Africa's Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania

Africa's Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania

by Jamie Monson


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The TAZARA (Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority), or Freedom Railway, from Dar es Salaam on the Tanzanian coast to the Copperbelt region of Zambia, was instrumental in fostering one of the most sweeping development transitions in postcolonial Africa. Built during the height of the Cold War, the railway was intended to redirect the mineral wealth of the interior away from routes through South Africa and Rhodesia. Rebuffed by Western aid agencies, newly independent Tanzania and Zambia accepted help from China to construct what would become one of Africa's most vital transportation corridors. The book follows the railroad from design and construction to its daily use as a vital means for moving villagers and goods. It tells a story of how transnational interests contributed to environmental change, population movements, and the rise of local and regional enterprise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253223227
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/11/2011
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jamie Monson is Professor of History at Macalester College. She is editor of Women as Food Producers in Developing Countries.

Read an Excerpt

Africa's Freedom Railway

How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania

By Jamie Monson

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 Jamie Monson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35271-2



Freedom Railway

On a hot afternoon in the early 1970s, an historic encounter took place near the town of Chimala in the southern highlands of Tanzania. A team of Chinese railway workers and their Tanzanian counterparts came face-to-face with a rival team of American-led road workers advancing across the same rural landscape. The Americans were building a paved highway from Dares Salaam to Zambia, in direct competition with the Chinese railway project. The path of the railway and the path of the roadway came together at this point, and a tense standoff reportedly ensued as each side threatened to prevent the other from proceeding. According to one version of the events, reportedly from an eyewitness, the Chinese team had just completed construction of bridge number 117 over a tributary of the Great Ruaha River. They were busy planting grasses to secure the railway's embankment when they were approached by the American team. The trouble started, this eyewitness reported, when the Americans began to place survey markers on the newly planted embankment. The Chinese objected and quickly removed the markers, leading to a "heated quarrel." A report in Newsweek magazine described the conflict somewhat differently, reporting that it was the Chinese team that encountered the Americans building a bridge across the river. The Chinese then "promptly laid claim to the site for their railroad and planted Chinese flags in the ground to reinforce the claim." And when the Americans then attempted to bulldoze the flags, "they found themselves suddenly surrounded by 200 screaming Chinese." The skirmish was only settled, both accounts agree, when the Tanzanian police intervened and made sure that both teams could proceed with their work.

Stories of this conflict circulated widely during the time of the TAZARA railway's construction and afterward because of its powerful symbolism. For there was much more at stake in this confrontation than the simple logistics of one rural transportation project accommodating another; the disputed terrain was not just physical but also ideological. The confrontation came to represent a clash between a socialist vision of development, in which the state would play a prominent role in controlling development projects and subsequent economic activity, and a capitalist vision of free-flowing commerce. In these debates, railways were presumed to be ideal socialist projects: they were large-scale, state-funded, and centrally managed infrastructures. The scheduled stops that regulated passenger traffic and goods shipments were imposed by railway authorities, which in turn were state-governed enterprises. According to one Tanzanian economist, during the years of ujamaa socialism under the leadership of President Julius Nyerere, the state and the railway became so closely intertwined that "you couldn't tell which one was in charge any more."

The paved highway, like other road projects favored by western donors, represented the freedom of the market. On road networks goods could be shipped according to one's own timetable, with stops anywhere along the way where market forces supported commercial activity. Feeder roads could link the highway to other areas, expanding the service area of the corridor and thereby increasing mobility and market choices. These two projects thus represented a rivalry between competing development visions: the socialist railway involving a state-managed infrastructure with centralized control; and the capitalist highway representing freedom of mobility and of economic enterprise.

That was not all. These two transportation projects were burdened with even more layers of ideological meaning and symbolism. The Chinese-sponsored TAZARA was known as the "Freedom Railway," the critical link to the sea that landlocked Zambia desperately needed in order to break free from her dependency on Rhodesian, Angolan, and South African rails and ports. TAZARA was therefore also an anti-apartheid railway, a symbol of revolutionary solidarity and resistance to the forces of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism. The Americans, on the other hand, viewed the construction of the TAZARA railway with growing alarm. As China's largest international development project and the third-largest infrastructure development project in Africa (after the Aswan and the Volta dam projects), TAZARA represented the "great steel arm of China thrusting its way into the African interior."

The TAZARA railway (the acronym stands for the Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority, the binational administrative body that has overseen the railway since 1976) was constructed between 1970 and 1975 to link the landlocked Zambian copper belt with the Indian Ocean port city of Dares Salaam in Tanzania. The 1,860-kilometer-long project was built with financing and technical support from China amounting to over $400 million in the form of a long-term interest-free loan. China had agreed to finance and support the railway project in 1967 after several requests for assistance from western donors and from the Soviet Union had been rejected.

