A Gentleman on a Train in Kenya

 I was in Mombasa, moving on to Nairobi, and a flight would have been faster but I decided to take the Lunatic Express.

It’s an overnight journey on rickety tracks from the steamy palm trees of the coast up the steep escarpment to the thorn trees and cool altitudes. It was hot outside and even hotter inside the compartment. There was a fine metal mesh over the windows and a ventilator fan above the window that only moved when the train moved, and only because the hot air from outside was pushing the blades.

We crossed the causeway from Mombasa Island to the mainland in the last light of day and sat at dinner looking out at the perfect blackness. There were only a few others in the dining car – a couple of grimy Kiwi backpackers and a young bald man who was a physiotherapist for the Kenyan Department of Health, and an older gentleman who sat alone at a table, his back perfectly straight, wearing a tweed jacket and tie and polished black brogues with a fine felt hat on the seat beside him. Everyone else’s clothes were sodden and limp but the collar of his white shirt was perfectly crisp. He ate his carrot soup and beef stew with perfect composure, then took his hat and nodded to the room with perfect courtesy and took his leave.

That night I lay wrung-out like an old sweat sock on the top bunk, waking at odd hours, enjoying the feel of hurtling through the darkness, rushing headlong into Africa, the continent rising beneath our wheels. We woke in the morning covered in a film of dust and grime that filtered through the fine mesh of the windows. We swayed down the narrow corridors to the dining compartment for breakfast, and there, wearing the same tweed jacket, his back still ramrod straight, his collar crisp and white and perfect, his hat on the seat beside him, was the elderly gentleman from last night.

I wanted to ask him how he managed to stay so laundered, but I didn’t have the nerve. Once he’d finished his bacon and eggs and dabbed the corners of his mouth with the white napkin and had placed his cutlery neatly together on his plate, I struck up a conversation. He pointed through the window to the yellow Athi Plains, and told me that it was on this stretch of track, when the railway was being built in 1898, that the famous two maneless male man-eating lions of Tsavo (nicknamed ‘The Ghost’ and ‘The Darkness’) used to carry away dozens of hapless construction workers until they were finally killed by Lieutenant Colonel Patterson of the British Army.

He told me that he liked the train, that train travel was a gentleman’s travel, that it proceeded at a pace sufficiently stately to allow one time to arrange one’s thoughts. There is no dignity in an aeroplane, he said calmly. I thought about the grime on my neck and I wondered about the dignity of last night’s heat, but I didn’t say anything.

After his coffee he stood and took his hat and greeted me with a courteous nod. Once the swinging door had closed behind him, the steward poured me another cup. ‘I see you have met Mr Owiti.’

Mr Owiti was a salesman, and twice a month he travelled between Mombasa and Nairobi. He carried one battered cardboard suitcase, repaired with insulating tape, and he always wore precisely the same clothes.

‘Is his shirt always so clean?’ I asked.

‘Always,’ said the steward.

I don’t know if Mr Owiti still travels the rails between Mombasa and Nairobi, and I don’t know what he sold, but whatever he had, I’d like to buy some.


Getaway, 30 September 2015