End of Lunatic Express

Sunday September 20 2009
mago index pix

Much of the equipment is old, useless. Photo/FILE

In his book, The Lunatic Express, Charles Miller paints a picture of pre-railway Mombasa as a scene of medieval depravity, drawing a line in time when European modernity burst into East Africa by describing the day in December 1895 that one of the major personalities of the book, George Whitehouse, disembarked in the coastal town:

“The tramcar was continuously nudged by white-robed Arabs perched on bobbing Muscat donkeys that were slightly smaller than Great Danes,” he writes. “Sometimes there would be a halt of five minutes or longer, as a string of heavily laden camels, driven by a bean-pole Somali in a brilliantly-hued wraparound cloak, plodded across the tracks ahead… The smell of fresh human excrement rose from open drains to challenge Whitehouse’s breathing.”

Whitehouse, the chief engineer of the Ugandan Railway, was here to put an end to donkeys and delays.

The railway he rammed into the interior of East Africa would become the most formidable engineering feat of the region — a superlative that little prepares an East African for the dislocating emptiness that results when you retrace the route of the Uganda Railway a century later.

Half a century into independence, the railway that so traumatically transformed our lives has been shunted into the background.

Visiting the Nairobi Railway Museum, I was jarred out of this tragic amnesia by the sheer size of the 5930 Beyer-Garrat steam locomotive: Some 30 metres long and a quarter of a million kilogrammes in weight, the 5930 is a blunt, graceless dinosaur of the industrial age: Ugly yet charming, its driving wheels more than a metre in diameter, the body heavily riveted, fitted with giant water and coal tanks and an immense boiler, it is said to be one of the most powerful locomotives ever built. This was the concrete vehicle that brought the empire to us. Standing there, feeling slightly weak at the knees, I thought, “If you can build this behemoth, you can conquer the world…”


But sensational epiphanies reveal little.

Material revelation would only come reliving the century since Whitehouse stepped off the SS Ethiopia that hot December day onto the Mombasa quay.

Perhaps by travelling to Uganda by train, one might get a full sense of what went down that fateful day.

The Kisumu train leaves at 6:30 and arrives at 10:30,” the ticket lady at the Nairobi Central Station told me when I went to book a ticket.

“Why do people travel by bus when the train is faster?”

“It arrives at 10:30 the next day,” she clarified.

The night train, filthy and discouraging, drew out of the Nairobi station at 7:25.

Uneven tracks, the 20-plus cockroaches sharing my compartment and the interior design harking back to the 1970s, all smelling of mildew and dust.

Past Upper Hill, a pungent, sickeningly sweet smell wafted through the window as it entered the sprawl of Kibera slum.

“Pull up the window or they will throw faeces at you,” a fellow passenger warned me.


“Social frustration,” he said, a serious Nairobian, giving me the facts of life in the correct sociological language.

“You are riding First Class and they are living in poverty.”

Barely an hour out of Nairobi, the diesel locomotive died. It took another half hour to repair.

Later, in total darkness, hurtling through the tunnel underneath Uplands, the train rocking on the narrow-gauge track like a canoe on a rough lake, I pulled out Miller’s book to forget the cockroaches.

I learnt that the British government spent £5.5 million building this railway; 1.2 million sleepers were laid, 400,000 bolts and 4.8 million steel keys driven along the line.

In the darkness, I did not know how we descended into the Rift Valley.

Dust kept my head down. I did not know we had gone past Kedong, scene of a famous massacre in 1895 when Maasai attacked and killed some 500 men of a caravan who had raped two of their girls.

An Englishman, an Andrew Dick, retaliated with some Frenchmen. Running out of ammunition, he bluffed with an empty gun.

Unimpressed by his colour, a moran speared him to death.

If they made a running commentary of this history, more people might want to ride the train.

I fell asleep and awoke in Nakuru station. Its scale confirms what Miller’s book says of this white-settler area, built to match the dignity of the lordly Delameres, its large shunting yards reminding you of just how much milk, butter, cheese, wheat, corn and beef was freighted out of the Rift Valley over the years. The 80-pillared platform requires workers to ride bicycles to get from end to end.

But this is 2009, rather than 1939 or 1919.

Cobwebs, rust, water stains, dirt and grime mock the gaze.

In the 1900 pictures I saw of it, Nakuru, like Nairobi, was a wide-open steppe in which the railway sleepers and wagons resembled a Western film set of a frontier town.

Well, it is no longer a pretty picture, but it still tells a story.

From Mombasa to Pakwach, urbanisation in East Africa is clustered around the railway.

Northern Uganda, unlike northern Kenya, is more urbanised because the railway passed there.

Suppose the train had gone through Moyale on to Loiyangalani, would not the capital of Kenya have been farther north?

In a hundred years, we have not moved away from where Whitehouse and his engineer on the ground, Ronald Preston, intended us to be.

In some unknown year, the Nakuru station clock stopped at 3:05.

When we arrived at 11 o’clock, it read 3:05 and still 3:05 when we left at 12:05. Time stood still here for so long it expired.

Miller describes the battles, massacres and epidemics that the railway brought.

