The Standard Gauge Railway has made the journey from Kenya's capital Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa easier. The chugging of the locomotive engine across the Tsavo wilderness to finally descend towards the Indian Ocean is a thing to marvel at.
The coaches are almost always spotless, smiling staff willing you on board. To an outsider, the Chinese crew on board cuts the image of a humble servant, ready to please. They will hardly say a word whenever top government officials convene press conferences in their presence to celebrate another of their milestones.
But beneath this shiny veneer is a tale of pain, anguish and broken dreams for a multitude of Kenyans who feel trapped on the train that ably fits the moniker Orient Express, because on it, Chinese nationals have created a small kingdom in which they run roughshod over Kenyan workers who say they are experiencing neo-colonialism, racism and blatant discrimination as the taxpayer foots the Sh30million a day bill for the train, whcih losely translates to Sh1billion at the end of every month.
Investigations by The Sunday Standard have found a huge contrast between what happens when in public glare and what really goes on beneath the shiny surface when the Chinese- masters of the SGR- retire to their apartments and restaurant.
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Interviews with many of those working within the trains reveal that there exists an unwritten rule on the things that Kenyans can share with their Chinese masters.
For a start, they do not share tables at their staff restaurant.
Though, it is not printed in black and white, Chinese staff would never sit on the same table with Kenyans and Kenyans are not expected to join their tables either.
“Racism is so real here. There is an unwritten rule of where you need to sit. You cannot just join the Chinese table,” an assistant locomotive driver said.
He said that this divide runs to the staff vans as well where even if it only one Chinese on board, Kenyans will not use them when time for drop offs come.
“You cannot board a van that drops us in the evening even if there's only one Chinese on board. You will have to wait,” he said.
More excesses are allowed on the freight trains where there is little visibility. Chinese staff are allowed excesses such as smoking while in the locomotive and use of mobile phones, crimes that will get their Kenyan counterparts fired.
“They are chain smokers and they do it inside the drivers cab. We do not have washrooms in the driver’s cab, so some relieve themselves on the track lines,” he said. We have seen images of one of the Chinese drivers, who could not wait to go to the washrooms, literally going for a long call next to the train in the open.
But what is likely to alarm conservationists and wildlife activists is the number of animals that are being run over by the trains..
The promise that measures had been put in place to secure wildlife appears to have been used to pacify conservationists and activists. Evidence in our possession shows that at least two lions and five buffaloes have been killed.
We have seen images of these dead lions and buffaloes some below the tracks after they were hit and others as they are lifted off the path using cranes.
When the Conservation Alliance of Kenya (CAK) protested the plan to build the railway through the national park, they said their calls were brushed off as a nuisance to the project.
CAK, which represents over 50 NGOs that have invested in biodiversity conservation, scientific research and community development in Kenya, said its previous engagement with the government during SGR I through Tsavo National Park fell on deaf ears.
“Our letters went unanswered but we got verbal assurances that the routes through the park were off the table and they would be making alternative considerations and that we would be fully involved in the process,” Ms Lucy Waruingi, the CAK secretary said in a statement.
Conservationists said follow up letters written in April 2016 granted them a meeting with the Kenya Railways boss, Atanas Maina, who re-assured them that they would be engaged before the route was determined.
However when they were invited to the Ministry of Environment offices they were shocked that the route had long been determined ‘they merely wanted the Alliance to endorse the decision.’
Their fears now appear to be coming to pass as more wildlife are felled by the freight trains.
Our two week attempts to get a response on these allegations from Chinese contractors were futile.
When we eventually got them to comment on the matter through Kenya Railways, they declined. The head of communication said he was not authorised to give official response on the issues raised.
He said he would call back on Friday evening as soon as he got clearance from the new chairman and management to make a comment. Which they did not.
Some of the questions we wanted answered were why the sensors in the trains were not working to prevent collision of wildlife, and what measures had been put in place to deal with racism, discrimination and skills transfer timelines for Kenyans.
Our investigation has revealed that Kenyan drivers have taken charge of the 472-kilometre ride just once, on the project launch with President Uhuru Kenyatta as a passenger, when two female drivers, Alice Gitau and Concilia Owire made the trip.
When the cameras and VIPs exited the scene, the Chinese drivers took back control. They have never again been allowed to navigate the passengers from either end of the train track.
