Category Archives: History Mondays

Mombasa to Nairobi, The rail road story :Part 1

” To my amazing readers:-),

This issue of the railway story , takes a look at the journey from Mombasa as was started by the railway building party.It begins at Kilindini harbour with the landing of George Whitehouse, chief railway engineer. This is the first part in a three part series of the railway journey from Mombasa to Nairobi then the next series starts from  Nairobi to the lake.

If you  didn’t catch the previous article on the railway and why it was built, you can check it out here. (The Race to a pearl) .  I hope you enjoy it, in fact I know you will. Stay tuned for Part 2, which contains everything you didn’t know about the man-eating lions of Tsavo.

In the mean time, Happy reading 🙂 ,have a fabulous week, let’s #SaveTheRailway

 Mombasa to Nairobi, The rail road story: Part 1

George Whitehouse landed at the port of Mombasa on December 11th 1895.He had been commissioned as the Chief engineer of the great new rail road and was feted for his involvement in railway construction in England, South Africa, Mexico, South America and India. One might suppose that given his experience in many a country, Whitehouse was already predisposed to face whatever challenge railway construction might have to offer. But no amount of experience or preemptive measures would have prepared him for the myriad of challenges that this unforgiving, unflinching and largely unexplored stretch of land was about to offer.

George Whitehouse
George Whitehouse

At that time Mombasa was a town of relatively minute, segregated settlements. The Arabs, the Swahilis, the Indians and the Natives all had their own portions of this picturesque island which they called home. It had not the air of a city or of a town that would facilitate the advent of a 600 mile rail road. For centuries it had just lay there in the sun and enjoyed the leisurely trade of honey, wax, slaves & ivory, it had casually witnessed the gliding of monsoon dhows towards its shores and watched the dhows filled with an assortment of goods, go back to whatever distant land they came from. But things were stirring and Mombasa was beginning to stir too.

When Whitehouse landed, he found that there were no permanent structures where he could put either himself or his team up. The few semi permanent structures that existed consisted of iron roofed buildings which had previously been built by missionaries and explorers. Not to mention the Grand Hotel, there was not much of an array to choose from. It was clear that the speed and success of the building of the line was greatly dependent on the organization and efficiency of the base at Mombasa. In the coming months before the rest of the party arrived, Whitehouse spent his time buying land, sending out survey parties to examine the interior and building permanent structures which would serve as homes, jetties, offices and warehouses.

Kilindini Harbour

The first batch of 350 coolies arrived in Mombasa on January 24th 1896 and by March of 1897 close to 4,000 coolies had been recruited. The building of the Uganda Railway was a project almost entirely dependent on “direct labor” as mechanized techniques of railway building had not yet been widely adopted. It goes without saying that such an immense project would require an immense and diverse pool of workers. Consequently, by the end of the construction period close to 32,000 workers had been recruited from India. The total average cost of coolie labor was 30 rupees per head, per month. While a Swahili porter received ten rupees a month with occasional rations of flour, rice, a little meat and oil.

As is common with human enterprise, there is always a need for ceremony. As if to cement the idea of the endeavour within the minds of its participants, ceremonies are an inherent part of life. In this stance, the railway was no more different than a birthday, a wedding or a funeral, as on the 30th of May 1896 the official “First Rail” ceremony took place near Kilindini. The rail road journey had officially begun.

First rail ceremony near Kilindini

By the 4th of August, track laying had begun on the mainland of Mombasa. And the next few months saw steady progress in the building of the railway. The men worked well, there was food, there was water and there were supplies. But as fate would have it, this tranquil state would not prevail for long, the harsh reality of the situation soon begun to manifest itself.

In November & December 1896 and early 1897.The health of the railway staff from the Europeans down to the Natives was in piteous straits. Over 50% of coolies had suffered/ were suffering from Malaria or Ulcers and the jigger menace was prevalent within the camps. It is worth noting that at this point in time, the world still had much to learn about the prevention and cure of tropical diseases and much more still about nutrition and sanitation within the tropics. In the event that proper sanitation and nutrition was observed many of the deaths would have been avoided.

