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

I always reminisce over things Kenyan whenever I get homesick. Kenya is the land of my childhood, the place that I still call home. I like to tune in to all the happenings and buzz over there. The latest news that got everyone talking is the eagerly awaited Standard Gauge Railway,  the Madaraka Express,  that made its maiden journey from Mombasa to Nairobi on Madaraka Day, June, 1, 2017.

This was a momentous event that made headlines in the region and around the world.  My mind raced back to my first ride on the old train from Nairobi to Mombasa. It was called the Lunatic Express, part of a 1,675 mile railroad constructed by the British to link Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean. Started in 1896 and completed in 1901, this railway line was built to counter the threat of German annexation and support the expansion of British Imperial power into East Africa.

Then commissioner of British East Africa, Charles Eliot, had this to say about the Lunatic Express: “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.” This sounds distasteful considering that the welfare of the local people was never taken into account in constructing it Nevertheless Kenyans agree that their Republic was, in many ways, created by this railroad. The capital city, Nairobi (“place of cool waters” in the local Maasai dialect) was founded as a small railway depot in 1899. And as the railway expanded it triggered events that would shape the contours of a new nation.

While flagging off the new line, Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s fourth president, said that his country had finally turned the page on its colonial past.  To mark the occasion I thought I should share some reflections on what many see as a turning point in Kenya’s history. I will do this through a three-part story starting with my childhood memories of the Lunatic Express , followed by a discussion of some of the events surrounding it and how they are memorialized by Kenyans. I will then look at some changes and developments brought by the new railway (positive and negative) and conclude with parting thoughts about whether the promise of true independence is indeed at hand.



Nairobi Railway Station in the mid 80s when my sister, my mum and I rode the Lunatic Express from Nairobi to Mombasa. My brother, then 3 years, was frightened by the sound of the trains and so he refused to board, and went back home with my Dad

Part One: Riding the Lunatic Express

Madaraka is a term coined by Kenyan freedom fighters to commemorate their brutal, bitter, but heroic struggle against British colonialism. President Kenyatta paid tribute to this struggle shortly before getting aboard the Madaraka Express on its maiden journey He declared: “A history that started 122 years ago when the British kicked off the train to nowhere…dubbed the Lunatic Express, but today we celebrate the Madaraka Express, to shape Kenya’s story for the next 100 years”. He was accompanied on the journey by school children representing Kenya’s 47 counties.

Kenya’s struggle for independence and its post-colonial triumphs and tribulations cannot be appreciated without understanding its railway history. For the interested visitor the Nairobi Railway Museum is a must see heritage site right next to the station pictured above. There, you will find the curator, Mr. Elias Randiga, whose immense knowledge of key historical events during the construction of the Lunatic Express will leave you transfixed.

The highly knowledgeable staff at the museum will share stories behind each piece of history there: the locomotives, coaches and pieces of rail as well as extremely valuable documents and correspondence dating back to the 1800s (incidentally one of the locomotives on display was used in the 1985 world-acclaimed Hollywood movie, Out of Africa, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep).

Then police chief, Charles Henry Ryall, was dragged from this coach by a man-eating lion at Kima station on June 6 1900.  On display at the Nairobi Railway Museum. Photo: Thee Agora

I was eight when I first rode the Lunatic Express. I vividly remember all the details of the iconic journey—one of the world’s most epic train rides—(the last Lunatic Express pulled out of Nairobi Railway Station one final time on April 28, 2017).

Dinner was served shortly after the train rolled out of the station. A steward signaled dinner time by walking up and down the cabin corridors ringing a bell. The Victorian décor of the dining car gave one a feeling of stepping back in time. This traditional British dining experience was elegant and very formal: waiters and waitresses wore black and white uniforms and the tables were set with spotless white tablecloths, silver cutlery and china. We were treated to a delicious three course meal. Priceless pictures of key moments in Kenya’s rail history hang neatly on the walls of the dining car.

Our bedroom suites were pretty and quaint (the beds were made while you had dinner). The rocking motion of the train sent us to sleep almost as soon as mum tucked us in. The next morning we were woken by the morning sun rising over stretches of savannah, as far as the eye could see. This was undoubtedly the most memorable part of the journey (–the Lunatic Express snaked through three world famous game parks, Nairobi National Park and Tsavo East and Tsavo West).

The sightseeing was magical—from our cabin we spotted elephants, zebra, buffalo, antelope, Thomson’s gazelle, wildebeest, impala and giraffes. Breakfast was served as the train chugged along its final stretch to Mombasa. There was a wide selection of cereal, fruits, and fresh juices, and toast, sausages, bacon, and on and on. As we ate, we enjoyed front row seats to some of Kenya’s breathtaking landscapes and wildlife.

One of the dining cars in first class. When we rode it pictures of key events hang on the walls. Photo: Thee Agora.

Since 2013 I have taken the Amtrak from Washington to Montreal several times, a ride dubbed as one of the most scenic in the world. No offense to my American colleagues, but as beautiful as it is, this ride pales in comparison to the Nairobi Mombasa one. The Lunatic Express was on the “to do list” of hundreds of thousands of foreign and African travelers over the decades. Those who rode it will undoubtedly hold on to many memories for decades to come.

Next time we will look at why it was called the Lunatic Express.



Weekly Depth Charge: March 11, 2017

I’m trying out a new posting format, where I offer a roundup of links, with a bit of commentary, from the past week (or longer in this case since it’s the first installment).


