The Star (Nairobi)

13 November 2012

Kenya: The Building of the Lunatic Line

Book: The Railway To Nowhere: The Building of the Lunatic Line 1896-1901

Authors: Stephen Mills & Brian Yonge

Publisher: Mills Publishing

Pages: 290

Reviewed by: Pauline Odhiambo

There once was, at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi, an illustration of the building of the Kenya-Uganda Railway. This illustration featured life-sized dummies of turbaned men dressed in long white robes, bending or sitting on a piece of railroad track.

Hiding in the bushes behind these faux men was a faux lion, life-size and looking rather contemplatively at the working men - a lion's next potential meal.

The presence of a lion in this illustration was perhaps quite apt of the lunacy of the building of this railway better known as Lunatic Line - a railway to nowhere where certain dangers awaited those 'loony' turbaned Indian workers who were likely in search of fresh start in a foreign land with perceptively better financial opportunities.

Many of such hopeful workers were attacked and killed by man-eating lions among them the superintendent of Railway Police Charles Henry Ryall who was attacked in his sleep at Kima, some kilometres from Sultan Hamud.

As such men from different walks of life - the British imperialists and explorers, Indian workers and African slaves - were at some point all affected by the construction of the Ugandan Railway.

For one thing, the construction of the rail facilitated deeper penetration into the interior regions away from the coast where more slaves could be captured and then transported to Europe and the Americas. The railway line later proved useful for the missionaries seeking to spread the gospel to the locals.

The Kabaka of Buganda from 1884 to1897, Mwanga II Mukasa, saw the Christian missionaries who had gradually spread through Buganda as the greatest threat to his rule.

He thus had the incoming archbishop James Hannington murdered on the borders of his kingdom. Nonetheless in 1888, employees of the Imperial British East Africa Company, the official administrators of British East Africa, fired by a spirit of adventure still risked their lives by going into a part of Africa of which little was at the time known.

Despite the lack of radio waves and air mail, the postal services were nonetheless so efficient that the monthly mail from London reached Mombasa in an impressive 24 days - about one-third of the time taken by sea mail 90 years later.

These perceived hindrances in infrastructure likely helped to spur the construction of the railway from Mombasa to Port Florence, Kisumu and beyond.

Thus, according to the author, this book follows two story lines: an authoritative written account of the building of the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Port Florence (Kisumu) between 1896 and 1901, and a pictorial overview of its 581-mile construction in what is still largely perceived as "one of the most difficult railways on earth" to build.

Still, according to the authors Stephen Mills and Brian Yonge, the first railway built in East Africa was the line constructed during the British expedition to Abyssinia in 1867-8.

Intent on rescuing British prisoners held by Emperor Tewodros II, Emperor of Ethiopia (1855-68), the British expedition to Abyssinia was a punitive expedition carried out by armed forces of the British Empire against the Ethiopian Empire.

Emperor Tewodros imprisoned several missionaries and two representatives of the British government. Consequently, the punitive expedition launched by the British in response required the transportation of a sizeable military force hundreds of miles across mountainous terrain lacking any road system.

The first steam locomotives arrived in Mombasa for the Uganda Railway in May 1986. They had been part of an order of 36 built by three Scottish locomotive builders for Indian State Railways.

Due to their light weight of 16.5 tonnes and limited water capacity of 400 gallons, they were initially used on Mombasa Island moving materials from Kilindini beach to the assembly yard and latterly making short trips to the mainline. There however are reports that both of them survived into the First World War and that one was still in service in Tanganyika in 1917.

"A Railway to Nowhere" has the look and feel of a coffee table book with a great variety of photographs only with longer prose as opposed to the shorter blocks of text expected in such books. It is nonetheless an entertaining read - very informative and seemingly factual without reading like boring and a long-winded history lesson.

The book is available in leading bookshops in Kenya for Sh4,950.

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