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Is there a lion in the train?

Posted by Administrator on December 25, 2011

By Michael Kaloki, Nairobi

On 19 December 1901 the construction of the railway line between the Kenyan towns of Mombasa and Kisumu (back then named Port Florence), via Nairobi, was completed. This made goods and passengers transport between Kenya and Uganda much easier.

The railway line became well-known around the world after John Henry Patterson published ‘Man-eaters of Tsavo’ in 1907. The book is centered around the tale of lions that killed a number of workers involved in the construction of the railway line.

Dowry negotiations For many decades after its construction the Nairobi-Mombasa railway acted as a life line between the coastal area of Kenya and the interior. When my father was a young boy, he used to ride the train between his home in Mombasa and the Machakos area, where he would spend Christmas with his relatives.  He later took the same train to his high school further north in Kikuyu.

After she had decided to marry my father, my mother travelled on the same train from her rural area to where he lived. Many of my relatives used to ride the train on their way to dowry negotiations for their weddings. Therefore the train holds great significance for my family.

Hurried goodbyes As a young boy, my parents would send me and my siblings to Mombasa to spend Christmas. They would take us to the train station in Nairobi and put us on the night train to Mombasa. I remember the hustle and bustle on the station platform. People hugging each other and shouting hurried goodbyes. The sound of the train guard blowing the whistle before the train slowly began to make its way out of the station.

We would eat our packed dinner on the train before finally falling asleep in our compartments. Many times I would wake up in the middle of the night and realize that the train had stopped. I would ask one of the train staff where we were. Tsavo!

Mental health Tsavo National Park was the very place where the railway workers in ‘Man-eaters of Tsavo’ had been killed by lions. The European tourists on the train, making their way to the beautiful beaches of Mombasa, must have wondered about the mental health of the young lad running around, making sure all doors on the train were locked.

I was always worried I would wake up one night and find a lion in my compartment. It became a constant thought in my head, so much so that until this day, I find it hard to sleep whenever a train guard tells me that we have stopped in a place called Tsavo.

Today the era of railway passenger transport seems to come to an end. More roads have been built and many people now prefer buses to travel to the coast and the interior. Those who can afford it might decide to take a plane. However, for me and my family, the train will always be dear to our hearts.

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