Posted by: sean | July 24, 2008

On crowds and Tanzanian trains

I was expecting a leisurely train ride through the inland to Lake Victoria from Dar-es-Salaam. That’s not at all what I got. The train was scheduled to leave Dar-es-Salaam at 5 on Tuesday evening, and I was pleasantly surprised when we left on time. The Tanzanian scenery was beautiful and the couchette not that uncomfortable.

I awoke to a couple of sudden jolts, and then we stopped for a while. Finally, we started back up again and I fell asleep. The only thing that woke me up was a Tanzanian cabin mate who decided that 1 am would be the perfect time to listen to his telephone’s radio at full blast, despite the fact that there were five people trying to sleep in the same tiny cabin.

I finally fell back asleep and then woke up in the early light of the morning to see a train platform. We must be in Dodoma, I thought, and then went back to sleep. I woke up a couple of hours later to see that we hadn’t moved, so I decided to get out and see what the problem was. I asked where we were, to which someone responded: Dar-es-Salaam. Thinking that he’d misunderstood my question, I mimed that yes, of course, we’d left Dar-es-Salaam, but where were we now? He shrugged and repeated: Dar-es-Salaam.

It was only then that I recognized the buildings around us. I’d just spent 14 hours to end up in the exact same place I’d left. After some investigation, it seems that the jolts had been two of the train cars being derailed, but fortunately no one was hurt. We were told that the tracks would be repaired and that we were expected to leave again at 5 in the evening, but that we should stay close to the train anyway, just in case. So I spent the day lounging in the sun watching as an African village sprung up on the train platform.

Men lounged and ate oranges, while women washed clothes and children. Wet laundry soon adorned the rusty tracks and open train windows. This, I assume, is how shantytowns are born. To my surprise, mothers led their children to defecate mere feet away from the water spigots, which left human shit in disconcerting proximity to drying laundry and dishes. It also made the whole place smell like a public toilet. All in all, I was surprised by the fact that no one seemed particularly upset about the inconvenience of the situation. Everyone was taking it in stride.

After being told that I couldn’t get my money back for the train ticket, I left our new village for some fresh air and Indian food, passing an enormous line of people waiting to get a two-dollar food allowance from the rail company. By the time I got back, it was nearly time to leave. Or so I thought. The departure time of 5 pm came and went without so much as a train whistle. We were then told that we’d be leaving at 9, so I settled in to read with the last of the sunlight. I fell asleep in my couchette and only woke up at around 9:30 to loud music and a crowd of people obviously upset about something.

It seems that they were mad, and understandably so, about not getting a refund for their ticket. Every once in a while, the crowd’s singing and chanting would take on a nasty edge, and rocks and Swahili curses would be hurled. After a bit of this and three pops that sounded like firecrackers and which were explained to me to be local bombs (made by the police or the crowd, I couldn’t tell), I decided that it is decidedly unwise to be different in a crowd of angry people who want their money back. And especially unwise when that difference, in my case that of skin color, is seen mainly as a financial difference. I was worried that the leap from “give us our money back” to let’s take the mzungu‘s money” could be quick and unforgiving. So I left. And now I’m stuck trying to figure out how the hell I’m going to make it to Kigali by tomorrow.

Apparently the local press has written up the story, but with no mention of the rioting.



  1. […] I felt unsafe. The first time was when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a riot after my train had derailed between Dar-es-Salaam and Mwanza. The other time was in […]

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