Published Saturday magazine Nation media 22 July 2017
Above: Models in elaborately beaded costumes from Cameroon at African Heritage House – Picture copyright Gilbert Otieno
The old train streams out on the century-old metal sleepers of what was then the Uganda Railway. Leaving Nairobi Railway Station that is a historical building, the train slowly passes by a city that a hundred years ago was filled with swamps, grasslands and wildlife like rhino and lions.
The skyline commands a vertical city with buildings competing for height, traffic and people. It changes a few minutes later – from the heart of a city to the suburbia and slums of Kaloleni, Makongoni, Makadera, Donholm, Buru, Mukuru kwa Njenga with its enormous silos of cereals, Imara Daima and then Syokimau’s gleaming terminal for the new standard gauge railway. Past Embakasi and the gigantic bridges for the new locomotives to pass over Nairobi National Park and finally we disembark at the African Heritage House for the launch of the app ‘We Wear Culture’ by Google Arts & Culture.
It’s an amazing app that features the exhibits of the African Heritage House that Alan Donovan with his late partners – Sheila and Joseph Murumbi – collected. It’s also a fitting accolade for the trio’s efforts with the launch of the app at the iconic house that’s modelled around the mud mosques of Timbuktu and other African architecture.
The Uganda Railway built between 1894 and 1901 from Mombasa to Kisumu – almost 1000 kilometers – using sheer muscle and grit of the Indian labour employed by the British in the new colony – was central to Kenya’s economic development at the start of the 20th century.
By the middle of the 20th century, it had transformed the lives of thousands of Kenyans – many moving from the villages to the city in search of jobs and opportunities.
Railroad neighbourhoods out of Nairobi – copyright Rupi Mangat
On the return journey, as the train moves past Kaloleni, l’m reminded of the Last Dance in Kaloleni, a script by Bettina Ng’weno, who is an associate professor at the University of California, Davis teaching classes on the African diaspora in Latin America and Asia.
The script for the movie (in the making) is about the dance competitions in the social halls of the railway estates during Kenya’s segregated times of 1958-1959 – a time when the country was in the throes of independence.
“And the story of the railway is the story of Nairobi,” tells Ng’weno. “An urban Nairobi that pre-dates everything now; a historical Nairobi where the urban Africans are not a misfit but rather creators of the city.”
Kaloleni was then an upscale neighbourhood for Africans, a place for politics before independence with the beginning of a class structure.
The social halls of the time were frequented by stalwarts like Kenya’s third president Mwai Kibaki and the late Tom Mboya who was instrumental in negotiating Kenya’s independence including Uganda’s first president Milton Obote and Obama Senior, the father of the previous American president Obama and the political activist and writer, Muthoni Likimani.
Dance competitions took centre stage with a dedicated radio programme called the Railway Show Boat featuring legends of the times like Fadhili Williams of the Malaika fame. Politics were discussed about Kenyatta’s release from detention, labour issues and the question of independence.
And people came to Nairobi to stay with families to compete in the dance competitions in the social halls.
“It was like winning a lottery if you won,” continues Ng’weno.
“It was also the beginning of a certain Kenyan style music of the 1950s now called zilizopendwa – or the ‘golden oldies’ – that combined Caribbean sounds, the twist, South African beats and local rhythms that became the sound of Nairobi.”
And then we’re back in present day Nairobi where few youngsters could relate to the neighbourhoods of the old.
Pop in at the Nairobi Railway Museum Phone: +254 724 380975 – and take time to explore it especially if you’re into steam engines and because the museum has a lot to tell of a Nairobi and the country once upon a time.