In the end, the distinctions that were drawn between the socialist railway and the capitalist highway, symbolized by the historic confrontation at Chimala, became obscured by the political and economic realities of post-colonial Tanzania. The highway was completed in 1973, two years before the railway, and was used by TAZARA vehicles to ferry materials and personnel to railway construction sites. Thus the capitalist highway became an important if unintended partner in the building of the socialist railway. And after the completion of TAZARA, the highway was made less "free" and thereby less competitive by government attempts to control and regulate the transport industry. Meanwhile, economic liberalization measures from the mid-1980s onward allowed TAZARA to play an important role in the expansion of independent small-scale trade and entrepreneurial activity. The highway, in other words, was susceptible to becoming controlled by the state, while the railway was capable in turn of serving a robust network of "free market" traders and other entrepreneurs.

In these and other ways, the story of the TAZARA railway brings to light dimensions of the Cold War era in Africa that go beyond the competition between socialist and capitalist ideologies. The railway was part of China's effort to combat what it termed the hegemonism and neo-imperialism of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. At the same time, however, China's investment in African development assistance was part of a drive to be acknowledged as a world power. Meanwhile, in defining a legitimizing foundation for Afro-Asian solidarity, China claimed a shared history of imperial conquest and colonization with its "brothers" in the third world. The relationship between China and Tanzania at this historical moment was defined as one of "the poor helping the poor," as one underdeveloped country reaching out to another. China thus claimed to be part of a common "third world struggle" against the forces of imperialism and neo-colonialism, while at the same time proposing to construct TAZARA as the third-largest development infrastructure project in Africa. In this way, through African development assistance China sought to retain two seemingly contradictory identities — that of a formerly colonized subject as well as that of a Cold War player. An article in Tanzania's The Nationalist in 1969 proclaimed that "New China has all the characteristics of a truly big POWER," including an independent industrial base, a self-reliant economy, and "the Bomb; today's status quo symbol in the world's real politic."

TAZARA was not only a Chinese development assistance project in Africa but also, from its very beginning stages, a pan-African one. The Cold War era was a time of pan-African aspirations throughout the continent, and TAZARA represented the concrete realization of pan-African development cooperation. This contributed to the symbolic significance of the TAZARA project, for not only would Chinese and Africans cooperate together in an anti-hegemonic project, but Tanzanians and Zambians would dismantle the boundaries of colonial-era transport infrastructures. The project's pan-African foundations shaped the railway's construction process and ongoing operations in important ways: for example, in the use of English as the official language (rather than Kiswahili); in a careful division of labor and management between the two countries; and in the creation of a binational governing authority that included ministerial representatives from both Tanzania and Zambia.

And finally, the complexities of the Cold War era in Africa are revealed most clearly when the lens of analysis is shifted from the abstract level of state ideologies to local experience. The Chinese railway technicians who labored on the TAZARA project may have "allocated time for ideological instruction," as western observers had feared, but it was their everyday practice of teaching by example that is remembered more often by their African counterparts. And once the railway was completed, it became as important to the rural communities located along the railway corridor as it was to the copper mines of Zambia or to the sawmills of Iringa. For over time, rural communities in the remote regions through which the TAZARA railway traveled came to depend upon the services provided by the Ordinary Train, the passenger train that stopped at the smallest village settlements and stations. And at the same time, the railway came to depend upon the agency and initiative of the rural users of the train for whom it was essential to life and livelihood.

The Ordinary Train

More than ten years after TAZARA's completion, Chimala — together with other small stations and settlements — was once again the site of conflict over the railway. This time, while similar issues were at stake — state control over transportation services versus market-oriented development — the protagonists were very different. From the mid-1980s onward, farmers and traders along the railway corridor had begun to generate a vibrant rural economy as markets were opened up in response to liberalization measures. They did so by shipping their goods as parcels on the Ordinary Train. Meanwhile, railway management decided in 1994 to impose "efficiency" measures that would save money by closing down stations that had permanent staffing but infrequent train stops. The stations most likely to be deemed "inefficient," according to this calculus, were those served by the Ordinary Train. Ironically, many of the nineteen stations slated to be closed were the most active in small-scale trade in the form of parcels; indeed the bustle of local economic ac tivity on the railway platforms at some of these stations was slowing down the train.

