Train to Kisumu offers brief glimpse of rural Kenya

After three days largely kicking back in Nairobi, I took the overnight train west to Kisumu, which is Kenya’s third largest city. It’s a clean, warm, charming city, with a decent expat community on the shores of Lake Victoria. But it’s hardly a tourist haven (I was one of only three foreigners on the 15-hour train ride.) and feels more laidback, authentic and safe than Nairobi.

I’ve come to Kisumu principally to meet up with Shannon, who has been here for several weeks working on public health projects. It was Shannon who convinced me to include a stop in Africa before heading to India.

The train is a throwback to transportation decades ago — old, worn compartments, vinyl seats, lights and fans that don’t work. Dinner was served on china and 15 minutes into the ride, an attendant came to neatly unfurl bedding and wool blankets in each berth.

(FYI, I’m giving myself grief over posting pictures from a passing train. God willing, I’ll actually make it out into the bush myself, not simply glide by it.)

I shared a compartment with Joshua, a human resources officer for a mining and farming company in a village about two hours ride outside of Kisumu. He was returning from Nairobi where he had left his eldest son at college.

“I didn’t want him to just stay in the village and do nothing all day.”

Joshua is clearly one of Kenya’s middle (or even upper-middle) class, by his mannerisms and requests of staff and simply by the fact that he was riding in a sleeper car. The train has one first-class car, one second-class car, a dining car that serves them both and then a long string of third-class chair cars where the average Kenyan can afford to ride. (Note: The second class seat in the sleeper was still only $20.)

The train burst out of Nairobi’s station at dusk and plowed past Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums. Estimates say as many as 1 million people live crammed into shacks of mud, wood and corrugated metal. Most have no regular electricity or running water.

Even as I took shoddy pictures from out the window, Joshua was at once concerned for the safety of my camera — “Keep it inside the window. I am always worried about bad people. They’ll snatch anything, even your hand.” — and awed at the spectacle of the sprawling shanty town — “Look at that. That’s a beautiful view.”

In the morning, as we rode past rural Kenya, we watched children on their way to school and farmers in their fields. Joshua explained that though there is greenery, the crops have been decimated by drought. He pointed to patches of maize that were a “total failure” and said that his company’s farmers were reporting crop yields 45 to 50 percent of last year’s harvest.

Farmers are now looking to a second planting season and the “short rains” in October and November to rescue them.

More later, as I’m hoping for a few stories during my week or so here in Kisumu, before I head back to Nairobi.

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One Response to “Train to Kisumu offers brief glimpse of rural Kenya”

  1. Royal Says:
    September 9th, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Stunning scenery. The light didn’t suck either. Nice touch with the train audio.

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