“Night Train to Kisumu”

This short story of mind first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Wanderings. That issue has since been archived, so I’ve posted it here in case you’re interested in reading it. The story is based on an actual experience I had on the train from Nairobi to Kisumu in Kenya a number of years ago. I’ve fictionalized many of the details, but what I saw and experienced happened pretty much as you can read it below.

Let me know what you think of the story.


Night train to Kisumu


Paul Lamb

The windows of our train were filthy with decades of exhaust and grit. One couldn’t see out very well, but what was there to see in the gathering dusk?

“A bucket of water and a rag once in a while wouldn’t be so hard, would it?” Aunt Marta’s brown eyes turned from the opaque window and scanned the compartment again. They were not pleased. The plastic fabric on the bench was cracked and tattered, exposing the ribbing and springs of the cushion within. She hadn’t wanted to sit on it, but she had been uncomfortable standing long in the swaying car. Now we were idling at a village station, so she could avoid the seat by standing again, though in a few hours she would be expected to sleep on the very same bench.

Our compartment was no better, but my son and I were sharing the seat in there, sprawled in a way that left no room for her.

The first half of our visit had lacked the exotic quality Aunt Marta had expected of Africa. Nairobi, gritty and crumbling, was loud and smelled of exhaust. The streets were crowded and we had to walk everywhere. Aunt Marta held her purse to her chest even in the museums, not having faith that it was safe back in the hotel safe. Thus she hoped for glamour from our first class train trip, but she was being disappointed in that so far.

“Do you think we’ll have electricity tonight, Robby?” Aunt Marta said. She looked doubtfully at the fly-specked light fixture in the corner. The conductor had stopped by our cabin to express his hope that they would be able to turn on the electricity later, but Robin told her this wouldn’t happen.

“If this is first class,” said Aunt Marta a moment later, “I don’t even want to think about what the people in third class must be enduring.”

We’d kept the compartment doors open to let in what little light there was from the passage windows, though they were no cleaner. Robin said that later, when night had fallen, the conductor would be by with camp lights for our compartments. Otherwise we’d have to use our pocket flashlights and run down the batteries.

People walked past our open doors – toward the choo at the front of the car or to their own compartments. Kenyans. We were the only whites, likely the only Westerners on the train, but no one took particular notice of us. Maybe of Aunt Marta, but she was conspicuous by nature.

Several men stood at the open windows in the passage, staring vacantly through the sooty screens at the village station to pass the time in the growing dark and perhaps catch an errant breeze. Sometimes one or two would step back into our compartments to allow others to pass. Aunt Marta eyed them but kept quiet.

I worried about Aunt Marta. I worried that the mefloquine might give her an anxiety attack while we were confined on the train. But Aunt Marta was proving herself impervious to the medicine’s side effects just as she was no doubt impervious to malaria. I’m not sure that anything can touch Aunt Marta.

We were in the first class car, but the train had been too slow, and there was little left about it that could be called first class. The tattered upholstery, the dry sink, the spongy, peeling floor. A mirror that gave back only the vaguest reflection. The filthy windows. This car had seen finer days in another time, likely in another land, and now it ferried Kenyans and occasional, bemused Western tourists from Nairobi to Kisumu, through part of the Rift Valley.

Robin told us that we would get to see some of the famed valley the following day, for the train wouldn’t arrive in Kisumu until mid morning. As we sat at this village station though, night had fallen, and other than what we could make out under the single orange security light beyond the dirty windows, our African sight seeing was over for the day.

People continued to pass in the narrow passage outside our compartments. In Nairobi, the flow of people on the streets had seemed ceaseless, as though movement itself was the city’s purpose, and even circumscribed here on the train, Kenyans kept moving. As they did, one window man stepped back into Aunt Marta’s compartment repeatedly to allow them to pass. Aunt Marta stiffened whenever this happened, and later, when the man finally joined the flow of people, she slid her door shut and threw the bolt to lock it at last. I had been to the choo already, and in doing so I had to step over a family asleep on the floor outside it. These were folks who didn’t even merit the third class car but were simply given a bit of floor before the toilet as their berth. I suspected that Aunt Marta would have plenty to say about them later after she visited the choo.

Our stops at the village halts were why the train would take all night and half of the morning to travel a mere hundred miles. So said Robin. Most stops thus far had lasted only a few minutes, but here we’d been sitting for nearly a half hour, and we could expect a dozen more stops in the night before we reached Kisumu.

But there would be dinner before that, and a night of gently swaying sleep on fresh sheets followed by breakfast in the dining car. Then we could gaze afresh at the Rift Valley as we passed through it in morning light. The matatu ride from the station to the village where he taught, Robin assured us, would give us further opportunity to gawk at the countryside and the different ways people lived in this part of the world. Aunt Marta nodded her head at this.

We could hear the murmur of conversation from the compartments on either side of us, with occasional bursts of laughter coming through. And it was then that we first heard someone ranting, a man clearly in an argument, and it sounded like it was coming from within our car.

In a fluid motion, Robin pushed the door to our compartment closed and locked it. “They’ll leave us alone, whatever it is, if we mind our own business.” Hurried footsteps sounded in the passage outside our compartment. The conversations and laughter around us died. I could hear other compartment doors sliding shut. Aunt Marta’s eyes grew wide, but after only the slightest pause, Robin resumed discussing our dinner plans the next evening in his village where he teaches. I followed his lead and tried to remain nonplussed, though the argument, or rather, the one-sided rant by a clearly angry man, continued unabated somewhere outside.

Aunt Marta ventured, “I can’t imagine what that man is screaming about!” But the walls that separated us made his exact words unintelligible anyway, and very likely they were in Swahili.

