When the building of this line was being discussed in the Uk bunge at the turn of last century, a good number of members were opposed to the idea terming it as a lunatic line. They wondered how a railroad was going to be achieved in tropical Africa and how on earth the project would recoup the construction costs. Some blew whistles others engaged in fist fights others pulled down their undies while others furiously walked out of the chambers in a bid to register their discontent and opposition to the project.
All in all, the line was built albeit without a fair share of challenges like the Man Eaters of Tsavo. These lions were dreaded because of their ability to withstand bullets and their knack for snatching the rail builders from inside the wagons at night. The lions did not go for the easy kill rather than the most complicated ones like bypassing camp’s thorny fences, trampling over sleeping men in tents who would be so terrified to raise an alarm, unhinging locked train wagons to come out with a human being held by the throat. Not held by throat using paws, held with canines.
They proved a menace for a whole nine months before being subdued.
The main line reached Kisuma in 1901. A branch was built from Nairobi to Thika in 1913 and then to Nanyuki in the 1930s.
It is rumoured that the Engineers on arriving in Nanyuki engaged in a prolonged carnival which resulted in the loss of the designs hindering the construction from extending any further.
When we were young , every day while walking along the line to school, we would come across a railway worker from the local gang going back to base having applied grease and oil to the tracks in the wee hours of the morning to ensure that the rails were optimally lubricated. He would be applying grease here and there to those parts he had missed in the first round. During the day, the rest of the gang would be working on something with an avalanche of trade tools ranging from mattocks, shovels, spades, pipe range spanners, geometrical sets etc to ensure that the track was in an impeccable condition. You could see the foreman putting his ears to the rail probably to listen if they had set it properly. The railway was taken care of the way a mother looks after her newly born.
Today in contrast the line is in disuse. It must be more than 10 years since the last train ran on these tracks. There are no more workers looking after the railway line. The Gang houses have been vandalized and only the walls remain standing. In most parts, the railroad is covered in thickets. The once meticulously maintained piece of infrastructure is in a pitiable decrepit state.
Some folks tether their animals on the rails. For others, this is where they get grass to feed their cattle while others get firewood from the thickets and bushes that are overgrowing on the banks.
My grandmother once told me that the fire engines provided a reprieve to the married women who ran out of fire in their hearths. It was considered a taboo by the people of kitambo for a woman especially one who had recently given birth to have the fire in her hearth go off. They were literally supposed to keep the fire burning under all circumstances. These women would walk distances along the railway line with the hope of getting a glowing coal or two dropped by the fire engines. This would really save them from the ignominy of borrowing fire coals from co-wives or neigbours. Only elderly women were exempted from this important tenet of fire and fire preservation. Old women did escape with a lot!
The main aim for the British to build the extension to Nanyuki is not readily available in the public domain. This entirely leaves the whole debate to mere speculation. Some say it was built primarily to transport troops and military supplies to the northern frontier to combat the threat posed by Alshabab led by Benito Mussolini who had invaded Ethiopia at the time deposing the local strong man Haile Selasie.
Whether the British actually achieved this is subject to conjecture but one thing that stands for sure is that the railway came in handy when it came to transportation of goods to and from the heart of central Kenya. The line helped the settlers in the transportation of wheat grain from the fertile wheat fields of Meru where relatives of Ben Soh and Karani Gunner Elneny carried out forced labour for the colonialists. It helped plunder the fertile plains of central Kenya and the ferrying of dairy products from ranches in Nanyuki, Mweiga and Narumoru where my relatives worked their asses off for a pittance under the British Nyaparas.
I happened to travel once by rail before this line became defunct and regretted my decision to choose train over matatu. My late brother and I were visiting my grandmother who lives a few kilometers from Chaka (you have heard of Chaka ranch. Haven’t you). To travel from my home town to Chaka would take you at most 40 minutes by road. This time we decided to try out the train. Why not and we would only pay half of what we would pay if we travelled by matatu plus we would catch the train from the local shopping centre. No walking to the home town which is about 6 km away. Unlike today where we have more boda bodas per square kilometer in our village than anywhere else in the country, there were no boda bodas then. For this, the train seemed a bargain.
We boarded the train at 12.30pm. The cabins were smutty to say the least, seats were torn and the bedding and pillows must have been from the man eaters of Tsavo era. The sheets were torn with scabby feathers escaping every now and then . The two of us pretended to enjoy viewing the nappier grass and couch grass along the railway line to avoid settling on the worn out couches. The attendant wanted us to sit but we turned a deaf year.
As the train snaked its way towards Karatina where we had our first stop, everything rattled, creaked and banged and you felt as if you were in the epicenter of a small earth quake . We left Karatina and meandered our way through Kiamariga, Ruthagati among other small shopping centres to Kiganjo. The train stopped at each of these stages to drop and pick. We reached Kiganjo at 5.00pm tired and worn out. We walked from Kiganjo to my grand ma’s place which is near Nyaribo airstrip reaching the place almost dusk.