History | The Construction Of The Turn-key Development Project, The TAZARA Railway.

…did you know that it was financed and executed by China at a cost of about US $3bn today’s value?

Lusaka – 16th April, 2022.


This compilation has been done to offer a brief description of the construction of the TAZARA railway line and to offer insight into how the Pan African leadership prioritized our interests. It’s shocking to see the current crop of leaders speaking against the Chinese based on Western propaganda.

President Nyerere at some point echoed a sense of frustration, that many leaders of today won’t feel because of misplaced priorities, after Western nations opposed the Chinese plans for the railway line, but did not offer any alternative, a case that has not changed today.

“… all the money in this world is either Red or Blue. I do not have my own Green money, so where can I get some from? I am not taking a cold war position. All I want is money to build it.”


The TAZARA railway, also called the Uhuru railway (Freedom railway) was built between 1970 and 1975 by the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA) to give a landlocked Zambia the much needed link to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam, as an alternative export route to those via rail lines to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, and Mozambique.

The railway line was a turnkey project financed and executed by the People’s Republic of China at a total cost of about US$500m (the equivalent of US $2.71bn today).

▪️Brief History.

After World War I, Tanganyika (then German East Africa) was handed over to the United Kingdom for administration as a League of Nations Mandate. A railway was envisioned from Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia) to Tanganyika. However, the plans lay dormant in the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s.

Following World War II, interest in railway construction revived. A map from April 1949 in the Railway Gazette showed a line from Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi, not far from the route that would eventually be taken by the Chinese railroad.

A report in 1952 by Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners concluded that the Northern Rhodesia-Tanganyika railway would not be economically justified, due to the low level of agricultural development and the fact that existing railways through Mozambique and Angola were adequate for carrying copper exports. A World Bank report in 1964 also concluded that the line was uneconomical, suggesting that a road be built instead.

▪️Need Made Necessary.

Only a year after Zambia’s independence, Rhodesia’s white-supremacist government issued its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain, threatening Zambia’s trade routes. In the first months after UDI, supplies had to be airlifted to Zambia or transported 1,600 km by road.

The railway line was the most economical means to serve as a trade route for that would not pass through apartheid South Africa, or Angola and Mozambique, which were embroiled in civil wars with South African-backed proxies.

▪️Negotiations For Funding.

President Nyerere of Tanzania and President Kaunda of Zambia pursued different avenues for the construction of an alternative rail route. Nyerere, after a visit to Beijing, accepted a team of Chinese surveyors, who produced a short report in October 1966.

Kaunda was more skeptical of Communist involvement and pursued Western backing, not wanting to disappoint Britain. The resulting Canadian-British aerial survey produced a favorable report in July 1966, but Western funding was not forthcoming, as Britain, Japan, West Germany, World Bank, the United States and United Nations all declined to fund the project. The Soviet Union was also not interested.

Chairman Mao originally promoted funding the railway, then estimated at US$1 billion, in order to secure votes against the Soviet Union attending the Asia-Africa summit in Algiers in 1965. After a visit to China in January 1967, Kaunda dropped his objections to Chinese involvement.

Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu had a key role to play in obtaining Chinese aid for the project. According to his memoirs, Julius Nyerere wanted to build on Zanzibar’s close ties with China and create benefits for the whole country. Babu was named head of the trade delegation that preceded Nyerere’s presidential delegation to China in 1964.

Due to his personal experience with the Chinese and his ideological affinity for their progressive model of development, Babu seized the initiative and mentioned the difficulties his government faced in trying to secure financing for the TAZARA Railway proposal.

▪️Decision Is Made.

On 1 July 1965, the Chinese Government made a firm offer of tied aid to the Governments of Tanzania and Zambia to enable them build the railway line.

This decision did not sit well with the West with the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, claiming that many of Nyerere’s Ministers were “directly on the Chinese pay, while Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, questioned why Nyerere was so close to the Chinese.

