May 11, 2018

Lunatic Express to Silicon Savannah

No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars,
or sailed to an uncharted land,
or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.

Helen Keller

Nairobi National Park within city limits…
After two long flights, I arrived in Nairobi, late at night.  I did not know what to expect upon waking up, unable to see much on the way to the hotel for that needed sleep before embarking on the many safaris to come.  I appreciate not knowing beforehand what surprises daylight can bring when discovering new places.  It reminded me of the time I first visited the Rocky Mountains in Canada, arriving by bus at 2am, and upon awakening, witnessing the pure majesty of the tall white peaks surrounding me, rendering me speechless with their grandeur and beauty.

In my inexperience, I thought African cities would be more primitive and parched.  I was proven wrong with Nairobi and, subsequently, with many others.  This large city began as a simple railway depot in 1899.  Today, it has a downtown skyline dominated by modern high-rises that carry faint traces of old British colonial appeal. 

Evening Skyline - Suitcase magazine
Nairobi is the main commercial, financial and cultural center of East Africa between Egypt and South Africa.  This vibrant cosmopolitan and multicultural city has a mix of museums, galleries, theaters, restaurants, sports facilities, resorts, golf courses, and a large National Park within the its city limits, the only such in the world!

Nairobi is known for its carefree lifestyle, great music and exquisite art.  One of its name to fame is the ability to see large wild African animals in the morning and shop in the afternoon, the ‘experience of Nairobi’ in a nutshell.

Ostriches in Nairobi National Park
In the shadows of the contemporary skyscrapers lives an army of homeless people.  In this city, come people from both extremes of the spectrum.   One of the largest shantytown in Africa, Kibera, is ‘home’ to anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 people.  (within additional 2.5 million homeless in about 200+ settlements). The mad maze of improvised shanties makes it impossible to count just how many people inhabit that area of Nairobi. 

I did not visit due to the difficulties involved – picture of Kibera by
Only 220,000 households (Dec 2017) of the 3.3 million living in Nairobi proper are supplied with water, a mere 6%!  With homelessness and lack of good infrastructure usually come high crime giving Nairobi the nickname Nai-robbery, something I have not experienced nor witnessed. 

The Maasai (more on this local tribe later) called it The Place of Cool Waters, (Ewaso Nai’beri or Enkare Nyorobi – later becoming Nairobi).  Six rivers flow through this area and the marshy land in between made for nearly limitless grazing.  Nairobi is also nicknamed Green City in the Sun. Before the railway line reached Nairobi, verdant vegetation was the norm.  Nairobi is built on swampy grounds, slowly drained over time.  Safari Capital of the World. It has been a starting point of safaris since the days of Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, or Silicon Savannah. IT sector is growing very fast in this area of Africa.  

Nairobi was built and grew exponentially despite all the negative press.  “Nobody expected a city without a waterfront, in the middle of a swamp and without natural resources to rise equal to Cairo founded in 969 or Cape Town founded in 1652!”  It should probably carry the nickname of Miracle City as well.

It is interesting to note that according to a myth of the local Maasai and Kikuyu tribes, the end of the world would come with the arrival of an ‘iron-snake’, a bad omen, crawling across their land!  With the coming of the ‘iron-snake’, cows would disappear, plundering of the land would begin, and life would change completely.

Mile 327, or what we call Nairobi today, was only supposed to be part of a chain of railway supply depots between Mombasa and Kampala.  Mile 327 was its name on the map since it consisted of one pitched tent and a supply store.  That small stopover, for what would later be known as the ‘Lunatic Express’, was the seed to Nairobi.  (Lunatic Express was coined by Charles Miller in 1971 book:  The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism.)

The railway was built in an attempt to reach landlocked Uganda to shield the advance of competing nations such as Germany.  The Uganda railway as it was called then was built by the British government to expand its domination of the area.  Britain had little use for East Africa and its dozens of separated indigenous tribes, it had its eyes on Uganda.  A rail line from the Indian Ocean to Uganda would guarantee access to Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile.  It was also used to haul raw material to various engineering and wartime projects.  At the time, this dream railway seemed so far fetched of a project that it was termed ‘lunatic line’.  That name hardly described the many challenges and misfortunes then encountered.  

Winston Churchill, who regarded it as “a brilliant conception”, said of the project: “The British art of ‘muddling through’ is here seen in one of its finest expositions.  Through everything – through the forests, through the ravines, through prides of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating Parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway.” (Wikipedia)

Man Eaters of Tsavo mural.  Railway museum Nairobi
The line concluded its long 660 miles (1,060 km) journey from Mombasa at Kisumu, on the banks of Lake Victoria, the famous source of the Nile. The geographic obstructions required the construction of thousands of bridges. Of the 32,000 British-ruled Indians (needed due to lack of suitable or willing indigenous laborers) who worked on the railway, almost 2,500 perished. Lions picked off a fair few (estimate varies from 28 to 165); drought, malaria and dysentery took many more.

Everything about the ‘Lunatic Express’ was crazy.  Sir Charles Eliot, the commissioner of British East Africa, said of it “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.”  Dissolution of once isolated tribal cultures are synonym with the construction of this railroad.  Without the train, Kenya would have taken much longer to come into existence if at all. 

The old service deteriorated so much that trains travelling faster than 25 miles (40 km) per hour could easily derail.  What used to take 30 minutes eventually took four hours!  Even though they used one of the most powerful locomotives ever built, decades of oppressive and corrupt military rule reduced everything to utter decay; rusting trains, threadbare stations and warped tracks. Extreme scarcity left the tracks in such poor condition that engineers had to intuitively know where the track was at its worst and drive accordingly.  Workers were taking the company to court for unpaid wages.  Everything was in ruins.