Those who were trained two years ago in anticipation, have remained assistant shunting drivers, since the launch of Madaraka express, and only sit and watch as the Chinese drivers cruise to the coast and back.
“We just sit at the back and watch. There is no actual transfer of skills that is happening here,” an assistant locomotive driver who has been with the SGR for over a year now told the Standard on Sunday.
Three other assistant drivers corroborated the story and said their job is that of poster boys.
“We cannot even do trouble shooting since everything is in Chinese. The way we see it, the reason they are not open to transferring skills is that they want to remain relevant for a long time,” he said.
A year later, Kenyans, some with engineering backgrounds sit and watch as more Chinese come into the country, undergo a two week training and are handed over the reigns of the locomotive.
At the end of the trip, they find themselves doing menial jobs such as cleaning and garbage collection, jobs that are also now being taken over by the new Chinese employees who continue to be absorbed.
There are now more than 40 trained locomotive drivers, whose job should be to drive but the closest they have gotten is sitting in the driver’s cabin. But they are now outnumbered by theChinese . A list of personnel in our possession shows the company has employed 50 Chinese drivers against 38 locals.
A number of track maintenance technicians, who were employed with at least a diploma in civil engineering, have also ended up doing menial jobs after Chinese contractors took up their jobs. We have seen pictures and disturbing video evidence of them in action.
“We raised these concerns with Mr Maina (Atanas Maina, the Kenya Railways boss), he asked us to be grateful we have a job. At some point he asked us why we left jobs elsewhere to come and work here only to complain,” a locomotive driver we spoke to said.
Some Chinese who came in during the construction phase, opted not to go back home and instead are finding themselves doing jobs that Kenyans can easily do such as landscaping, pruning flowers, clearing thickets, running apartments and cooking.
The Chinese contractor has also opted to keep most of their equipment programmed in Chinese, making it impossible for Kenyans who do not read Chinese progress beyond menial jobs, despite being employed as technicians, engineers and drivers.
There are also cases where the Chinese contractor has reported different figures on what an employee earns to the Kenya Revenue Authority for tax purposes than what they actually earn.
One of the affected employees said they were later presented with two different p9 forms to ‘regularise’ the anomaly during the just concluded annual filing of returns. A P9 form is usually provided by employers outlining how much money the company has been paying in taxes on behalf of the employee. An employee uses the form to reconcile it with his or her actual pay.
“This girl received two P9s with different figures, one showed she earns more than what she actually takes home. Some employees who work at the Mombasa terminus have not been given payslips for the last one year. We only saw this anomaly after asking for the payslips,” another source who showed us the forms said.
Staff in the car depot or rolling stock department, among them freight technicians and inspectors, say they are grossly underpaid compared to their Chinese counterparts.
He said they are paid Sh37,000 a month, less than a quarter of what their Chinese counterparts earn for the same job.
“We are still referred to as trainees despite more than one year working in the field. The Chinese whom we work with in the same capacity only need two weeks of the same training and they are graduated to expert level,” he said.
Whenever Kenyans are fired for not meeting standards, they are replaced by Chinese employees waiting on the sidelines.
“At least four of my colleagues in my department have lost their jobs because of not meeting the Chinese standards. But instead of replacing them with locals as expected, their jobs were taken up by the Chinese,” he said.
Language barrier continues to be a big problem in the skills transfer. Most gadgets are programmed in Chinese and this has forced many Kenyans to either learn Chinese or be disadvantaged.
There are also other departments where suitable Kenyans are yet to be found. For instance, no Kenyan works in the monitoring centre or the signal and dispatching rooms
“We are being forced to learn the language for fear of being regarded as incompetent. The Chinese who work in the monitoring centre or the watch room where we report faulty vehicles know zero English yet they are key to our work. Worst, No Kenyan is being trained in this section so far,” he said.
Notice boards and record books faults are recorded are fully printed in Chinese.
The Personal Protective equipment (PPE), also wears out quickly due to the nature of their job, however it takes a while to get them replaced.
“To carry out inspection you must crawl under the vehicle. Currently you have to inspect at least 7 trains for every shift with an average of 50 vehicles each. On each shift we have four groups. When you divide, you have to inspect 12 vehicles per train or an average of 104 vehicles per day,” he says adding that this ends up damaging the overalls.
“The problem now is that it's the company's policy to replace these PPEs after two years, and this means that some of us end up working in rugs,” he said.