The Iron Snake: History of the Kenyan Railway
The Nairobi Railways Museum, opened in 1971 and the only railway museum in East and Central Africa, is tucked behind tall Jacaranda trees in full bloom this time of year, guiding visitors to a different era.
That’s a human bone, see right there,” a 6-year-old boy points into a pile of gravel with the tip of his shoe at the Nairobi Railway Museum. I’m not too far behind a class of 25 or so students who have just learnt about the infamous coach number 12.
“That’s not a bone,” his teacher says with a bit of amusement in her voice. She’s right, it’s just a plastic replica but I’m impressed by the boy’s insight, having just been told about Charles Ryall, the popular railway police superintendent who suffered his death in coach number 12 in 1900.
Attacked and killed by one of the notorious man-eaters of Tsavo at Kima Station, Ryall’s story is one of the more popular anecdotes the museum has to offer. But, I’m getting way ahead of myself.
The Nairobi Railways Museum, opened in 1971 and the only railway museum in East and Central Africa, is tucked behind tall Jacaranda trees in full bloom this time of year, guiding visitors to a different era. As I drive closer to the museum, I notice old trains sitting still on tracks, surrounded by a deep green grass that shimmers in the sunlight. I imagine the journeys taken on those trains and the people who rode them and it’s enough to make anyone feel their place in history. It’s impossible to picture the neighbourhood surrounding the museum in 1900 Nairobi, without the buildings – City Square Post Office, Kenya Polytechnic, Kenya Investment Authority – that make it the packed metropolis it is today.
The trains in the museum yard have been well preserved, their initials still clearly visible. Tanganyika Railways – T. R. 301 – was used to shoot the movie Out of Africa and sits amongst them. I walk towards coach number 12 where the 6-year-old is pointing out his find. “Ryall was sleeping right here when the lion grabbed him by the throat using its teeth,” says a museum intern as we stand inside the coach.
There are two narrow bunk beds, and another by the window in the small musty coach room. There were two other men in the coach, Huebner and Parenti, when Ryall was attacked and killed. “The lion’s tail got caught in the door handle, locking itself and the gentlemen in the coach,” the intern continues with her fingers through the door handle elaborating. Her depiction of the event that took place that June is vivid and fascinating. From what she tells me, the lion climbed over one of the men sleeping by the window, with Ryall still clutched in its teeth. The fellow woke up and when he saw the lion standing over him, his compatriot held in its mouth, he passed out. The third man heard the commotion, witnessed the bizarre scene and swiftly locked himself in the car’s small bathroom. I head back into the museum to learn more about the history of the Kenya-Uganda railway line, which in essence shaped what is present day Kenya. It is one filled with much fascination, romance, feat and more than its share of tragedy.
The Historic Journey
“At first, the British never had interest in Kenya. Their aim was just to pass through Kenya and go to Uganda, but what later attracted them was rich minerals and agricultural land,” explains Elias Randiga, the museum’s assistant curator. With two valuable conquests already, India and Egypt, an adventurous spirit was rife in the British Empire and they were eager to colonize East Africa and dominate not only the trade routes but also the important resources available in these countries and in demand in Europe. The largest obstacle in their path was that Lake Victoria was, in fact, a lake. While they could easily transport across its waters there was no way to get the resources to the ocean and England. Realizing the quandary, Britain determined the best solution was to construct a railway line, labelled Uganda Railways, through British East Africa Protectorate (present day Kenya) to gain access to Lake Victoria. This simple, logical solution to the problem would prove to be one of the most influential decisions in Kenya’s history and the start of a journey bigger and more important than they could have imagined. Kenya in the late 1800s did not reveal its richness outright. Rather, it appeared to be an uninhabited bushy area. Nonetheless, plans for the railway line, which comprised land and route surveys, sourcing materials and finding an adequate task force, were initiated as early as 1890. Four years later, a map illustrating the rail route had been devised and approved, though part of this would change later on as construction was underway, removing 160km of the nearly 1,000km railway line to Port Florence (present day Kisumu).
