Living Life Between the Tracks: From “Lunatic Express” to the “Standard Gauge Railway”

In the late 1890’s, as British East Africa”s most important colonial venture was underway – the Mombasa to Kampala railway – a young girl from the Kamba community watched, amazed. More than a hundred years later, that young soul is bearing witness to yet another grandiose infrastructural initiative: Kenya’s new Standard Gauge Railway.

It’s hard to believe that Shosho was Nzova is that old. There were no records of native births in the early years of Kenya’s Pax Britannica. Just like pre-segregation United States, there was minimal interest in the lives of colored folks – unless that interest had to do with men’s labor or women’s reproductive capacity. In any case, the reach of Britain’s East African empire was puny back then – usually restricted to the tiny commercial centers that were set up to support rail construction. Indentured laborers from India were often left behind to man this seedlings of European civilization in the midst of a vast savanna. Quite a number of these Gujarat traders learned local languages and integrated into the community. Many, however, had no clue what lay more than 10 miles on either side of the track. “Bush!” they’d say, “mere African bush … full of savages.”

The railway construction Shosho Nzova witnessed was to encounter numerous challenges before completion. Some of these problems had to do with the ecosystem. Like the man-eating lions of Tsavo that dragged numerous African and Indian laborers from their work camps at night. Other forms of crisis emanated from the imperialist nature of the railway project, and the manner in which indigenous communities reacted, and resisted. The Nandi people, for instance, were known to vandalize telegraph wire that ran alongside the rail line. The Nandi would then strip copper from these wires and use it for jewelry.

Shosho Nzova’s life was not smooth either. She bore 8 children, and brought them up on her own as a single mother. We were neighbors for almost 2 decades towards the end of her life. On some evenings, I’d go into her house and help her light a wooden fire. It was during those moments that she’d narrate incidents from her adulthood. She’d moved from her ancestral home to Ngong in the late 1940s or the early 1950s. In any case, she was in place to benefit from the restrictive regime that followed Kenya’s 1952 State of Emergency. Like her neighbors, she too was corralled into a concentration village. I was so poor I wore sisal sacks, she’d tell me. I did this while working for one white man in Karen and he was so moved he got me a new dress. Never one to simply lay down and give up, Shosho got into the brewing industry. She set up her own home beer and liquor production unit and made a living entertaining her fellow villagers. Mark you, selling beer from one’s residence was very illegal and warranted harsh punishments from both the colonial and post-independence governments.

Her parenting skills were remarkable. Despite having minimal education herself, she educated her kids to become professionals. Joakim, one of her boys, went to a teachers’ training college and got a job as a primary school teacher. With his government salary, Joakim pulled together enough savings to buy a plot of land. His property had a weird shape; or so it seemed to my young mind. It was very long, spanning two municipal-designated main roads, but it was extremely narrow. It was almost as though the land itself had once been demarcated as a roadway.

Joakim built a 3-bedroom stone bungalow, and put up a wooden structure for his mother. Much of the land was left to grow grass, and in these spaces he planted fruit trees. As young kids, we’d vandalize his guava orchard – using small gaps in the Kei-Apple hedge to rush in, grab as much fruit as possible before dashing back out. Speed was essential. Mwalimu Nzova, as Joakim was more called, did not mess with his garden and he was known to cane any village miscreants he caught impinging on his land rights. Often, one would have to dive head first into the thorny bush to avoid him spotting you. Getting caught was bad; being spotted and evading capture was not much better. The latter scenario usually ended with him making a report to your parents, in which case you still got punished. His farm was between our house and the Kinyanjui’s, family friends. To get to their house, it was possible to walk down hill and use the main road. But frankly, it was so much more tempting to simply cross Mwalimu Nzova’s shamba – damn the consequences!

