I wore a red t-shirt and green and white shorts on my first trip to Mombasa by rail. This memory is clear, as is that of my father strapping in the security harness as I settled in to sleep on the top bunker in our compartment.
In the 1990s, it was a special thing to travel to Mombasa, anywhere really, by train. It was always a longer, hotter trip but the rattle and wobble of the train as we chugged across changing terrain were magical to a child of 10.
The snaking railway lines seemed to stretch on forever but that wasn’t to be.
Over the years the stations and trains fell into disrepair, were forgotten then overtaken by an aggressive road transport system. By mid-2000s, the old railway line had grown rusty waiting on a country that no longer cared it existed.
Last year I spent my birthday reliving the past at Tatiana Chao’s “Save the Railway” exhibition at the ShiftEye Gallery. In 2013, Chao started to document antique stations along the Kenyan leg of “The Lunatic Express”, documenting the memories and stories around the railway. She visited 50 stations between Mombasa and Kisumu.
It was a stunning collection of images, a true love letter to the railway.
On their own, each picture of a derelict office, worn bench or sign told a tale of lost pride. Yet, hanging all together in a room curated by a loving, concerned soul they regained a bit of their dignity.
I made sure to leave with an image taken at the Nairobi station, one the few active lines. That picture of scuffed floors, the back of a busy railway station master flanked by a disused schedule board, dusty tables and potted plants is trapped in time. A wonderful study in composition and history.
Chao believes that “we have a duty to appreciate the work and sacrifice made by those who came before us.” Indeed.
Since it’s always best to share memories, I reached out to friends and family via Whatsapp to get their railway travel experiences:
“As a little kid taking the train go Mombasa, I have memories of my grandparents removing silver tins full of food as we sat in the cozy cabin and played games. My absolute favourite was brushing my teeth at the little sink which has a window above it and just staring out into the endless landscapes. The gentle rocking as you slept in the tiny bunk bed was so soothing. We had our noses pressed up against the window the whole time, waiting for animals to appear.
Recently taking the train from Imara Daima. The station was so impeccably clean it sparkled. Yet it felt cold and empty without the rush of warm bodies that I remember before at train stations.
Staring out and seeing mabati shanties and mounds of rubbish; people living in such indignity alongside this supposed paeon of progress; children at a school playground cooped in by chicken wire as if they were dangerous creatures to be kept away from the public. How unfair. How unfair. How unfair. The government beats their chest in pride at the progress with our fancy trains yet the truth stares into the train windows from sewer gutters.”
“I rode the train from Nairobi to Athi Plains. It took between 45mins to 1 hour to get there and it was quite a refreshing experience being my first time to ride a train. I boarded the train at the Nairobi railways station in town and just getting onto the platform was nostalgic, taking me back to my childhood days when my siblings and I would accompany our mum to see my dad off at the very same station on his way to Mombasa.
I remembered the restaurant that’s still there even after so many years. I didn’t know what to expect when I boarded the train in terms of the seating layout. Was it like in the movies? How much capacity could each coach carry? To my surprise it was a simple layout with rows of seats on each side of the train facing each other.
The seats were comfy and after a few minutes of settling in, the train began to move. It was a nice, smooth feeling as the train rode on the tracks and I was able to watch the outside world pass me by. I made a friend on the train and we started chatting but I couldn’t help but look outside to try and guess the locations we could be at that moment.
We went passed middle-class locations through to slums and it was interesting to see the differences in our society. Going from Nairobi to Athi Plains, I rode in 2nd class and going back to Nairobi I rode in the cabin section that had the deck beds. Overall it was a breathtaking experience and I hope to do it again.”
What memories do you have of the railway? Share in the comment section below.