Ms Phyllis Kalume vividly remembers her first trip to Nairobi. She made the journey by train, courtesy of a brother-in-law who worked with the East African Railways.
Giddy with excitement, Ms Kalume, who boarded the train in Butere in Western Kenya, looked out the window as she headed for the city. Wondering what lay in store in the Nairobi, the spellbound girl watched as the landscape slowly rolled by. That was in 1952.
That journey was memorable, and not even new technology or long-distance buses could replace the thrill.
“My children always jokingly ask, do you have shares in the train company?” she says with a laugh.
Today (April 28,2017), Ms Kalume is sitting in her private, First Class cabin in the Mombasa-bound train. A bespectacled, matronly woman with a stern face, she commands authority. Two travel bags sit neatly at the foot of the bunk.
We are travelling to Mombasa on what is the last Mombasa-Nairobi passenger train before the much-publicised Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) starts operating and reduces the 13-hour journey from Nairobi to Mombasa by more than half.
For Ms Kalume, the end of this chapter in Kenya’s history is akin to losing a close friend. After that first train ride in 1952, she was sold. Year after year — even as the railways changed management and the coaches fell into disrepair and water disappeared from the night table — she looked the other way and remembered her maiden ride.
“We are losing a heritage,” she says, removing her glasses.
She invites me to look out the window at several crumbling brick huts. Those, she tells me, used to house train inspectors, adding that technology can’t change everything.
I almost didn’t make the trip. Like a typical Kenyan, I had thought the train would allow the customary 10 or so minutes before leaving the station. I arrived by scooter and hared past the gate, just in time to find the green and yellow train pulling out of the station. I clambered up the steps and later, sitting in my cabin, allowed the thought that it would be nice to reprise the role in a movie.
Nairobi drifted further into the distance as the train huffed its way to Syokimau. The new track lay shimmering alongside the old one, just a few metres away but a hundred years apart.
A group of men hard at work looked up from their task to greet us. Shirtless, their torsos gleaming with sweat, they hollered and waved. More than a hundred years ago, Indian workers laid the old railway line under the watchful eye of British engineers.
My cabin-mate is a young engineer named Oscar Wanjala, a veteran of train travel with an astonishing grasp of things related to trains. He explains that he is travelling to Mombasa to begin his career at the railway station there. A recent graduate of the Railway Training Institute in Nairobi, he has learnt basic Chinese.
“I have been travelling by train since I was a child,” he says. His father, now retired, was employed by Kenya Railways. He is part of the new, the family profession has been passed on: from standard definition to high definition.
The sun has now disappeared in the horizon and outside, the land has turned sepia. A crescent moon is visible between a scattering of cirrus clouds and stars as the locomotive speeds south.
Just before midnight, the passengers in the next compartment, possibly a little drunk or under the spell of the night and the sickle-shaped moon and history, gathered outside the compartment. The sound of a drum carried into the narrow aisle before someone played a few strains on the accordion – and then the music came. It was an instrumental rendition of the classic and well-known song – Them Mushroom’s Jambo Bwana.
RELICS OF THE PAST
Ms Memo Sanya didn’t know she was taking a historical ride. When she bought her ticket, all she wanted was transport to Mombasa. However, at the dinner table in the train restaurant, she was surprised to hear one of the waiters saying that some of the cutlery had been used for more than three decades.
Later, when she climbed into bed and saw the inscription on her pillowcase she remarked with amusement, “1985, can you believe that? That is a long time.”
Ms Sanya, who works in the insurance sector, was convinced that publicists had squandered an historic event. “Imagine if I hadn’t bought my ticket I would have missed out,” she said.
After realising the significance of the trip, she stood in the aisle and asked to be photographed. She stood by the window for a long shot, staring pensively at the receding scenery, then for a close-up, with her eyes narrowed to slits. She also decided to put her cell phone aside.
“I don’t want to know where we are, I don’t want to look at Google Maps,” she said. That way, the journey would be more authentic and close to the theme, a ride back to what was, and will never be again.
Describing their experiences shortly after the launch of the train service in the colonial era, historians wrote in detail about the shock, excitement, even fear, that greeted the smoking snake as it huffed along. The natives living along the railway line either stood and waved or scurried away in fright.
And although some clairvoyants had spoken about a “long iron snake” that would slither across the land, the first sight of train must have been a spectacle beyond imagination.
As the train belched its way towards Mombasa, similar reactions were reprised, albeit without the fear. Children ran alongside the carriages while adults held up their phones for a keepsake picture.
Many of the passengers had wanted to look out the window at Tsavo, the scene of a bloody confrontation between man and cat. But it was not yet dawn when the train chugged past. The builders of the railway were beset with problems, including tropical diseases, clashes with combative communities, and man-eating lions.
We slipped into the coast and were welcomed by stifling humidity. In the distance, palms fronds swayed their welcome and the track rolled out its carpet for one final jaunt.
There is a scene in the classic film Out of Africa that captures the romance and pull of rail travel. In it, Karen Blixen (played by Meryl Streep) stands outside her carriage. The brilliantly lit carriage stands out against the dark canvas of the night. Blixen stands for a moment surveying the highlands before walking back in, closely followed by her Great Dane. As the train puffs up the incline, the music score — Song for Africa — comes on.
It starts on a low key then, as the train rounds a corner, the bars rise to a haunting crescendo.
There is sadness even as the scene draws you in, with the train melting into the night.