Joakim’s reactions to neighborhood kids tramping across his farm was not unusual. Many residents in Kangawa village jealously guard access to their farm. Unless you’re in good terms, it’s highly unlikely they will look favorably at your attempts to trespass. And yet these sentiments are in complete contrast to what has been happening lately, all part of Kenya’s shiny new railway line.


At the moment, if you visit Kangawa, there’s an excitement in the air. The thrill is often punctuated by the words, “Mchina.” Word has it that a Chinese construction company is laying railway track for Kenya’s new Standard Gauge Railroad. There is good cause to believe these rumors. For the past 3 or 4 years, there’s been rail construction from the port of Mombasa. After almost 500KM, the line is outside Nairobi, it’s first major station. Just a few miles south east of Kenya’s capital, at Athi River, workers are putting final touches for overhead rail tracks. Clearly, the rail line is on its way west, towards Kisumu and perhaps even further on to Kampala.

The distance between Mombasa and Nairobi is littered with work sites, but unlike 100 years ago, there aren’t enough lions left in Kenya’s wilderness to ambush workers. However, just like a century ago, rail construction is the biggest economy in the small and dusty villages that the track has passed through. In Kangawa, able-bodied young men have signed up en masse to work under the Chinese company. All skills are in demand: electricians, plumbers, woodworkers, masons, etc. Even those with no handyman skills have been fortunate enough to apprentice in a trade of their choice.

Never mind the language barrier. Work hours are calculated in Chinese script as well as in English. Laborers have become adept at gesturing and non-verbal communication. They have also worked hard to pick up phrases and words from their Chinese bosses. On the other side, Swahili words are slowly making their way into the vocabulary store of those managing railway construction.

Several times a month, 2 or 3 Chinese surveyors are seen mapping out Kangawa. They lay out their theodolites, tape measures, and even 3D scanners on roads, farms, riverbeds, etc. Each of their move is well studied and scrutinized. Villagers are attempting to predict where the line will pass through, who will be relocated, and if/when monetary compensation will take place. I spoke with a former headmaster who jokingly talked about trees being compensated at the rate of $600 each. He suggested that after report he’d happily started counting all the trees in his backyard and saw that it all added up to a tidy sum. Perhaps, he said, I should start planting more seedlings even now so I get more money if my home is moved.

Yet, not everyone is eager for the monetary compensation. Even as folks point out that if a major train station is built close to Kangawa, job opportunities will really increase, others are worried about what will happen to the community and its nascent sense of togetherness. I think we’re going to get separated, and will have to learn how to re-build community wherever we all end up, Mochu said. He acknowledges the need for infrastructural investments, but he pointed out the costs of that in terms of relationships between people.

The rail line has already started off with a bang. There was a demonstration when local youth felt sidelined for employment opportunities at the hands of outsiders. Unsurprisingly, a similar conflict erupted in Narok. Young men who identified as Maasai Moran, violently clashed with Chinese managers as well as with Kenyan security personnel as they were voicing their concerns.  Expertise is highly valued by the construction company. Perhaps in attempts to keep the railway construction on schedule. This means that an electrician who worked with the company in Mombasa will be preferred to an applicant who hails from Kangawa. Consequently, there arises animosity between those who live in the areas where the track passes through, and outsiders who have managed to get construction jobs. To the Chinese, their workers are all Kenyans – in the way that foreigners are never savvy of localized competition and rivalry.

Kangawa is currently the site of an 8km tunnel that has to go through a hillside. This means that for the next couple of years, a lot of work will be happening underground. Ominous. To ward off any lingering malicious spirits, foremen set up an elaborate sacrifice on the first day when tunneling began. The offering, consisting of oranges, a bottle of banana wine, flowers and candles was meant to placate any malevolence. So far it has worked; there have been no work site injuries. More importantly, it won over the spectating group of workers. In the eyes of Kangawa’s youth, their Chinese workmates are more than tech-savvy foreigners, they are also a culturally-grounded people who have not discarded their customs and traditions. This won them major brownie points!

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