“I have always been curious about the history of East Africa and its uniqueness,” says author of Race, Rail & Society: Roots of Modern Kenya, Neera Kapila, and indeed any understanding of East Africa’s past requires a deep understanding of how the railways came about. Kapila’s studies have made her an expert on the rails. In December 1895, “Mr. George Whitehouse, the Chief Engineer and Manager of the Uganda Railway, with his British team, materials and the first lot of Indians, arrived in Mombasa,” Kapila writes.
Railway workers clean the ground for tracks, Circa late 1800.
This was not the Mombasa of today. This was a simple port town that had been under the control of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman just eight years earlier. There were only small wells for water, but as plans moved forward and the population swelled they were inadequate and a distiller was brought in 1896 to use on the sea water. Fort Jesus, which had stood guard over the coast for nearly three centuries already, dominated the landscape and it was in its shadow that Kenya’s first club, Mombasa Club, was built and patronized by some of the railway’s executives. One of the framed pictures at the Museum, taken at Kilindini, shows a group of British guests present to witness the first rail placement on May 30, 1896.
In the background stand tall, rich, green palm trees,their branches and leaves outstretched liberally.The day is warm, the women dressed in flower decorated bonnets.The occasion’s immensity is obvious, even though the small group appears toned down, unaware of the start of something that would impact generations to come.
By December 1897, 13 stations had opened including Voi Station, which is still operational to date. Of course, the ease of that first placement was in no way a reflection of the rail’s construction. Unplanned but required bridge construction, delays in material delivery and unforeseen natural dangers, like wildlife, stalled work for weeks on end and severely delayed the project’s completion.
It took until 1899 for the railway to finally reach ‘Enkare Nyrobi’ (Maasai for ‘where the water is cold’), writes Kapila. This is what would later become Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city and the centre of operations for Kenya Railways. Today, this bustling capital shows no semblance of what was a solitary town used by the Maasai as a feeding channel for their cattle. Long gone are the tall trees, bushy environs and scurrying creatures, they’ve been replaced by lofty buildings, modern roads and street lights. At the time, reaching the small outpost was hardly a landmark achievement, being merely another stop on the way. Between Nairobi and Kisumu, 24 more stations were opened and another four came about after construction was done. This short stretch, just over 400km, was the last before the line reached its projected destination, but it took another two years of work. Going through the ‘Escarpment Region’ required expertise and the use of viaducts, the longest stretching over 750 feet. This expanse, together with the descent into the Great Rift Valley, past plateaus that traverse the equator all the way to Kisumu, can only be defined as breathtaking.
The railway line was finished in December 1901 as the sun was making its descent on the town of Kisumu. To commemorate the end of construction, Mrs. Ronald Preston, wife of the plate laying engineer, drove the final steel key into the rail. In an interesting twist, the chief engineer’s wife Mrs. Whitehouse and Mrs. Preston had identical first names, Florence. “Port Florence was named after the Chief Engineer’s wife Florence Whitehouse, but it was Ronald’s wife Florence Preston who was photographed ‘driving the last spike’ on the shore of Lake Victoria…” Preston himself inscribed in his book, Oriental Nairobi. Because of the photo, most accounts say the town was named after Mrs. Preston.
The confusion was later resolved when the name was changed to Kisumu – Port Florence was found, somewhat inconsiderately, unworthy of the locale by Special Commissioner of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnson. In a letter, he succinctly wrote “If the native name of the place be laid aside, the European name to be chosen should be of some member of the British royal family or of some great explorer associated with the discovery of Lake Victoria, Nyanza.” All told, it took five years to complete the railway line and it would take another three decades before it was completely extended to Kampala. And while that seems like a long time – consider that the American Transcontinental Railroad took just six years – what’s truly impressive about East Africa’s line is that it wasn’t building just a railway.
Without anticipation or forethought, Kenya was unexpectedly birthed from the construction of the railway line. As each station opened – Kilindini, Samburu, Voi, Tsavo, Mtito Andei, Machakos, Athi River, Nairobi, Nakuru, Kisumu – a town sprouted and boundaries were defined. Rail transport became the method used to ferry goods as well as passengers to Uganda and within Kenya, increasing trade immensely.
“Railways opened up the country for the first time. So we have a rich history of how Kenya began as a country,” comments Randiga. While the infrastructure developments cannot be denied, perhaps the most notable change induced by the railway was the immense change in Kenya’s people.
