Walking around the Nairobi Railways Museum is like turning the pages of a good history book on Kenya. Each item in the museum has a fascinating story to tell.
Virtually everything from the construction of the railway which began in Mombasa in 1896 and shaped East Africa to the time the line reached Kisumu, then known as Port Florence, is present at the Nairobi Railways Museum.
Take, for instance, the luxury coach christened Kima Killer. If you are familiar with the history of the railway line in East Africa, then this coach reminds you of the savagery its builders had to contend with.
It is from the beautiful interior of Kima Killer that, on June 6, 1900, Charles Henry Ryall, a Superintendent of Police, met his end in the hands of a man-eater. The lion had dragged him from his sleep to his death in the Nyika plains.
Mr A. Parenti, with whom Ryall had shared a cabin, was to later describe how he woke up to find the beast pinning the superintendent down with its claws. Ironically, Ryall had stopped at Kima railway station intending to shoot this same lion that had killed many rail workers and left others extremely terrified.
But, as fate would have it, the lion ended up adding him to its growing statistics of casualties that had made it become the stuff of legend.
Apparently, Ryall had left the door to the coach open and sat with a rifle on his lap, waiting for the beast – then he dozed off and the lion killed him in his sleep.
His was the case of the hunter becoming the hunted. The lion, like many times before, made good its escape – this time interestingly, through the window.
But killing a senior police officer does not go unpunished. Perhaps this time round, the man-eater had bitten more than it could chew and its luck finally ran out and it was later killed.
Kima Killer was later used in the shooting of the film, ‘Out of Africa’. Five of the lion’s claws are still on display at the museum.
At the museum, you will also get to see a rather interesting poster on display bearing Sir Charles Eliot’s famous 1903 quote that may very well have triggered the beginning of the famed Kenyan Safari experience. It reads as follows:
It is not an uncommon thing for a railway line to open a country, but this line literally created a country.
He was commenting on the Kenya-Uganda railway, whose completion opened the floodgate of European settlement in Kenya. The stories of man-eaters and disease did not seem to deter the British elite who arrived in their droves.
In fact, at more or less the same time that Sir Charles made his famous comment, several advertisements appeared in British newspapers announcing the beauty and splendour that awaited settlers in East Africa.
The highlands of British East Africa were portrayed as a winter home for aristocrats. A cartoon of the time showed the Nairobi station as a pond full of crocodiles and hippos while on the dry land, lions were pulling passengers out of a coach and hyenas and snakes were waiting to feast on the hapless passengers!
It is no wonder therefore that with time, sons and daughters of British aristocrats found their way to the colony where their full-time preoccupation was philandering in the triangle covering Nairobi, Naivasha and Nyeri as illustrated in books like ‘The White Mischief’.
At the Nairobi Railways Museum which, by the way, was opened in 1972 by the then East African Railways Corporation purposely to preserve and display the relics and records of the railways in East Africa, all these will be yours for the asking.
This museum is the only one of 3 museums of its kind in this part of the continent. The other 2 are found in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Sadly, few people visit this historian’s gem. Indeed, more foreigners than Kenyans are to be found here.
Besides trains, the museum houses an assortment of glassware, crockery, cutlery and silverware used by Queen Elizabeth II and her royal entourage in 1959 – a pointer to the pomp and grandeur that travelling by train was in those days.
If you are an antique collector, you will also love items such as brass lanterns, huge clocks, old-fashioned telephone heads, typewriters, plates, cups and cutlery which were used in the trains and ships owned by the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation which collapsed in 1977.
There are models of these trains and ships on display, including a Beyer-Garratt articulated locomotive constructed in 1955 for the East African Railways by the Manchester-based engineering firm Beyer, Peacock and Co. Ltd. You can also see various crests which belonged to the 3 East African nations.
Pay particular attention to a dining table and a wall unit salvaged from the wreckage of Konigsberg, a 3,400-ton WWI German warship that was scuttled at the delta of River Rufiji in Tanganyika, as Tanzania was then called.
Make sure you see the water tank and a pulley built in Glasgow way back in 1898 which, at one time, served as a refuge for a man who was drawing water when a lion appeared suddenly and he jumped into it.
Outside the main exhibition hall are a number of original trains dating back to the early last century, including the Beyer-Garratt articulated locomotive which was withdrawn from service in 1981.
This train, along with Mount Shengena, a steam engine built in 1955, was expected to be rehabilitated with the intention of starting steam engine safaris specifically for tourists.
Mount Shengena is the same engine that was used in the 1988 unsuccessful Nairobi-Naivasha passenger service. It is still grounded at the museum. Other trains are Nyaturu, a Class 30 steam locomotive that has been of great interest to museum visitors.
Mount Gelai, a Class 59 Garratt with the reputation of having been the most powerful steam engine ever built proudly occupies its space at the museum. It is this train that featured in a past BBC television series, World About Us.
Nowadays the museum also doubles as an art centre. As you get into the museum compound from the main entrance, you are treated to a panoramic view stretching about half-a-kilometre, of some fascinating graffiti art which lines the driveway.
Usually in Kenya, like everywhere else in the world, graffiti is mostly shunned but here, it seems to have found a home. The depictions range from the mundane to the magnificent and mostly touch on a range of social-political and historical scenarios of Kenyan life. There is a particularly beautiful sequence of the legendary Lunatic Express and the man-eaters you may want to see.
You can also visit the Art Studio within the compound and perhaps catch one of the many artists who work from here rendering final strokes to an art piece. There is a gallery where the artworks are displayed for purchase.
If you are in Nairobi on a weekend with time to while, pay this historical gem a visit. In fact, why not try our Old Nairobi Day Experience tour which includes this museum?