In late January 2017, I got an e-mail from Sarah Mallia, the communications and productions manager of the East African Soul Train (EAST) residency, saying that I had been accepted as one of their artists. The residency is a five-day journey that starts at the Railway Museum in Nairobi and goes all the way to Kilifi on the coast of Kenya. It is intended to not only make participants connect with each other, but also to connect with the history of the Kenyan railway.
Also in late January, the Kenyan government unveiled the trains that would ply the new railway. There have been complaints that these ‘new’ trains, like the ones first brought by the British in 1898, are actually second-hand. To make matters worse, comparisons between the costlier Kenyan railway project and the Ethiopian railway, which is far more modern and robust yet cost less, has sparked reports that the project is being used as a front for corruption.
Dubbed ‘Kovu Safarini’, which means ‘the scars one gets during travel’, this experience was planned in such a way that participants would get a rough idea of the scars the railway inflicted on those who constructed it, those who lived alongside it and those who have used it since its construction. The artists are then expected to collaborate in groups and come up with an installation piece at the end of the residency.
I have never been on a long-haul train before. I have journeyed by train from Githurai to Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD), but that has always been an elbow-poking experience. A Githurai-to-the-CBD train is not one boarded at a railway station. One gets on wherever the train stops. People who live by the rail tracks will often wait in their houses for the train to hoot just before it stops and then sprint out to catch it.
Living by the train tracks, as I did in the first half of 2015, sometimes means using the train as an alarm clock. In the morning, you wake up when you hear it roll past on its way from the CBD. If you missed it by the time it made its way back towards the CBD, then you would have to take the more expensive bus and get stuck in traffic, which could be hell.
I am excited about the whole thing, and about a residency stretching that long. I don’t know my coastal geography well, but I know that the railway doesn’t reach Kilifi and that we’d need a bus from Mombasa.
The Journey Begins
This was the second EAST residency; the first one was organised in early 2016, and coordinators are confident that the train service has become more efficient as the company improved its services. In 2016, creative director Geraldine Hepp tells us, the artists did not leave the station until two in the morning, having waited for hours.
This year, the train is ready by five in the evening and we leave the station less than 45 minutes after boarding. We hope that the train ride will be long, and that we won’t reach Mombasa until five in the evening the next day. This will give us much longer to brainstorm ideas for our final installations. A train ride from Nairobi to Mombasa takes about 16 hours; our hopes aren’t all that realistic.
I am alone in a cabin. In the corridor, someone has taken off their shoes and the smell of feet fills my cabin. I open the window and put my head out even though there is a warning that reads, ‘Please do not put your head out.’
Artists know how to find each other. Or rather, artists gravitate to where there is action that interests them. I start moving from cabin to cabin and find Mark Hitter, a drummer, and Checkmate Mido, a rapper/actor/drummer, playing drums in one of the cabins. It’s nothing planned; they’re just jamming. The music is good and we sing along. Maimouna Jallow, the coordinator for writing, starts dancing and the rest of us are clapping in accompaniment. Checkmate lets go of his drum and starts freestyle rapping. We are all ears. Checkmate is a lightning bolt of talent, and when he unleashes it, everyone is in awe.
The room is filling up. Jackie Manyaapelo, the South African curator for dance, comes in and begins doing a dance routine by the entrance. There isn’t enough space for her to move freely so she gets onto the top bunk and continues dancing as we go on drumming. Someone lights a stick of incense and the room is filled with music, smoke and smiles.
Music, like a candle to a moth, attracts every soul.
At night, I join the writers and we brainstorm about what we will do for our project. Alexander Ikawah comes up with an idea: to write about how we feel about the train as it moves in the dark. I find writing like that difficult to execute and stare at the stars instead. Once outside Nairobi, the sky is much clearer at night; perhaps it is the city lights or the air pollution that blocks out the stars. In the end, I come up with a poem that I would not have shown to anyone if I had written it under different circumstances.
Later on, I rejoin the musicians and listen to their creative process as they plan ideas for their installation performance. I want to go and learn about the other art forms – photography, dance and film – but the musicians start jamming again. Labdi Ommes, a Kenyan musician, gets out her orutu, an instrument that is played like a violin, and we start creating lyrics to a chorus that Mzungu Kichaa, the Tanzania-based Danish musician, has created. Drums and claps take over and I begin hand-whistling as the cabin fills up once more. Music, like a candle to a moth, attracts every soul.
A Brief History of the Railway
The Uganda Railway was started by the British in 1896 in Mombasa and finally finished at Port Florence (Kisumu City) in 1901. There were several reasons for building the railway, the biggest being to protect British interests from the Germans, who had acquired Tanganyika, Rwanda and Burundi in the scramble for Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1884.
