Dances in a carriage - with Zambian smugglers

Financial Times, 21 February 1998

by Christina Lamb

When we decided to go by train from Mpika, in northern Zambia, to Dar es Salaam, I did not expect my dancing prowess to be on trial.

But I should have realised it would be no ordinary journey when I called Tazara reservations and a giggling voice answered, "Here is Beauty".

When I explained I was calling from Portugal, Beauty was very excited. "Por-too-gell," she said in wonder, "what time is it?" When we established it was the same as in Zambia, Beauty was astonished. Someone called Precious came on the line, equally excited, then the telephone went dead.

After several conversations, which never got near reserving a compartment, I gave up and decided to try my luck on arrival. The Tazara train goes from Zambia to Tanzania twice a week and, according to my guide book, is one of Africa's most reliable.

The line was built by the Chinese and the company's motto is "On Time All The Time". So the Friday morning that I arrived with my boyfriend at Mpika station - a concrete monstrosity in the African bush - to buy our tickets and catch the afternoon train, we were confident of soon departing.

Forty hours later, we were still waiting. Now 40 hours is a long time, even for those used to the vagaries of England's Connex South Central. It is a very long time in Mpika, where the concrete road from the station peters out after 50 metres into red clay dotted with shacks. Few tourists stop and we were soon the object of fascination.

People popped up from nowhere to tell us about Chinese railway workers breeding dogs to eat for dinner. The one-eyed stationmaster confided his dream of becoming a marketing executive. A group of evangelists with black briefcases tried to convert us, and a man asked Paulo how many cows he had paid for me.

We hung out in Kalolo's bakery, the only cafe, where we introduced the custom of halving scones and spreading them with butter, and bought the only painting off Kalolo's wall. News spread and we were besieged by people trying to sell us land, baskets and brown pebbles. By the time the train came, at 4am on the second day, we had many new friends.

We were, however, seriously short of sleep and dreaming of our first-class sleeper compartment, which we hoped we would have to ourselves. So when I slid open the door and nine smiling Zambians stared out, my heart sank.

"Come in!" they called, apparently well into their second case of Mosi beer. Sharing a compartment for four with nine other people who are drunk and want to party when you want to sleep, is not conducive to international relations. Grumpily clearing people off our bunks, we covered ourselves in Tazara blankets and tried to sleep.

At 6am the radio came on, blasting out music. One of our new bedfellows opened the blinds and announced it was time for breakfast. Barely conscious, we stumbled along the corridor to the dining car for rubbery omelettes, cold toast and grey tea.

Everyone else seemed to be in their best clothes - men in shiny shoes, spotted bow ties and colourful shirts, women with complicated head-dresses, putting us, the only white passengers, to shame in our dusty jeans and T-shirts.

Back in the compartment, our fellow passengers introduced themselves and apologised for the previous night. I apologised for my bad mood. They handed us beers and we were all friends. They were travelling to Dar es Salaam to buy car parts. In Zambia, they cost five times more because of high import tariffs.

"What about customs?" I asked Chola John, the leader of the group.

"We have an arrangement with the customs officer," he smiled.

The day got hotter and the music louder. More beers were drunk. We stopped at villages of beehive huts and acacia trees.

Suddenly Chola John's wife Joan, slid her ample frame off the seat. "Time to dance," she shouted.

"Yes, yes, yes!" yelped Chama, a big-bottomed schoolteacher.

Soon everyone but us was dancing.

"Cristineee, you will show us how people dance in London," commanded Moses.

Never the most elegant of people on the dance-floor, I shuffled my feet. My audience was not impressed. "Cristineee, we will teach you to dance like an African mama." Soon the whole train had heard about the white woman trying to dance the African way. People came and offered advice, but it was no good - my hips just would not sway with that graceful fluidity.

Paulo, who is dusky and Portuguese, kept getting mistaken for the Zambian Minister of Agriculture, and was thus excused from dancing. We were both relieved when lunch was announced. In the dining car, everyone we met told us they were off to buy spare car parts.

Having made up its mind to be late, the train fell further behind schedule. By the second day the water ran out, so we were not only drinking Mosi, but brushing our teeth in it. The stream of visitors to our compartment continued.

On the third and last day, as the train crossed into Tanzania, and the beer switched from Mosi to Safari, we hogged the window seats pointing at the Masai with their cattle and hoping to see wild animals.

"How is the bush in Portugal?" asked Chola John. "Do you have giraffes?" Before we could answer, the radio, which had been mercifully, silent, started blaring again.

"Time for dancing," shouted Moses.

Christina Lamb OBE

One of Britain's leading foreign correspondents, bestselling author and inspirational speaker.
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