A few months ago, my grandfather and I were in a colonial-era Nairobi hotel talking about Oginga Odinga, the only black table in the establishment. “You see, Carey Francis was not a bad man,” the old man declared, his voice sonorous and deep. “Oginga just had a grudge with him.”
“What grudge?” I asked.
“Well, Oginga wanted to go on holiday with his family. In those days, teachers were entitled to free train tickets, but only third class. Oginga was having none of it, and when Carey Francis refused to buy him second-class tickets, Oginga got angry and bought himself the tickets. That was the last time the two of them ever spoke.”
It is piquant, poetic even, this idea that Oginga Odinga’s metamorphosis from a teacher to a revolutionary happened because of a train ticket, because of the difference between second and third class. This was not their first squabble. Francis had taught Oginga at Maseno School, and after Oginga had finished his schooling at Makerere in Uganda, he came back to teach under Francis at Maseno. In those days, African teachers at Maseno School weren’t allowed to wear trousers, but Oginga saw shorts as a form of colonial subjugation. African teachers at Maseno School, who were all male, were not allowed to have women visitors stay the night in their rooms, and Oginga delighted in breaking this rule. And then came the incident with the train.
Growing up in Kisumu, we were always aware of the train, but only in the back of our minds. There was a railway underpass passing under the road to Kakamega, and on cloudless days we could see trains stopping at the railway station at Kibos, atop a hill which overlooks the town. However, in our middle-class existence, the train was a detail, something to be crammed for an exam (In which year did the railway first reach Port Florence, nowadays known as Kisumu?) but nothing to think about. Nobody we knew ever boarded the train; no one owned a train set or train paraphernalia.
In fact, apart from the train at the annual agricultural show, no one had ever encountered one up close. But every year, in August, the Agricultural Society of Kenya staged its agricultural show at the showground in Mamboleo, and along with the horses and camels and “Mermaid here!” and “Woman smaller than a bottle!” (who gave us all nightmares), the key attraction was the train, which you could ride around a circular track in the middle of the showground. It didn’t leave the showground—a very Kenyan word, I now realize—and beyond that one week in August, the train was not something we thought about.
This was not always the case. In the years after Uhuru, Kenya’s independence, boarding the train was the ultimate sign of class respectability. Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s Coming to Birth begins withthe main character boarding a train to Nairobi, and the train transports her into modernity. This was “symbolism,” they told us in school. The train was important to Kisumu: civil servants would take the Friday train to Kisumu to spend the weekend with their families, after a week of working in Nairobi. Schoolboys and schoolgirls boarded the train from Kisumu on their way to the elite high schools in Central Kenya.
My mother was part of one of these groups of school children, and my first idea of what boarding a train looked like came from her train stories. In those days, the train from Siaya, mostly filled with Luos, used to stop in Kisumu and wait for additional riders coming to Kisumu on the train from Butere, which was mostly filled with members of the Abaluhyia community. Members of the two communities would then spend most of the 12-hour trip to Nairobi shouting and arguing with each other about the Mashemeji derby, a soccer match between Abaluhya FC (nowadays known as AFC Leopards) and Gor Mahia, a Luo soccer club. The train was more than access to the economic goodies of Nairobi; it was an avenue for communal bliss.
Then the dam broke.
People started dying. Vials with cholera and dysentery were dipped into river sources and Luo politicians were asked why they liked causing trouble. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor hints at these stories in her novel, Dust,in a way that those who know will know. But if you know, you know.
On January 29, 1969, Argwings Kodhek died in “a road accident”; he was the first African lawyer in the country and a Luo politician. On July 5, 1969, the powerful and charismatic Minister for Economic Planning, Tom Mboya, was assassinated by functionaries close to the president, Jomo Kenyatta. When Nahashon Njoroge was arrested and charged with the murder, he asked, after his arrest, “Why don’t you go after the big man?” At the time of his death, Mboya had been at loggerheads with Oginga Odinga, the most popular Luo politician, but his murder incited widespread communal anger: Mboya’s murder and Kodhek’s were seen as a continuation of the anti-Luo attitudes in government that began when Oginga, the country’s first vice-president, had been kicked out of government three years earlier.
