Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Get Around Gang

Last month, my usual group of Association ladies took a tour of Nairobi’s history. Our main pit stops were scheduled to be the Railway Museum and the August 7th Memorial Park – the site of the bombing of the US embassy in 1998. The nine of us who boarded the bus that Tuesday morning had no idea what amazing sights and insights into Kenya’s past awaited us.

After passing through a matatu depot in downtown Nairobi, our bus made its way along a dirt road past the main railway station to the museum itself. The first thing that stuck us as we neared the small building that housed the museum was the sheer number of “retired” train engines in its front yard. My brother, BBA, could probably tell you better than I, but engines that dated back as far as a century ago bear a strong resemblance to those used today to haul our coal, cattle, and persons across the country.

The history of the so-called “Lunatic Line” is one plagued by everything from man-eating lions and malarial mosquitoes, to angry locals and bacterial dysentery. Finished in 1901 through the determination of its British overseers and Indian workers, the line stretches through Tanzania and Kenya to some of the highest elevations of any railway in the world.

On display in the museum was everything from model trains to the chair that Queen Elizabeth II sat in when she visited the museum several years ago. The fine china on exhibit would come in handy nowadays for a midday snack, since the 6-hour drive from Nairobi to Mombassa takes 17 hours by train.

Mombassa itself used to be a very rail-friendly town. My modern Nissan with its wonderful driver had its equivalent in 1900’s era Mombassa – a man-powered rail car that was pushed throughout the city wherever its occupant needed to go. One man, who didn’t want to have to rely on porters to push him around, redesigned his own bicycle so that it could run on the rails –complete with a small motor for those days when his own legs couldn’t be put to the test.

We were allowed to board several trains sitting in the yard including one that we were told is the largest engine in the world. Why is it not in use, you may be wondering? Well, it was too big and heavy to make it up and around the high mountain tracks on the Kenyan lines. We also saw the actual car that was attacked by a lion one night when its occupant was trying to hunt big game. The game, instead, got him.

From the museum, we headed over to the August 7th Memorial, which is an amazing tribute not only to those poor souls who died that day, but also to those who survived. Situated on the site of the bombed US Embassy, the first thing we saw as we entered the park was a sculpture called “Body, Mind, and Spirit.” Made from some of the building debris from that tragic day, it is a stark reminder of the carnage of that day.

A black granite wall in front of the main building bears the name of all 219 victims of the blast. We were told the stories of some of these people who ranged from passers by to a young man who was visiting his father at work for the first time – both father and son died that day. In front of the wall is a yin-yang shaped pool that was designed to remind visitors of the interplay between turmoil and peace.

Inside the Visitor’s Centre were large photographs taken that day. They range from groups of men and women running toward the scene trying to help to photos of people beginning to realize what was happening around them. One of the most amazing exhibits was of small pieces of debris and shrapnel that people are still having removed from their bodies to this day due to being in the vicinity of the bombing – everything from small shards of glass to wedges of metal from the structure of the building.

This attack by Al Qaida amazingly did not succeed in beating down the people of Kenya – as can be seen all around the beautiful grounds of the Memorial. There is even a section of the Visitor’s Centre devoted to photos of the “August 7th Babies” who were born in the immediate aftermath of that day. In addition to educating visitors, the Centre also helps to support the widows and orphans of those who died that day.

Our final stop of the day was to Upper Hill Road where we could take in a panoramic view of the city. Dharma, who organized the trip and whose written memories of that day I am borrowing from to write today’s blog, perhaps said it best when she observed that our monthly outing had given us a unique view into Kenya’s past, present, and future. From retired rail cars to beautiful memorials of horrific events to the skyscrapers that continue to go up every day, Nairobi is a city that grows and changes before your eyes.

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