The economic engine: A trip on Tanzania's Central Line
Christopher Vourlias travels through Tanzania on the Central Line railway, witnessing the country's commerce as the train chugs along.
Writer Christopher Vourlias traveled from the Tanzanian port city, Dar es Salaam, across Tanzania on the Central Line railway, the engine of Tanzania's commerce. "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," he writes.
Here, Tanzanians gather outside Dar es Salaam's railway station.
The railway was created, Vourlias writes, to open up the interior of the country to European commerce and for political prestige.
Today, the railway is still a "vital lifeline for much of the country," Vourlias writes. "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."
Earlier this year, portions of the track were washed away by flooding, Vourlias writes. "It took six months for railworkers to get the Central Line back on track -- six months of struggling and fretting for many Tanzanians."
But on his trip, he didn't see this worry. "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."
Vourlias shared his small cabin with "an avuncular, moon-faced septuagenarian" and former employee of the Tanzanian Railways Corp. named Godfrey Chatta. During the trip, Godfrey bought many goods through the train's windows.
Commerce has played a "central role" along these tracks since the line's creation.
"More than a century later, business is still brisk along the road to Lake Tanganyika. In small market towns, we were surrounded by women hugging great bags of cassava or balancing bundles of sugar cane on their heads. Across the arid central plateau, where soil conditions are poor and agriculture scarce, villagers approached the train wagging brooms and walking sticks, woven-palm baskets, viscous honey trapped inside old water."
On the second day, Godfrey wonders how "a two day passage could turn into such a shopping spree." Vourlias later wonders if all the cabins on the train similarly "resemble the produce section of Whole Foods."
Godfrey adds to his haul salt purchased in Uvinza, a town known for the product. "When I get to Kigoma," he said, "they will ask, ?Did you bring salt from Uvinza??"
Eventually, the train reaches the west. "Here the soil was red and the trees were heavy with fruit; the women approaching the train at each station came bearing sugar cane and bananas and lettuce, tomatoes the color of rubies."
Finally, the train reaches its destination, Kigoma. Vourlias watches Godfrey "passing bags and bundles out the window, directing the movement of the porters like a field marshal. 'You must be very generous,' he said, handing a bunch of bananas to a well-wisher. 'It is a problem with being so famous.'"
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