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A Very "Kichina" Journey: Experiences with China on the Africa Rail

Madison Darbyshire

“I’m going to go and try to buy tickets again,” Owen said, speaking softly so as not to disturb the family sleeping next to us but loudly enough that I could hear him over the crackling radio playing in the corner. I peered back at him through the darkness, looping my hand through the handles of his suitcase, pulling it into my body. I was attached to all the rest of our things, the only way to be assured of their locations in the pitch black of the station as we waited with the crowds of people to board the TAZARA Rail, due in at three that morning.

It was already after midnight, and we had been in the station for at least two hours. Our hosts the night before, British schoolteachers who had run a bed and breakfast in the Zambian countryside since the late ‘60s, warned us about the highly unreliable nature of the train. “Sometimes it arrives on time, sometimes it comes around lunch the next day,” they told us. We were hoping for the former. With no way to track the train’s progress, the only option was to wait.

 Even in the often erratic world of African public transportation, the TAZARA Rail, short for Tanzanian-Zambian Railway, is notoriously unpredictable. It runs 1,870 km along a major artery, connecting southern Zambia to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the region’s economic hub and the gateway to the island of Zanzibar.

 We were taken to wait in the first class lounge, despite not being ticketed for the train, an uncomfortable yet all too common experience for Western travelers in parts of the continent. Despite our insistence that we were married, we were ticketed for separate cars and classes on the train. In Tanzania, Islam is the religious majority, and unmarried men and women are unable to share rooms unless they are willing to book out entire compartments, nearly impossible given the demand and last minute nature of most ticket sales.

The crowd was jolted awake sometime after 4 am by the thunderous rumble of the train pulling into the station. Hundreds of people dragging mountains of suitcases, crying and sleeping children, and every kind of equipment crisscrossed the platform towards the slowing cars. Owen and I were separated in an instant. Struggling to decipher the myriad numbers on my ticket, I threw myself onto the train to find my separate compartment in the darkness. In the metal cabin-car, I peered into dark rooms trying to find the one with the combination on my ticket. Sleepy, curious faces looked out at me from full compartments, asking me questions in a language I couldn’t yet understand.

 To Owen, the idea of a rail journey was romantic. For a graduate student in African history, the TAZARA Rail line is a fascinating marker of Chinese investment on the continent, a legacy fraught with conflict and Western suspicion since the Cold War.

 Construction on the TAZARA Line commenced in the fall of 1970, funded by the Chinese government to connect landlocked Zambia with the trading port of Dar es Salaam. The funding was finalized following a 5-year trade agreement between China and Tanzania, guaranteeing £5 million in annual exchange from the Chinese.

The West largely considered the rail deal to be a move to curry favor with the struggling Zambian and Tanzanian governments in light of the continent’s tremendous natural resources and China’s exploding industry. This stirred Western anxiety, motivated by Cold War anti-communist sentiment and fear that the Chinese would use investment to spread political ideology in Africa.

The idea that Africans were being taken advantage of by exploitative Chinese aggressors offering short term economic benefits without regard to Africa’s long term well being was common in contemporary political discourse, and was even given its own politically charged label—“Yellow Peril.” The racial overtones of this construction are impossible to miss. Historiographer Vernon Bartlett went so far as to argue in his 1965 paper, “East Wind Over Africa,” that the Chinese, being racially non-white, were advantaged in their relationships with African leaders, and that Chinese representatives carefully exploited their own oppressive colonial history to “very effective” ends at the Bandung Conference.  

The history of China’s unique economic and social relationship with Africa paints a more complicated picture than exploiter and exploited. After the deterioration of its relationship with the Soviet Union in 1961, China had numerous strategic incentives to fund the TAZARA railway: breaking up the hegemonies of the Soviet Union and the United States in the region, increasing Chinese trade presence, and potentially utilizing Tanzania for their military facilities. Sino-African historian Martin Bailey notes that, while there was a “clear ideological motivation” behind Chinese interest in the region, it was secondary to the economic and political advantages.

While the notion of Chinese investment for ideological ends feels increasingly far-fetched in most of sub-Saharan Africa, the relationship between Chinese infrastructure investment in exchange for resources remains a tremendous, visible, and, some say, exploitative force in modern African development. This exploitative argument is not without roots in Western, anti-Chinese sentiment.

