Waugh and the African Railways

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung published in Munich has a feature story (“Afrika-Express”) by Bernd Doerries about the expansion of the railway¬†networks in East Africa financed by the Chinese. Most recently, this involves the opening of a new line in Kenya from Mombasa to Nairobi that will ultimately be extended to Lake Victoria. This replaces a railway line built by the British during the empire which was allowed to disintegrate after the British left. It had deteriorated to the point where trains moved at 30km/hour, and one never knew whether the Mobasa-Nairobi trip would take one day or six; it came to be called “the lunatic line.” Trains on the new line will make the trip in five hours at the cost of about six euros. ¬†

As background to the story, Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 trip to East Africa is recalled. This was made at what the SZ calls the “height of railroad expansion” in that area. The trip from Djibouti to Addis Abba was mostly in Abyssinia¬†where¬†the newly¬†crowned emperor¬†“wanted to prove by the railroad that his country was as modern as the West.” I’m not so sure that Waugh’s descriptions of his trips over that line would demonstrate that the emperor’s¬†aspiration was fulfilled. As his 1930 trip continued after leaving Addis, Waugh took the train¬†from Mombasa to Nairobi and then on to Kisimu. He doesn’t say much about the rail service on that leg of his journey¬†except to note that the overnight trip¬†from the coast to Nairobi was subject to “periodic derailments (three to be exact)” but reached Nairobi by lunchtime the day after leaving Mombasa. (Remote People, Penguin 2011, p, 215). According to the SZ story:

It is a feverish journey, which Waugh describes, over which he loses control and which goes on and on and on, because always new tracks appeared, which lead somewhere. He landed in the Belgian Congo. The route that Waugh traveled then is no longer passable, but in many respects exactly the same as what the East African states and the Chinese investors would regard as a future network.

This description is accurate up to a point. Waugh¬†travelled around Lake Victoria by steamer, arriving at Mwanza in Tanganyika where he took trains to Tabora and ultimately to Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika; from there he took a ferry to Albertville in Belgian Congo. The rail trips in Tanganyika were apparently uneventful except for infrequency of service requiring multi-night stopovers. In the Congo he took a train to Kabalo which took 11 hours on an “uneven line…jolted over mile upon mile of track cut through high grass.” He bought a first class ticket on that train to Kabalo, had the carriage to himself and was surprised to find it equipped with a shower-bath: “It was fantastic to discover, on a jolting single line in Central Africa decencies which one cannot get on the Blue Train.” He then conceded that the shower was “not in working order” (Remote People, p. 276-77). He made¬†his way by river and another Belgian train to Elizabethville in the hope of air service back to the coast. When this proved unavailable, he took¬†a six day train journey from Elisabethville to Cape Town to catch¬†a steamer back to England.

The only part of Waugh’s¬†journey to be replaced by the new Chinese-built lines, aside from Mombasa to Lake Victoria,¬†is¬†Djibouti to Addis (opened recently–see earlier post).¬†There is also a projected line from Addis direct to Nairobi on the SZ map which would eliminate the need to take two rail journeys connected by a steamer from Djibouti to Mombasa. But, at least so far as the SZ story is concerned, there are no immediate Chinese-funded expansion plans for services south of Bujumbura in Burundi. So Waugh’s route¬†from Mwanza to Cape Town is not thus far slated for improvement.

Translation by Google with minor edits.

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