November 23, 2009

Bienvenu à bord du TAZARA


Friday, the 6th of November 2009, 8 am: All major boulevards of Dar es-Salaam are completely jammed, bogged down by the lethargic tonnage of passengers crammed tightly into each Dala-Dala. But not a single eye could claim to miss the far-away castle in the cloud, as it is; the enormous white building of such excessive affect to its surroundings; with what is no less than a pure communist architectural trophy in Africa. This structure, from the summit of the avenue, is identifiable too for the simple six letters to which were first planted as a divination of its primary objectives since its conception: T-A-Z-A-R-A (TA-nzanian ZA-mbian RA-ilways). A structure whose poetic statement in contradiction to the grandeur of the days of colonialism endures (the brilliance of Nyerere).

It's long parking lot, extending to the rare limits of vision, had not a single vehicle filling its assuring grills (excepting two or three belonging to its office employees). Tazara is the train line which connects D ar es-Salaam twice weekly to the frontier of Zambia, and stops just kilometers from the border of Malawi. This morning, the station is chillingly empty, widening further the impressionable strength of its monumental staircase leading to the platform. The decors surrounding the building are the epic portraits of presidents and officials since the independence of Tanzania. The small wooden ticket windows, undulating beneath incredible wood and enameled fans, stand with great readiness for a sudden assault of customers. The next train departs Tuesday at 3:50 pm (as if 4:00 pm should sound too amateurish for such an established line). Tazara is a grand symbol of the years when Chino-African co-operations were rarer but much more fashionable than they are today. It was between 1970 and 1975 when some 20,000 Chinese and 30,000 Tanzanians together constructed the whole 1870 km of this line (through some deep country rarely seen by mankind).

For many years, it's circulation was composed of two different trains; the express, and the “normal.” Today, the “normal” train has been left to its well deserved retirement, meaning that any travel between Dar es-Salaam and Mbeya (our destination, the last stop in Tanzania before the border stop) takes just over 24 hours. The line, which intentionally crosses the Selous National Reserve Park, is still in many cases the only means of access to certain regions of the country deeply situated in the bush (far from a single road). Its construction accounted for the impressive development of 300 viaducts, 147 stations, and 24 stone tunnels.

Tuesday, the 10th of November 2009, 3:00 pm: A message written in white chalk upon a blackboard plaque welcomes all passengers who were this time cluttering together each with her/his respective suitcases, bags, boxes, bundles, and this seasons popular vagabond accessories. Following an apology -- a “problem” left unexplained-- it was written that rather than the expected departure time of a strict 3:50 pm sharp, the train would depart at 6:00 pm. That said, it will leave the SAME day. What a superb stroke of luck we have on the continent! The small annoyance of the delay only briefly hid the great upset of our day: all street vendors and hawkers of coffee, cookies, hard-boiled eggs, newspapers, socks, plastic sandals, funny bottle openers and provocative nail clippers (and the such we adore so on such occasions) are all forbidden from entering the grounds of the station (and even on the train itself). What insanity, that which solely makes these constant periods of wait in Africa just barely bearable and amusing, is forbidden! Scandalous.

2009_11_11_09583 A question which continues to obsess me: of what logic impels all the passengers in Tanzania to always stock-up on such incredulous quantities of cheap industrial loaves of white bread before departing? (and do they smuggle with them a gallon of Blue Band industrial petroleum based margarine?)

Watching people wait always makes our wait seem so much less than it is, what with so much to observe and consider all around us. But coming on 5:30 pm, a vague rush of passengers makes its way up the stairwell towards the platform where everyone’s ticket is reviewed before being scribbled upon and given the OK to continue. It seems to take only moments to completely empty the waiting room of all proof that life here once existed, were it not for the pools of garbage, paper, peanut shells and footprints of what a would-be detective might refer to as “evidence of an impatient crowd which hurled itself onto a train.” A train attendant, in uniform and all, again welcomes each passenger to each train car which is easily found upon the face of each ticket, along with cabin and seat numbers. Never before has a mode of transport had such perfect organization before since our trip began a year ago.

Each second class compartment holds roughly a dozen cabins (each with either six men or six women-in contrast to first class which is identical except that each cabin hold four people instead of six). In the cabins of men, all seems calm and jovial. At worst, each man has brought with him a single carryon bag, though most have come with their jackets only. All the men sit communally on the two benches (actually the lowest two bunks) to acquaint themselves with one another before the long journey begins, creating a strong feeling of family amidst this temporary cell. Even though the naïve “Hello,” I offered when first entering my cabin was principally met by kind by terrified looks of confusion masked by tentative smiles, the simple addition of “Mambo vipi?,” quickly erodes into relieved comprehension and welcoming embraces. Each hands around sections of their journals and bags of dried fruit and peanuts conversing gaily. The men await the departure in a peaceful milieu.