It didn’t stop. Four months after Mboya’s death, Kenyatta embarked on a tour of Western Kenya. On the morning of October 25, 1969, Kenyatta had presided over the opening ceremony of Pan Paper Mills, a paper processing company in Webuye. At 3:30 p.m., his motorcade rolled into Kisumu to preside over the opening of the new provincial hospital, whose construction had been funded by Russia. The crowd at the hospital, which was estimated to number 5,000 people, was carrying placards on which was written “Where is Tom?” And as Kenyatta was inspecting the guard of honour, the crowd began chanting, “Ndume! Ndume! Ndume!” the political slogan of KPU, Oginga’s party. It was a hot day and the people were angry; the chanting continued as the president read his speech.
After his speech, Kenyatta taunted Oginga, who was present at the ceremony, about his communist leanings and asked why he had turned against him; had they not been friends, he said, he would have crushed him like maize flour. When Oginga retorted that he, Oginga, had stood for him while Kenyatta was in detention—and mocked him for “eating with the very West who had sent him to prison”—the crowd erupted; stones were hurled towards the president, and chairs were thrown at the stage. As the crowd surged forward, Kenyatta’s bodyguards opened fire.
The president of Kenya fled Kisumu and never returned. But the fallout was immense. For the first time since the end of colonial rule, detention without rule became de jure; Oginga and scores of Luo MPs were detained, while KPU was banned, declared “dangerous to the good government of the Republic of Kenya.” When the cabal of Gikuyu politicians and henchmen around Kenyatta—the “Kiambu Mafia”—complained about the presence of Luos in government, development projects in the Luo region were halted (like the Ahero irrigation scheme in Kisumu).
The railway was next. Because the sector was, supposedly, dominated by Luos, that situation was “rectified” under the direction of Ephantus Gakuo—then, the Managing Director of East Africa Railways, though now he is the father-in-law of the man who sold Kenya. Scores of Luo engineers and railway workers were rendered jobless. Some track the death of the railway service to the purge of trained Luo train workers from Kenya Railways and the subsequent failure, or inability, to replace them properly. When the Kiambu Mafia complained that East African Airways was dominated by the Abaluhyia community, they used the same template as with the railways, with the same results.
Meanwhile, the Kiambu Mafia went into the long-distance trucking business. The 1970 Ndegwa Commission on Public Structure and Remuneration wanted to boost the private sector, and abolished licensing for freight road haulage, allowing powerful politicians and civil servants to venture into the industry, even as the railway services in the country underwent an alarming decline. Getting rid of the Luo workers in the railways system may have served an immediate political gain, but pockets were padded too, as when East Africa Airways collapsed a few years later and ownership of the planes mysteriously passed to the Kenyatta family.
In Coming to Birth,Paulina’s child dies, shot by the president’s bodyguards while playing by the road. That’s symbolism.
When my friends and I were kids growing up in Kisumu, we didn’t want to know this history; we wanted to live our idyllic middle-class existence. We knew that there was a “Railways Estate” in Kisumu, but we didn’t talk about it, or about the fact that Railways was a not-too-rosy place economically. We knew that there was a place called Railways in CBD, but we didn’t stop to question why we never boarded the train to Nairobi at Railways, but instead took the Akamba Bus, which was also boarded at Railways. In 2012, Akamba Bus Service collapsed, and it was replaced at its spot at Railways by Easy Coach, a new bus service. We whispered to each other that Easy Coach was owned by the Kenyatta family, but no one knew for sure. Maybe no one wanted to be sure.
A year later, the son of the man who vowed to crush Luos vied to become the president of Kenya. The man, Uhuru Kenyatta, was declared the winner, despite numerous irregularities. His opponent, Raila Odinga, the son of Oginga, challenged the results in the Supreme Court. On the day the court made its decision, police trucks moved through the streets, and military choppers hovered overhead. The Supreme Court upheld the election results, and thus was peace manufactured.
