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A train ride across Tanzania

Christopher Vourlias travels through Tanzania on the Central Line railway, witnessing the country's commerce as the train chugs along.

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By Christopher Vourlias
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 24, 2010; 2:14 PM

At half past 3 an ancient sigh filled the station. It was a hot, humid, sun-flushed afternoon in Dar es Salaam, the sprawling Tanzanian port city, and there was an atmosphere of near crisis as the train pulled in.

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Husky women trundled by with coolers and baskets and pots and wooden spoons, as if they were on their way to a church picnic; an endless procession of duffel bags and suitcases and nylon sacks passed by. All afternoon, there was a dire rush of porters heaving things onto their shoulders, of parting families in hysterical states of farewell. Heads and hands poked from the windows, gulping the air, grabbing at loaves of bread being sold from the platform. The scene inside was like a tenement, bodies on top of bodies, music and laughter and radio broadcasts, the ripe, pungent smell of body odor in the tropics.

In first class, we wedged ourselves into small, stuffy cabins, opened the windows, checked the locks on the doors. The police arrived, swinging their clubs to clear the platform. With a loud groan we lurched from the station, loaves of bread still being flung toward the windows. Soon we were chugging through the city's ragged outskirts, pillars of diesel smoke barreling from the engine, the sun blotted out by our industrial-age progress into the raw heart of Tanzania.

For travelers with time to kill and a penchant for confined spaces, the Central Line's thrice-weekly cross-country passage is one of Africa's great rail journeys. Taking in about 600 miles of East African bush at its own unhurried pace, the train's ponderous slog to Kigoma - a scruffy, German-built port on the shores of Lake Tanganyika - is like a gentle rebuke to the harried world of the modern-day safari. No pre-dawn wake-up calls, no eagle-eyed seniors keen on spotting the Big Five before brunch. In a vast country where twin-prop Cessnas can whisk you to your remote safari camp in less than an hour, the two- or three-day trip is a safari - a "journey" - in the true Swahili sense of the word.

For the architects of the great colonial enterprise of the 19th century, the arguments for the railway were far more prosaic. Most of the interior was waiting to be opened up for European commerce; in German East Africa, the construction of a railway would link the great inland lakes - Nyasa (Malawi), Tanganyika and Victoria Nyanza - with the ports of the East African coast. It would also be a boon to the territory's burgeoning agricultural economy: German settlers had already seized upon the great potential for growing sisal, coffee, tea and, most importantly, cotton on sprawling plantations across the interior. What they needed was an efficient way to transport their crops to the coast for export to foreign markets.

No less important was the matter of political prestige. By the turn of the century, the colonial powers had already begun to lay tracks across their recent acquisitions. The Italians were busy surveying the rugged terrain between their possessions in Abyssinia and Eritrea; the Portuguese had begun ambitious projects in Angola and Mozambique; the Belgians were linking the lower Congo to ports on the Atlantic coast. In British East Africa, railway planners were pondering how best to skirt the vertiginous walls of the Great Rift Valley. According to the mad logic of the colonial scramble, there was no way to justify sitting idly by while the riches of the continent - riches that, in most of Africa, would never quite pan out - were toted away in locomotives bound for foreign ports.

Today the Central Line is still a vital lifeline for much of the country. Onboard were traders and market women carrying goods from Dar es Salaam deep into the interior - some continuing on to landlocked Burundi and the eastern Congo.

Countless lives in countless villages rely on the train's passage. Earlier this year, when flooding washed out large portions of the track, the venerable train was put out of commission. It took six months for railworkers to get the Central Line back on track - six months of struggling and fretting for many Tanzanians.

During my trip, there were no such worries. In the villages we passed, the train was cause for celebration. Mothers held waving infants up to the sky, as if in offering. Men wagged their hats. Farmers and footballers and elders wobbling along on their bicycles stopped and looked up and smiled thinly, squinting at our dust. Aboard the train, heads poked from the windows in twos and threes, enjoying the easy camaraderie of a long journey that's just begun. An old Muslim man beside me whipped off his prayer cap and stuck his head far out the window, like a Labrador. Perhaps he was thinking of other train rides, of journeys in his youth, of the feeling of the wind beating against the temples of a boy with his whole life ahead of him.

My cabin-mate was Godfrey Chatta, an avuncular, moon-faced septuagenarian with large, mild eyes and a complexion like butterscotch. A former employee of the Tanzanian Railways Corp., he had done the end-to-end journey from Dar es Salaam to his home in Kigoma more times than he could remember. But, he sighed, no, it was not the same.


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