In contrast, just behind a paper-thin partisan wall one might find another world entirely. The world of women! (note to readers: the divisions made in this entry regarding the caricatured sexes should be taken only in light of culturalisms which yield unequal purpose and mode of travel. Though these observations were experienced by both Eugénie and myself, we present them as elements of landscape only and not to be mistaken as our limited ability to conceptualize the development of such extremities in gender separation as either real or otherwise interpreted) Four stern mammas already settled in when Eugénie arrived, and already, all six beds, the floor, the baggage loft, and various zones of unaccountable space throughout the tiny cabin were overflowing with all shapes and genres of randomness. It was immediately clear they were prepared to not be destabilized by her entrance, so she made swiftly to destabilize them all the same. “To the floor or the window” was the general gestural question she posed as she efficiently did away with every item of her sleeping area, and made room in the loft for her single bag. One mamma came close even to budging one of her elevated feet in protest, though quickly subsided in lieu of the rapidity the situation turned hands. The groans of all could be heard in my own cabin. Then, from out of nowhere under the wobbling heaps of tissues, boxes and sacs of potatoes accompanying our dear ladies, came the unrolling tubes of newspaper ready to hang half-a-lakes population of fish up to dry in the furnace of the cabins bounds.

After all, with such heat and time, what a shame it would be to not leave with fish a little dryer than whence you came, no? And of that heat, that smoldering cabin…the women claimed that the window could not open (though surprisingly on the train, each item intended for use seemed to miraculously function as well as the day it was constructed). But when the culmination of the odor of the fish combined with the 40° C heat, the crying of three infants who also compiled the baggage of our ladies, and the fact we were still sitting still in the train station of Dar es-Salaam, Eugénie decided to ask a train assistants help to budge the window from its position. Miraculously, it opened like a charm, morphing the expressions of all but Eugénie to unfettered grims of menace. And as the train began its course south, and night fell, and the tight silence continued in the cabin, Eugénie noticed that they were the only cabin where the light did not shine. Again, with the capable help of the same train assistant, Eugénie and the women were taught how to twist two stripped wires together to illuminate a room. Eugénie was the only grateful participant. From this point on, the night continued without much alarm from the ladies cabin just behind my own.

2009_11_11_09783 The drinking cabin situated between first and second classes is far from the refined candle-lit colonial train experience I imagined in my youth. Here it is difficult to remember you are on a train at all, as it fills early in the evening with all the trains’ youth turning into as proper a pub as you find on any street in the country. And with so many people stumbling in their usually graceful-but-clumsy-drunken sort of way, you hardly question whether to fault the beer or the train which bounced about as if it were mounting a Russian mountain in search of a warm bed. All the windows held open by strips of wood, except for the one Eugénie stuck her head out to appreciate the landscapes when it tried to decapitate her to the horror of the joyous drinkers around. The youth of the train, as youth everywhere in the world, flirting awkwardly over whiter-than-white trainers, sideways caps, make-up and booze. It impresses me to no end to witness the stumbling of one young man be turned into a sexy sway by the girl who follows him. All the same, the beer was warm. As far as we could understand the explanation, the electricity of the train only works when its moving, and so the refrigerators for the beer wouldn’t be cold until the morning (which is clever since the train only moves two 24 hour periods a week, meaning, unless you’re a breakfast drinker, the beer is always warm!). The cabin has a stunning 30 inch Made-In-China flat-screen television which remains on throughout the day and night. But without anything to play, it only projects the logo of its manufacturer. It was merely 9:00 pm or so when the more zealous of the youths, who had begun two hours before with their plastic baggies of gin (Konyagi), began to drag themselves back to their bunks. How magnificent certain spaces highlight the co-existence of people who have so little to do with one another (as I thought back to the gentlemen in my cabin). I too made my way to bed.

