In a rare success story, Zimbabwe’s only commuter train is packed

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Commuters are seen in a filled commuter train heading for the city on January 29, 2019, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (AFP)
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A passenger's hand grips onto the doorway rails of a commuter train on January 29, 2019, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (AFP)
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Commuters purchase tickets on January 29, 2019 in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe's only commuter train is cheap and reliable -- two qualities that its passengers cherish in a downwards-spiralling economy. (AFP)
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People wait on railway tracks to board a commuter train on January 29, 2019 in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (AFP)
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Schoolgirls plait their hair next to a railway line as they wait to board a train on January 29, 2019 in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (AFP)
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Commuters queue to purchase train tickets on January 29, 2019 in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo Zimbabwe. (AFP)
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A man crosses the railway line and wait for a commuter train in the morning on January 29, 2019 in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (AFP)
Updated 10 February 2019
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In a rare success story, Zimbabwe’s only commuter train is packed

  • Mugabe’s successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa has backed railway investment as part of his plans to turn around the economy
  • Zimbabwe’s rail network — which includes the dramatic line across the Victoria Falls into Zambia — was built under British colonial rule

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe: Chugging through townships, maize fields and scrubland as the sun rises, Zimbabwe’s only commuter train is cheap and reliable — two qualities that its passengers cherish in a downwards-spiralling economy.
Each morning sleepy travelers walk to the tracks and clamber aboard before the train leaves the Cowdray Park settlement at 6:00 am on its 20-kilometer (12-mile) journey into Bulawayo, the country’s second city.
The hugely popular service was only revived in November after being suspended for 13 years as the rail network collapsed under President Robert Mugabe, who ruled for nearly four decades until ousted in 2017.
At Cowdray Park, there is no platform, and no station except for a makeshift ticket office made out of an old carriage sitting in a field.
En route, the train stops several times in the open to pick up more passengers who stream in from surrounding homes, climbing up the steps and squeezing into 14 packed carriages.
Soon after 7:00 am, it pulls into Bulawayo’s grand but dilapidated station and disgorges about 2,000 workers, uniformed school children and other travelers into the city center, ready for the day ahead.

“The prices for kombis (minibuses) went up to two dollars, and that’s just too expensive,” said Sipeka Mushoma, 61, a heavy vehicle driver at a Bulawayo steel manufacturer, who managed to grab a precious early seat.
“The train is 50 cents. My children have to get the kombi to go to school, but this saves me a lot of money to buy vegetables and bread. Zimbabweans are hurting badly, some of us are really starving now.”
The government last month announced that fuel prices would more than double — triggering violent protests, a security crackdown and further pressure on minibuses to hike prices.
Bulawayo once had two commuter train lines carrying workers in from either side of the city, while the capital Harare had three lines — all of them dubbed “Freedom Trains” as they allowed passengers to avoid higher road costs.
The services were scrapped around 2006, and the Cowdray Park line is the only one to be re-launched in a $2.5-million project funded by the state-owned National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ).
Mugabe’s successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa has backed railway investment as part of his plans to turn around the economy.
But the outcome of the commuter train is a rare success in his efforts, which have struggled to produce concrete results.
“The president and new government are very supportive of the railways,” said Nyasha Maravanyika, the railways’ press relations chief, adding that talks were under way for an international consortium to fund a full-scale re-launch of the whole rail network.
“We had to re-furbish old carriages to get this service going, and it has been a huge success,” Maravanyika told AFP.
“The old commuter trains were suspended as the coaches and the signalling became more and more run-down.”
“People know that when they are on the train, they are on their way to work,” he added.
“It is an answer to their transport blues. We are here to attract commuters as kombi fares rise — that’s our job.”

Maravanyika says just $10 million would put the other four commuter lines back in operation.
“We hope to re-open the other Bulawayo line next and, despite all the challenges, revive Zimbabwe’s railways,” he said. “They were the heartbeat of the southern African rail network.”
Zimbabwe’s rail network — which includes the dramatic line across the Victoria Falls into Zambia — was built under British colonial rule, and at its peak in the 1990s had 600 locomotives and 3,000 passenger carriages.
Today it has less than 100 locomotives and a few hundred carriages, running a threadbare schedule between major cities, and a much-reduced freight service carrying sugar, chrome and quarried stone.
The main line between Harare and Bulawayo — opened in 1907 — was once electrified, but vandalism stripped it of its copper cables, signalling system and track motors.
Today diesel-powered trains on the line are often hugely delayed and drivers are often forced to communicate using text and WhatsApp messages, Maravanyika said.
On the Bulawayo commuter train, some windows on older carriages are even still marked “RR” for “Rhodesian Railways” — Zimbabwe’s name before independence in 1980.
Rattling along on her return journey home, Ashley Sinda, 40, was weary after a long day working as a cleaner at a pharmaceutical company.
“I live 300 meters (990 feet) from the last stop, so it is easy for me,” said the single mother of two, sitting among nurses, teachers, office workers staring at mobile phones and laborers who swilled cheap local beer.
“It is impossible to afford the kombis, even if they are faster,” she said. “I am glad of this train, it is a good thing for us.”