Opportunity of a Lifetime?
When construction started, the Europeans had no real interest in the interior of today’s Kenya. The coast was a useful shipping point and the Ugandan territory had valuable resources, but little was known about the land in between besides the fact that there were hostile tribes. But with each bit of track laid a country of vast landscapes, rich farming grounds and unimaginable expanses of wildlife opened up, revealing a wealth the British could not have envisaged. Wild cats, hippos, rhinos and elephants were among the many creatures wide spread across pre-colonial Kenya. Quoting Kapila, “At the end of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, before hunters came with guns, wildlife numbers were very large, running into thousands, if not millions.”
Lt. Colonel John H. Patterson poses proudly with one of the man-eaters of Tsavo, which he shot and killed.
Hunting wild animals, especially rhinos, elephants and wild cats, turned out to be an invaluable sport.
At first exclusive to railway officials, when the line was complete it became an attraction all its own, a romantic lifestyle of weeks in the bush and successful returns to civilization.
This would be the life of some of Kenya’s most famous inhabitants – like Denys Finch-Hatton and Bror von Blixen – and the draw for some of our most famous visitors – like Ernest Hemingway and US President Theodore Roosevelt.
As the abundance of British East Africa Protectorate became apparent to Europeans more settlers arrived, helping to forge the new city state. But the railway was key to making this new project work, and the Europeans involved in it were there to plan and supervise; for the labour force they had to turn elsewhere.
“Indians already had the skills and experience from India because they had been used to build railways in India earlier by the British,” Randiga states. There were more than 4,000 Indian labourers working on the railroad in the first year of construction. Indians who were imported to work on the railway were under contract based on terms agreed between the British and Indian governments. They were to be paid a set amount of money, which was valued in Rupees at the time, though poor workmanship resulted in deduction of wages.
Jobs offered to Indians were varied, whereby those who were more conversant with rail construction were employed as surveyors and assistant rail officials, prominent jobs that later presented them with opportunities in this part of Africa. “Railways played an important role and gave our families a chance to get out of India. There were great opportunities but it was also hard work,” remarks Knighted photographer and film producer, Sir Mohinder Dhillon, whose father came to Kenya to work on the railways.
Of the many Indians who were recruited to work on the line, thousands opted to remain in East Africa and settle down. “Africa was a journey to the unknown and one felt like embarking on a discovery expedition,” Dhillon expounds.
While the British had an exploratory mind-set heading into the region from years of colonization, the opportunity was somewhat more unique for the Indians. These were specialized and skilled labourers, not sailors or soldiers. Their chances for adventure were limited and their reasons to leave India and move to essentially uncharted territories hard to imagine. But something about this country and the promise it offered drew them in. “East Africa was virgin and full of many opportunities. This was a dream for people from Indian subcontinent,” Dhillon recollects.
Whereas the railway line provided numerous prospects for Europeans and Indians, it wasn’t so for most Africans. “The British knew that they did not have skilled labourers’ because the people of Kenya had not even seen the image of a train, so how could they have the skills?” Randiga says. As such, Africans were categorized as unskilled workers.
Another concept that made railway work impractical for Africans was payment in currency, which was insignificant to them at the time. Additionally, many were not acclimatized to the varied weather conditions and the food.
The locals did not hide their disapproval of the railway, not to mention those commissioned to work on it. To make their sentiments known, they resorted to looting, destroying property, attacking Indian workers at railway camps, and any manner of vandalism that would deter railway construction. “Tribes like the Nandi vandalised railway materials to make ornaments and weapons,” Randiga asserts. Eventually the British had to draw up peace treaties, particularly when tribal warriors declared open war causing a standstill on railway construction, which was highly unacceptable in the House of Commons.
Beyond intentional attempts to trip up production, natural roadblocks were continually popping up. While most people are familiar with the man-eaters of Tsavo, thought to have killed 28 Indians and close to 110 Africans and the subjects of a book and film, encounters with wildlife were hardly rare. Abdul Hamid Khan, a Sub- Permanent Way Inspector, attained heroic standing while performing his rail inspection duties with his crew, which were carried out from an inspection pushcart, a metal, wheeled rail trolley that rode on the line and aided in determining the track’s condition. Cited in one of Kapila’s anecdotes, Khans valour is commendable. While performing a regular inspection routine, his posse unfortunately came up a pride of lions feasting on a zebra carcass. The imposition was hardly welcome and the lions did what they knew best, they assailed the intruders.