After 117 years of running or barely running, the ‘Lunatic Express’ took its last breath in April 2017.  Once the pride of the region, the builder of countries and the mover of people and things. Now, just an old, rusty and rickety museum piece, with more history within it than we can ever tell.” (Owaahh) But railways open countries up in a ways planes and buses can’t.  Here, it helped overcome the challenges brought up by swamps.

The first people who landed in the Nairobi area considered its marshy land perfect for their grazing animals.  For the nomadic or semi-nomadic Maasai and Kikuyu, this was also a good meeting ground.  Unfortunately, the swampy land was also a prime breeding range for epidemics and therefore was vacated seasonally. 

During the rainy season, the whole town would transform into a quagmire.  On many occasions, while population numbers were still manageable in the early 1900’s it was suggested that the town be moved to higher grounds, but the proposals kept being ignored and draining the swamp was the option chosen.  First eucalypti were planted to help drying it up, eventually drainage systems were installed.

Most of the swamp has been replaced with skyscrapers and clearly insufficient road networks.  The city that was never meant to be, is now the epicenter of the Kenyan economy and society.

New Chinese train - Reuters TV
Today, the ‘Lunatic Express’ has been replaced by a new line built with Chinese money.  China loaned Kenya 90% of the money with a price tag 50% higher than similar projects in nearby countries, worrying many.  Can China succeed where others did not, in keeping it running?  Will this version of a train attract customers?  A newly US$12 million Chinese-built bridge in western Kenya collapsed before it was completed – is that a sign of what is to come for another version of a Lunatic Express? 

Back in the city of Nairobi now that we established its humble beginnings...

I had forgotten that this country hosts many Muslims but quickly reminded when awakened by the sound of early morning prayer calls, two nearby mosques competing for the attention of their followers.  It also has many Indians.  Of the 32,000 who came to assist in building the railway, more than 6,200 stayed after the project was completed.  Other than many Kenyan tribes, Nairobi hosts sizable European, Pakistani and Somalian groups. 

I feel like life in Mexico, by degree, has prepared me for this country, this continent.  There are many similarities, a few differences. 

As in Mexico, they are very proud of their country, nearly always assuring and re-assuring you that you will love their Africa, that you are welcome, that they are happy to meet you and that you will be safe. 

Welcome = Karibu
As in Mexico, they live on nearly nothing, using their wits, creativity, barter, and ingenuity to get by which always makes for interesting things to see, eat, or experience. 

After work, the sidewalks of Mexico often turn into small mom and pop restaurants with a couple tables and a few chairs awaiting diners.  Here merchants of all kinds spread out items for sale in nearly every corner.  All of it easily movable should cops or security guards decide they do not want them there.  A sort of musical chair, as they pack up and just move a little further, quickly replaced by the next salesperson once the authority figure has left.  It is very crowded, but not once did I feel uneasy about the people around me. 

In Mexico, nearly everyone smiles at you.  Here they do not easily initiate but are good at returning them, especially in rural areas.  They have such beautiful smiles, it’s a shame it doesn’t come more naturally but many have lived a truly harsh history, so it is understandable. 

Kenyans live on much less than most Mexicans but after seven years of traveling I have discovered that the less people have, the more giving they are of themselves, their time, their advice, their friendship, etc.  It is great yet humbling to be surrounded by such people again, the ones who have nothing to lose are usually the most genuine.

Signs above head everywhere.  Don’t forget to look up to find a business.
Around the city, there are signs above our heads for all types of businesses, I would not want to be a tall person as many are not even six feet above ground.  First floor is much more expensive to rent, so many are on the floors above and signs are for what you cannot see from street level.  Many restaurants are defined by a small sign in front of a narrow stairwell going up, delicious cooking smells wafting down. 

Sellers ready to quickly pack up if need be.

Plastic bags have been outlawed since August 2017 (their fourth attempt in 10 years, will it stick this time?), leading to less trash along the roads, something Mexico and other countries should follow.  It’s not the perfect solution but anything helps.  It was discovered that the average cow eating along the road had 20 plastic bags in their stomach.  What are the effects on the cows and on the food chain when we eat their meat?

Since there are often food scraps in plastic bags, cows end up ingesting many of them

Once jet-lag subsided, a longer walk around town to see the university grounds, a few parks, and the Nairobi National Museum was most welcome.  The National Museum should not be missed.  It is here that I realized Lucy (3.2 million years) was no longer the oldest hominin found but Little Foot (3.67 million years).  Much of the displays have been influenced by the work of the famous Leakey family (3 generations and 6 decades) and their continued commitment to patching together the clues of our origins.

It contains:
  • Cradle of humankind exhibition considered the single most important collection of early human fossils in the world.  Including the full remains of the homo erectus Turkana Boy (1.6 million years)
  • Cycles of life of Kenya’s tribes and cultures
  • Ethnological artifacts from East Africa dating as far back as 1680
  • Great hall of mammals – extinct and current
  • History of East Africa
  • Joy Adamson’s (naturalist and author of Born Free) paintings covering Kenya’s tribes
  • Ornithological room containing 900 East African bird specimens 
Sculpture at entrance to National Museum. 
Gourds represent just about anything in East Africa
Storage of water, milk or grains, fermenting of beer,
measuring device, cup, plate, or ornamental
Before I close, here is an odd tidbit: the Panari Sky Center houses Solar Ice Rink, the largest ice rink in Africa; the rink can accommodate 200 people.  Ice skating in Africa!

Glad to have spent a few days in Nairobi before starting the safari, 11-hour time difference takes a few days to adjust to.  Ready and eager to start…  We begin with visiting giraffes and elephants…

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