Madaraka Express

Gladwell Pamba

Mother stopped talking after that morning of the eviction. She was crocheting doilies while Bartholomew was doing dishes and James was mopping the floor when the earth began rumbling, throwing off the photographs on the wall. I thought the world was coming to an end. We dashed outside and met a bulldozer, a backhoe and GSU officers who looked like they wanted to clobber us to death with their clubs. The backhoe was already eating our live fence. We plunged into the house and James grabbed his school bag and the calendar his teacher gifted him while Bartholomew grabbed the left-over slices of bread and as we rushed out, we noticed that mother was sitting on the cement slab of baba’s grave, watching the mayhem as though it was a cinema playing at the market centre. The giant machines grabbed the roof, chewed it up and knocked off the walls of our house. The livestock cried in confusion and some neighbors offered to tether them in their pens. Mother continued crocheting and did not flinch even as our house disappeared in the rubble.

The chairlady of St. Aquinas bible study, Madam Agatha, took us in. Her concrete-blocked house hid behind cypress and palms and bottle brush trees. That evening as we said the rosary, mother’s mouth was dead and the way she used to press those beads and boom, Glory to the father and to the son, it was odd. When it was time to sleep, Madam Agatha led us to one of the bedrooms overlooking her orchard. The room had one big bed, a bookshelf, a table and a chair.

“We don’t go out at night here. That’s how Humphrey was slaughtered.” She held out an old Crown paint container. “You will pee here and pour it in the morning.” Bartho wanted to protest but James pinched him. “If you want to do number two, use newspapers. They are on top of the charcoal sack in the kitchen.”

When she left, Bartho said, “Let me die with my problems but I cannot sit on a tin. I’m not a lunatic.”

“Do you want to sleep in the debris or are you going to shut up?” said James.

“How will I sleep yet my stomach still has spaces? That spaghetti we just sniffed is not food.”

The door flew open and instead of pulling our ears for embarrassing her during dinner, mother gazed at us before switching off the lights. We sat up when her soft steps disappeared into another room. Bartho whispered, “Does she have a flu?”

“No. She is mourning again,” said James.

“I see no tears. I think she is angry at us,” I said.

“But what wrong did I do by asking if there was another meal after the spaghetti? Did I not speak on your behalf?” said Bartho.

“Nyenyenye. If she was angry, she’d have snapped your neck. She is just missing baba,” said James.

“We all miss him but we talk, don’t we?” I thought of baba’s stories about DRC and South Sudan and a man called Sankara. “My friend’s father died many years ago and she talks, even though she still cries at night. Everyone in school says that. Simon, do you remember Teresa? The one I told you gets one hundred percent in Math?” I warmed up, that he’d given me such intimate information before his twin. I nodded. “If mother doesn’t talk, who will tell Madam Agatha that we don’t like spaghetti or we often drink milk before bed?” said Bartho.

The houseboy hummed in the kitchen while doing dishes which was strange because there wasn’t another meal after dinner. Why the urgency in doing dishes? James suggested that we should pray for the restoration of mother’s voice.

“Pray? Do you think mother has not prayed enough? What has prayer ever done to this family except tire our eardrums?” His voice was rising and James shushed him. I thought of those nights mother used to pray violently until she began coughing and it was like she was shouting at God. She called on Him to cover us with His blood, to rest baba’s soul in paradise and to scatter the enemies who wanted to grab our land.

“Prayer is good. It has saved you from tailing in class,” said James. Bartho’s titter made me cringe.

“I read, James. It has nothing to do with prayer. Do you know what time I wake up to study?”

The question bounced around. The security lights flooded our room. The scent of ripening loquats tormented my stomach. Bartho’s shadow on the wall grew menacing like a huge ghost about to drag someone to the land of the dead and it made me think of baba. If he were to come back, we would not have to worry about some silly spaghetti.

“I wake up at four, James. What are you normally doing at that time?” Bartho pushed James with his shoulders. His voice was beginning to sound like baba’s, since the bone protruding from his neck grew. I didn’t like it because it made me think baba was back.

“Fine. Let’s ask for the Chief’s help,” said James.

Bartho peered at us as if whatever we were thinking was broadcasting on our faces the way our teacher said our sins would be broadcasted on Judgement Day.

“That fool? Never,” said Bartho, leaning on the wall and his shadow diminishing. “It is not like that land has gold. It is not even that fertile.” He cupped his head. “How is a stupid railway even going to help us?”

Of course, it would benefit us. I imagined the multicolored train with the passengers waving and throwing toys at us.

“They’ve been demolishing from Miasenyi all the way to Mariakani, sometimes doing it at night,” said James. “I heard it on the radio.”

