Railway museum tells the story of Kenya’s evolution


A passenger carriage at the Nairobi Railway Museum. PHOTO | FILE


  • Facility provides answers to many unanswered questions concerning our early history and the country’s development.

I remember those school trips to Amani Cottage (belonging to Alliance High School) near Shelly Beach Hotel in the South Coast where we saw the ocean for the very first time, the fetid smell of Bulleys Tanneries at Thika, the pink flamingos on Lake Nakuru and the hot water geysers spewing steam on the shores of Lake Bogoria.

For the more mature students, there was the tour of Kenya Breweries where, towards the end, the management would sometimes allow the party 10 minutes to sample their finished product.

This did not always end well as some of the more wayward students could not resist the temptation to go on a “binge” with disastrous results, later pleading “a moment of weakness” in their defence.

My favourite trip was to the Nairobi Railway Museum. I was fascinated by the on-scale train and ship models (serving on Lake Victoria), the railway memorabilia and the smell of fresh paint on the railway engines and rolling stock in the open section of the museum.

Avoid the melee

The Nairobi Railway Museum is situated at the western end of Station Road, some 300 metres from the Nairobi Railway Station.

However, in order to avoid the melee at the matatu stage near the Railway Station, it is preferable to use Haile Sellaise Avenue and turn left at Workshop Road, which leads to Station Road and the museum.

Unfortunately, Station Road is deeply pot-holed and one has to drive with caution, especially in wet weather when the potholes are concealed by puddles of water.

Located in an old railway building of stone walls under an iron sheets roof, the museum was opened in 1971 under the old East African Railways and Harbours (EAR&H) and much of the credit for its foundation goes to the first curator, Fred Jordan, who had been with the railways in East Africa since 1927.

Realising the speed at which changes were taking place on the railway system, he saw the need to preserve as many links with the past as possible.

He began to gather items which were to form the nucleus of the present day museum’s fascinating collection.

Kenya Railways represents the historical growth of our country and the Nairobi Railway Museum narrates the story of the country’s evolvement; indeed it is the rail that developed Kenya to the country it is today.

“It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country, ” said Charles Elliot, the Commissioner, British East Africa from 1900 to 1904. The museum provides answers to many unanswered questions concerning the early history of the railway and Kenya’s development.

It consists of the main gallery, the resource centre, the auditorium, an outdoor collection of locomotives, coaches and wagons. At the time of my visit part of the premises were leased to a youth art group and a church organisation.

There is also a children’s amusement park with a working miniature train offering rides for the young ones.
I was surprised to note that as early as 1892, a detailed survey map of the “Mombasa-Victoria Lake Railway” had been published showing two proposed routes of the railway line, one proceeding due north of Mombasa and the other due south.

The southern route was adopted due to its cheaper cost in the midst of much concern about the enormous cost of what was described by some as “the Lunatic Express” to nowhere.

The story of the Man-eaters of Tsavo is told in blood-chilling graphic detail in pictures and prose.

The actual carriage from which Superintendent Charles Ryall was dragged to his death by a lion sits sedately in the open yard.

Old switching and signalling gear, weighing scales, oil-fired lamps, mechanical calculators, track inspection trolleys and portable field telephones all in fine, polished condition lie neatly arranged and annotated around the main hall.

Period photographs

There is a saloon bench which was placed atop the cow-catcher at the front of locomotives to offer VIPs like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill an unfettered view of the countryside and game as they rode along.

A collection of China crockery and Pewter utensils used to serve four course meals aboard the dining car for first and second class passengers only, lies safely locked away in glass cabinets.

Much to my pleasure, the scale models are still well preserved, also in glass cabinets.

There are numerous well preserved period photographs, correspondence and official documents some of which are under lock and key in the curator’s office. The museum is open to the public seven days a week, including most public holidays. It is the only railway museum in East and Central Africa.

Following the recent privatisation of Kenya Railways, the museum and exhibits have been transferred to the guardianship of the National Museums of Kenya. During my visit there was one group of school children, but they seemed to be more interested in the amusement park than in the museum.

Our education system seems to be so focused on passing exams.

Our children have no reading culture and they have not developed a yearning for holistic knowledge, which not only enhances their academic performance but also their overall growth in character and sharpening of individual talent.

The open yard was overgrown with grass and the locomotives and rolling stock could do well with a new coat of paint.

Overall, there was a general atmosphere of neglect, starting with the road leading to the museum.

It is a pity that this rich national treasure is threatened by neglect.

The author is a retired banker and motorcycle enthusiast

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