Railway station that bore Kenya’s capital

By Austine Okande

Kenya: Nairobi is today famous for its unique beautiful skyline. But did you know that this city, which in many ways still exudes an archetype of its colonial masters, started as a railway town?

“Nairobi was born of a European colonial project, the Kenya-Uganda Railway line, to access newly colonised land,” writes Blevin and Bouczo in their book Nairobi: A Century of History.

This was in 1899 when the colonial masters commissioned the construction of a British railroad camp, supply depot and the railway station for the Kenya-Uganda Railway in Nairobi. It is this building (supply depot) that soon became the railway’s headquarters.

The construction of different sections of the railway station continued throughout the 20th century.

In their presentation titled, Post-Independence Development of Nairobi city, Kenya, Samuel Owuor and Teresa Mbatia, argued that the site of the present location of the station was chosen by the Kenya-Uganda Railway constructors in June 1899 because it offered a suitable stopping place between Mombasa and Kisumu.

The first railhead, which was a two-feet steam gauge trolley line operated by hand-propelled wagons, arrived at the Nairobi Railway Station on May 30, 1899, making it the country’s most important transportation centre.

As a transport centre, Nairobi would soon spark the establishment of different colonial administrative offices and thus it became an administrative centre.

Railway depot

“Once the railway depot was established, certain spatial patterns began to emerge: the railway station, a shopping centre, housing quarters and the Indian bazaar,” the presentation reads.

Today, the Nairobi Railway Station still enjoys structural authenticity, having been built using stone and concrete with steel grilled doors.

At the entrance of this iconic building is the symbol of the Uganda railway and ticket booths, which were used by passengers, pay to purchase plate form tickets to their desired destination.

One of the olden signboards at the station still reads the Chef de gare, a French word, which can loosely be translated to mean stationmaster. The word is also translated into German Bahnhofsvorsteher. The three East African countries then — Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya — were connected by the railway, which was a convenient mode of transport. The signboard is a clear indication that the station used to receive foreign visitors.

The railway construction into Nairobi was under the leadership of Captain, later Lt. Colonel, J H Patterson.

This attracted an influx of Asian merchants to supply goods and services to the railway workforce. In addition, the colonial administration headquarters was moved from nearby Machakos, a settlement by-passed by the railway.

“The transfer of the provincial offices from Machakos to Nairobi first and later the protectorate headquarters from Mombasa to Nairobi (1901) contributed to the change in the perception of Nairobi from a railway town to an administrative and commercial centre within the British protectorate. Cultures of urbanism began to emerge for the first time,” wrote Samuel Owuor and Teresa Mbatia.

Increased activity

Interestingly, with the establishment of the railway station was followed by increased activities in the city, according to author Nevanlinna, in his book, Interpreting Nairobi: The Cultural Study of Built Forms: “However, even so, after the initial bursts, rates of urban growth tended to be slow somewhat and the African societies remained overwhelmingly rural in orientation.”

Elspeth Huxley writes: “First-class carriages were for Europeans and the more affluent Asians; second for lesser Asians who filled them with enormous families; third-class for the indigenous who sat all night on wooden benches chattering and eating, surrounded by kikapus (large, hand woven baskets) full of fruits and yams and every kind of edible, the women generally with babies on their backs or toddlers at foot).”