Nyerere later complained that Western nations opposed the Chinese plans for the railway, but did not offer him any alternative.

“… all the money in this world is either Red or Blue. I do not have my own Green money, so where can I get some from? I am not taking a cold war position. All I want is money to build it.” Julius Nyerere is quoted.

On September 6, 1967, an agreement was signed in Beijing by the three nations. China committed itself to building a railway line between Tanzania and Zambia, supplying an interest-free loan to be repaid over 30 years.

Once again, the West reacted with both derision and alarm. Critics questioned the construction quality and competence of the Chinese, calling the TAZARA the “bamboo railway”. The Wall Street Journal stated, “the prospects of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Red Guards descending upon an already troubled Africa is a chilling one for the West.” The United States reacted by funding the TanZam Highway, which was built from 1968 to 1973, to compete with the railway.

▪️Construction Begins.

The actual construction of the railway line began in 1970 and was completed ahead of schedule in 1975.The line starts at the port of Dar-es-Salaam and crosses Tanzania in a south-west direction. The line crosses the TanZam highway at Makambako and runs parallel towards Mbeya and the Zambian border, enters Zambia, and links to Zambia Railways at Kapiri Mposhi. The total length is 1,860 kilometers and the final altitude is 1,400m.

Running some 1,870 km from Dar es Salaam to Zambia’s Kapiri Mposhi the railway is sometimes regarded as the greatest engineering effort of its kind since the Second World War.

Before the railway construction began, 12 Chinese surveyors travelled for nine months on foot from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya to choose and align the railway’s path. In total, China sent about 50,000 personnel to work on the railway from 1965 to 1976, including 30,000 to 40,000 workers. An estimated 60,000 Africans participated in the railway’s construction.

Braving rain, sun and wind, Chinese and African workers successfully laid the track through some of Africa’s most rugged landscapes. One Chinese worker recalled that his team was trapped in the wilderness for a week after floods and landslides washed away the only connecting road. “We lived in fear of lions and hyenas,” read his statement. Over 160 workers, including 64 Chinese nationals, died in construction accidents.

It should also be noted that the Chinese engineers lived and worked according to the same standards as their African counterparts. Construction camps were set up for each 64-kilometre section of track, being relocated as the work progressed. Pawpaw and banana trees were grown to provide shade and food, and workers tended vegetable gardens in the camps in off-hours.

The work involved moving 330,000 tonnes of steel rail and the construction of 300 bridges, 23 tunnels and 147 stations.


There are several lessons to depict from this simple compilation.

China’s dedication to performing manual labour during the railway construction speaks volumes about the difference in the relationships between how the West relates with Africa and how China relates with Africa. China transferred to its African “friends” not only technical know-how but also the “all around skills” of work discipline and character building.

Working hard under “bitter conditions” remains to be the best form of education for the African youth. This is the form of education that should not have been abandoned because it resonates with our culture. It’s at the centre of China’s economic development: discipline and hard work, having taken hold in China during the years of the Cultural Revolution.

Zambian workers who participated in the TAZARA project had strong memories of their work experience. They recalled specific details of their work practice that highlighted the challenging parts of railway work. This relationship, or should I call it friendship, is what our leaders ought to espouse for. We gain nothing from being modern slaves.

It may be too late for the current crop of leaders who are clearly showing puppet traits but the upcoming leaders must use this simple write up to reflect on what patriotism entails and whether the West means well to be selling us foreign ideologies instead of practical solutions to our needs.

Why would Zambia close Indeni Refinery when Kenya is deporting foreigners over economic sabotage in the energy sector?


1) Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, China.
2) Monson, Jamie. 2010. Working Ahead of Time: Labour and Modernization during the Construction of the TAZARA Railway, 1968-1986.
3) Strauss, Julia. 2009. The Past in the Present: historical and rhetorical lineages in China’s relations with Africa.

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