From the Madaraka Express to the Lunatic Express: Thoughts From a Kenyan-raised Global Citizen: Part II

Why Was It Called the Lunatic Express?


Rumbling through the mighty Tsavo towards Voi. On a clear day Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, with its snow-capped peaks, comes into view.

In the last story I shared recollections of my first ride on the Lunatic Express— memories that will resonate with others who experienced it, especially during the mid eighties to early nineties. Now we turn our attention to some key events surrounding this railroad, in particular the role it played in the story of colonialism,  racism, and plunder in colonial East Africa, and the struggle for freedom.


Photo: Nairobi Travel Guide

The Lunatic Express (also known as the Uganda Railway) got its name from  lawmakers in the House of Commons who queried the astronomical financial burden it imposed on the British taxpayer as well as its rationale and logistical woes. Charles Miller’s aptly titled book, The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism, ensured that the phrase was forever  associated with the story of British empire in East Africa. The financial cost (more than half a billion pound sterling in today’s money) prompted the Foreign Office to develop Kenya as a settler colony as this was seen as the only way to recoup the massive investment.

The logistics required for the railroad were monstrous. 200,000 individual rails, 1.2 million sleepers, 200,000 fish plates, 400,000 fish hooks and 4.8 million steel keys had to be imported, among other items. This required the construction of port at Kilindini harbor in Mombasa. (The British also used Kilindini as a code breaking station against the Axis Powers during World War II. The station was housed in a building that is now part of Alidina Visram High School in Mombasa.)


Kilindini harbor today. It has a capacity of 200,000 TEU and can handle Panamax vessels

From Mombasa the Lunatic Express began its journey to the Uganda protectorate. It crossed thousands of bridges and made hair raising elevations to mountain ranges and volcanoes overlooking the Great African Rift Valley before descending to the valley’s floor. From there it made the final stretch to the shores of Lake Victoria in Kampala. (The Kenya portion of the Rift Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of several lakes, mountains and active and dormant volcanoes).


Mount Longonot in the background on the final stretch out of the Rift Valley before the final ascent to Nairobi from where the train headed west to Uganda.


A close-up of Mount Longonot near Naivasha. As students, Longonot was one of our favorite camp sites. It was wilderness no doubt, yet less than 30 miles from Nairobi.


Some of East Africa’s oldest and most prestigious British schools were built along the Lunatic line from Kampala to Nairobi, the Kenyan Rift, and down to Mombasa. There were separate trains for high school boys and girls, but boys and girls attending primary school travelled on the same train. My high school, on the banks of the Nile, used to be a railway station on the Lunatic line. Photo: Malcolm McCrow


Pembroke Prep is one of the oldest British prep schools in Kenya. It is located in historic Gilgil, between Naivasha and Nakuru, on the floor of the Rift Valley. Gilgil, a military town, was an important stop along the Lunatic Express. It is now home to the Kenya Army Infantry and several batallions including the elite airborne batallion. Photo: Pembroke House

The construction of the Lunatic Express was not only a huge logistical undertaking but a deadly one as well. Hundreds of miles of track were laid in the wilderness and thousands of workers died of diseases or were killed in skirmishes between colonial forces and local communities. Several were killed by wild animals.

To English politician, Henry Labouchere,  the entire enterprise was a “gigantic folly”—words echoed by Uhuru Kenyatta when he termed the Lunatic Express as “the train to nowhere.” Labouchere famously said  “Where it is going to, nobody knows. What is the use of it, none can conjecture. What it will carry there’s none can define. It is clearly nought but a lunatic line.”

Despite these misgivings, countless notables rode Kenya’s historic railway, among them, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American novelist Ernest Hemmingway, and an endless list of English Royals including Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother. Churchill praised it as “a brilliant conception” in the “art of British muddling through.”

Speaking in defense of the project, Joseph Chamberlain, then Secretary of the Colonies, said “if Britain stepped away from its manifest destiny, it would by default leave it to other nations to take up the work that it would have been seen as too weak, too poor, and too cowardly to have done itself.”

It should however be noted that for all its grandeur and logistical marvels, the Lunatic Express was ultimately a colonial endeavor, complete with violence, racism and plunder, and above all, the profound lack of human feeling associated with the colonial experience in Africa.

President Roosevelt, in recounting his trip aboard the Lunatic Express,  describes Africans as “savages” that “had not advanced beyond the cave man stage.” “This railroad,” he tells his readers, “is the embodiment of the eager, masterful, materialistic civilization of today, pushed through a region in which nature, both as regards wild man and wild beast, does not differ materially from what it was in Europe in the late Pleistocene.” Such were the views of the men in power in the white man’s paradise that was the Kenya colony.


President Theodore Roosevelt (seated left) and friends on an observation platform where they observed wildlife at close quarters

……..The Human Cost

32,000 workers from British-ruled India were sent to the Kenya colony to work on the Lunatic Express. Their experience working on the British railway in India was  highly prized by the British colonialists in Kenya. The incentive to import labor from India was also motivated by the resistance that local communities put up against the railway. That said, thousands of Africans also worked on the line as track-layers, porters, cooks and guards.