Slowly, we became politically conscious. We started thinking actively about the things that were happening and why they were happening. We talked about the economy and tried to understand the government’s economic plan. We read Oginga Odinga’s memoir, Not Yet Uhuru. We watched CNN and the newspapers. We listened to our parents’ diatribes against the government. We would sit on the abandoned tracks, the same tracks that went below Kakamega Road, and talk about things we were worried about: politics, film, alcohol, sex, feminism, our futures.
But if the tracks meant nothing to us, other than a place to smoke away from the gaze of our parents, we wondered why it was a safe place to smoke. Why was getting sliced by a train not a conscious fear?
Slowly, we all moved away, to Nairobi and Eldoret and the US and Europe, in search of education. We took the bus to Nairobi, or we drove, or we flew.
No one took the train.
In 2017, there was a presidential election. Uhuru Kenyatta retained the presidency, and I do not want to say that he won the election, because that is not what happened. When crowds rioted on the streets of Kisumu, Kenyatta mounted a billboard of himself in the middle of Kisumu. The manufactured peace was rejected; residents in Kisumu, Kakamega, Migori, Oyugis, Webuye, and other parts of Western Kenya took to the streets to protest the result. When a ruling-party thinker went on TV and declared that opposition supporters had no stake in the economy, no one quoted the articles and analysts linking the death of Kisumu’s economy to the murder of the Railways. Kenyatta sent police trucks and military choppers to Kisumu; NGOs donated body bags to the police.
At a rally in Kisumu after the election, Raila reminded the crowd about 1969, about his father, about KPU. In 1969, state machinery had descended on Kisumu, and Kenyatta taught the Luos a lesson; in 2017, state machinery descended on Kisumu, and Kenyatta taught the Luos a lesson.
The train first reached Kisumu in 1901. The British were less interested in Kisumu, so the region’s residents didn’t face the same violence as in Central Kenya. But the Luo were still swept up into the politics of the day. When Oginga quit his job at Maseno School, he entered into business and eventually become the region’s representative to the Legislative Council. When Oginga and others—Masinde Muliro, Tom Mboya, and Lawrence Oguda—spoke out strongly against the colonial government, settlers led by Sir Charles Markham called them the “Nyanza Clique,” dismissing them as radicals, as young men in a hurry trying to upset everything stable in Kenya. The people in Nyanza, they said, were rowdy and rude.
Sixty years later, this notion persists, of the Luo as a rowdy people, radicals who want to destroy the stability of the country, an image created by the colonial regime but encouraged by subsequent Kenyan governments. Did it all start with the train, this anti-Luo, anti-Kisumu attitude? Would it have been better if the train had never come?
On September 1, 2018, James Macharia, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, travelled to China to negotiate financing for the last of the Standard Gauge Railway that will connect Naivasha to Kisumu and then run on to Malaba. Residents of Kisumu will be able to travel to Nairobi in three hours, they say; while economists give dire warnings, the Kenyan government promises that the railway will revitalize Kisumu. China waxes poetic about the Standard Gauge Railway, about Addis Ababa, and about all the development it will bring.
I am not sure what the railway line will bring to Kisumu. Anyang’ Nyong’o, the governor of Kisumu, revels in Kisumu being voted the best-run county in the country in an opinion poll, earlier in the year. The city’s skyline is changing, the port is being resurrected, and Kenya Pipeline has put up a new jetty on the lake. The railway line, they promise us, will restore Kisumu to its lost glory, whatever that means. The same railway line that is destroying the country’s economy will transform Kisumu from its status as a sleeping giant, whatever that means. The new railway is the first of many, they say.
But then there was an old Railway and it was killed. And in Coming to Birth,the train leads Paulina not to the promised land, but to a world of poverty, marital violence, and sadness. Only after she goes back to Kisumu is she able to grow into her full personhood.
I am not sure what the railway line will bring to Kisumu. But here’s a thing I know: There is a Swahili proverb that goes, Mtoto wa nyoka ni nyoka. The child of a snake is a snake.
Carey Baraka The Train of Uhuru