After 15 months work, the length of line laid fell far below the set target of 100 miles. The short fall was due to a variety of reasons, among them, labor disputes in England which delayed the delivery of railway material.

Team of workers near voi
Team of workers near voi

Of all the obstacles that would be faced within the course of the railway construction, the Taru desert was by far one of the worst .The Taru was a waterless scrub stretching around 50 miles inland, from Mombasa. Stories are told of men who would choose to wander into the desert deep in the night and die, rather than spend another day thirsty and weak under the scorching sun. At one point, all the water holes had dried up and close to six thousand men were entirely dependent on water trains which were more often than not, derailed due to track washaways or temporary alignments.

“Africa is a land dominated by water, the presence of water and the absence of it“, Ronald Hardy. The events that took place in the Taru desert offered concrete proof to the validity of this statement. The heat was oppressive it seemed to sap all the water from the environment and after it was done, it turned on the men and sapped the water from their languid bodies too. A man lost a lot of fluid toiling and sweating in the sun all day, fluid that he needed to stay alive, but the sun was malevolent, and it had no concern for life. Men were collapsing everyday from heat-exhaustion, dehydration and malaria.

Their only reprieve would be found in the Tsavo River which lay 132 miles from Mombasa. So they dug and laid plate after plate across that hard, indifferent land that seemed not to want them there. Eventually, despite slow progress and the occasional setbacks they got to Voi, then they got to Tsavo and water was no longer a problem. But with one problem squarely out of the way, it was not long before another problem swooped in to fill its place. The worst was not over yet, Tsavo held in store bigger, stronger and more carnivorous problems.The nefarious man-eater lions lay eagerly in wait of the night.


Stay tuned for part 2…, 🙂 coming soon


The race to a pearl

Download- a brief history of the Kenya-Uganda railway

race to a pearl

To my esteemed readers,

This issue of The Agora focuses on the history behind the Uganda railway. Taking a look at the main reasons why it was built and the events that preceded it. You can download it here.  

I realized that as I ask you to join me in my quest to “save a railway”, It’s only fair that I tell you the wonderful tale of how it begun.

I hope it interests you as much as it did me, and I hope that through it you learn that, no matter how small a single man’s role may seem the outcome is always great.

Check out the latest updates on the “Save the railway” project  here .Enjoy the article, it’s quite interesting if I may say so myself 🙂

Yours truly,


Here’s a snippet ….

Uganda was the pearl, Germany and Britain were on the chase. The Uganda railway was no ordinary rail; the story of its birth is one of strife, resilience and serendipity. A child born of socio-economic interests, philanthropic pretexts and a conflict between two of the most powerful European countries, it came into this world, a painful challenge and at the same time an exciting endeavour.

Ranging from scrupulous missionaries to ruthless Arab traders and impulsive kings, the number of parties involved in shaping the railway as we know it today, is far more numerous than we can dare to imagine.

In the making of history, men are often oblivious of the impact their activities and decisions will have on generations to come. But it is in this unwitting state that they toil and sacrifice to pave a way for those who will come after them. Herein lies the tragedy and triumph of those men.

Men who by their collective actions,
decisions and efforts facilitated the advent of this iron snake to a land so stark yet so highly promising.”


Of hotels, Greeks and a white man’s bronze statue


The only hotel in Mombasa during the period that was the 1890’s was the Grand hotel (which was said to be grand only in name but not in stature.) It was owned by a Greek man named Dallas. The story of one Mr. Dallas is however short and sadly unfortunate. One time Dallas was on his way from Voi to the German station in the Kilimanjaro district, when he lost his way and before he had any chance of finding it, died of thirst.

The grand hotel was a double storied building  that stood opposite the statue of Sir William Mackinnon (first president of the Imperial British East African company).