Angry residents responded to the threatened closures with a barrage of protests and complaints, lodged by individuals as well as by ad hoc committees. By removing passenger services from their stations, they argued, this economic efficiency measure would be most devastating for local communities like Chimala that depended upon the train for their small-scale entrepreneurial activities. In their protests about the station closures, local people strategically deployed the same language of freedom and socialism that had been used by the state during TAZARA's construction. One local spokesman from Mbingu wrote to his member of parliament asking that the station be reopened, "so that it can continue to provide important service for the citizens as it used to. Because the Freedom Railway 'TAZARA' was built for the benefit of Tanzanians and Zambians, not for the profit of the IMF or to bring profits to private persons." Using this language of state and citizenship, local people made powerful claims to the railway and to the services it provided them. As they did so, they reminded the railway authority and government officials alike of the obligations they were expected to fulfill as stewards of the TAZARA project and its legacy.

Once again, a struggle over the railway embodied larger meanings. In this second conflict, local communities protested against railway authority actions that threatened their livelihoods, livelihoods that they themselves had generated as they farmed and traded in the TAZARA corridor. The struggle over station closures illustrates the ways that this large-scale, state-driven project was both experienced and shaped by the communities that lived in the railway corridor. Local people were not passive recipients of transportation development in the railway corridor; they engaged directly with it through their economic activities and their political mobilization. Nor were they ignorant of the larger political and ideological context of the TAZARA project; far from it. Their protests show how they rhetorically deployed the socialist legacy of TAZARA as they negotiated for services that were vital to their current interests.

The Great Steel Arm of China

A succession of donors — including the World Bank and the United Nations — had declined to assist with the construction of a Tanzania-Zambia railway when they were first approached by presidents Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda at the time of independence. Nevertheless, when the news broke in 1967 that China had formally agreed to finance the project, some western observers reacted with alarm. The CIA had already warned of the leftward shift of Tanzanian politics in a 1965 report that devoted several pages to the friendly relationship between Julius Nyerere and China. A Wall Street Journal article on the proposed railway project stated ominously in 1967 that "the prospect of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Red Guards descending upon an already troubled Africa is a chilling one for the West."

Thousands of Chinese railway workers did make their way to Tanzania and Zambia during the years 1968–86, some 30,000–50,000 of them, depending on the source. Recruited from all over China, they arrived in Dares Salaam on ships that had sailed for twelve to twenty days from the southern seaport of Guangzhou. From the harborside at Kurasini they were ferried in large grey trucks out to the twelve base camps that had been set up along the route to Zambia. The presence of these Chinese workers and their interactions with African communities — as the Wall Street Journal had predicted — generated one of the most significant and lasting legacies of the TAZARA project.

Chinese visitors to Dares Salaam at the time of TAZARA's construction liked to remind their Tanzanian audiences of the voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He, who had visited the East African coast in the fifteenth century. When Zhou Enlai visited Dares Salaam in June 1965, he reminded the crowd that had gathered to greet him in the national stadium of these historical contacts between China and East Africa, as well as their shared histories of anti-colonial struggle, comparing the Maji Maji War with China's struggle against imperialism. Zheng He did not come to Africa with the intention of colonization, Zhou explained, but rather sought to trade and interact with the African people as equals. Building on this tradition, Chinese development assistance in the post-independence period was put forward as having no strings attached. According to China's eight principles of African development assistance (these are listed in appendix 1), the role of Chinese aid was to help African nations to build self-reliance and to avoid dependency. And unlike the expatriate development professionals from other donor countries (the U.S. and the USSR in particular), who lived in well-appointed compounds, the Chinese experts would share the same living and working conditions as their African counterparts.

During TAZARA's construction the Chinese railway technicians did indeed labor "side by side" with African workers, camping out with them in some of the most remote and rugged areas of the East African interior. They did not stand aside shouting out instructions, but taught the African recruits by example. They did not confine themselves to handling complex engineering technology, but were willing to pitch in on the most basic tasks. Chinese technicians remember assisting their young African friends with fatherly advice on matters ranging from saving their wages to repairing their shoes. One African worker recalls the encouraging words his Chinese supervisor used to lift his spirits when he was demoralized by a minor injury. "Work!" the Chinese technician exhorted him, "because people will ride on this railway. Your parents will ride on this railway!"


Excerpted from Africa's Freedom Railway by Jamie Monson. Copyright © 2009 Jamie Monson. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Introduction

Part 1. Freedom Railway
2. Railway Visions
3. Building the People's Railway
4. Living along the Railway

Part 2. Ordinary Train
5. The Ordinary Train
6. Landscape Visions
7. Conclusion

Appendix 1. Eight Principles Governing China's Economic and Technical Aid to Other Countries
Appendix 2. Parcel Shipments to and from Selected Rail Stations
Appendix 3. Land Cover Change, Kilombero Valley Study Area

What People are Saying About This

Boston University - James McCann

An extremely nuanced and textured history of negotiated interests that includes international stakeholders, local actors, and—importantly—early Chinese policies of development assistance.

University of Iowa - James Giblin

Blessedly economical and unpretentious . . . no one else is capable of writing about this region with such nuance.

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