In Africa, railroads are the vital ties that bind the continent

Dust and debris surround two lines of ancient boxcars and tank cars standing at the central railroad station of this drought-stricken West African country. The cars are not exactly green, or brown, or gray, but in between. Paint peels by the yard in the hot Sahelian sun. Diesel locomotives are so old and boxcars so scarce that only 15 cars at a time make the single-track, 48-hour trip from the Atlantic Ocean at Abidjan.

As one stands here on a grimy platform where dozens of families camp in wait for the next passenger train, it is hard to believe that the lackluster freight cars are a lifeline -- and a symbol.

But they are both.

These ordinary tracks are a part of one of the crucial railroads on the African continent that link the 14 landlocked nations with distant ports in other countries.

These tracks link Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) with the ocean at Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. They are vital for the 7 million or so people here in Burkina Faso, about one-third of whom now depend on imported famine relief.

The tracks symbolize, too, the dependent nature of all the states created landlocked by arbitrary colonial borders.

Zimbabwe relies on railroads to Beira and Maputo in Mozambique. Zambia relies on rail to Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, to Lobito in Angola, or to Beira in Mozambique. Uganda and Rwanda depend on rail links to Mombasa, Kenya.

Botswana's links to Cape Town and Port Elizabeth in South Africa as well as to Beira are vital. Chad, yet another landlocked nation, needs its links with Pointe Noire, Congo; Douala, Cameroon; and Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

The railroads (and roads) carry out raw materials for export and bring in consumer goods, spare parts, and increasingly, emergency famine relief.

The Ivory Coast-Burkina Faso railroad has escaped the fate of others in Africa: It has not been cut by war as are the lines to Lobito in Angola and Beira.

Nonetheless, linking as it does the big, thriving, tall-building port of Abidjan with the small, dependent, one-story city of Ouagadougou, it requires constant, careful management. It has not always had it.

The line also illustrates that, at this time of famine with donated grain pouring into a number of ports, one of Africa's most urgent priorities is to repair equipment, make single tracks double, upgrade management, and try for more political harmony between the countries at each end.

Work has begun both here and in Ivory Coast to improve this railroad as relief from the United States and other countries floods into Abidjan at twice the rate and twice the quantity of last year.

Yet much more remains to be done.

In pre-independence days the French intended this line to reach Niger's capital, Niamey, to the north of here. But two decades later the tracks still stop at Ouagadougou. So the military government of Burkina Faso's Capt. Thomas Sankara has launched a public ``battle of the railways'' in which squads of citizen-workers have built a road-bed as far north as Kaya.

This rail line is not the only way food, motor scooters, furniture, and so on reach Burkina Faso from the coast.

Trucks negotiate the mostly-paved road from Abidjan in about two days. Other trucks operate from the port of Lom'e in Togo.

President Sankara has just ordered freight rates increased to keep the Lom'e trucks coming here as well as serving big famine needs in Niger and Mali.

Yet rail is the vital link. It has been carrying up to 4,000 tons of emergency food grain per month, according to Taara Talbert of the coordinating office of the United Nations World Food Program here, but could carry more.

``We need more locomotives and boxcars,'' Mr. Talbert said in an office only a stone's throw from the central station itself.

``Canada is flying in spare parts which we hope will get six locos moving again soon. The WFP is trying to arrange repairs for 16 boxcars.''

Total freight capacity of the railroad is some 25,000 tons a month for freight of all kinds. Burkina Faso must import almost everything.

The backlog of emergency aid in Abidjan port is now said to be about 50,000 tons.

The urgency of the famine has prompted the World Food Program to talk to the Sankara government about needed repairs. And the US expects to provide $150,000 to repair boxcars.

Relations between Ouagadougou and Abidjan are emotionally difficult.

Ivory Coast is the Kenya of the African west: big, Western, attracting millions of migrant workers from its neighbors.

Burkina Faso is poorer, more vulnerable, and just a bit resentful of its dependence on Abidjan.

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