The old train streams out of the historical Nairobi Railway Station on its century-old track, once called the Uganda Railway. It slowly winds through a city that, 100 years ago, was filled with swamps, grasslands and wildlife like rhino and lions. The Uganda Railway was built between 1894 and 1901, from Mombasa to Kisumu and almost 1,000 kilometres long. It was central to Kenya’s economic development at the start of the 20th century.
Today’s skyline is very populated, with sky scrapers competing for height against traffic and people. We move from the CBD to the estates in the East – Kaloleni, Makongeni, Makadara, Donholm, Buru Buru. We head towards Imara Daima and then Syokimau’s gleaming new terminal. Soon we’re past Embakasi and the gigantic bridges for the new locomotives to pass over Nairobi National Park and finally, we disembark at the African Heritage House for the launch of the app ‘We Wear Culture’ by Google Arts & Culture. The app features the exhibits of the African Heritage House that Alan Donovan with his late partners – Sheila and Joseph Murumbi – collected.
But back to the train journey itself; as it moves past Kaloleni, I’m reminded of the Last Dance in Kaloleni, a movie script by Bettina Ng’weno, an associate professor at the University of California. The movie (in the making) is about the dance competitions in the social halls of the railway estates during Kenya’s segregated times of 1958-1959 – a time when the country was in the throes of the struggle for independence. “The story of the railway is the story of Nairobi,” says Ng’weno. “(In that) historical Nairobi, the urban Africans are not misfits but rather creators of the city.”
Back then, Kaloleni was an upscale neighbourhood for Africans and a home for politics and the black political elite. The social halls of the time were frequented by stalwarts like Mwai Kibaki and the late Tom Mboya, who was instrumental in negotiating Kenya’s independence. Uganda’s first president Milton Obote, Barack Obama Senior and the political activist and writer, Muthoni Likimani, were other regulars.
Dance competitions took centre stage. A dedicated radio programme called the Railway Show Boat featured legends of the times like Fadhili Williams. And people came to Nairobi to compete in the dance competitions in the social halls, staying with family that would accommodated them.
“It was like winning a lottery if you won,” continues Ng’weno. “It was also the beginning of a certain Kenyan style music of the 1950s now called zilizopendwa – or the ‘golden oldies’ – that combined Caribbean sounds, the twist, South African beats and local rhythms that became the sound of Nairobi.”
Hop on to the old locomotives run by Kenya Railways (www.krc.co.ke). They only do the Nairobi run and environs. Check the website for routes and rates.
Pop in at the Nairobi Railway Museum (0724 380 975) – and take time to explore it especially if you’re into steam engines and Nairobi’s history. time.
Take a tour of the African Heritage House (www.africanheritagehouse.info) – with its collection of everything African, from rare textiles to jewellery and sculptures.