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My Heart is Africa - The Nairobi Railway Museum

Inspired by Scott Griffin's book, "My Heart is Africa", this is the second instalment in the story of my short, eye-opening vacation to the East African republic of Kenya for my brother's wedding earlier this year.

We got up on our first day in Africa to the sounds and smells of a breakfast cooking. Our hosts had hired a chef named Martin for the week to make us our meals and he was hard at work preparing omelettes and stir-fried shredded potatoes. The food was very good and we set about taking in our new environment.

I noted that Martin himself was not eating any of the food he had prepared, and shortly found him behind the building eating a creamy white food made of maize, his main dietary staple and pretty much the only food many of the people there could afford.

We were staying in a gated community near the American compound, a prison-like fortress complete with guard towers built by the Americans in Nairobi in response to the 1998 Nairobi embassy bombing. Most of the residents of our neighbourhood were white or east Asian, with a constant stream of black workers walking back and forth along the main road, heading to and from their workplaces.

Labour in Nairobi is extremely cheap. Around one million people live in the part of Nairobi known as Kibera, which I am told is the largest slum in Africa, consisting largely of shanties and dilapidated buildings. The Kenya Railway track heads through the centre of the slum on its way toward the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Unemployment in the city is very high, and a daytime servant costs around KS 1000 a week -- about $14, with income taxes kicking in for people making as little as KS 10,000 or around $140 per year. Foreigners who work for NGOs like the United Nations, or for foreign companies or governments, but live in Kenya need not pay income tax.

Everything in Kenya, we learned, was called Kenya something: Kenya Police, Kenya Shilling, Kenya Railway.

Our first day was marked mainly by rest. There was an intense, never-ending heat from about 10 in the morning until about 3 in the afternoon, in which most people sat in chairs and read books, or otherwise occupied themselves in non-physical activity. The heat was not as overwhelming as I expected, owing to the high altitude and low humidity. The heat this summer back in Southern Ontario has been far worse.

In the afternoon, we left the house for the first time and I got my first look at Africa in daylight.

We walked down the street, heading to see a nearby restaurant. We walked around back, where we expected to find peacocks. We found two beautifully coloured birds walking around the grounds of the restaurant rather aimlessly, though they turned out to be Ugandan cranes, not peacocks.

We had a few days until my brother's wedding would become the main event, and a couple of days before the rest of the family and friends would arrive, so, to occupy the time and see what I wanted to see while I could, I asked our host, a retired professional Safari organiser, about the possibility of renting a small plane and instructor to see Nairobi from the air. He called some friends and the next morning got an answer. A one hour flight would cost us around $950 -- and we would not be able to over-fly most of the city, thanks to airspace restrictions. We quickly dropped the idea and I set my sights on another one of my obsessions.

Prior to our arrival in Nairobi, I had found that there is a railway museum in the city sporting a variety of old steam engines that had been used on the East African meter-gauge rail network. After asking around, a volunteer was found to take us downtown to see this museum.

On the second day, my parents, my wife, and I crowded into the car of a cousin of our host's and we drove up out of the driveway. We unlocked the gate to get out of the driveway and pulled onto the road, locking the gate behind us, and began our first daylight driving adventure.

We drove out to the end of the road, passing the manually operated gates to the community, turning left onto a larger road. We passed a shopping centre and worked our way toward downtown. The soil on the side of the road was a red tint that I had not seen in soil before. All along the road were street vendors, selling everything from vegetables to driving lessons. The pot-holes made "unimproved" roads in rural Maine look luxurious, and bone-jarring bumps were just a fact of life. Cars and light trucks with a large hand-painted wood sign reading something along the lines of "driving school" were parked occasionally along the side of the road.

As we entered downtown, we experienced something I was not entirely expecting. There are a number of large roundabouts in Nairobi. They are dotted with traffic lights at each intersecting road. There are police standing on the inside curb, sometimes with automatic weapons. But I'll be damned if I could tell you what the traffic laws are that they are probably supposed to enforce.

Traffic travels in about three lanes around these roundabouts. The traffic lights change colours, though no-one pays much attention. They might as well be Christmas lights. Occasionally, a driver will realise that the light in front of him is red and he'll stop, causing a chaos of screeching tires and swerving vehicles to avoid him. Traffic is now stopped, and the traffic from the other road may now proceed until someone there, too, notices that their light is against them.