The human cost of constructing the Lunatic Express was colossal. It is estimated that about four workers died for each mile of track. Fifty percent of the entire labor force was affected by malaria and hundreds were decimated by several outbreaks of yellow fever and sleeping sickness, as well as malnutrition due to perennial droughts. As many as 3000 Indians perished by the time construction ended in 1901. The number of African deaths is unknown. The colonial overlords did not bother to keep such records since human rights were the least of their concerns.


Indian workers at a section of the railway. Notice the African guards in the left background. The vast majority of East Africa’s Asians are descendants of Indian track layers. Photo: Thee Agora

…..The Man Eating Lions

The mystique of the Lunatic Express achieved cinematic fame and left an indelible mark on popular culture. Yet the horror of those who experienced its darker side has received scant attention. One of the most infamous incidents in this regard occurred in 1898 during construction of a bridge at the Tsavo River in what is today the meeting point between Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks. A pair of marauding lions stalked and killed as many as 135 Indian and African workers over a period of 7 months.

Man eating is highly unusual behavior for lions and many speculate it could have been encouraged by the burial customs of the Hindu workers who cremated their dead in the open. This could have attracted the carnivores, as lions, in addition to being excellent hunters, are also prolific scavengers. Lions are also highly opportunistic predators. The sudden concentration of humans in their habitat made them easy prey in the harsh environment of the Tsavo.

Night after night the lions breached the camp barriers, pulled workers out of their tents, and devoured them within earshot of their colleagues. Work on the bridge eventually came to a halt. The camp supervisor, Col. J Patterson, mounted a  campaign lasting several months to track and kill the beasts. It was an extensive effort as the lions  constantly evaded him while continuing to kill more workers.

Patterson writes in his memoirs that he observed the behavior of the lions each night from the tower where he lay in wait, his rifle at the ready. He concluded that the lions sensed his presence and somehow avoided getting too close to him. After several months of attempts and near misses he eventually gave up hope of killing them. Then an opportunity presented itself on December 9, 1898 when he shot the first one. He killed the second one on the 29th, narrowly escaping death after it charged him.

Patterson became a worldwide hero. His book inspired three Hollywood movies and countless documentaries. His experiences are also immortalized at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, where the stuffed man eaters, along with their skulls and skins, are on display, attracting millions of visitors. Successive Kenyan administrations have tried to have the lions repatriated to Kenya without success. (Patterson sold them to the Museum).


The man-eaters on display in Chicago. Notice they are maneless, a  distinguishing feature of Tsavo lions—possibly a genetic adaptation to the thorny vegetation. They also have high testosterone levels, making them more aggressive than other lion varieties. They are also larger than other lion types.  Photo: Wikipedia


The infamous Tsavo Bridge. The Chinese company hired to construct the new railway built a workers camp in close proximity. In December 2015 a leopard mauled a worker there, leaving him in critical condition.


The new Tsavo super bridge under construction not far from the old one. In May 2015 a guard at a camp in the area was mauled by a lion and dragged to a nearby thicket. He was guarding President Kenyatta’s tent ahead of an inspection tour. Luckily his colleagues rescued him in time.



Patterson and a dead man-eater. One was 9′ 6 inches and the other 9’9.  He writes that “between them, the lions ate no less than 28 Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives of whom no official record was kept.” He later revises the figure to “135 Indian and African laborers and artisans.” Photo: Thee Agora

As shown above, information about the Indian and African victims of the man eaters is scanty. Recently a Kenyan conservationist, Taiyana Chao, put out a well researched account of some of the men who fell victim to the lions. Some of her outstanding work in preserving Kenya’s history can be found here:

Two years after the Tsavo horror, police superintendent, Charles Henry Ryall, was dragged from his coach and killed by a man eating lion several miles south of the Tsavo Bridge.  In 1964 the departing colonial authorities organized a highly publicized event billed as a “commemoration” to symbolize the hardships involved in building the Lunatic Express. The highlight of the event were two lion cubs—mascots of 2 Battalion Scots Guard—that were placed in Ryall’s coach to drum up media attention.  As might be expected, the press statement made no mention of the Indians and Africans whose lives were also claimed by man eating lions.


Two lion cubs placed in the exact spot where Ryall was dragged and killed by a man eating lion on June 6, 1900. Photo: Thee Agora

…Wars of resistance

As is the case with the African and Indian laborers who lost their lives in the Tsavo, the wars of resistance against the railway line have not received much attention.  On November 26, 1895, a caravan of about 1,400 railway workers raided a Maasai village and abducted and raped two girls. A group of Maasai morans (warriors) made their way to the settlement and secured the girls’ release. The next day the railway party launched a second raid and abducted the same girls. The morans attacked the settlement and killed around 500 railway workers in what is now known as the Kedong Massacre. A British trader, Andrew Dick, led a counter-attack against the Maasai, killing more than 100 before being put to death himself.