PutinI still sometimes have Americans on the Right tell me that Eastern Europeans are not that worried about Russia (and Trump). Eastern Europeans tell me they are. Here’s a sampling …

Eastern Europe: Between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin

Estonians join paramilitary forces to face Russia fears

Saeima speaker considers restoring compulsory military service in Latvia

Scandinavians are concerned too… Norway, Sweden, Finland.

North Korea

This is cool and informative: Jeffrey Lewis gives an easy-to-follow primer on using open source material to monitor North Korean missile launches.


This NY Times piece from last month does a good job of capturing the background behind the tensions in Cameroon’s Anglophone area. Among other things, this is an example of a modern conflict in Africa stemming from a weak sense of national identity, due in part to colonial-era borders. When a boundary is created on top of an existing cultural/demographic pattern and without taking it into account, it is called a superimposed boundary. This is almost every international border in Africa.


Getting water at UN House, Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Oxfam East Africa.


South Sudan’s beyond-emergency-stage food crisis is entirely manmade. In fact many of Africa’s food crises are in zones of conflict.

China is building a naval base just across the bay from the American base in Djibouti:

Democratization efforts in Zimbabwe are interesting and worth following. What is the US position on democracy and accountability efforts in Zimbabwe? As far as I can tell, we don’t have one.

The Global Crapstorm, Generally

The world as a whole is facing the largest humanitarian crisis (or, collections of crises) since World War II.

People fleeing war more likely to find shelter in poorer countries, says UN refugee agency. Most of the 3.2 million people driven forcibly from their homes in early 2016 found shelter in low- and middle-income countries, according to a new UN study. Is this a function of national compassion, or lower capacity to enforce borders, or just that refugees may be more likely to flee to neighboring countries which might be in similar economic circumstances? No doubt it will be spun as the first option, but the others are worth some consideration.

Information Security

The House, including its Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees, has a serious problem with shady IT staffers. There’s some weird stuff going on. The investigation includes this article, and the six more at the end.

News and Disinformation

Technology hasn’t just enabled citizen journalists and those pushing for greater accountability from their governments. It has also made them more vulnerable to well-resourced disinformation campaigns by their governments.

Here is an interesting look at hyperpartisan news sites (known to many simply as “news sites”). I hope this phenomenon gets more coverage. A key quote: “Some of the same people operate both liberal and conservative sites as a way to ‘run up their metrics or advertising revenue’.”

Can Fake News be Stopped?


Toomas Hendrick Ilves. Photo: janwikifoto.


It’s hard to overstate the importance of this observation by one of my favorite recent world leaders, former Estonian president Toomas Hendrick Ilves:

The domestic political goal within Russia is to demonstrate that elections in the West are fraudulent. The government wants to show its public that open societies are flawed, too, so there is no point in becoming a democratic state.

Ilves spoke at a conference on cyber-espionage, propaganda, and Russia, at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Peace, Democracy, Governance, Accountability

Accountability measures are crucial to peace processes.

Transparency makes regimes more resistant to military coups.

One tool to end conflicts: follow the money being made off of them—and stop it.

The U.S. supports South Sudan’s national dialogue. This touches on a pandemic I see in the world today: leaders using democratic institutions or negotiations or peace talks to pay lip service to Western values while having no intention of making any real change. I hope to write more about this in the future. For now, it suffices to note that both South Sudan and Burundi currently suffer from intractable conflicts, and the de facto leaders of both regimes are sponsoring peace talks. This is akin to putting Putin in charge of talks between Russia and Ukraine, or making a rapist the judge of his own trial. Certainly in the case of South Sudan, both sides have committed unspeakable crimes, but the point is that a party to a conflict should never be the one to mediate the conflict. US support for this national dialogue is a sign of intense naiveté on the part of the new administration, which will have grave consequences for justice, and extend the mortal danger to many people.

Trump speaks with Kenyan president about terrorism. What is the US position toward efforts toward freedom and human rights around the world? Based on current diplomatic activity, everyone can go do whatever they want.

How Africa’s political regimes legitimate themselves through the fight against terrorism.

Which form of government is more stable, democracy or autocracy? These days in the US it’s easy to think democracy, but internal pressures (oppression from the government, resistance from the people) are stronger, if less public, in less free countries. A series of maps of Africa shows strong correlations (not causation, mind you) between autocratic countries and … conflict, refugee generation, and food insecurity. It’s not necessarily surprising, but it does suggest that efforts to promote accountable governance worldwide may have more long-term benefits than may appear at first glance.


International Justice

There is a raging debate in Africa about the International Criminal Court. Many of its most vocal critics have argued that it targets Africans unduly and is thus revealed as nothing more than a racist tool of neo-colonialism and imperialism. Aside from the fact that this argument is extremely overused and applied to every dispute imaginable, as our own Paul Nantulya points out in this case it is false, since 7 out of the 8 open cases were requested by Africans, and African populations are mostly in favor of the court (though not overwhelmingly). When it has been effective at all, it has filled a justice gap that many countries haven’t filled nationally yet, and this national/international complementarity was a key reason the idea of the court was first advanced—by Africans.

The Best Men

Trump’s skills at picking solid advisers is wildly inconsistent. Mattis is one of his best. This is about one of his worst.

This might spark an interesting discussion on foreign investment, corruption, and autocracy. If you want more on the topic, check out the head of Global Financial Integrity talking about illegal financial flows. If you want a lot more on this topic, check out the Africa Center’s special report on what it calls “predatory investment”, and how autocrats use it to get around things like sanctions and accountability. The report is also a great case study of how China uses such investment, and investment companies, as tools of statecraft.