A huge proportion of the traffic on the road is in the form of overcrowded minivans with a driver and a conductor known as matatus. A tourist guide from a few years prior to our visit described these as deathtraps and warned "to be avoided at all costs". A more recent version of the guide downgraded this to "do not sit in the death seat next to the driver". These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most common is white vans with a yellow stripe along the side. In the stripe, it says the names of the various cities this van may work in. The yellow stripe is mandated, to distinguish it from privately owned vans. Any privately owned vans that look like a matatu have "Private" written on them. Other variants of these matatus are large minibusses and full busses. Most matatus have emblazoned names and elaborate decoration.

For 30 shillings, anyone can ride a matatu. Each one has two crew members. The driver ostensibly drives the vehicle, though it isn't always clear that anyone is from seeing them careen down the roads, while a conductor hangs precariously off the side of the bus or van trying to pick anyone up who will come. The more passengers they get, the more they make.

Stuck in traffic between patrolled roundabouts, vendors peddled sunglasses, cigarette lighter cell phone adapters, posters, and pretty much anything else they could carry ran between the cars, trying to sell their wares to anyone with an open window. We were cautioned to keep our doors and windows closed and locked to avoid grab thefts, though the driver had her window open and put up her hand and said "esante" to each vendor, Swahili for "thanks", to indicate her lack of interest in their products.

We pulled into a parking lot with dozens of matatus and hundreds of people milling about in every conceivable direction, slowly driving down the line of small white vans to the Nairobi train station. We took a right at the station and followed a fence-line along the edge of a freight yard until we arrived a minute later at the Nairobi Railway Museum. Admission was KS 200 per person, KS 100 per still camera, and KS 200 per video camera. We spent the next hour there, the photos from which are available on my trainspotting website. The guest-book suggested that it had been at least two days since the previous visitors had arrived at the museum.

We left, and I wanted to see the Nairobi freight yard. We pulled off next to a pedestrian bridge over the yard near the station, and my father and I climbed up amid a sea of people. I walked along the bridge, taking pictures of the yard facing the direction of the station, wishing I had brought my SLR camera for this outing and not just my point and shoot as I had done because we were going downtown, an area generally to be avoided by tourists. Two small blue 2-axle diesel locomotives worked in the distance, too far for me to get good photos. The general reaction of people on the bridge was to completely ignore us, and we wandered back to the car and headed back home.

Our driver, the sister of our host, commented with a grin on my white knuckles as we headed back, driving in traffic that makes even the 401 through Toronto look phenomenally safe. Oddly, though, I remember seeing only one accident while we were in Kenya, a simple blind spot lane-change accident. Everywhere we went along the road, police checkpoints were a fact of life, using large, menacing spike strips arrayed so as to force all traffic to zig-zag through, but generally only stopping matatus. There are no environmental regulations to speak of on the roads in Kenya, and it was not uncommon for us to find ourselves behind a large truck billowing dark blue smoke.

Back at our temporary home at the north end of Nairobi, we began contemplating the rest of our time there. At the museum we learned of monthly steam excursions that run between Nairobi and three other cities in rotation. The Sunday of our departure, there would be an excursion from Nairobi to Naivasha at a cost of around KS 6500, around $90, per seat. We would be on safari until the day of the excursion and would not be able to make it back on time by land, but a few people were flying back to Nairobi from safari on the last day to catch a connecting flight. Some quick research in the form of pestering my brother turned up the fact that there were two vacant seats on the plane, and I quickly turned over the money for my share of the charter flight to get back to Nairobi.

The plane would not get into Wilson airport on time to ride the train, but I would see it. I would find a way.

My Heart is Africa - the series

  1. My Heart is Africa
  2. My Heart is Africa - The Nairobi Railway Museum
  3. My Heart is Africa - Carnivore, and seeing the animals we ate
  4. My Heart is Africa - A cross-cultural wedding
  5. My Heart is Africa - On Safari: Lake Nakuru's flamingos and the Naivasha Highway
  6. to be continued...

Posted at 13:42 on August 17, 2006

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RamblinMe writes at Sun Sep 10 12:28:07 2006...

Loved your article "My Heart is Africa - The Nairobi Railway Museum." It was nostalgic to read about a place that I visited. You have a terrific writing style and I hope to stay connected to your blog. For my trip around the world see my blog ramblinme.blogspot.com. Also, I'm thinking of living in India or Kenya for a while, just for the experience and to help in any way that I can. Your article helped with my research. Best wishes to you. Keep up the good work!

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