The other conversations in our car remained hushed, and even Robin stopped talking for a while. The angry man continued in bursts. Silent for a moment or two, and then would come another rage. It seemed likely that we would remain in the station until the matter of this angry man was resolved somehow.

Some time after this, a gentle tap came at our door, and when Robin slid it open, and kindly face peered in and announced that dinner was being served. When I had seen the fly-specked mirror in our compartment, one that had lost most of its silver and did little more than show shadows before it, it occurred to me that without seeing a daily reminder of myself, I had forgotten, at least a little, that there were different races at all. Everyone I saw – aside from Robin and Aunt Marta – was a shade of brown, and after a week I felt my sense of self surrender this bit of difference. I knew, of course, that those who saw my face would not think the same way, but the conductor’s face at our door seemed as natural as any I had ever seen.

The conductor lead us down the tight passage, using one of the promised fluorescent camp lights to show the way. Robin slipped his flashlight from his pocket to supplement the light in the dark passage. We didn’t have far to walk to the dining car, it being used to separate first class from the other cars, but in the space of that distance we passed another family berthed on the floor in another corner. I don’t know what Aunt Marta thought of this, but if she had any thoughts, they dissolved when we entered the dining car.

This was like most dining cars I had been in. A half dozen tables lined the walls on each side, and each table was filled to capacity. Yet no one was having dinner. The tables had long since lost their laminate tops, and a rough, pitted, and filthy surface was all that remained. Like the floors, they were spongy and impossible to clean. Had anyone thought this important, the tables would have to be replaced altogether. Yet the crowds of families and old men sitting at them didn’t seem to care, and the conversations and laughter that had abated in our car were in full vigor here. Various eyes scanned us only briefly as we passed.

At the far end of the car, our table shone under a suspended camp light. Unlike the others, ours was covered with a white tablecloth. Atop it sat china plates and stainless steel service as well as glasses of different sizes arrayed at each place. Shining condiment containers filled the remaining space.

Aunt Marta hurried up the aisle with glee. “Now this is what I mean by first class,” she said, admiring the table, and I could tell that all of the deficiencies she had experienced thus far were redeemed.

We seated ourselves. Robin slid in first and sat by the window. Aunt Marta sat beside him. That left the two seats opposite for me, and I slid across to be by the window as well. The glass was as dirty here as in our compartment, but we were closer to the single light of the station, and I could make out movement of people in the orange-tinted twilight outside.

“This is just delightful,” Aunt Marta said, and I had to be fair and feel good about her restored happiness. Her eyes roved over the table, taking in the properly placed utensils and various drink glasses, the matching china – it turned out to be plastic, but Aunt Marta conceded that only made sense on a lurching train – and the graciousness and attention to detail she considered appropriate. She unfolded her cloth napkin and placed it decorously on her lap.

Yet outside our window, in the open area beside the village station, was the angry man, and though his outbursts were less frequent, he still made his case. Now, however, his words came as blubbered cries rather than angry shouts.

“I can’t imagine what that man is bellowing about,” said Aunt Marta, and she didn’t need to bother for at this moment the waiter arrived with a tray of thickly sliced bread that he held before each of us with a bow as we made our selection.

“He’s saying something about needing to get on the train to go see his mother and father,” Robin said, hearing the man clearly enough now to translate. But Aunt Marta was transported. Her knife had found the yellow dollop of butter in the bowl at the center of our table, and she spread a generous layer across her bread then brought it to her mouth for a bite.

Across from us a Kenyan family sat at a table. Immersed in their own conversation, they seemed oblivious of the strange people beside them who sat at a cloth-covered table with sparkling dinner service. Two youngsters held bottles of orange Nehi while their father nursed a Tusker. Our waiter had brought us bottled water, and Aunt Marta insisted we pour it into our glasses and drink like civilized people.

The waiter then returned balancing a tureen of soup, and with a smile he ladled a quantity in each of our bowls. Then, with a last bow and smile, he backed away from our table, bumping his head on our camp-light chandelier and setting it swaying slightly. Shadows danced on our table top, and the cut glass tumblers sparkled in the moving light.

Robin sampled the soup, as did I. It was a salty chicken broth that I suspected came from a can, and I wondered how, if the train was without electricity, the kitchen managed to cook our dinner. Aunt Marta sipped the soup delicately but with clear zest. “I love traveling first class.”

And I might have considered our meal an indulgent treat, joining Aunt Marta in her delight, had we not still been in the village station. As the camp light swayed above, I could intermittently discern what was happening outside the filthy window.

The angry man was groaning now, on his knees beside his pack of things, clutching his stomach. We were sitting above him in the dining car, at a linen-covered table with a fine dinner service, sipping our soup. Two soldiers stood before the pleading man, their rifles trained on him.

I thought that this was how revolutions began.


3 Comments on ““Night Train to Kisumu””

  1. Nice, atmospheric piece. I never rode the trains over there, unfortunately, but I think you really got the feeling of the people. Nice writing.

    Question: was “Robin” in the Peace Corps?

  2. Paul Lamb Says:

    Randy – Yes, “Robin” was in the Peace Corps for two years. He came home just before the election violence began a few years back. Otherwise he would have stayed on for a third year.

  3. Interesting. I was in Kisumu one day when Robert Mugabe came through in an official motorcade. Except for the school kids who were brought in as official cheerleaders, the crowd along the streets was sparse, silent and sullen. Mugabe stood up through the sunroof of his limo and waved to hostile audience who didn’t respond. It was eerie. 1993.

    I really liked your story. Still wish I could have ridden that train, but it was a weird summer and the subject for another story.

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