Wednesday, the 11th of November, 2009: It was 5:00 am when nearly two thirds of the train suddenly departed leaving most of the cabins empty (and the third class vaguely spacious). It was not long before stop-after-stop it began to fill in again, though my cabin remained empty except for myself. A few hours later Eugénie was awoken by a fresh batch of ladies (without fish), but she had managed a good rest all the same. The smells of Tanzanian creams, sprays, and gargles filled the corridors from every direction like the phantoms of a morning from a town left behind. The train stopped at each of the most remote and non-descript stations along the tracks. The shock to see those who departed its doors to venture into the “nowhere” of the savannah or into mountains with no paths. And each stop which accompanied a “where” with a name and perhaps a building or two, was the perfect opportunity for every passenger to window shop for their new loaves of bread, eggs, donuts or samosas, boiled corn, knives, snacks, fresh mangoes and bananas, bottles of water, mobile airtime scratch cards, and the like. From around 10:00 am or so onward, a cool rain began to fall. From out the windows, the parched cracking soils of the south began drinking plentifully filling each crevasse with its long awaited sip. We were entering into the rain season, and we watched it arrive through the moving frames of the Tazara.

The train jumped from one viaduct to the next, to the tunnel, to the next. The temperature fell ten degrees or more. Had it been so long since we had the exciting sensation of feeling frozen? The savannah caught itself somewhere upon the horizon till it was tugged away, being replaced by thick greenery and fertile blossoms. It was at just about 4:00 pm when we reached Mbeya’s station and descended to the pungent aroma of mountains, woodstoves, and rain. If we had waited just a few more kilometers we’d had arrived in Zambia. If we took a Dala-Dala a few kilometers, we would have arrived in Malawi. The station of Mbeya was as excessive and unnecessarily large as if it were meant to shame the mountains which surrounded it. Never yet on our journey had I had the feeling of making it so far - thus far.


Vendredi 6 novembre 2009, 8 heures. Depuis un grand boulevard embouteillé de Dar es-Salaam, heuresle passager embourbé dans son dala-dala ne peut manquer d'apercevoir cet immense bâtiment blanc, construction démesurée d'un plus pur style communiste. Au sommet de ce dernier ont été planté six lettres formant le mot TAZARA, version courte pour Tanzania Zambian Railway. Le parking qui s'étend à perte de vue n'abrite que quelques voitures, probablement celles des rares employés présents en cette heure matinale. Le Tazara est le nom du train qui relie deux fois par semaine Dar es-Salaam à la frontière zambienne. Ce matin, le bâtiment est vide, les escaliers monumentaux qui mènent à la plateforme sont décorés par les portraits officiels de différents présidents. Les petits guichets en bois surplombés par de grands ventilateurs ne sont pas pris d'assaut. Le prochain train partira mardi à 15h50, pour ne pas dire 16 h. Le Tazara est le symbole même de la coopération sino-africaine plus en vogue que jamais partout sur le continent. Entre 1970 et 1975, quelques 20 000 chinois et 30 000 tanzaniens ont construit ensemble cette ligne longue de 1870 km. Il y a quelques années circulaient encore deux trains, le train express et celui dit normal. L’express est à ce jour le seul train à faire le trajet en 24 heures, soit le temps mis par ledit normal pour parcourir la même distance à l'époque. La ligne qui traverse la réserve du Selous est souvent le seul moyen d’accès à certaines régions reculées situées bien trop loin des routes. Elle compte 300 viaducs, 147 gares et 24 tunnels.

Mardi 10 novembre 2009, 15 heures. Un message inscrit à la craie sur un tableau noir accueille le passager souvent encombré de ses classiques cartons-sacs-baluchons. Suite à des problèmes non explicités, le train ne partira pas à 16 heures comme prévu mais à 18 heures. Il partira quand même aujourd'hui, on a de la chance. Ce désagrément ne fait qu'en cacher un autre beaucoup plus contrariant : les vendeurs ambulants de cafés-biscuits-œufs durs-journaux-chaussettes-tongs en plastique, sont strictement interdits dans l'enceinte de la gare. Bref, tout ce qui rend l'attente en Afrique surmontable est ici interdit. 2009_11_10_09252Scandale ! Une question m'obsède : pourquoi tous les passagers font-ils de telles réserves de pain de mie industriels ? L'observation de ce monde qui patiente rend paradoxalement l'attente beaucoup plus courte. Vers 17h30 une vague emporte les passagers vers le premier étage où chaque ticket est contrôlé puis griffonné. La salle d'attente est à présent vide, seul un tapis de papier sur le sol rappelle la présence d’une foule impatiente qui s’est précipitée dans le train. Une hôtesse en uniforme accueille le voyageur au pied de chaque wagon, les numéros de cabine et de siège sont apparents, facile à trouver, tout est presque trop parfait.

