw, whizzing past the farmer leaning on his shovel to observe the noisy serpentine machine careen past, creating for a brief moment in his day a gust of exuberant pandemonium.

photo by ARIKO
Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005

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