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“Documenting the history and memory of the Kenya – Uganda railway” by Chao Maina

“Documenting the history and memory of the Kenya – Uganda railway” by Chao Maina

Africa’s earliest railways bear many similarities, built as tools for conquest and extraction, railways were seen as the primary instruments for advancing colonial interests and facilitating the subordination of indigenous inhabitants and environments. With no interest in connecting people or regions, exploitation and extraction formed the primary basis through which they were conceived. This is evident in the decision to often use the cheapest and shortest routes to sources of minerals and raw materials with no consideration on population composition.

The story of the Kenya – Uganda railway is no different. Built as a strategic endeavour by the British to keep the Germans from reaching the coveted source of the Nile (Uganda), the total cost of the railway was immense. 32, 000 labourers imported, 2,500 lives lost, and 5 million pounds spent.  By the time of its completion the Uganda Railway was and remained one of the greatest structural endeavours undertaken in East Africa.

It has long been said that the story of Kenya’s urbanisation began first with the rivers which snaked across the landscape, then with the trade caravans which followed the rivers, followed by the railway which followed the caravan routes.  Indeed, a quick look at the map of Kenya reveals that the majority of urban centres grew around railway stations or railway stopovers. 

In its time, the railway was used to transport everything from soldiers and ammunition during the world war, to Mau Mau prisoners during the fight for independence. In its tracks, it held the heartbeat of the country, but by 1990 it began to decline rapidly and shortly after the turn of the century, it had completely ceased to function in most parts.

By the early 2000’s, railway stations which were once teeming with life slowly fell into disuse, disrepair and for some, total abandonment. It is this backdrop that formed the inspiration for the Save The Railway project, an initiative started in 2012 to document a disappearing physical heritage tied closely to the intangible histories of a country on the brink of yet another mammoth project – This time, a $3.8 billion-dollar Standard Gauge Railway(SGR) commissioned in 2013 by the Kenya government and built by the Chinese. 

This tale of two railways, centuries apart, forces us to ask some critical questions. As we replace this old railway that so many died building, from which so many people earned their living, this same railway  that moved us across the country and built cities in its wake, we need to ask ourselves, what stories do these stations, these rails, and these trains hold for Kenya?  Whose voices are silenced and whose voices are remembered? 

The narratives that today stand out about the Kenya – Uganda railway are mostly the romanticised but equally horrific stories of man-eating lions (1898), Roosevelt’s infamous hunting safari (1909) and the numerous ways in which the railway valiantly opened up these ‘uninhabited’, ‘exotic’ lands.  Yet where are the stories of the men and women in pre and post-independence Kenya who built and run this railway, of the thousands of Mau Mau detainees who were transported to different detention camps around the country in a special train called “gari ya waya”. Or of the tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods were affected when the railway declined? Are these stories not part of the railway, do they not deserve to be heard or remembered?

Save The Railway is a mixed media project that seeks to answer these questions by  exploring the various ways in which colonial railway infrastructure in Kenya  is remembered and memorialised. It looks at the railway as both an instrument of exploitation and an avenue for unification . Through photography, videography and text, the project seeks to capture and present both the tangible (the state of the railway  today ) and the intangible (the perspectives, memories and experiences of those who used and worked with the railways).

The project is currently ongoing, for more information visit, check out @eastafricarails on Instagram or email

Chao Tayiana Maina is a Kenyan digital heritage specialist and digital humanities scholar. With a background in Computer Science and a life-long passion for history, her work primarily focuses on the application of technology in the preservation, engagement and dissemination of African heritage and culture. She is the founder of African Digital Heritage, a non-profit organization that seeks to encourage a more critical and holistic approach to the design and implementation of digital solutions within African cultural heritage.

She is also a co-founder of the Museum of British Colonialism where she leads digital engagement and a co-founder of the Open Restitution Africa project. She holds an MSc International Heritage Visualization (distinction) from the University of Glasgow/Glasgow School of Art. Her research work explored the possibilities of embedding intangible histories in 3D digital environments. As co-founder of the Museum of British Colonialism, her work to digitally document and visualize detention camps in colonial Kenya has been featured in the New York Times, Reuters, BBC news, BBC Arts, Nation and 3Sat. She is a recipient of the Google Anita Borg scholarship for women in technology and a founding member of the Digital Humanities network in Africa.

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