Work started in 1896, and almost instantly hit disaster. At least 30 indentured Indian and African laborers had lost their lives to the infamous "Man-Eaters of Tsavo," a pair of male lions which attacked work camps. Hundreds died as engineers struggled to bridge ravines and negotiate the sharp gradients. Malaria cut down hundreds more.
What started as an expression of Britain’s imperial might ended in near fiasco. Having failed even to reach the Ugandan border, construction stopped in western Kenya as costs spiraled past $729 million.
Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, later put a typically brave face on his description of the railroad construction as ‘one of the finest expositions [of] the British art of ‘muddling through’.”
Opposition politicians at the time vehemently disagreed, labeling the project the "Lunatic Line."
But what was left behind, at least, was a link between the Indian Ocean and Kenya’s interior. And, near the railroad’s midpoint, Nairobi.
Kenya’s capital exists only because engineers were forced to pause here, in an empty swampland named Nyrobe by Masai herdsmen, as they prepared their assault across the Rift Valley.
What started as a railhead, with workers camping under canvas, gave birth to today’s still-growing city of four million people. From the city, Kenya itself grew, a country with borders, a currency, an administration.
Also born at the same time was a new concept. That an elite – initially the whites, later Kenya’s own post-independence big men – was entitled to take from the powerless poor whatever was their whim.