An uneasy truce was reached but several years later the Maasai launched a fierce guerilla struggle against the British. This resistance was crushed when the revered Maasai commander, and World War II veteran, Kurito ole Kisio, was captured and killed by colonial troops. As a teenager, Kurito, and hundreds of others, were taken by the British to fight on their behalf overseas. On returning home, a large number formed the core of the anti colonial struggle.  Kurito’s body was paraded in his home area in Narok as a warning. His second in command, Muntet Ole Kapian, was paraded in a cage before being tortured and hanged.

Koitalel Arap Samoei of the Nandi community led an eleven year resistance against the railway. Nandi guerilla units attacked and uprooted railway tracks and harassed British troops and their African collaborators at remote points. This resistance ended following Samoei’s assassination by a British soldier at a peace meeting staged by the colonial government.


Miriam ole Kisio, widow of the late freedom fighter, General Kurito ole Kisio, with her son Memusi ole Kisio at their home in Narok in 2016. Photo: The Daily Nation

The resistance struggles of the Maasai, Nandi, Giriama, Meru, Kikuyu, Luo and other communities along the Lunatic Line eventually crystallized into a fully-fledged anti-colonial struggle waged by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA). The struggle was disparagingly  named “Mau Mau” by the colonial government. It was heavily demonized by the British press during the state of emergency declared by London and long after Kenya became independent. Its fighters are still portrayed as savages yet their role in liberating Kenya and inspiring liberation movements in other parts of Africa is not in dispute.

The Lunatic Express was pivotal in moving troops and logistics for the counterinsurgency campaign waged by the British. As many as 150,000 civilians were herded into 150 camps across the colony as a strategy of denying the fighters support from the population. 10,000 British troops, 21,000 paramilitary, and 20,000 African “homeguards”  were deployed in this effort.

In 2011 a few surviving victims of this dark period in Kenya’s history sought redress from the British High Court. The complicated and lengthy case brought to light widespread acts of brutality and torture by camp officials, including systematic beatings, castration, rape and other sexual acts, such as the insertion of bottles into the private parts of female detainees.

women mau mau

Women KLFA guerillas.  Women were heavily brutalized by colonial troops and their African collaborators. More than 7000 women served in KLFA’s “passive wing” that provided the fighters intelligence, food and medicine.

As the case before the British High Court dragged on, an archive of highly sensitive documents removed from Kenya and transferred to the UK shortly before independence came to light. They showed that the atrocities committed by colonial troops were sanctioned by the highest levels of the colonial government. Based on these files the Court ruled in 2012 that affected persons could sue the British government for colonial era abuses.

To avoid facing trials in light of the landmark ruling, London paid damages to 5,228 victims, issued an apology, and constructed a memorial in Nairobi. Be that as it may, the UK authorities maintained that they could not be held liable for crimes committed by the colonial administration. During the hearings the  Foreign Office maintained that the colony’s liabilities had been inherited by the Kenya government as a matter of public international law. To many therefore, this sad chapter in Kenya’s history has not been closed.


Colonial troops and African collaborators standing guard over Kenyans at a “regroupment” camp. Photo: Daily Nation

Reconciling the iconic and breathtaking rides of the Lunatic Express with the atrocities associated with it is difficult and painful. Such was the nature of the colonial enterprise. The injustices suffered by the natives occurred in very close proximity to the enormous wealth, privilege and status of the Europeans. This state of affairs, which should have provoked outrage, was “normalized.”

Elements of this are reflected in the travel culture that emerged after independence.  Third class travelers on the Lunatic line sat on hard benches in dormitory—like coaches. There were no meals, no air-conditioning, no sleeper seats, and deplorable ablution facilities– a far cry from the luxuries of first class, just a few hundred feet away. It is astounding how no one saw anything wrong with this.

In summary, contemporary Kenyan memories of the Lunatic Express reflect the larger Kenyan experience with colonialism. For many, the railway symbolizes injustice, atrocities, plunder and dispossession. Yet the central role it  played in the Kenyan economy and in showcasing Kenya’s outstanding sights and sounds is undeniable.

That said, the vast majority of Kenyans felt excluded by the grand project. After all, it was built to advance imperial power, not for the welfare of the natives, who as Roosevelt argued, were sub human. Therefore from its maiden trip on May 30 1896, to its last one on April 28, 2017, the Lunatic Express was largely seen as a colonial railroad—perhaps contributing to its systematic neglect over the years. Will the new Madaraka Express bring something fundamentally different? It is to this question that we will turn to next.

Stay tuned.

3 comments on “From the Madaraka Express to the Lunatic Express: Thoughts From a Kenyan-raised Global Citizen: Part II

  1. Very insightful indeed. I remain tuned for more.


  2. […] View of the Lunatic Line. Picture by Paul Nantulya: […]


  3. […] View of the Lunatic Line. Picture by Paul Nantulya: […]


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