A regal romance – A journey from Mombasa to Nairobi by Train

 First hand account of a journey from Nairobi to Mombasa by train as narrated by Ameer Janmohammed in his book ‘A Regal Romance’.

” In my view, the train journey between Mombasa and Nairobi epitomised the way in which the three main racial groups lived in Kenya.

The Kenya Uganda Railways used to run a daily passenger train service between Mombasa and Nairobi. The Mombasa train would leave each evening at six pm to arrive at Nairobi at 8.00 a.m. the following morning. The Nairobi train would leave at seven to arrive at Mombasa at 8.00 am the next morning. Nairobi being at an altitude of 5500 feet above sea level, the journey down to the coast took an hour less. Each train would consist of the locomotive and tender and several goods vans.

The carriages were arranged in a specific manner. Behind the locomotive would be a number of Third Class carriages, followed by a couple of Second Class carriages, and then some First Class carriages, with the Restaurant Car in the middle. Then some more Second Class carriages, some goods vans and the Guards van bringing up the rear. The reason for this was that in the days of the coal-burning locomotives, there used to be a lot of soot in the front half of the train. This way, the Europeans were spared the soot and also did not have to walk too far to reach the Restaurant car. Somewhere along the line, the coal burning-locomotives were replaced by Garratt diesel locomotives, and soot was no longer a problem.

The locomotives were usually named after local mountains, eg, MountKinangop and MountElgin, and so on. Europeans travelled first class.

Cabins were better appointed and cost more. The Europeans ordered from bar service before going in for dinner, and had a choice of two sittings. A smartly turned out waiter in a starched white tunic with brass buttons would announce the sittings by walking through the carriages playing a tune on a shiny xylophone.

The restaurant Steward was usually a Goan and the waiters Africans, well trained. The food was good, with a four course meal consisting of soup, a fish course, meat and veg and dessert, with coffee and liqueurs to follow. First class cabins would be turned down whilst the passengers were at dinner, with crisp white bedding which would have been pre-ordered. Most Europeans also went in for breakfast in the morning.

Indians mostly travelled second class. The carriages were less sumptuously appointed, or were old first class carriages. Indians did not as a rule go to the Restaurant car. They brought their own cooked food in “tiffins” which they ate in their cabins. The menu for our family usually consisted of fried fish and “rotli” or “rotlo”. For Roshan, Sultan and I, that meal was the highlight of the journey. Indians also travelled with their own bed-rolls.

Indians in those days did not stay in hotels, so they always stayed with families and friends, and they always carried their own bedding. In any case, there were no hotels which catered for them, even if any Indian wanted to stay in one. I don’t think staying in hotels fitted in with the Indian culture. Well-to-do Indians always had relatives – cousins, or in-laws, or friends or business connections, who would be happy to put up out of town visitors. Poorer people would find guest-houses, known as Dharamshalas or Musafar-Khanas which were usually run by community groups.


There was also another significant difference between the carriages in the three classes. The toilets. They were situated at each end of the carriages. First Class would have the upright Western-style toilets at both ends. Second Class had one Western and one squatting style at either end or Third Class had squatting-type toilets at both ends. You would be lucky to find any toilet paper in the Second, and certainly not in the Third. Cabins with en suite toilets and a wash-basin were introduced later.

Most Africans and some Indians travelled third class. Third class carriages were not sectioned off into cabins. They had hard wooden benches, and passengers sat through the night until they reached the destination. They paid very little for the privilege.

The trains would make a number of stops along the way when third class passengers could stretch their legs and buy mugs of tea and snacks from local vendors who came up to the carriages.

From Mombasa, the first stop would be Voi, a hundred miles due West. Then Mtito-Endei which was the half way mark, and for us, Kibwezi, about two thirds of the way to Nairobi. We used to keep awake for Kibwezi because one of my cousins, Hussein Motabapa’s eldest daughter Dolu, lived there – she was married to Akbar Gangji who had a business there – and they would always meet the train with lovely Indian tea and some delicious snacks at four in the morning! They would have received a telegram that family members were travelling on that day… ”

Image Courtesy -  Mansoor Shivji 
Book - A regal romance by Ameer Janmohammed