The bronze statue (which stood at treasury square) was met with great intrigue and surprise by the natives not because of its artistic splendour or any whimsical folly. They simply found it strange that Sir William’s colour seemed very similar to their own.

The statue was removed after Kenya gained it’s independence in 1963 and as for the Grand hotel, well let’s just say it has long long long long.. since been demolished.

Mackinnon’s statue

A massacre and a friendship – Kedong massacre (1895)

“It is often said that the real worth of a man is not measured by what he does when he is alive but what he leaves behind when he dies.”

Historical records are stained with horrid stories of massacres and unjust killings of innocent civilians all around the world. Of all these stories, one incident particularly stands out as a tragic story with an unusual, yet amiable outcome. Never before had a massacre struck a friendship between two warring parties. But men are often unpredictable and sometimes novel in their ways.

This is the story of The Kedong massacre which occurred in Kedong Valley (Rift Valley Kenya ).Little is known about this massacre and how it played a role in strengthening the bond between the Masai and the British colonialists.

The Masai had posed the greatest risk of native opposition to British occupation in East Africa and the British had considered them the most warlike if not barbaric tribe in the region. One may wonder, how they ended up collaborating or even why they did so in the first place. Though debatable, answers to these questions lie in a series of events that forced this regal tribe to submit to the will of an unwelcome stranger.

November 26th 1895… the Kedong valley, a large caravan consisting of 105 Swahilis including 50 armed men and 1,200 Kikuyu porters was camped near Kijabe on their way from Eldama Ravine to Kikuyu. The Swahili chief headman of the caravan ordered some of his armed men to raid a nearby Masai village and seize two young girls for his use. The girls were seized and brought to the camp. They were quickly followed by a group of Morans who forcefully demanded and by so doing facilitated their release.

The next morning while passing the village, the Swahili headman once again ordered the seizure of two Masai girls. In the resultant struggle, a gun went off. To the already greatly provoked Morans this was undoubtedly a call for war. The war-cry rang out from the village and was echoed from other nearby villages. That night the caravan and it’s arrogant, instigating headmen was at the mercy of the Morans. The death toll was almost interminable

  • 2 Swahili headmen
  • 13 armed and 85 unarmed Swahili porters
  • 546 Kikuyu
  • The Masai losses stood at less than 40 killed.

Shortly after the massacre, Andrew Dick an English trader on his way to Uganda came upon the scene. Mr T.T.Gilkison (officer in charge of Fort Smith at Kikuyu) had heard about the disaster and sent out a force of police to escort Dick and company back to the fort. Dick was in the company of 3 French travelers who had just come from a shooting expedition. Without finding out the cause of the massacre, Dick decided to attack the Masai with the reluctant aid of the three Frenchmen. Dick opened fire and almost singlehandedly killed over 100 Morans. Together this “traveling band of misfits” also captured 200 heads of cattle from the Masai but Dick lost his own life through his reckless folly and the jamming of his riffle at a critical moment.

At the time of Dick’s death Lenana (who had been proclaimed Chief Laibon of the Masai people after the death of Mbatian in 1890) was on a visit to Fort Smith along with other Masai leaders. Here they were detained until they had a meeting with Mr. John Ainsworth.

During the meeting it was agreed that the Morans were justified in reacting to the provocation of the Swahili headmen and company. It was also agreed that Dick’s actions were unwarranted and he had no right to open fire.As a result the Masai were not going to be “punished” .But they were however supposed to return all arms and property stolen from the caravan and the cattle that was taken from them was distributed among the families of the Kikuyu porters who were killed.

It is important to note that between the years 1880 – 1890 Rinderpest had led to the severe loss of the tribe’s cattle and to top it all off there was great famine and an outbreak of smallpox during this same period. All these catastrophic events left the once united, inviolable tribe in piteous straits. The massacre incident practically marked the beginning of Lenana’s friendship and loyalty to the government.

