Tom decided to visit his sister who was living in France. He assumed that most French would speak English but found that many people spoke only their own language and this included the ticket inspector on the train. He punched Tom’s ticket, then chatted cordially for a bit, making several expansive gestures. Tom simply nodded from time to time to show him that he was interested. When he had gone, an American tourist, also on the train, leaned forward and asked if Tom spoke French.
‘No’, Tom admitted.
‘Then that explains”, she said, “why you didn’t bat an eyelid when he told you that you were on the wrong train.”
A few weeks ago, I had the occasion to drive east on Mombasa road, on my way to Kibwezi town. Growing up as a child, the journey to our annual Mombasa vacation was one filled with giddy excitement as my late father put his faithful Peugeot 504 to the speed test. We would drive for stretches without seeing another car or truck noting dry savannah landscapes teeming with baobab and acacia trees for miles straddling both sides of the road. In those days there were very few urban centres on that stretch. From the relatively sleepy truck stop of Salama to the placid, uninspiring settlements of Sultan Hamud, Emali and Makindu one would only get relatively excited at Mtito Andei as it marked the halfway point of the five hour road trip. That was then. Today these are all bustling roadside stops, whose growth has been driven largely in part by the vibrant trucking industry that hauls tons of local and East African cargo from the port of Mombasa into the hinterland.
What used to be a two hour trip to Kibwezi, which lies 200 kilometres east of Nairobi, is now a hair raising four hour journey largely consisting of dodging heavy trucks driven by foul mouthed imbeciles who brazenly lean out of their cab window and tell you to get off the climbing lane. “Hamuoni kwamba hii lorry imebeba mizigo?” was shouted at us at least twice, when the only other option was to move to the lane of oncoming, hurtling trucks whose visibly smoking brakes hissed louder than a rattlesnake on heat. But hope springs eternal in the standard gauge railway (SGR) construction.
The previously sleepy municipality of Emali is now a key construction base for the SGR project. I saw what looked like two different factories being built with large storage silos for sand, ballast and other construction material. Trucks without any visible registration plates crisscrossed the highway, raising red plumes of dust in the distance from where they seemed to be collecting sand to be taken to the factories. White banners with Chinese lettering would be the first sign that one was approaching a construction zone and there were many points between Emali and Kibwezi where the construction team had laid the foundation for the concrete columns that will carry the 21st century iron snake.
So I asked around when I got to my Kibwezi destination about the impact the SGR construction was having, if any on the population. I met an old acquaintance who I had not seen in years, who has now moved permanently to Mtito Andei. He is supplying sand, ballast and one other thing that’s slipped my mind to the construction sites. His move was occasioned by the fact that he needed to be next to the business as the demand was very high. “Mtito has exploded since the SGR started,” he mused. “Land is now going for a million shillings an acre from less than 500,000 a year ago.” What was fuelling this growth I asked? “People who have been paid compensation for their land lost to the SGR are flush with cash, and the Chinese tell us that it will take one and a half hours by rail from Mtito to Nairobi once the passenger train starts running. So now people are seeing how they can commute from there.” He went further to add that a lot of previously idle young men now had found jobs on the construction sites, even from the Kibwezi area, and prosperity was driving a consumptive economy in the area. Were local farmers benefitting, I asked, since the Chinese must eat something at some point? ‘Actually no,’ said my acquaintance, ‘All their food comes from Nairobi as it is specialized things like pork and Chinese vegetables like bok choy.’ Are there any potential pork farmers in Makueni County listening?
I gather there is a whole economic revitalization occurring under our very noses along the SGR’s construction path that was probably last seen at the turn of the 20th Century. A few critical towns like Mtito Andei and Emali are likely to become bustling urban centres upon completion of the railway as the local citizenry seek ways to apply their new labor skills. The opposite is however true for busy truck pit stops like Salama that may have vehicular and human traffic reduce if the true impact of the project is felt. The SGR train, once commissioned, is slated to carry double stacked containers with a haulage capacity of 4,000 tonnes. Let me put that into perspective for Kenyan road users. With an axle load limit of 48 tonnes, one SGR train trip has the capacity to take out 83 trucks from the roads. Just like that. If successful, this project should greatly reduce the truck traffic on the east-west regional artery that traverses through Kenya. Banks that finance trucking companies should be stress testing their transport portfolios by now, with a view to reducing exposures over time. The benefits of infrastructure development are unfolding before our eyes in terms of job opportunities as well as growth of ancillary industries that make up the raw material supply chain for the project. I fervently pray that this project is completed successfully and prove that we’re on the right train to an economic Canaan.