Chinese need for raw materials to feed a rapidly industrializing economy closely resembles that of late-nineteenth-century Europe. The fear is that foreign trade in Africa will once again run the route of short term benefits to African countries but leave underdevelopment in its wake, since the resources are being extracted for profit instead of being used to develop an industrial economy at home.

David Shinn, author of China and Africa: A Century of Engagement, argues that the classic colonial theory of underdevelopment can be reframed in the age of Chinese African investment, as colonial military occupation is no longer the primary force behind the exploitation of Africa’s resources. Shin writes, “[a]lthough a boon for Chinese producers and African traders and consumers, the patterns of China-Africa trade also inhibit African countries from getting a foothold in labor-intensive manufacturing, the first rung of the development ladder.” Indeed, Western commentators are much quicker to criticize Asian interests in Africa as exploitative than they were of European colonial interests.

This summer, China reported that more than half its foreign aid, over $14 billion between 2010 and 2012, went to Africa. Critics have voiced concerns over this flow of money, much of which was directed to governments with questionable human rights records. Others have criticized the use of Chinese labor and materials on African projects, accusing them of being extractive and producing little benefit to African communities. Responding to the notion of a neocolonial relationship, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Chinese Central Television while in Kenya that “we absolutely will not take the old path of Western colonists, and we absolutely will not sacrifice Africa's ecological environment and long-term interests.”

Unlike Cold-war era “ideological diplomacy,” China’s new engagement with Africa is wrapped in the banner of free trade. The OEC reports that China is the largest trading partner for a majority of African nations. Taxi drivers pointed out enormous construction sites as we travelled north from Tanzania into Kenya, identifying which ones were being funded by Chinese investors. “Big things are happening,” said our driver, Gilmore, with unease. For many, knowing where the money came from did not put to rest uncertainties about the future cost of development to Africa.

While Africans desire to show agency in their own development, the demand for manufactured goods is high, and China is an inexpensive market willing to provide them. While traveling, the influence of Chinese trade was pervasive and visible, with many everyday necessities now produced more cheaply overseas. The traditional chitenge, a boldly printed bolt of fabric that women use for everything from head wrappings to carrying children to toting kilos of maize from the market, now more often than not carries a made-in-China stamp. Similarly, telecommunications has experienced a tremendous boom in Sub-Saharan Africa, and it is not uncommon to see smart phones and iPhones, imported from Chinese manufacturers and sold with low value pay-as-you-go SIM cards.

However, there is an acute awareness of the quality difference between the inexpensive goods from China and much desired Western products. Showing us his iPhone, Gully, our Nairobian taxi driver tossed it into the back seat, saying, “It’s shit, Chinese quality. Not like American phones, but the West doesn’t want anything with Africa.”

Prophetically, earlier that day President Obama had cancelled his State visit to Kenya after the ICC indicted the sitting President, Uhuru Kenyatta, on charges of crimes against humanity. Since his election, Obama has become the namesake of countless barber shops, restaurants, and convenience stores throughout Kenya, a country immeasurably proud of their connection to the President of the United States.

Other African investors have not been as careful to toe a political line. One month later, the BBC reported that China president Xi Jinping traveled to Kenya to meet with Kenyatta.  The trip concluded with the signing of a $5 billion trade deal that included the building of an East Africa train line, infrastructure projects, and aid for environmental and wildlife preservation.

President Jinping applauded Kenyatta for the deal saying, “I believe, given your vigor and vitality, you should be able to lead the Kenyan people in registering even greater accomplishments on the road ahead toward your national development."

Kenyatta responded, calling China a “strong and true friend,” key to the future economic growth and prosperity of the country. Indeed, the volume of trade between China and Kenya alone is staggering, with the bilateral trade volume reaching $2.84 billion in 2013 alone. The United States and Kenya traded less than half the amount, $1.1 billion, for the same year. 

On the ground, there appeared to be a slightly different feeling about the value of the Chinese relationship. It was not uncommon to hear “Kichina,” Swahili for Chinese, used in the vernacular to refer to something that was malfunctioning or broken. “Everything from China [is] shit. Breaks like that. But cheap, so you buy another. Western phones, western things, too too expensive,” added our guide, Omondi. “One day I will have a real American iPhone.” 