Whether Lenana’s collaboration was seen as a desolation of independence or a heroic act to save a weakened tribe, the truth of the matter remains that, it played a huge rule in shaping history as we know it today. And very well left us with this divergent story to tell.

Lorem Ipsum – Did you know??

If you’re an application programmer, web developer or graphic designer, you’ve probably come across the “Lorem Ipsum” text more than once. The text is commonly used as a place holder text to demonstrate the presentational elements of a document such as layout, fonts and typography by removing the distraction of meaningful content. (In short you can’t understand it so you don’t bother reading it, you end up focusing on the layout more than you do content)

Historically It can be traced to Marcus Tullius Cicero  (a Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator and political theorist)  who in his text  Boundaries of Goods and Evils argues out the relationship between pleasure and pain and men’s constant need to either seek it or avoid it.


The place holder text in itself is meaningless when translated to English, as it only picks a few parts of Cicero’s text and combines them into unstructured sentences. However, the original text taken from   H. Rackham’s 1914 translation of the Loeb Classical Library edition reads:::

 “But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing of a pleasure and praising pain was born…

No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful.

Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure….

In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammeled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. ….….

The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains.”

It is not exactly known when today’s version of Lorem Ipsum was used a place holder text, but it was highly popularized in the 1980’s by Apple Macintosh’s Aldus publishing program. Today  many programs have auto-generate features that automatically place Lorem Ipsum text within code/ paragraphs  these include Microsoft office, Dreamweaver , WordPress and many more.

For instance, If you want to insert “Lorem Ipsum” text in your word document just open up a new document and type..

=lorem() and press the enter key


and just like that, you have your Lorem Ipsum text


So next time you see “Lorem Ipsum” text lying around somewhere, you’ll appreciate the history behind it.As opposed to seeing it as a bunch of jumbled up Latin words you’ll know it tells a lonesome story of pleasure and pain and the inevitable relationship between them.

Egg of Columbus

Ever had those moments when you’re facing a really difficult problem and you’ve been scratching your head so hard you could  pulverize your finger nails trying to solve it? And just as you’re about to conclude that the “question” is the one with the problem, someone comes along and takes a few minutes to figure it out and you’re left there blaming the education system you went through. Because obviously the problem isn’t you?

If so, then you can pretty much relate with the “Egg of Columbus”. The “Egg of Columbus” does not refer to some gourmet meal or some exotic type of egg found in South America (:-P), it merely refers to a brilliant idea or something that hasn’t been thought of, yet when done seems amazingly easy.

350px-Columbus_Breaking_the_Egg'_(Christopher_Columbus)_by_William_Hogarth (1)

The origin of the term can be traced back to the Italian writer and historian Girolamo Benzoni who in his book “History of a new world” (1565) wrote:

“Columbus was dining with many Spanish nobles when one of them said:

‘Sir Christopher, even if your Lordship had not discovered the Indies, there would have been, here in Spain which is a country abundant with great men knowledgeable in cosmography and literature, one who would have started a similar adventure with the same result.’

Columbus did not respond to these words but asked for a whole egg to be brought to him. He placed it on the table and said:

‘My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.’

They all tried without success and when the egg returned to Columbus, he tapped it gently on the table breaking it slightly and, with this, the egg stood on its end.

All those present were confounded and understood what he meant: that once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it.  “

So my faithful Agorians, as you go about your business today, don’t let anyone make you feel like your accomplishments are too easy or meaningless, if they haven’t done it, they probably had no clue how to go about it. Remember our achievements define us, so always be proud of Your “Egg of Columbus”!

Save the railway

An insight on the Kenya – Uganda railway and the need to preserve the Country’s railway stations 
(Case study : Voi Town Railway station)

The Kenya-Uganda railway, whose building commenced in 1896 at the port of Mombasa Kenya, lives on close to 117 years later to tell the story of a country and the different generations that have gone through it. Though not as robust, polished and stupendous as it used to be, it serves as a testimony to colonialism and mutual opposition of both nature and people to this strange thing crawling its way through their land and clawing its roots into it.

