Category Archives: Kenya

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.

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