One Friday evening, the excitement of dozens of men leaving mosques and preparing for an evening of spiced tea cooled by a breeze from the Indian Ocean was briefly interrupted.
A ship that was larger than anything most of them had ever seen lazily docked at a port in the Swahili settlement of Mombasa.
From it emerged 350 labourers determined to cut Kenya in half and build what would not only become the ultimate symbol of British Imperial Rule, but also the main artery of a country’s ambition.
Neither locals nor visitors knew the dangers, rewards and eventual nostalgia that lay ahead. Five years later, with more than 1,400km of track laid, the engines finally reached Kisumu. It was 1901.
For 100 years, nothing dominated the transport landscape the way the Kenya-Uganda railway did. Until a series of unfortunate events -- neglect, plunder and eventual death -- brought the line to its knees.
“We doubt it will survive,” Mary Kimani says.
At the time of her birth, the line was 71 years old. When she started working for the Kenya Railways Corporation, the Lunatic Line was 91. “It showed no signs of old age,” she says.
Kimani is one of the more than 2,000 current employees of the Kenya Railways (KR).
The ’70s were the golden era of the Lunatic Line, chugging luggage from the Port of Mombasa to Kisumu. Those who saw it work at its prime say it was a thing of beauty.
“We had more than 230 engine heads at any given time moving through the main line and the different arteries,” Kariuki Kimiti, a former locomotive engineer says. “It was a beast of burden.”
At its height, the Kenya Railways Corporation employed more than 30,000 people. For many, it was a transit renaissance. And for many more, the railways was a lifeline.
Death via memo
“It supported tens of thousands of families. It was not just about jobs for us. The railways was a family,” Issa Tekei, says. He was a ticketer for more than a decade and a half.
Unknown to them, the thousands of families that depended on the railway for sustenance would find themselves in the cold. An institution older than the country it served was to find itself on its knees.
“We are waiting for the executioner,” Kimiti says. “We do not know the date, but it seems the fate had been decided.”
This slow painful death can be traced to the general state of the Kenyan economy in the mid-90s. The numbers weren’t good. The shilling had lost significant value. An intervention had to be sought, and it came in the form of a policy framework paper on economic reforms.
“We woke up one day to letters informing us of the termination of our contracts. Within weeks, most of us were evicted from houses we had called home for decades,” says a former worker.
Some, like Mary, were left behind. But the worst was yet to come. A bigger winter was coming. To date, the 2,000 odd employees left at the institution continue to brave the cold.
“Railways is not what it used to be,” Mary says, looking out into the emptiness of what has become the Nakuru Railways station sandwiched between the Nairobi-Nakuru Highway and the ever expanding boundaries of Nakuru town.
Even in disuse, the station minders keep it clean, sweeping off the dust and carting away pieces of cardboard that fall off the ceiling.
There is more space than material where the once sturdy metal fence ran all-round the property. The gaps symbolic of the looting that has become synonymous with the Kenya Railways. “It’s is painful watching. It is like seeing a child eat himself,” Mary says.
At the beginning of the 2006 working year, Vitalis Odongo dispatched an official memo to every department within Kenya Railways.
Attached to the memo were a series of instructions that underlined the importance of the message he was passing to close to 20,000 of his employees.
Unscrupulous wheeler dealers
First, every member of staff was to be held responsible for seeing or learning each issue raised in the memo. Second, it was the duty of all literate staff to read and make themselves acquainted with the provisions.
Third, all supervisors were to ensure paragraphs affecting illiterate staff under them were explained verbally. Fourth was a warning that ignorance of any paragraph contained within that memo, Staff and General Notice No. 1 of 2006, will not be accepted as an excuse for failure to comply with the instructions.
The acting managing director then began to relay the message that would lead his soon to be former employees to a painful dance cheered on by a cabal of unscrupulous wheeler dealers within and out of government. Top of the agenda was the joint concessioning of Kenya and Uganda Railways.
“This concessioning provides a unique opportunity for improvement and modernisation of Railways to make it a commercially viable entity,” Odongo said in the memo.
Those who read the memo, pinned on notice boards outside the offices of their supervisors had no idea that this signaled the beginning of the end and an open season for the cabal. It was time to loot.
At the time of concessioning, KR had assets worth billions of shillings. Successive managers at the institution diverted their budgets away from the institution’s core budget. And as the plunder continued, service suffered. Trains were not running on schedule. Locomotive heads stayed abandoned with no operators. Workshops, attached to every major station went unmanned.
Unprotected. Looted to the bones with almost all moveable assets sold off as scrap to the highest bidders. By 2010, the giant was on its knees. With no wiggle room for even one last puff of smoke from its powerful diesel engines.
Then a new crop of politicians took centre stage with the promise of a new, faster railway line. As this happened, the Lunatic Express was slowly being forgotten.
“We were not shiny enough.They said we were old, conveniently forgetting that we had served the region for 100 years and still had 100 more in us,” Kimiti says. “
There are many who still believe the old Lunatic line would still pull as much weight as the new kid on the block who turned one on Thursday.
“All we wanted was a chance,” he says.
The Mombasa-Kisumu line still runs with periodic cargo trains continuing the journey that started 122 years ago.