Sometimes called the Lunatic express due to the uncanny series of unfortunate events that seemed to follow it; ranging from man eating lions to massacres, it completed its journey through the jagged Kenyan terrain at the port of Kisumu in 1901.

Case study: Voi railway station.

The growth and development of Voi town can largely be attributed to the Kenya-Uganda railway which is said to have reached Voi in 1896/1897 a year or so after it left Mombasa .Voi town served as a significant transit point between Mombasa and Nairobi and also served as the junction for the feeder railway that went on to Taveta then to Moshi then further down to Arusha, Tanzania.

The station in itself is an exquisite, formidable concrete antiquity built in that classical British architectural style. It can equally serve as a time machine because almost nothing has changed in the last 100 years or so. Its current state is however disheartening as rotting roofs, deserted offices and abandoned wagons tell the story of a country/town that has failed to preserve its history.

This series of photos taken at the Voi railway station is part of a photo essay that seeks to revive the railway and give it back that life and vigour that is slowly drifting away from it. Consequently showing the need and urgency to preserve, maintain and appreciate stations such as Voi which in this case serves as a representation of most stations within the country.

 To get the full document with a compilation of some of the photos Download hererailway

Da Vinci’s Demons

Prelude to this post : Friday night razzmatazz

Self portraitLeonardo di ser Piero da Vinci

The world depicted in the art of his day was self contained , fixed ,circumscribed .Leonardo set out to break the shell and to evoke movement. He painted souls not bodies with him modern art was born.

Therefore through Leonardo the 15th century which with its confidence in man ,its moral energy and its daring intellectualism had given the world so many masterpieces was drawing to an end, as Leonardo said his last words the 15th century lost a maverick and that was the beginning of the disasters which as well as glories the following century was to bring Italy.

Adoration of the Magi - Current Location Uffizi gallery FLorence

Adoration of the Magi – Current Location Uffizi gallery FLorence

Leonardo wrote on Mona Lisa “Paint the face in such a way that it will be easy to understand what is going on in the mind .Yet the most famous portrait in the world possesses a smile that has become the symbol of mystery.

The Mona Lisa : Current Location - Louvre ,Paris
The Mona Lisa : Current Location – Louvre ,Paris


Pleasure and pain are represented as twins ,as though they were joined together for there is never one without the other; and they turn their backs to each other .They have one and the same foundation ,for the foundation of pleasure is labor with pain ,and the foundations of pain are vain and lascivious pleasures. If you shall choose pleasure know that he has behind him one who will deal out to you tribulation and repentance.  – Leonardo

The Last Supper : Current Location – Santa Maria delle Grazie

Tu O Iddio ,tutto ci vendi a prezzo di fatica (Thou O God sellest everything at the price of hard work)

There may not be in the world an example of another genius so universal, so incapable of fulfilment, so full of yearning for the infinite, so naturally refined, so far ahead of his own century and the following centuries. .. Hippolyte

Virgin of the Rocks :Current Location Louvre ,Paris
Virgin of the Rocks :Current Location Louvre ,Paris

The Last years of da Vinci were passed in ease near Amboise in central France where he had gone to live at the invitaion of the king.His visitors avoided seeing his paralysed hands.Never had his talk been more versatile,never his presence more courtly,nor his smile more understanding .Perharps Death herself wore that smile that light on the lips of mystery and wisdom which da Vinci alone ever captured when she came for Leonardo on May 2,1519.-Donals Culross

Ship wrecked

Christopher Columbus-Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella (King and Queen of Spain)

“33 days after my departure,I reached the Indian sea,where I discovered many islands with many people .I took possession of them without resistance in the name of our most illustrious King.As soon as we arrived ,at that Island named Juana. I sailed along its coast a short distance westward and found it to be so large that I though it was a province of Cathay.

