I enjoyed ‘African Railway Journey’ on BBC4 last night. A documentary about the Tazara railroad, whose passenger and goods trains travel between Zambia and Tanzania through amazing scenery, including a game park. It is a journey that Polly and I made when returning from Zambia back in 2007. Unlike the journeys in this film though, ours both departed and arrived bang on time (and it was the easiest and most pleasant border crossing I have ever experienced – man comes and collects passport from your cabin, dissappears for half an hour, and then returns with you passport complete with visa stamps etc).
Tazara was built by the Chinese just after independence in the 70′s, with the aim of linking Zambia’s copper belt to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. The film says that the train service is now in crisis, with every day derailments, lack of fuel and mechanical breakdowns. Filmmaker Sean Langan meets the train crews, controllers and maintenance guys battling to keep it going – and he visits Tazara HQ to track down the Chinese railway advisors and bosses to find out why it is in such a parlous state.
It is an enjoyable documentary because it shows ‘it’ how it is, and not just from what you see. The way the film is made, with the assumptions of ‘inefficient Africa’ behind it, portray the outsider’s prejudice as well. All the characters are there. The extremely accommodating and trusting people up and down the line; the proud business women from Zambia harking back to the good old days of Kaunda; the elusive Chinese ‘experts’ sent to do a job, without seeming to know what the job is or how the culture works; the large number of Tazara offices, which often seem to be empty; the fear felt by staff speaking above their station and offending the ‘big man’, yet also wanting to please the white man by answering his questions; the friendly and creative people on the ground working day-in and day-out to keep the trains moving on a shoestring; and of course the endearing, and slightly frustrated, Brit (and viewer?) who wonders why it doesn’t work better and finds the slow progress ‘amusing’. All the plot is there as well. The great idea of a huge railway service to ‘free’ Africa and transport copper to China, along with the millions of pounds of foreign aid and loans.
The plot and all the characters are there to make a revealing documentary of life in the region, going beyond just the topic. Like the trains, the film is slow moving, but the journey is all the fuller and revealing because of it, with the final destination being slightly different from what you at first think.
‘African Railway Journey’ was on BBC4 – catch it now on the BBC iPlayer.