I took my first ever train ride.
I know I know.
Some of you reading this are wondering; ‘So, what’s new? We have been riding trains to work every day.’
Hold your horses all ye train riders and let me explain.
While some of you grew up riding trains to and from your errands, I grew up in Mathira ma Githomo (Mathira of Education FYI) where we walked to and from our errands. It was, therefore, new for me that I got to experience my first train ride last Thursday.
This need to ride on a train was especially heightened by the coming of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). There was no way I was going to ride on the new and impressionable SGR trains without experiencing how a journey on the older, more experienced and beat-up trains felt like.
Behind that reasoning is how on the said Thursday, I woke up at the crack of dawn (literally) to start the journey that would see me make a 360 degree kind of tour before I got to the office to start my day. I boarded a matatu to the Kikuyu train station, from where I would take the train to Nairobi town, then take another matatu back to where I started. I do not work in Nairobi CBD so take note the amount of need and dedication that went into this.
Earlier research indicated that the morning train left the station at 6:15 am so by around 5:55 am (I was not joking about riding on a train on this day), I was at the train station whereabouts asking on where to board the train.
“Watu hupandia train wapi?” I ask a schoolboy passing by where I was stranded
“Pale” He points
“Na train hukuja saa ngapi?” I implore
“Ndio ile imesimama hapo” He retorts and I catch some indignation in his voice.
Clearly, the train was in our line of vision, so I understood how he was confused by my not seeing it.
To be fair though, I mentioned about it being at the crack of dawn, so it was still relatively dark.
I walked brusquely to the train, and at the entrance, confusion set in again. Either the boy wanted to get rid of me, or I was standing at the wrong place because no sign of life was visible in or on the train. The piece of old metal in front of me was questionably still and very dark. Even the proverbial early birds on this morning were silent, not chirping as they went about catching their fat worms, making the place deathly quiet.
I stood there a while darting my eyes around weighing if I should go in and sit on the train for the experience or just go back home. Even half a loaf of bread in the form of just entering the train was better than none on this day.
A cough emanating from inside the train was the saving sound on this particular morning. The person coughing may have been in need of my help. Obvious by now is that any reason to get on the train was good enough reason. I climbed the short steps into the first coach to find a lady’s questioning eyes glaring at me a clear indication that she had been staring at me for a while. Breaking into my best smile, I murmured a hello, in the form of a greeting and could see here ease as she realised I was just a confused passenger. She gave a smile back and obligingly answered my few questions.
“The train does work and will leave at 6:15 am” she conveyed.
I sat a while as I listened to the answers then decided on a tour of the train. It felt like the most natural course of action now that it was my first time and there were only two of us on the train, or so I thought. I crossed through the different compartment coaches peeping through the open windows and doors of the stationary train. I even entered the open toilets that had missing doors and looked too small for one to squat in there comfortably. Let’s say it was UNAVOIDABLE to use that bathroom while aboard the train I was on. It means you had to do it at the full glare of everyone and your waste goes directly to the railway tracks. How is that for an experience?Further down there were about five more people seated far apart across the several booths.
Broken and missing windows, tattered seats and littered floors may have been the state of my tour, but nothing was going to dampen this inaugural trip for me.Done with the tour, I choose a window seat that still had glass on, in a compartment all by myself and waited to for the journey commence. As if on cue, the train shook and churned, indicating there was life after all in the iron snake.
We left the Kikuyu train station with less than twenty passengers on board in total.
More passengers filled up as the journey progressed, and by the time we meandered through Kibera, the train was capacity full we had people standing between the seats right next to the feet of those seated. Purposing not to miss any single moment of this experience, I had tucked my phone and book away in my handbag to let my eyes do the wandering.
Thirty minutes in with the excitement cooled down and satisfied my view of the passing greenery and surroundings; I took up the second best thing to do while in public. ‘Watching people.’ Two seats in front of me was a man dry shaving his beard with a blue shaver oblivious of those around him. While to him the train and sink were synonymous, it was such a disgusting thing to watch and imagine his facial hair falling on those beside him. It was even worse to think that at that moment, I may have been sitting on someone’s facial hair from an earlier shave. Those were not I wanted to start my day with, so I moved on to happier spaces.
Two women holding onto no bar were precariously standing, carrying large sisal bags that signified a journey to or from the market. The two were happily engaged in an animated conversation punctuated by loud laughter despite how early in the day it was or the fact that the rest of us were silent eavesdropping in on their conversation.
A lady behind me gave the conductor a ten shilling note (they still exist), which he declined though he was wearing the same colour as the note raising a dispute on whether the note is still legal tender. Is it?
A lady in a green jumpsuit was reading a book titled ‘Angels Never Die’, while a man looking well advanced in age was moving across the compartments selling sweets and watches to the passengers. Evidently, it was clear that exciting stuff did not happen or do not occur in the morning and I may need to take an evening or a longer train to see if there is more entertainment in the other rides. On the other hand, It may be that my coach was the boring one and there was more action in the other coaches.
How suave is it also that there is an announcer that reports the train arrivals?
“Gari la moshi linaloingia katika stesheni ni ambalo limetoka upande wa Kikuyu……..” Or something close to that boomed from the speakers at the railway station terminus. That was new and different. Though in retrospect, it is routine, for those that use the train daily and that announcement barely registered to them.
How many here did ‘Coming to Birth’ by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye as their high school set book? There is a part in the introduction announcing Paulina Were’s arrival to Nairobi that reads; “The train swept in, still blazing trails through society as it had been doing for fifty years. From the third class coaches emerged first the experienced Nairobi wives,…” That was exactly the vibe I felt as I disembarked the train one and a half hours later and Sh 40 less.
In truth, it may be 114 years since the first train commenced operations in Kenya and 64 years after Paulina Were took her first train ride but that order of disembarking on the first train ride remains. I sat and waited for the most experienced with all their wares to get off first.
Clutching on my bag to start steps down the train, the lady beside me –bless her heart– whispered; “You will need to drop your ticket in a basket outside before being allowed to leave the station.” Whether for accountability or as a littering-reducing mechanism, know that you will not exit the train station without a ticket as proof that you paid for your ride.
On the left front door of the coach, I was riding in was a man wearing a red t-shirt with white writings on the back that read, ‘One day you’ll graduate’. Perfect for the occasion, on Thursday 11th May 2017, I graduated, and I can now ride on the SGR train.
With a smile on my face and a sense of achievement, I was content with the shoving that came my way around the railway bus terminus as I made my way to start the journey back to my place of work. My mission for the day was complete even as I had to concoct a reason for my lateness in case that was required of me.
‘To take a train ride’, did not sound like a convincing reason.