African awareness of the lower quality goods they have access to compared to developed economies complicates the argument that China is a negative force in Africa. China in Africa author Chris Alden writes that what should be “deeply troubling for the West is that the role that China is playing is predicated on being seen as an alternative source of foreign investment and diplomatic support for African governments weary of all manner of Western interference.”

While the frustration with inexpensive products was palpable throughout our trip, this was matched by a tremendous optimism for the economic future of Africa on the global stage. Underlying this is the perception was that Chinese investment was making real, tangible differences in the daily lives of Africans in a way that the Western money was not. For modern Africans, preference seems to have significantly more to do with access.

“Kichina iPhones, yes. But, we have iPhones,” Gully said, undeniably proud.

The skeptical but grateful dependence on Chinese infrastructure is visible with the TAZARA line, dating back decades. It is widely regarded as the slowest possible way to make the journey from Kapiri Moshi, it’s origin, to Dar es Salaam.

“Except for walking,” my bunkmate was careful to add. She and her husband were enroute to Dar Es Salaam to buy a new car. “But it’s a nice trip. We can relax.” For most travelers making the multiple-day journey by train, the trip is a kind of mini vacation.

“No policemen pulling you over on the train,” chimed a Zambian reverend, entering the room to lead an afternoon prayer for the group that had gathered. 

“If you want to get somewhere, you take the bus,” a man from a neighboring compartment explained. “But the train, it’s social. You can talk. Walk around, you don’t have to worry about it.”

The allure of the train did seem to be primarily social. The train had several extended delays, including a 24-hour stop in a mountain village in Tanzania due to damage to the rail lines ahead of us.

The TAZARA, like many foreign gifts, was built with an outsider’s notion of African sustainability. Built far from highways, across a rural mountain path, it can take hours to bring in supplies, if they have them, to repair minor damages. The stations typically do not have schedules or any other way to predict when the next train will come. Passengers, as we experienced, can wait hours for the train to arrive, if it arrives at all.

Quite often, passengers waiting for night trains do so in complete darkness. The light bulbs in the grandiose main room of the station in Kasama hung towering from the rafters, but as no one in the city owned a ladder or scaffold fifty feet high, burnt out bulbs could not be replaced. The staff at the station had no memory of the lights ever working, and while none of them have been employed since the line opened, they indicated it was entirely possible that the burned out bulbs in the station were the originals from the rail’s construction.

And so, taking the train, Owen and I tried our best to emulate our new travel companions and roommates. A journey calculated as an 18 hour drive stretched over 98 hours by train. We purchased meals in the dining car and sodas from the bar. Between meals there was a plentiful supply of snacks on offer through the windows of the train cars from women and children who ran from their homes to the tracks when they heard the train pulling into their village. We tasted hot fried mandas covered in sugar and wrapped in newspaper, bananas from the mountains, fresh grapes, and grilled corn. We read every book we brought with us and got to know our fellow passengers, enjoying the passivity of the train, whose tracks and metal parts were printed with Chinese characters.

Despite the historical significance, the rail line is more than a gift of the past. It is a window to future interaction and cooperation. In an article from the TAZARA Rail’s official site, General Zhao, the commander of the Jinan Military region in China, commends TAZARA for its role in strengthening cooperation between China, Tanzania and Zambia: “We believe the friendship between the people of Tanzania and China is very much alive through TAZARA and has a long way to go in the future.”

The Chinese Embassy writes of the TAZARA Line that there has been tremendous industrial development along the train route, including several manufacturing plants and factories. Indeed, looking out the window at the dramatic landscapes whirring past, you get the sense that this could be one of the last times the view from the train is this undeveloped and rugged. The energy and optimism for the economic future of Africa is so palpable it is like a pulse you can feel underneath your feet—seeds about to explode from the earth, filled with potential and enthusiasm.

After disembarking from the train and agreeing that we would burn our clothing and spend a few days by the beach, we looked back on it with fondness. Despite its flaws, the TAZARA Line was earnest and eager to offer the service it was built to provide.

The new East African train line under construction in Kenya, which stretches 380 miles from the coast to Nairobi, broke ground in 2014. It is expected to be completed in early 2018. Fittingly, it is replacing the existing rail line built under British Colonial rule. Train lines, it seems, are no longer relics of a Cold War past as China continues to nurture investment in Africa.  What that means for Africa in the long term remains to be seen.

Our final destination: Zanzibar, TZ.

Our final destination: Zanzibar, TZ.