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Kenyan Railway Childhoods

Reminiscences from the East African Railways. . . . . . .

Nairobi Railway station 1963. Courtesy: Roger Farnworth website

Nairobi Central Railway Station 2022. Courtesy: The world news platform

They were two elderly gentlemen, retired medics from Leicester’s Sikh community, and I interviewed them on separate days after we had decided to collect oral histories of the various ethnic communities in Leicester. There were plenty of similarities. Both men came from the railway community in East Africa, with their fathers working as train guards on the various trains from Nairobi. Their memories were of their childhoods there and their occasional trips accompanying their fathers. The 1950’s were a time when a railway job was a prestigious position

‘So who had the higher rank, the engine driver or the guard?’ I asked.

‘The guard.’ He seemed surprised that I asked.

‘The guard was always the most senior?’

‘Oh yes because the engine driver couldn’t move without the guard.’

It all changed with ‘Africanisation’ in 1963. One man explained that his father returned to India in December 1963 (Mombasa to Mumbai by ship) and that it was from there that he, himself, arrived in England to become a doctor in December, 1973. Those days riding the trains in East Africa seemed far away then. ‘But before 1963, was it expected that sons would become railwaymen?’ I asked.

‘It was always expected that the railway children would go into railways. In fact, I was the only one out of my family who didn’t because my mother wanted me to be something better, so she sent me away to India to become a doctor. And then to England.’

Guards travelled with boxes which contained the various railway tools of the trade – detonators, whistles, handbooks and so on - as well as personal possessions for overnight stops. The personal possessions went to the overnight stay, the rest to a locker at the station ready for the next day.

‘ Suppose my father is taking a train from Nairobi to Nakuru, he couldn’t come back the same day. So he has to stay overnight and they had accommodation for them there in Nakuru and they were called running rooms. They had a cook, and a chap who could wash their clothes, everything. It was all paid for by the railways.’

Father, though, was a senior guard, of many years standing, so much so that he was in charge of royalty:

‘She (later the Queen Mother) went there and my father was handpicked to be the railway guard. In fact, there was a photograph; I am asking my sister as well but she can’t place it now. And then, the Queen herself went, then again my father was picked again.’

Listening to their stories evoked a life made famous by films of naughty goings on among the British in Africa, mingled with how life was lived on the railways – incidents with strange travellers, wild life, types of freight, life in the railway community in Nairobi. They were both a rich source of stories of the past and of their childhood. I couldn’t resist asking a question about that train, though, the overnight sleeper from Mombasa to Nairobi which I had travelled on many years ago. It was very atmospheric to see Africa at dusk and dawn, and also comical to sit in the dining car among all the starched linen and watch while the waiter poured cutlery for various courses onto the table until it covered the whole surface. A soup plate was then carefully laid on top. He remembered too:

‘And then I remember a chap who used to come with his xylophone, for dinnertime, and then you go to dining room and all table mats and forks and knives, they (diners) used to be served there. And then again breakfast time before you reached Nairobi - again you go to the dining room to have your breakfast and about nine o’clock in Nairobi you had your breakfast.’

There was a wistfulness about the stories told by the two men. Their fathers had been colleagues on the East African Railways so they gave me rich and interlocking pictures of their childhoods. As with many oral histories, there is that sense of nostalgia in the exchanges but, in their stories, also that over riding sense of an Africa now lost. You might think I would mention the wild life, the great plains, but I am thinking of something else. He said:

‘I went back in 1990 because my wife is from India, she’d never seen Kenya. So I used to talk so much about Kenya, such a beautiful country and we have red soil. She said I’ve seen all soil but I’ve never seen red soil. So I said okay I'll take you back, and then I took her back. Then I decided to go and see the railway quarter we used to live in, and it was very disappointing. Because the conditions were very dire really. Because we used to have very neat gardens at the back of the house, the ladies used to grow Asian vegetables but when I went all I could see was sort of all round the house, corn growing, and the windows were broken and not so well looked after houses.’

There’s that saying that maybe we can all relate to, about never going back. Both men acknowledged how different Kenya is now and so how precious are their memories. Would I go back? Perhaps – but there’s no overnight sleeper from Mombasa to Nairobi now and so no one to layout the cutlery in that dining car……


John Swanwick

What is now planned for East Africa Railways ?

1950s rolling stock

East African Railways lightweight sleeping car. Courtesy: Birmingham railway heritage study centre

Left facing portrait of East African Railways 59 class Garratt locomotive no. 5902, before it was named Ruwenzori Mountains.

Class 58 No. 5803 at Changamwe, Kenya, with the Mombasa–Kampala mail train, circa 1950-51. Courtesy: Roger Farnworth

Class 58, No. 5807 (c) Kevin Patience

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