I then sailed eastward along the coast.This brought me to the end of the island.From this point I saw another island lying to the east.On this island we found mountains of great size and beauty,vast plains and fruitful fields.The land is also suited for farming ,pastures and settling.

Now my Lord treasurer,I have described to you the events of my voyage and the advantages of these new lands.I promise that with a little assistance from our King and Queen ,I will get as much gold ,as they need and as great quantity of spices ,of cotton ,of gum.I can also provide as many men for the service of their majesties’ navy as they may require”

Columbus made four voyages in all across the Atlantic but they ended in disappointment,for he failed to find the silks, jewels and spices of the Indies.He died in poverty and neglect,never realising that he had discovered the new world.But despite using subjective assumptions,a false hypothesis and a route abandoned by modern navigation,Columbus nevertheless discovered America.

Ship wrecked

The Headstrong Historian


Excerpt from the story The Headstrong Historian by 

“………..It was Grace who, after graduating from secondary school, would teach elementary school in Agueke, where people told stories of the destruction of their village by the white men with guns, stories she was not sure she believed, because they also told stories of mermaids appearing from the River Niger holding wads of crisp cash.

It was Grace who, as one of a dozen or so women at the University College in Ibadan in 1953, would change her degree from chemistry to history after she heard, while drinking tea at the home of a friend, the story of Mr. Gboyega. The eminent Mr. Gboyega, a chocolate-skinned Nigerian, educated in London, distinguished expert on the history of the British Empire, had resigned in disgust when the West African Examinations Council began talking of adding African history to the curriculum, because he was appalled that African history would even be considered a subject.

It was Grace who would ponder this story for a long time, with great sadness, and it would cause her to make a clear link between education and dignity, between the hard, obvious things that are printed in books and the soft, subtle things that lodge themselves in the soul. It was Grace who would begin to rethink her own schooling: How lustily she had sung on Empire Day, “God save our gracious king. Send him victorious, happy and glorious. Long to reign over us.” How she had puzzled over words like “wallpaper” and “dandelions” in her textbooks, unable to picture them. How she had struggled with arithmetic problems that had to do with mixtures, because what was “coffee” and what was “chicory,” and why did they have to be mixed? It was Grace who would begin to rethink her father’s schooling and then hurry home to see him, his eyes watery with age, telling him she had not received all the letters she had ignored, saying amen when he prayed, and pressing her lips against his forehead.

It was Grace who, driving past Agueke on her way to the university one day, would become haunted by the image of a destroyed village and would go to London and to Paris and to Onicha, sifting through moldy files in archives, reimagining the lives and smells of her grandmother’s world, for the book she would write called “Pacifying with Bullets: A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria.” It was Grace who, in a conversation about the book with her fiancé, George Chikadibia—stylish graduate of King’s College, Lagos, engineer-to-be, wearer of three-piece suits, expert ballroom dancer, who often said that a grammar school without Latin was like a cup of tea without sugar—understood that the marriage would not last when George told her that it was misguided of her to write about primitive culture instead of a worthwhile topic like African Alliances in the American-Soviet Tension. They would divorce in 1972, not because of the four miscarriages Grace had suffered but because she woke up sweating one night and realized that she would strangle George to death if she had to listen to one more rapturous monologue about his Cambridge days.

It was Grace who, as she received faculty prizes, as she spoke to solemn-faced people at conferences about the Ijaw and Ibibio and Igbo and Efik peoples of Southern Nigeria, as she wrote common-sense reports for international organizations, for which she nevertheless received generous pay, would imagine her grandmother looking on with great amusement. It was Grace who, feeling an odd rootlessness in the later years of her life, surrounded by her awards, her friends, her garden of peerless roses, would go to the courthouse in Lagos and officially change her first name from Grace to Afamefuna.

But on that day, as she sat at her grandmother’s bedside in the fading evening light, Grace was not contemplating her future. She simply held her grandmother’s hand, the palm thickened from years of making pottery. ♦

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