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‘Lunatic Line’ that helped create a country

By | Published Wed, June 2nd 2010 at 00:00, Updated Wed, June 2nd 2010 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Kiundu Waweru

President Kibaki’s promise on Tuesday that the railway infrastructure is to be upgraded to modern standards echoed the excitement expressed by a colonial administrator in 1903 when the railway reached Kisumu.

British colonial administrator, Sir Charles Elliot, is recorded to have said in excitement: "It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country."

Some of the oldest steam engine locomotives displayed at the Nairobi Railway Museum. [PHOTOS: COURTESY]

Kibaki may not have said it, as he spoke yesterday, but the railway he plans to build may ‘create’ Nairobi more than the original railway did with the city over 120 years ago.

A walk around the Nairobi Railway Museum, Tuesday afternoon, soon after Kibaki’s speech, is an eye opener into what railway infrastructure can ‘create’.

The serene setting of the museum makes for an educative trip back into Kenya’s history and down the metallic track that developed most places where it passed. As Kenya celebrated 47 years of self-rule, the two-hour visit unravelled the history of the country dating way back before it got its name.

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Many towns, including Mombasa, Nairobi, Kikuyu, Naivasha, Nakuru and Nanyuki developed along the railway line. Mombasa had been in existence since the Arab and Portuguese eras but it was further developed by the onset of the railway construction, with the first operational line in East Africa being a two foot gauge trolley line at the port, operated by hand-propelled wagons.

Traced back

The history of the railway can be traced back to Berlin Conference of 1886, when then European colonial powers, Britain, France and Germany came up with a development plan they said would end to slave trade and the ‘Scramble for Africa’, and open up the hinterland. "The major plan was the exploitation of River Nile which had its source in Lake Victoria. Kenya, known by the British as the East Africa Protectorate then was seen as a means to an end, and would act as an access route to Uganda which was an impossible territory to administer owing to its landlocked nature," records indicate.

The construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway starting from Mombasa to Lake Victoria commenced in 1896 under Chief Engineer George Whitehouse and reached Kisumu — then Port Florence — in 1901.

Graphic sketches and pictures illustrate how the railway, dubbed ‘Lunatic Express’ due to hazards, left in its wake a series of historic events from resistance by Maasai and Nandi warriors, exposure of colonial engineers to tropical diseases, the mauling of the African and Indian constructors by lions and other millstones.

Lunatic express

British Parliamentarian, Henry Labouchere penned a satirical poem referring to the railway as the ‘Lunatic Express’ and suggesting no one should embark on such a mission.

In 1899, the railhead reached a swampy level ground at the feet of Kikuyu Escarpment where Whitehouse decided to build a depot with a Maasai name, Uaso-en-Nairobi, a place of cool waters, which later came to be known as Nairobi.

Through the windows of the railway museum, the stunning silhoutte of skyscrapers that dot the city skyline, bear no resemblance to Whitehouse’s equipment depot.

In 1901, on December 29, the line, a snaking 920km of parallel iron bars, reached Kisumu.

It had withstood Nandi attacks, heavy rains and fever outbreaks, varied interaction with over 10 communities and more. Florence Preston, wife of engineer Ronald Preston who was in charge of plate laying, was honoured with having future Kisumu named after her, Port Florence.

"There would not have been Kenya as we know it without the railroad," says Maurice Barasa, Nairobi Railway Museum Curator, adding, "The colony, after realising the agricultural potential of Kenya decided to develop the protectorate by inviting more settlers, promising them access via the railway."

The Nairobi Railway Museum harbours history dating back to pre-construction days in 1889. [PHOTO: KIUNDU WAWERU/STANDARD]

One of the settlers who would make a major impact, Lord Delamere, was a pioneer in the agriculture field, which saw the development of the white highlands and arrival of more settlers. "As agriculture took root, small stations were developed in for ease of transportation of agricultural produce among them, Nakuru, Naivasha, Tigoni, Kijabe Mission and Sigona all which the settlers took for themselves," the records indicate.

Opening up

And according to a museum booklet, National Heritage, written by Bryan Harris and Judith Sidi Odhiambo, the ‘Lunatic Express’ later proved to be a highway for opening up the interior. The railway line heralded urbanisation where many of the Indian coolies who had constructed the line started small the first dukawalla businesses in growing towns.

Nairobi slowly evolved into a business hub with the railway line initially running across town from the Kenya Railway Station to George Whitehouse Road (now Haile Sellasie Avenue) through Parliament Road to Lord Delamere Avenue (Kenyatta Avenue).

At the Norfolk hotel, where the railway then passed, settlers would laze on the hotel’s then racially segregated verandah and sip tea as they waited for the train. The line was only relocated to pass through Kibera in 1948 due to the steep incline through Westlands heading to the extinct Kabete Station.

As I sat later at the Railway Station cafÈ, sipping tea like the settlers did a century ago, I could not help appreciating the role the ‘Lunatic Express’ played in development, probably seeking to invoke sanity to the lunatic legacy.


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