Una vita in Africa – A life in Africa Rotating Header Image

November, 2016:

On the (yellow) train of modernity – Sul treno (giallo) della modernità


The first section (Mombasa-Nairobi) of the new railway line that will cross Kenya and in the near future will continue towards the Kampala, Uganda, is going to be completed on time. It is meant to define the future of this country.
Work on the stretch of 472 km began in 2013 and are expected to be completed in June 2017, in time for the presidential elections scheduled for next August 8th. The journey from Mombasa and Nairobi will be reduced from twelve hours to four for passengers, and eight hours for freight trains, with the prediction that in a year it will move 22 million tons of goods. Built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation and funded 90% by the Export-Import Bank of China, the cost is calculated at around 3 billion Euros, to which must be added about 200 million euro for the stations, which in Mombasa and Nairobi will include large shopping mall and hotels financed by local and international companies, and that will later be connected with the respective airports with fast metro lines.
It is already planned that the railway from the western Kenya border will continue to Kampala, Uganda, and from there it will branch to Juba, South Sudan and Kigali, Rwanda. On the way from Mombasa to Nairobi there will be five major and thirty minor stations. China will provide fifty-six diesel locomotives (electrification is expected only after a few years), one thousand six hundred twenty freight cars and forty passenger coaches. The new line runs mostly parallel to the old railway and the road, deviating only when necessary to avoid too steep stretches. The segment that crosses the Tsavo natural park runs above ground, to ensure the possibility for animals to move according to their traditional migration trails. In addition to reducing the traffic on the road, it should promote tourism, by offering a spectacular view of the parks and the Rift Valley.
It is by far the most ambitious and expensive project that Kenya has undertaken since independence to date, and those who are against accuse the current government to create a debt and a dependence on Chinese technology for decades to come.
The second phase of the project, from Nairobi to the border with Uganda, has already been inaugurated by President Kenyatta last October 19, but it is marred by controversies. The most important relates to the path to be followed in exiting Nairobi. According to the government plan it should cross the Nairobi National Park, the only park in the world located within the borders of a large metropolis. Ecologists and conservationists oppose it strenuously, arguing that this would mark the end of the park, already heavily penalized by the ring road built two years ago and earlier abusive urban developments, built about twenty years ago during President Moi’s time, and with his connivance.
Those of the Lunatic Express
Disputes were also quite a few more than a century ago, when the old line was built, starting in 1895 from Mombasa, reaching Nairobi in 1900 and Kisumu in 1902. It is still the backbone of the country and around ir grew the major cities, including Nairobi, then described as an “unhealthy wetland “. At that time the workforce was mainly made up of Indians, specially recruited for the job, who then settled in Kenya, giving birth to a large and now thriving community. In 1898, when building the bridge over the Tsavo River, at least 35 (but some say more than 100), Indian workers were devoured by lions. On this episode John H. Patterson, the construction manager, wrote a book, and since 1950 half a dozen films have been made. In London opponents of the project ironically nicknamed the train “Lunatic Express” because wanted by lunatics.
But the “Iron Snake”, as was instead called by the locals, became the engine of Kenyan growth. It is now obsolete (is still ironically called Lunatic Express to indicate its unreliability) and is far from adequate to handle the container traffic from the port of Mombasa to Nairobi and to the landlocked Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The new railway line is the icon of the new Kenya. In Nairobi in recent years huge concrete and glass buildings destined for luxury offices have sprung up, and large shopping centers are mushrooming. In the Karen suburb – named after the Danish author Karen Blixen who owned the whole area – until twenty years ago a simple road junction with a few shops and three restaurants, now there are three major shopping centers and more luxurious office building. They have not yet finished to advertise “the largest shopping center in Kenya”, with restaurants overlooking an artificial lake, that begins the construction of another, “the largest in Africa”, including further amazing features.
It is enough to be away for a few months to be disoriented. Catherine Njuguna, who emigrated to New York ten years ago just after graduation to look for better opportunities and returned to Nairobi with very little in her purse apart from the American passport, does not believe her eyes: “While I was in America, America has come here!”
Some experts in the building sector predict that the urban bubble will burst soon. Already there are the symptoms: hundreds of empty offices and luxury homes, exceeding the demand. But Nairobi is still under a kind of collective drunkenness, a craving for luxury and “modernity” that continues unabated.
Yet this is one side of the story. There are still many, literally millions, of people living in poverty in the slums of the Kenyan capital, but they do not count. In Kenya there are two economies, one that travels at high speed and the other with the Lunatic Express. Two economies that live side by side and never meet. The upper middle class, politicians, employees of international companies, the officials of numerous UN agencies, embassies and major NGOs who when they have a toothache go to seek treatment in London, and the poor who eat a once a day.
A French friend who works in one of the hundred offices of the United Nations, set aside in Gigiri, a separate area in the North-East of Nairobi, told me “For most my colleagues life unfolds in Gigiri, in shopping malls, international schools if they have children, in luxury hotels participating to international conferences, in restaurants, and who move with a chauffeur driven car. If they are in the mood for great adventures, Hemingway-like, they go for an organized visit to a park, staying in “tents” with all services, outdoor buffets, three days all inclusive for an amount equivalent to the combined salaries of their cook, driver, gardener and housekeeper. They have never walked in a slum. This is a city that symbolizes the social injustice of the world”.
Common interests
The new railway is also a crown to the growing prestige of President Uhuru Kenyatta, that some polls predict will win the 2017 election with over 60% of the votes. Undoubtedly he is a skillful politician, who managed to reconcile factions and ethnic tensions within his party that only a few years ago seemed irrevocably adverse. He managed to attract investments and to maintain balance between international allies, although the growing importance of China Kenyan economy raises many bad feelings in London and Washington. When he entered the political arena in 2002, Uhuru was important only for the name (his father Jomo Kenyatta was the first president of Kenya) and the consolidated family wealth, but over the years it has proven very skilled and capable to overcome obstacles and attract investments where its predecessor Mwai Kibaki had failed. Kibaki has left Kenyatta the heavy legacy of the military intervention in Somalia, which continues to cause reprisals and atrocious terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab.
The new railway will be also the visible sign of the growing economic power of China in the whole of Africa. A whole generation of Kenyan engineers will go to China to study in order to guarantee the flawless operation of the whole railway, and it is easy to think that contracts for Chinese companies will continue to increase. The Head of the Public Service of Kenya, Nzioka Waita, has recently stated that during the construction of the railroad over 30 thousand Kenyans have been hired full time and it is an ongoing process of capacity building and transfer of responsibilities.
For its part, Macharia Munane, professor of international relations, argued on the Chinese news agency Xinhua, that the modernization of the rail and road networks in Africa operated by the Chinese government in recent years is something that no colonial power ever did and that cooperation between Africa and China is based on the realistic perception of common interests and is likely to continue.
But the great railway project is also a node which highlights the clash between man and nature. In Kenya, as in few other parts of the world come to the eye that population growth and modernity are in competition with the natural environment, and the environment, the animals in particular, are always the losers.
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