Here Is How China Helped To Build One Of Africa’s Most Iconic Railways

Ceremony celebrating 40 years of TAZARA railway
Credit: Xinhau Net

An account of China-Africa contemporary relations is woefully incomplete without the mention of the TAZARA Railway in Tanzania. In a book entitled A Monument to China-Africa Friendship: Firsthand Account of the Building of the TAZARA,  Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim, a former Prime Minister of Tanzania, delves into the archives of history to recollect developments that led to the construction of Beijing’s first major infrastructure project in Africa. 

The TAZARA railway, which has become a “customary gesture in China-Africa diplomatic relations,” was built between 1970 and 1975 and was officially opened and handed over by China to Tanzania and Zambia in July 1976, in a formal ceremony at New Kapiri Mposhi. Tazara. It cost half-a-billion dollars and it is the largest foreign aid endeavor in Chinese history. 

In an excerpt from the book published by The Citizen, the Prime Minister recalled that “when President Nyerere paid a state visit to China, he was received very warmly and met all the top leaders of China. President Nyerere made the request for the TAZARA first and foremost out of consideration of the economic and social development of Tanzania. But more fundamentally, this request was made in the context of the evolving situation in Southern Africa.”

During his stay in China, Prime Minister Salim frequently met with the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and, whenever they met, they would discuss the TAZARA and how things were moving. “Many people believed this thing couldn’t have been done. But through thick and thin it was done. And that is something we all should be proud of. And we shall let the younger generation know the history of the TAZARA and China-Africa friendship,” the Former Minister said. 

TAZARA, or the Freedom Railway, has become a sacred and important image of Sino-Africa friendship. Another book entitled Making Men, Making History: remembering railway work in Cold War Afro-Asian solidarity reported that “the Chinese Vice Minister of Commerce, Fu Ziying, told a press conference on Chinese foreign aid to Africa that he shed tears during his visit to TAZARA.” “A few days ago,” he told the audience, “when I was paying respect to the Chinese workers who sacrificed their lives for the construction of Tanzania-Zambia Railway at a public cemetery in Tanzania, I could not help bursting into tears.” He went on to acclaim the “tens of thousands of Chinese workers” who “labored side by side with the Tanzanian and Zambian people to build the railway successfully,” purely out of friendship. 

TAZARA is an 1865-kilometer rail line, and “ it is estimated that some 30-40,000 Chinese railway workers were joined by about twice that number of African workers during construction. At the height of the project in 1972, there were 38,000 African workers and 13,500 Chinese at work.” 

The Minister also mentioned how he played a significant role at the United Nations to “restore the lawful rights of the PRC and to expel forthwith the Chiang Kai-shek gang”

The Current State Of TAZARA

In recent years, the condition of the historic Tazara railway is summarised in the observation of Howard W. Frenchin that “today the Tazara is a talisman of faded hopes and failed economic schemes, an old and unreliable railway with too few working locomotives. Only briefly a thriving commercial artery, it has been diminished by its own decay and by the roads and air routes that have sprung up around it. Maintenance costs have saddled Tanzania and Zambia with debts reportedly as high as $700 million in total, and the line now has only about 300 of the 2,000 wagons it needs to function normally”

What practical lessons are there to be learned from the TAZARA railway and how can those lessons shape the current and future Sino-Africa infrastructure and economic cooperation?

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