“‘Abdul…calmly picked up his shotgun and shot them as they came, one after the other. Nine lions down and with two still charging, he fired his last bullet, which went through the heart of one lioness and sank into the brain of the other positioned behind her. This act earned him the nickname of ‘simba mbili [two lions] one shot,’” reveals Kapila.
But ultimately the dangers encountered by railway workers were far less glamorous. “Waterborne diseases as well as malaria took the heavier toll,” says Dhillon. Numerous illnesses – small pox, dysentery, pneumonia – as well as different infections were the demise of many.
Uganda Railway employees. Kapila’s great-grandfather worked on the railway line as part of the accounts staff, disbursing wages among workers. “He contracted water borne disease in the Kibwezi area and nearly died,” she informs me. In addition to disease, brutal conditions and heavy workloads took their toll on the workers.
When the British started construction they envisioned the line as a way to end slavery, but that dream was paid for dearly. Those working on the railway were compensated, but the conditions in the African bush were so harsh that many lost their lives. While Kapila’s great-grandfather, who passed away sometime in the 1930s, is accounted for, many who died during this period still remain unaccounted souls as there was no clear manner of recording every death.
Down Memory Lane
The railway line from Kisumu to Butere was completed in 1932, having been extended on the other end from Nakuru to Kampala the preceding year. By then, more additions to different areas of the country had been included, Nanyuki to Thika and all the way to Mount Kenya through Naro Moru. Suddenly the country was more than a narrow space along the tracks, and, as the lush interior became more accessible, British settlers were drawn away from the beaten path. Many settled down in the still-untamed regions, drawn to what they saw as ripe opportunity for agriculture and ranching or brilliant, untouched nature perfect for a vacationer’s paradise. Suddenly, the areas around Naivasha, Nairobi and Nyeri were becoming the expats’ playgrounds.
The queen mother meets railway staff in 1959.
Queen Elizabeth, who travelled on the Royal train in 1959, remarked how pleasant the journey was and rated it “the most beautiful in the world.” Her journey is depicted on an image at the railways museum where she sits by the window looking out her coach. I can imagine the streets lined with natives curious to get a peek of the Queen as she rode by. The steam engines that trekked on the rail line brought on a sort of captivation in those early years. Whether it was the length of it with white steam floating atop its chimney, the loud horn hooting as it went past local homes or the illusory fascination of where those on board were going, it’s very presence demanded that people stop and take a moment to watch it go by.
As dawn broke and everyone woke to the new light of day, watching giraffes, lions and zebras go by; the hustle and bustle on the train as everyone stirred, looking out the window to watch the sun come up; the smell of coffee, the newness of the train, the smell of the leather seats, the coolness of the morning – all taking place without self-reflection, yet these would become the simple events that would bring visitors time and again to ride the train.
These were the glory days of rail travel in Kenya – when everything built and the routes were established but the land they traversed was still wild. Dhillon’s brother Gurdev took up the family trade, as it were, and worked on the railway line as a locomotive steam engine driver a generation after his father. His work still presented him with exciting exploits, which he was fortunate to live through and tell. For instance, working late one night Gurdev had a surprise encounter. He made a pit stop to add water into the steam engine and while getting off the train, he landed about 5 feet away from an old lion. “Both got a fright of their life, except we could not establish who was more frightened,” laughs Dhillon.
In 1984, Rachel Gathenji recalls how magical riding the train for the first time was. The lull of the engine as the train chugged along amidst scenery that was exquisite, including wildlife, landscapes, and magnificent sunrises and sunsets. “I think the fact that it moves slowly and allows you to take in everything was the best part of the trip,” she says with a nostalgic look on her face. “The escarpment stretch presented an amazing ascent and the open landscape offered pristine views of nature that were far-reaching.” Besides offering travels and opening up a country, the railway line brought three nations together, which through work and interrelations, ended up becoming one. “We Kenyans needed to know small details to appreciate how all three races together created Kenya,” Kapila informs me. Celebrated due to its historic nature, the railway line continues to draw people from different parts of the world to admire wildlife, surroundings and experience what has long been termed the “lunatic express.”
