Celebrating the anniversary of the Tanzania-Zambia Railroad

By Qiu Bingjun Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/16 17:48:40

Train cars made in China are on display at the Dar es Salaam train station. Photo: IC


Pictures of former Tanzania president Julius Nyerere (left), former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (center) and former Zambia president Kenneth Kaunda hang in Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority HQ Photo: IC 

The Dar es Salaam train station Photo: IC


It is a word forged from three different peoples that cannot be found in any dictionary.

Anyone teaching or learning a foreign language or working as a translator or interpreter all understand that language is a living system that grows day by day as new words are introduced to it like new blood during a transfusion. Yet, even these people many have trouble understanding how a word like TAZARA came to be.

When I encountered this word more than 17 years ago, I consulted all the dictionaries in my study to discover what it meant, but to no avail. My only clue was a blurred memory of a conversation with a classmate of mine who had once worked on a railroad project in Tanzania. I faintly recalled that he had mentioned this strange word while we talked.

Fortunately, I was posted at the Chinese Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2001 as a cultural counselor, which gave me the opportunity to follow this clue and see where it lead.

Grand project

During my three-year career at the embassy, I asked my local rafikis (friends in Swahili), young and old, male and female,  to tell me all they knew about TAZARA.

They happily told me that the word refers to the railway that connects Tanzania and Zambia - the very same railway that my classmate had worked on. It actually goes by several names: the Tanzam Railway, the Great Uhuru Railway (Uhuru means freedom in Swahili) and my long-searched for TAZARA. TA stands for Tanzania, ZA for Zambia and RA is short for railway.

Although I now knew what the word stood for, I still had a long way to go to truly understand its significance.

During the 1960s, Tanzania and Zambia, two East African nations, won their independence. To develop their economy, these two countries decided to cooperate together to build a railway that would give the landlocked Zambia access to the sea through Tanzania. 

However, building a nearly 2,000-kilometer long railway that would pass through rugged mountainous areas and lush rain forests on its way from Lusaka in Zambia to the port city of Dar es Salaam was something the two countries could only dream about doing on their own.

After seeking help from and being turned down by major Western countries, Julius Nyerere, then president of Tanzania, visited Beijing in 1965. He talked about the two countries' plan for the railway with Chairman Mao Zedong with the hopes of getting help from the largest developing nation in the world.

Nyrere was worried that he might not get China's help because he was well aware that the country had just been hit by three years of natural disasters and was experiencing difficulties caused by the Soviet Union's withdraw of its experts from China.

It turned out Nyrere had no need to worry. Despite the difficulties his country was facing, Mao promised to help the two African nations without hesitation.

Soon after, China sent experts to carry out surveys and begin designing the railway.

The project began in October 1970 and the rail began operations on July 14th, 1976. In less than six years, China has helped Tanzania and Zambia build a high quality railroad that left many Western nations speechless.

Not without sacrifice

The difficulties and hardships those who worked on the project experienced are too numerous to record. During the first three years, China sent 12,000-13,000 engineers and workers every year to work on the project. In the process, 60 Chinese lost their lives. Their moving sacrifices are a testament of the Chinese people's willingness to support people in developing nations.

To remember their sacrifice, every year during the Qingming Festival, which falls around April 4 or 5 and during which Chinese pay tribute to their ancestors, the staff at the Chinese Embassy in Tanzania as well as employees from Chinese companies in the country will gather at a memorial dedicated to those Chinese who lost their lives to make the railway a reality.

During the Qingming Festival of 2002, I had the honor of being able to attend the service at the memorial.

Although there was light rain that day, some 300 Chinese, including children, came to pay their respects. The Economic Section at the embassy had prepared white flowers made from paper for those attending to place on the tombs, but there were so many people that year that some latecomers had to pick wild flowers from nearby.

Around 10 am, Ambassador Wang Yongqiu announced the beginning of the tribute ceremony. After a three-minute moment of silence, the ambassador gave a short speech, during which he praised those who gave their lives to construct the railway. Following, Mrs Banykwa, deputy director-general of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority, also gave a speech highly praising the dedication of the people of China to the international community and expressing the hopes that the friendship between the three nations that worked on the railway would continue to be passed down generation to generation.

After the ceremony, people walked through the memorial to look at the tombs, upon which the names, birth place and birth date of the deceased were written. I walked around following Du Jian, a Chinese expert who had been sent to Tanzania to help oversee maintenance and operations of the railway. As we walked, he shared with me several of the stories of those who had fallen. 

According to Du, most of the deceased were drivers, some had been buried in landslides, some were killed after their vehicles crashed into the rain forest, some had even died after being bitten by poisonous snakes. The youngest among them was only 24...

Stepping out from the memorial, my heart was overcome with emotion. My throat was tight and tears ran down my face along with the drops of rain. I felt sad that these 60 had not been classified as revolutionary martyrs. Although they had not died in a war, they had lost their lives on another type of battlefield, on which people of good faith work tirelessly to help developing nations combat poverty and work together to create a brighter future.

The writer is former cultural counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Tanzania

Newspaper headline: Railway of friendship


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