The railway reached Nairobi in 1899. Then the city was just a seasonal swamp, and between 1906 and 1908, the colonial government considered abandoning it for better land. It was, however, chosen as a railway station due to its central location between Mombasa and Kisumu. After the arrival of the railway, a depot was built, heralding the birth of what would become Kenya’s capital.
The construction of the railway was most difficult between Mombasa and Nairobi. The conditions were harsh as there was no water to drink and the workers were stalked by two lions. The Man Eaters of Tsavo, as they were known, would drag men from their tents as they slept at night and eat them alive.
There is very little documentation of the workers who were killed by these lions. There is some information on the Indians who fell victim, the first having been a Sikh man by the name of Ungan Singh, but the railway authorities did not keep records of the Africans who were similarly killed.
Kovu Safarini reminds one of these incidents during the railway construction. As the train chugs on, one is aware that a high price was paid for what opened the way both for the development of the region and the brutality of colonialism. That brutality would hold Kenya in its grip until 1963, with its effects lasting much longer.
As the train chugs on, one is aware that a high price was paid for what opened the way…
The End of the Line
The first thing we do when we reach Kilifi, after a journey of more than 24 hours, is head to the sea for a swim. Some artists decide on a shower, but a swim in the ocean is all I need. A shower will not be enough to wash off all that sweat.
The next morning, guitarists Omari Joshua, Danny King’ori and I go for a walk along the beach. Omari gets his feet cut by oyster shells and starts bleeding in the water; I am lucky not to get cut as well. There is an abandoned hotel at the beach that has had its roof removed. Its walls are cracking and a bush is growing inside what, from the looks of it, was once a well-manicured place. I start talking to a middle-aged man I find seated by the ruins.
“Walifilisika wakaiuza,” he tells me. According to him the hotel was once owned by Indians who sold it when they ran into bankruptcy. The new owner of the place has not started rebuilding it yet. The old cottages are thatched with makuti. With the temperatures as high as they are in Kilifi, they would have been quite cool when they were still usable; a great place to spend one’s time. What was once the swimming pool is filled with mud. Algae are growing in it and coconuts from the palm trees all over the hotel compound have dropped into the mud. The man tells me that the trees were planted—palm trees are always planted, he says.
I want to know more about this hotel and others like it around Kilifi. He welcomes me to his side and our conversation stretches beyond hotels, until Omari interrupts me with a call from the other side of the small lagoon. They want to take a boat back to where we started to avoid the oyster shells. I decide that I’ll return later and continue talking to the man by the abandoned hotel. When we’re finished, I walk back through the water, only to be cut multiple times by the shells. I wonder if I should have taken the boat instead.
The Last Evening
The last evening is the night of installations. We sit in the sand, looking at the set podium where Jacob Solomon “Jinku” is deejaying. The first to perform are the trio of Michel Ongaro, Danny and Omari. Ongaro describes himself as a finger dancer, and when he gets down to playing the guitar, you see his fingers doing acrobatics on the strings. Omari sings in Kisii to Michel and Danny’s guitar work, and we hum along. Later on, I sit next to Michel and Danny without saying a word as the other performers take to the stage. Sometimes you don’t say what you feel because it will interrupt the moment, and I sit by Michel and simply listen.
At their installation, Adam Chienjo dances on a raised tent. Jackie Manyaapelo lights him with an electric lamp that she is holding up. Adam carries an imaginary ball, which he keeps dropping and picking up and moving around with. It looks easy, beautiful and, like all good art, rather pointless. It is not until the following day, when we’re on the beach and Adam is explaining to me the basics of Tai chi that I come to understand. Tonight, though, I don’t get the intricacies or the mechanics involved, I just want to keep watching Adam do his beautiful, pointless dance all night long.
When the lights finally fade, we move to where paint artists Anne Mwiti and Naiyanoi Sitonik are. Adam joins Stacey Abe Gillian, a fellow dancer, and Anne starts painting face masks on them as Sara Nankoma sings. I eventually understand that it is a pain-release ritual, with every brush stroke letting the pain go. A friend whispers to me that there are pieces of paper going round and people have to write what liberating thoughts occur to them during the dance.
The rest of the night is filled with performances from Lebon, Checkmate Mido and Labdi Ommes, among others. Later on I get a beer and sit by the pool, drinking and talking to various artists. EAST is coming to an end, which is saddening for us all.. I sit with Lydia Kasese, talking about poetry and the Anglophone reading culture in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi.
“I have a Kenyan writer friend who lives in Dar,” I tell her. “I should connect her to you and your literary community.”
“That’s alright,” Lydia answers, and gives me her number. Later, I WhatsApp it to my Kenyan friend in Dar-es-Salaam. EAST is ending, but here we are, starting new relationships.
The Swahili have a saying that draws from the railway: “Usiudharau wembamba wa reli, gari la moshi hupita.” We know better than to underestimate the thin rail track. It carried us here and connected us all.