The Nandi were the least welcoming of the railway, fought against and were killed in large numbers.

But by the time we get to Nandiland, where in 1905 the notorious “nigger killer” Capt Richard Meinertzhagen tricked and assassinated Nandi leader Koitalel arap Samoei, it is deep in the night, too cold and I had fallen asleep hours ago.

Towards morning, I wake from a dream in which I am rocking in a chair in a park filled with golden light.

Rolling down towards Nyanza, the sun just rising, still drowsy, I felt a strange lifting of the spirit.

The train seems to rock in place, with a gentle soothing rhythm.

I think of its size and power and how these have carried us through a blind, dark wilderness.

This is it, I think; by sheer technical determination, to create a structure that ensures safety and certainty for civilisation.

I am suddenly caught up in the magic of the train.

Later, with a corridor to stretch my legs in, eggs done sunny side up, toast, sausage and hot coffee, I feel I have been too critical. A railway journey can inspire dreams, I think…… till, fully awake, I found out why I slept so well: Since the break-up of the East African Railways, the Ugandan, Kenyan and Tanzanian services have so deteriorated that trains travelling faster than 40 kmph risk derailment. In the dark, speed is cut to a minimum, which lulls you to sleep. But with the sun up, it “accelerated” to its full, awesome 40kmph and it was like being in a boat in a squall.

Muhoroni, Chemelil and Kibigori stations are chicken coops in a state of advanced decay.

Kenya has never been to war, so why do its stations look just as bad as Uganda’s?

We reach Kisumu past 10 o’clock — 16 hours after leaving Nairobi. Kisumu station is the cleanest station in all of Kenya and Uganda, but remains roofed in asbestos.

I walk to the end of the 1901 line by foot to the spot immortalised in that black and white photo, in which Preston’s wife Florence is hammering in the last key of the Uganda Railway, and feel stupid: How can I participate in the history when the stigma of defeat and technical incompetence is still all around us? I walk away and try to forget I came here.

“There are no more boats going to Uganda,” I am told at the piers and rather than the boat ride of a century ago to Kampala on Lake Victoria, I take a bus to Busia and thence a taxi to Tororo.

A gigantic rusted coal silo, weed-overgrown sheds and a brooding silence speak eloquently of the death of the Uganda Railway Corporation.

There is no passenger train in Uganda.

I manage to talk my way onto a freight train in Tororo, planning to arrive in Kampala the next day.

I sleep in a hotel in town because I am told the railway hotel was grabbed by a minister who turned it into a private school.

At 2pm on Sunday afternoon, two days after I left Nairobi: The train, a million kilogrammes heavy with bogeys and goods, crawls through the rock-strewn landscape of eastern Uganda.

Four decades of tyrannical, corrupt military rule that reduced Uganda to utter decay and the poverty left the permanent way in such poor condition that train drivers are in effect, navigators who must know instinctively where the track is at its worst.

Yet the power of the train, its defiance of landscapes, how everything stops to let it pass, how much it carries, impresses me continuously.

Until we learn to build on the scale the British did a century ago, I conclude, it is hypocrisy to denounce imperialism.

We reach Busembatia and I see how this entire journey has been through a corridor of skeletons.

The yard-master is a sad-eyed, shrivelled fellow. “Kaliro, Palisa, all used to depend on the railway,” he tells me. “Now there are vacant buildings here with no one to rent them.”

We talk as he walks over to switch the points for the relay locomotives coming from Jinja — the Tororo engines have gone back dragging a kilometre-long line of bogeys bound for Mombasa.

As night falls, I help him herd his turkeys into a colonial station building bearing the faded inscription, “Pop in for cold refreshments.” There, the turkeys — wattles and all — prepare to nap and I see what life has become for the railway workers.

We drive to Jinja in the darkness, a 30-minute road trip that takes us four hours.

With the Jinja lights approaching, I reflect what the train meant.

As a steel girder, it held the sense of region firm; as a steel chain, it yoked the peoples into the British domain; as a steel conveyer belt, it fed British industry with cotton, copper, soda ash, bauxite and a myriad minerals.

While it operated, a “railway culture” flourished, supported a whole sub-class that has today sunk into apathetic poverty.

In Tororo, veterans who remember the happier days, supported my trip and let me on the freight train.

In Jinja, brash new adjutants promptly threw me out of the train past midnight. I took a late matatu to Kampala, feeling defeated.

In Kampala, I found an atmosphere of fear at Uganda Railways headquarters where I overheard the a secretary tell the receptionist by phone that she was out of the office.

I was puzzled by this, wondering whether stories I had heard of train operators siphoning diesel out of locomotives could be the reason for their press-shyness or why I was thrown off the train in Jinja by armed guards. But I learnt that, the next day, court was due to pass judgment in a case brought by unpaid former workers.

I return to Kisumu by the cleaner, faster, more comfortable but infinitely less romantic bus to catch the passenger train to Nairobi.

Eager workers at the station who had learnt of my trip asked me to compare the Kenyan and Ugandan lines. It was like asking whose ruins are better.

Next Week: The railway culture