College golfer in hijab out to blaze trail for Muslim girls

Updated 19 April 2019
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College golfer in hijab out to blaze trail for Muslim girls

  • One of the top junior golfers in Northern California coming out of high school, Ahmed was a starter in her first year at Nebraska and the No. 2 player most of this spring
  • She is believed to be the only golfer at the college level or higher who competes in a hijab

LINCOLN: Noor Ahmed outwardly lives her Muslim faith, and even growing up in a state as diverse as California she says she encountered hostility on the street, in school and on the golf course.
One of the top junior golfers in Northern California coming out of high school, Ahmed was a starter in her first year at Nebraska and the No. 2 player most of this spring. She is believed to be the only golfer at the college level or higher who competes in a hijab, the headscarf worn in adherence to the Muslim faith.
Arriving in Lincoln two years ago, Ahmed sensed hesitancy from teammates mostly from small Midwestern towns and unaccustomed to seeing a woman in a hijab. She didn’t feel embraced until an unfortunate yet unifying event roiled the campus midway through her freshman year.
A video surfaced of a student claiming to be the “most active white nationalist in the Nebraska area,” disparaging minorities and advocating violence. The student, it turned out, was in the same biology lecture class as Ahmed.
Teammates offered to walk with her across campus, and one who would become her best friend, Kate Smith, invited Ahmed to stay with her. She didn’t accept but was heartened by the gesture.
“That,” Smith said, “was when she realized how much each and every one of us care for her on the team, that it wasn’t just like, ‘Hey you’re our teammate.’ No, it’s ‘We want you to be safe, we want you to feel at home here.’“
Having grown up in the post-9/11 era, Ahmed, like many Muslims in the United States, has been a target for bullying and verbal abuse. She began wearing the hijab in middle school.
On the course, in an airport or even walking across campus she can feel the long stares and notices the glances. She said she has never been physically threatened — “that I know of” — and that most of the face-to-face insults came before she arrived at Nebraska.
Much of the venom spewed at her now comes on social media. She has been the subject of several media profiles, and each sparks another round of hateful messages. She acknowledges she reads but doesn’t respond to messages and that an athletic department sports psychologist has helped her learn how to deal with them.

Hijabi golfer Noor Ahmed. (AP)


“I’ve been called every racial slur in the book,” she said. “I’ve been told explicitly that people who look like me don’t play golf, we don’t have a right to exist in America, you should go home. It would definitely faze me a little bit, but it never deterred me. I’m really stubborn, so I’m going to prove you wrong, just wait. When people think they’re dragging me down, it kind of fuels the fire in me that I’m going to be a better golfer, I’m going to be a better student, I’m going to keep climbing up the ladder.”
The daughter of Egyptian immigrants is from a close-knit family in Folsom, California, and she steeled herself for the cultural adjustment she would have to make at Nebraska.
She dealt with loneliness and anxiety, especially her freshman year. She had difficulty finding a support network. There is a small Muslim community on campus, but she didn’t immerse herself in it. The demands on athletes are great, and they are largely segregated, eating and studying in facilities separate from those used by regular students.
Nebraska coach Robin Krapfl said she was initially concerned about how teammates would react to Ahmed. Krapfl remembered meeting with her golfers and telling them about her.
“I could tell by a couple of the looks and maybe even a comment or two that they weren’t 100 percent comfortable with that,” Krapfl said. “A lot of our girls come from small-town communities that are very limited in their ethnicity. It’s just the fear of the unknown. They had just never been exposed to being around someone from the Muslim faith.”
Krapfl said she saw a golfer or two roll their eyes, another shook her head. “I overheard, ‘Why would Coach bring someone like that on the team?’ “
“Luckily when she got here people could see her for who she was and the quality of person she was,” Krapfl said. “It took a while. It really did. You’ve got to get to know somebody, who they really are and not just what they look like.”
Smith said she sometimes cringes when she and Ahmed are in a group and the conversation turns to politics, immigration or even fashion, like when someone innocently or ignorantly tells Ahmed that she would look good in a short dress or a certain hairstyle.
“She can never wear a short dress, so why would you want to depict her as that?” Smith said. “You have to respect her beliefs and why she’s doing it. Also, I think a lot of things are connected to women’s beauty standards and how people don’t think she can look beautiful when she’s covered. I think she’s a really beautiful girl no matter how much skin she’s showing.”
For all the challenges Ahmed faced, there have been positives. Some people have complimented her for living her faith as she sees fit, a Muslim teen who golfs in a hijab and lives in the United Kingdom wrote to says she draws inspiration from her, and a player for another college team approached her at an event to tell her she recently converted to Islam and just wanted to say hi.

She started playing golf at 8. (AP)


“I remember going and crying and, wow, I’m not alone out here,” she said.
Ahmed said she’s naturally shy and a bit uncomfortable with the attention, but she hopes Muslim girls coming up behind her are watching.
“I grew up never seeing anyone like me,” she said. “Honestly, I didn’t realize how much grief I was carrying, having never seen an image of myself or someone who looked like me in popular American culture. It’s a big deal.
“Why are basketball and football so heavily African American? If I were black and I saw people who looked like me competing in that sport, that’s probably the sport I would choose. I think it’s really important when we’re talking about trying to make golf and other sports and other areas in American culture diverse, how important it is to see someone who looks like you and how it will fuel other people’s interest.”
Ahmed started playing golf at 8, and her parents encouraged her to take the sport to the highest level possible. Wearing the hijab has never interfered with her game and she has never considered not wearing it on the course.
“I think Muslim women who choose to observe it or choose not to observe it have the right to exist in any space they want to be in,” she said, “and I would feel like I would be sending a message that the hijab doesn’t exist in this place or it shouldn’t, and I don’t feel comfortable with that.”