Why this is appropriate is unclear, but the train was due to leave seven hours ago and the staff seem determined to pretend it is on schedule. It is all served on plates embossed with the logo of the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation, which was wound up in I love railways.
Not as a trainspotter: I can hardly tell one locomotive from another. None of this, however, prepared me for the old Uganda railway. We were warned about the lateness, so we arrived at the railway station at 10pm, three hours after the train was meant to depart. We sat in the station bar drinking Tusker beers under a neon sign, and if you ignored the inexplicable pile of broken bathroom fittings it was almost romantic. In a city where almost everything is new, from the flash shopping malls to the luxury apartments and executive mansions sprouting out of every hill, anything old has a particular charm.
The history of modern Kenya starts with the railway. Without the train, Kenya — a colonial confection that brought together dozens of tribes in a territory drawn with a ruler on a map — would not have come into existence. Nairobi, a city which a century ago was little more than a few streets built around the station, would never have turned into much more than that.
W hen you look out of the train window, you feel like you are in an older Africa. Not the fake, packaged Africa of Land Rovers, lions and safari camps, but one far removed from the new highways, trilling mobile phones and palatial malls that cover the continent today. At 7am, I glanced out to see a slight mist hanging on scrubby fields. Young women tilled them, while their children massed on the embankment to watch the train go past. British officials were worried about German expansionism in Tanganyika the mainland of what is now Tanzania and French movements in Sudan.
To protect British interests in Egypt, they wanted to seize control of the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria. Tens of thousands of workers were recruited from India to start construction on the railway. White commercial farmers, shuttling their produce to port, were the only hope for making the line profitable. The legacy of imperialism lives on in Kenya.
When I first arrived in the country I found myself surprised by how noticeable it is, for little in Nairobi dates from the colonial era. The city centre is a planned, s affair, and most of its suburbs have been built since then. But turn on the radio and you hear that the Flying Squad has busted a robbery, the CID is investigating a murder and Parliament has gazetted a new law, all in carefully enunciated English full of delightful archaisms.
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Schools put their children through A -levels, there are plenty of Anglican churches and everyone drinks their tea with milk and huge ladings of sugar. The role of the railway in this legacy is largely forgotten — indeed, so too is the railway. The rich in Kenya travel by plane or helicopter, or in black Land Cruisers with tinted windows.
The poor squeeze into matatu minibuses which travel vast distances for peanuts — when they do not crash in headlong collisions or get hijacked by armed robbers. My Kenyan friends reacted with astonishment when I told them of my plan to take the train to the coast.
That is because almost nobody does it. On our train, there were no more than 50 passengers — about a dozen in first class, and perhaps three times as many in second and third class. In first class, there was Massawa, a sixty-something Eritrean exile who makes a living bottling water in South Sudan, and his daughter; Dietert Bernaers, a Belgian reporter with his wife and small son; a group of Kenyan schoolchildren; a German engineer and us. With the possible exception of the schoolgirls, we were all there for the adventure — first-class tickets cost only a little less than a flight.
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The passengers were united by the delays. In first class, Massawa moaned, sitting with his legs dangling out of the open door as we meandered through Tsavo national park. In the old days, it started at 7pm and it arrived in Mombasa at seven in the morning.
Now it is taking the whole day. You have wasted a whole day. It is rubbish.
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