Chaque compartiment de seconde classe compte une dizaine de cabine, une pour les hommes et la suivante pour les femmes et ce jusqu’au bout du wagon. Du coté des hommes tout est calme. Ces messieurs ont au mieux un petit sac à main, mais souvent juste leur veste. Assis sur la banquette du bas, tout le monde discute et fait connaissance, le voyage va être long alors autant commencer à se familiariser avec ses compagnons de cellule. Le "hello" de Seamus ne fait qu’attirer les regards et les sourires inquiets face à tant d'incompréhension, quand il ajoute "mambo", l'atmosphère se détend. Les six hommes attendent le départ du train paisiblement.

Derrière une étroite cloison se trouve un autre monde, celui des femmes. Les quatre mamas déjà débordées me font bien comprendre que mon arrivée ne fait que déstabiliser encore un peu plus leur organisation bancale. En effet, il va falloir redescendre les paquets déjà bien empilés sur ce qui va être ma couchette. Parce que c'est ainsi, je ne manque pas de les aider à entasser leurs baluchons sur leurs propres sièges. Il faut faire vite, le moindre espace disparait en quelques secondes. Une fois les tas de sacs empilés dans l'espace alloué à cette fonction déjà plein à ras-bord, il est temps d'ouvrir le grand papier journal rempli de poissons séchés. Il serait dommage de ne pas profiter du trajet pour parfaire l’affinage des animaux difformes et carbonisés. La fenêtre est fermée mais personne ne se dit qu'il faudrait malgré tout l'ouvrir notamment parce qu’il fait 40 degrés, que trois enfants braillent, que du poisson sèche et que le train est encore en gare. A la nuit tombée l'hôtesse montre aux passagers plongés dans le noir (mais avec la fenêtre à présent ouverte) comment allumer la lumière. Rien de plus simple, il suffit de relier les deux fils électriques dénudés. Quand au ventilateur, il ne fonctionne plus depuis longtemps.

Le wagon-buvette ressemble à n'importe quel bar tanzanien, sauf qu'il est d'une instabilité déconcertante, il bouge comme un petit wagon sur une montagne russe. 2009_11_11_09692Toutes les fenêtres tiennent avec un morceau de bois sans lequel elles retombent au moindre sursaut et manquent de décapiter le curieux qui prend l'air (moi-même). Le bar devenu le lieu de rassemblement des jeunes du train est bondé. Ces derniers portent des chaussures branchées et des casquettes de travers. Les filles souvent trop maquillées se dandinent dans leurs petits pantalons cintrés en avançant avec prudence. La bière, chaude, y coule à flot, "elle sera fraiche demain matin" précise la serveuse. Tout le matériel de ce wagon date d'un autre âge, tout sauf l'écran neuf et plat made in China qui ne diffuse rien, sauf le nom de la marque. Vers 20 h, les premiers adolescents surexcités commencent à vaciller, sachet d'alcool fort à la main. Dans ce train se concentrent différents petits mondes qui se côtoient mais n'ont rien à voir les uns avec les autres, un peu comme la Tanzanie d'aujourd'hui.

Mercredi 11 novembre 2009. A 5 h du matin le train se vide avant de se remplir aussitôt, du coté des femmes, le vacarme reprend de plus belle. Quelques heures plus tard la fraiche fournée de passagers se réveille, branle-bas de combat dans la cabine ! Les odeurs de crèmes et de lotions en tout genre se mélangent avec celle du poisson encore en train de sécher. Une fois la toilette matinale terminée tout le monde se recouche, il faut dire que l’arrivée n'est pas prévue pour bientôt alors autant poursuivre sa nuit. Le train s'arrête de temps à autre dans des petites gares situées au milieu de nulle part, il est alors temps de faire son marché. Le déjeuner des passagers acheté aux différentes fenêtres se compose de beignets en tout genre, samosas ou mandazis, d'épis de mais bouillis et fruits frais et d'œufs durs. Les paysages défilent sous le soleil ou sous la pluie, le train tangue. Plus nous avançons vers le Sud plus les cours d'eau se vident, le train enchaine les viaducs et les ponts. La température a chuté de dix degrés dans la nuit, nous avions même oublié que cette sensation de fraicheur pouvait exister. La savane s'étend à présent et les baobabs aux bourgeons verdoyants décorent l'horizon. Le train entre en gare vers 16 heures, le nom MBEYA s'affiche alors de manière démesurée sur un bâtiment grandiose planté au pied d'une chaine de montagne. Dans quelques kilomètres, le train s’arrêtera à la frontière zambienne, avant de faire demi-tour.