With Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's ongoing visit in Africa, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway is brought into spotlight again as it symbolizes the lasting friendship between China and Africa.
Construction of the 1,860-kilometer-long railway took five years and seven months, and it was put into full operation in 1976. Thousands of Chinese workers were sent there, 64 never returned.
"The voyage to China was so long that we couldn't bring their bodies back, so we cremated them in Africa," recalls Jin Hui, 84, former vice director of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway construction team.
Jin spent 18 years in Tanzania successively, working on the "Railway of Friendship."
When then President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere visited China in February 1965, he asked his hosts if they could help build a railway to transport copper from neighboring Zambia, which boasted 15 percent of world's copper output at that time.
Nyerere had previously been turned down by Britain, Germany and the World Bank. Independent Tanzania and Zambia were still surrounded by colonies, and they had no other route available, Jin says.
The Chinese granted his request. "Nations that gain independence earlier are duty-bound to help those emancipated later," says Jin, quoting late Chairman Mao Zedong, who went further to say that "we will build the best railway for you."
China granted 988 million yuan (US$124 million) of interest-free loan to finance the railway. At the time, it was a huge sum as China's economy was in stagnation during the Cultural Revolution.
Professionals from all over China were summoned to "help our black brothers," Jin recalls. The railway was built so solidly that it could withstand an earthquake of eight on the Richter scale.
The construction quality is confirmed by Helen L. Brahim, counselor with the Embassy of Tanzania to China. "In 1998 a flood occurred in Tanzania and many facilities were washed out, but the railway remained intact," she says.
Hardship and danger
Construction started in October 1970, but Jin went to Tanzania in July 1968 with the first group of survey experts.
Without roads and machinery, they had to improvise in the grasslands. "We rolled on the grass to flatten it with our bodies," recalls Jin.
Water was scarce, so everyone had a bottle. Together with their equipment, each person had to carry five or six kilograms for about 20 kilometers a day.
Food was shipped from China, but the half-month voyage meant they were confined to eating dehydrated vegetables. Even soy sauce was a luxury. Sometimes, when supplies arrived, the wheat flour had gone moldy.
Living in tents in the wilderness was dangerous too. They always had to check their shoes for snakes before putting them on in the morning. At night they could hear lions roaring outside. "We used to beat the basins to scare them away."
However, the most dangerous animal was wild bull, which roamed the tall grass. To ensure their safety, the Tanzanian government provided them with 50 guns.
Jin remembers a colleague named Wang You, who had fought in the Korean War, firing into the air to scare off a bull blocking their way. But the shots alarmed the bull, which charged Wang. Luckily, Wang managed to escape with only minor injuries.
Traffic accidents were also a risk for the Chinese who were unaccustomed to driving on the left side and the rugged, narrow dirt roads.
It was a traffic accident that showed Jin how friendly the local people were. He recalls how a jeep carrying seven people overturned. A passing Tanzanian drove them to a hospital. Thanks to his assistance, five of the injured survived. They tried every means to find the samaritan to thank him, even notices in local newspapers, but they never saw him again.
Dou Jinghua, 74, went to Zambia as an expert in 1973. After hours in Mpika, the bespectacled engineer liked to grow flowers. "Many African kids came to my garden and now and then I would give them some flowers."
The kids learned some Chinese. "They shouted 'March forward,' just like the soldiers in many Chinese movies," he says, and some could even sing Chinese songs, like Dong fanghong, or the East is Red.
The kids would pick fruit, such as mangos and bananas, for Chinese workers in exchange for steamed buns.
"The railway has changed our lives," says Tanzanian counselor Brahim. "Tanzanians and Zambians trade together without the dangers of taking the bus or traffic congestion. Thanks to Chairman Mao." She says the last sentence slowly in Chinese.
To date, the railway has carried 23 million tons of cargo and 37 million passengers.
The Chinese government continues sending experts to help with the railway's operation.
Each Tuesday and Friday trains leave from both countries, reaching their destinations 37 hours later.
(Xinhua News Agency June 23, 2006)