The railway cost £5.5 million by the time construction came to an end, a figure that was extremely high compared to the approximated £3 million that had been initially allocated. Between 1932 and the turn of a new century, little money would be put into the continued progression of the railway line. Diesel trains were introduced in the early 70s putting an end to locomotive steam engines, especially the popular and principal steam engine Mount Gelai. Having made many journeys until her withdrawal, Mount Gelai was described as “possibly unrivalled anywhere in the world today,” by Collin Garratt, a railway photographer.
There have been attempts over the years to revive the steam engines but due to poor rail conditions, those endeavours have been futile, perhaps until now as Kenya Railways pioneers a new direction in rail travel.
Fall from Grace
In 1990 on a section of the Nairobi-Mombasa railway line called Ngai Ndethya, a passenger train headed to Mombasa derailed as a result of heavy floods that had washed away the bridge. Over 100 lives were lost in the rail accident, deemed one of the worst to ever occur in Kenya. Adverse weather conditions, poor communication channels, curves on the rail, rail destruction by animals and corrosion of the coupler on rail cars were and have been the cause of most rail accidents.
The old equator railway station, north west of Nakuru.
Yet not even 50 years before this, travelling by train was still the height of luxury in Kenya. Dhillon’s first train ride was in 1947 when he left India for Nairobi.
His father, Tekh Singh, had lived in Kenya close to 30 years by then and worked for the railways as a supplies controller.
An excerpt from his autobiography describes the journey on the train.
“We had our own sleeping berths, which came complete with bed sheets and pillows plus hand towels. The train compartment was the most luxurious place I had ever been in. It was like magic.”
At that time the railway was managed by Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours, which was overseen by the British High Commission. One year later, it was combined with Tanzanian shipping governing bodies and became the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation (EARH), which was maintained by the East African Community (EAC) after Independence. But in 1977, the EAC was dissolved and, along with it, EARH. The Kenya Railways Corporation was created to manage the Kenyan sections, but the corporation was quickly bogged down in financial woes. Due to poor maintenance, high running costs, deplorable services and security issues, the corporation suffered much defamation, not to mention financial loss due to reduced trade. Between 1990 and 2005, at least 190 people were killed as a result of train accidents in Kenya and derailments were common, leading to a lack of faith in the railways’ passenger services.
“Six years ago KRC was struggling with operations…in fact some entities went as far as to suggest and refer to Kenya Railways as a defunct corporation,” expresses the Chairman of Kenya Railways Corporation, Rtd. General Jeremiah Kianga. But he believes that they are now moving on the right track.
A Look to the Future
Nov. 13, 2012; the Kenyan flag flies high in the wind. “This day marks an important date in the history of railway transport in Kenya. The launch of Nairobi Commuter Rail Services and the opening of Syokimau Railway Station,” Kianga’s voice is strong through the speakers. “It is an interesting and fitting coincidence that the first station to be built in Kenya since 1935 has been constructed in this area named after Syokimau, the prophetess who lived in Machakos town in the 17th century.”
One of the divinations made by many tribal seers including Syokimau was the arrival of the ‘white man’ or the ‘red people’ as colonialists were referred to. One of her prophecies was that they would travel on a snake with many legs that had its tail in the Indian Ocean and head in Lake Victoria. Almost 80 years later, everything’s come full circle.
Syokimau Railway Station is located close to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The railway line stretches to connect to the Embakasi rail track that runs into Nairobi city. KRC’s goal is to complete a Nairobi commuter rail project with additional railway lines and at least nine more stations. Kisumu and Mombasa rail transport will also be increased with new stations and lines, and a large project involving a standard gauge railway line extending to Ethiopia and the Republic of Somalia from Lamu has been launched.
Over a hundred years have passed and Kenya has certainly changed over time. People have come and gone but the dreams they carried still live on. It is easy to get distracted from the romance of Africa that attracted so many at the turn of the 20th Century, in these busy pressured times, but if one looks, truly looks, they can recognize the magic of what we once were. Of what we still are. And more than anything else, it all began with the railway.