Saving the railways through photography

Tayiana Chao standing next to her artworks. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
Tayiana Chao standing next to her artworks. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

The photography exhibition currently up at Shifteye Gallery entitled ‘‘Saving the Railways’’ begs so many questions. Like which railways, the new Standard Gauge Railways (SGR) or the old Kenya Railways (informally known as the ‘Lunatic Line’)?

Then once you determine that the photographer-exhibitor and heritage researcher Tayiana Chao is referring to the Kenya Railways, one wants to know ‘saving’ it from whom? From old age? Redundancy now that the SGR will hopefully provide fast and safe service to some parts of the country.

70 stations

That service, however rapid it may be, will never provide the coverage across the country that the Lunatic Line once did.

During its heydays (which lasted almost a century, from 1901 up to the 1990s when political interests led to its neglect) the Kenya Railways stretched all the way from Mombasa to Kisumu and operated as many as 90 railway stations.


“The stations served as both social and economic centres of activities in small and middle-size towns,” says Ms Chao who recalls the way most historians see the country as having grown up around the railway, not vice versa as is usually the case in other parts of the world.

Having developed her ‘‘Saving the Railways’’ project since 2013 after visiting the Voi Station (while she was still a student on the Voi campus of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology) Ms Chao didn’t get a chance to implement her project ideas until after graduation in computer science studies. But from August 2015, she was able to travel all along the railway line and photograph 70 of the 90 stations; a number of which have since been demolished. But the rest, she hopes to ‘save’ for their historical significance to the country.

Her exhibition upstairs at Shifteye only includes photos of 35 of the 70 (with stations like Sultan Hamud already gone forever).

“I didn’t want the stations to be erased totally from our historical memory, so I knew that documentation was imperative,” Ms Chao says.

Voi station

Not that she has a deeply rooted sense of the cultural value of the stations.
“I took a train once when I was eight years old, but I didn’t visit a railway station until August 2013,” she recalls.
The Voi station was beautiful, but as she thought about its significance and that of all the stations, her commitment to the project has grown exponentially.

One thing that has strengthen her desire to bring to the public’s attention the importance of saving the stations (which are now all closed apart from Mombasa, Changamwe and Nairobi, which is temporarily shut down for renovations) was her meeting with the cultural anthropologist turned filmmaker Dr Bettina Ng’weno and composer Njane Mugambi.

Railway film

The two are working on the film, ‘‘The Time is Now’’ about the Kenya Railways, the trailer of which premiered earlier this year together with a talk by Ms Chao about the project.

Dr Ngweno is currently fundraising to complete the film which she scripted.

Meanwhile, Ms Chao, whose photo show runs through the end of August, is considering ways to take her project to a wider audience.

Part of her passion for the project derives from the research she has done on how integral a role the railways has played in developing the economy. It’s a role that SGR will potentially replace, helping farmers get their crops to market.

“At the outset of the project, I had no idea of how large the implications of losing the railways are,” she says. “Now I feel more passionate than ever to do all I can to save the railways.”

Ms Chao’s photographs are on sale at Shifteye; the prices range from Sh6,500 to Sh20,000.

Visual satire

Meanwhile, at Talisman Restaurant the paintings of Patrick Karimi are on exhibition until Sunday. The art lecturer at Kamwenja Teachers College in Nyeri continues to blend visual satire with colourful decorative designs, using his own style of pointillist painting.

Mr Karimi has to be the only Kenyan artist who creates artworks using either lollipop sticks or straws to paint. Having a Master’s degree in fine art with a focus on painting from Kenyatta University, he knows how to use the traditional tools like brushes and palette knives; but he prefers attaching his sticks and straws to tubes of acrylic paints and then painstaking proceeds to create.

Mr Karimi’s art ranges from Sh40,000 to Sh100,000.