Scenic Kenya-Dar road awakens dying EAC dream

President Uhuru Kenyatta (right) with former Tanzanian head of State Jakaya Kikwete (second right) flag off some of the bulldozers that were used to construct the Arusha-Holili-Mwatate road in 2015. [File, Standard]
The road from Voi to Holili on the border with Tanzania is one of the best roads to drive on. It’s smooth, well-marked and passes through scenic towns that mix modernity with traditions.

The 80km road is surprisingly lonely, I am not sure if the time around Christmas was a factor.

I found few trucks or cars on the beautiful and scenic route with Taita Hills to the east and wide-open plains to the west.

You even get a free game drive through Tsavo West National Park. Why should a road linking Kenya to a neighbouring country be this lonely, yet this road is a journey through history?

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It straddles the battlefields of World War One (WWI), which the Germans lost.

An exhibition at Taita Hills Lodge depicts the key events in this war. The area now has well-marked battlefields you can visit as a tourist beyond the Big Five.

And are you aware that before the building of the Nairobi-Mombasa Road in 1925, the shortest route from Mombasa to Nairobi by road was through Arusha? The semi-arid environs along the Voi-Holili route are currently so green. One wonders how a war was fought in such an arid region.

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Rain this time of the year is an aberration. It is no wonder Britons heavily defended the Tsavo River against the Germans. To bring water closer to the railway line and battlefront, the Britons used pipes from the Taita Hills to Maktau (mark-time) and the surroundings. The water, first piped in 1915, still flows. 

Taita-Taveta witnessed Kenya’s first flight near Maktau in 1915. One wonders why this county is not called “the birthplace of Kenyan aviation.”

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It is now the county of hidden treasures. The flight was to help in winning the Great War.

Around Maktau is a commonwealth cemetery where Indian soldiers who came to help Britons win the first World War in East Africa are buried. Indians did not just build the railway line; they helped defend Kenya against the Germans. Perhaps that is a good justification for them to be the 44th tribe. The Kenya Gazette that declared them so, did not evoke this heroic contribution.

Parallel to the Voi-Holili road is the old Voi-Moshi railway line. It was built during World War I to bring supplies and troops to the frontline.

It is one of the few military railway lines in Africa. Before that, thousands of porters did the work. They are the war’s forgotten heroes.  Surprisingly, the railway is no longer in use.

How can a railway line used in war times be in disuse in peace times? The long lonely road to Holili and the abandoned railway leaves one asking what happened to the dream of the East African Community (EAC). Northern Tanzania is well watered and densely populated.

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Festive season

I would expect a lot of economic activities along this corridor, including booming tourism. We should not blame aridity. Kenyans should be visiting Tanzania and the other way round during the festive season. There should be many trucks carrying goods too. Does this long lonely road signify what happened to the East African dream?

Interrupted in 1977 and revived in 1999, EAC is yet to return to its golden age with common harbours, railways, a university, a common currency and other common services.

This has brought synergy and economies of scale. Investors are attracted to such a big market.

Why else have western firms forgotten that China is communist? Twenty years on, the EAC dream has met another hurdle beyond political differences among the member states - devolution. 

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Should we think or devolution? When did you last hear a Kenyan governor talking about EAC? We now want to devolve power to even to the wards.

Nations that followed a similar path like the Europeans have made great economic strides. The European Union, despite Brexit, is an economic powerhouse. Even the protectionist-leaning Donald Trump has time for economic integration with his neighbours.

Why do we mark time on such great projects like EAC, which would make our region an economic power, create jobs and raise our living standards?

The long lonely road to Holili does not epitomise the EAC dream. Who will realise the EAC dream which I believe is still valid?

Will the Africa Free Trade Area enhance the east African dream or attenuate it?

Africa must balance international integration against forces of disintegration.

Such forces include tribalism, regionalism, narrow nationalism and our ignorance of global issues and how they affect our economies.

How does Africa have 54 presidents while China has one? Why is it easier to travel to Europe or Asia than to other African countries?

To answer these questions, take a trip down Voi-Holili road.

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi  

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RoadsNairobi-Mombasa RoadVoi-Holili roadEACSGR