“We cannot finish madam’s mattresses here while doing nothing. We are men. Didn’t you hear what baba told us?” said Bartho.

The next morning when we woke up, madam had already left for her work at the county government offices. The houseboy asked us if we wanted tea or coffee and we looked at mother to answer on our behalf but she was a statue.

“I will have coffee, please,” said James. “These two, give them tea.” He pointed at Bartho and I as if he was our boss. Mother took tea and when she was done, she went to Madam Agatha’s farm behind the house. We joined her in plucking cowpeas leaves.

“I want to go back home,” I said.

James stood abruptly and asked me to stop talking nonsense. Mother continued plucking the leaves and I knew it was time to scream. Bartho whisked me away to the bedroom and threatened to call the GSU officers. The houseboy came in and crouched next to me and told me he’d show me how to tap honey from the beehives at the farthest end of the farm. He said bees didn’t like little boys and I replied that I wasn’t a little boy. Later, Bartho cleaned our room while James volunteered to wash dishes even as the houseboy protested. I sat next to mother and wanted to tell her that I wanted Weetabix and my drawing book.

The months flew by and Bartho said it was all mother’s fault. She’d given those men from the government a dirty look and pointed at the door. “I don’t know the nonsense of that SGR you are talking about. This land is generational and not even a bulldozer can uproot me from here.” The men said, “It wasn’t a request. The government takes what the government wants. We will see where your insolence takes you.”

Sometimes, madam returned from work and walked past us like we’d suddenly become invisible. She asked the houseboy why there was dust on the window sill and why the dirty footprints on the white tiles and he just said sorry. On those days, he served us little soup and corn meal and did not tell us stories of how he tore crocodiles’ jaws while crossing Tana River or how he went to college but someone stole his star. Some days, mother and madam sat on the hammock until night called them in. Other times, they picked fruits and vegetables together and for a moment, I thought I saw mother’s lips move. The houseboy didn’t want us helping him in anything except offering him our ears and our gasps. When he went out, we stared at the television all day long. This unmonitored life was not riveting. I wondered why Bartho claimed that it was better off being in a boarding school than being in a day school because of freedom. If that was what freedom was, I didn’t want it. The mother who held our freedom in her hands was better than this woman who was dormant like a rained-on chicken. Her silence was the ugliest sound I’d ever heard. Some of the afternoons felt as though someone had stolen the time and hidden it.

It was why we wandered off one of those afternoons towards the construction site and we were soon staring at the ghosts of our past. The heavy machineries were digging up the graves of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers and crushing their bones to paste. We stood along the chain link fence erected to cordon off the villagers from the site. The canvases around the fence bore some symbols that James claimed was the Chinese language. The excavating machines gathered our memories and loaded them in waiting trucks. The playground was now punctuated by deep holes. The black mountains of quarry filled the grazing fields, the farms and the market center. The orange cranes grew up to the sky, swinging back and forth as though trying to pull down the clouds and patch them again and the men operating them were tiny dots. That night, the tremors from the site didn’t leave my body.


“The secretary says everyone was compensated and they don’t have any money left,” madam announced one evening when we were eating chickpeas and rice. “I know it is a lie, my sister. Those people have new cars under their names.”

Mother didn’t even lift her eyes. The house boy asked madam if she needed more drinking water and she swathed him away. Bartho said, “I thought the government has money and if it is not enough, it can just print more.”

“It does, my dear. But does a thief know when to stop?” she said before turning to me. “Eat your food, son, it is getting cold.”

“But I have spoken to a reporter friend of mine. He works at The Star Newspaper. Very brave boy.”

I wished mother asked madam questions like would we appear in the newspaper? And if we did, what clothes would we wear? But it was James talking about how excited he was at the thought of being interviewed.

Now, because mother no longer cared if we bathed or fought or ate or died, we returned to the construction site every other day. We squinted and coughed because of the dust attacking us.

“Let us tell them to go and build railways in China and give us back our land,” said Bartho as we gazed at the green tents erected within the site.

“Sometimes I think you use your head as a lid for the neck,” said James. “You think we can talk to wazungu anyhow?”

“Look, are you afraid of them? You think they will eat you?”

“The only person they will eat is you and your sharp mouth. I suggested we write to Honorable Kazungu but you didn’t listen.”

Bartho and James’s minds were oil and water. Eventually, they agreed to try Bartho’s idea and if it didn’t work, try James’s. A mzungu sat on a camping chair outside the tent. He was smoking a cigarette, staring at the smoke.

Three wazungu joined the smoker. They wore jungle-green hats that swallowed half of their heads and they looked like scarecrows. They drank from small cans and laughed heartily and I wanted to be happy like them. I wanted mother to be happy like them. We watched them until the sky changed to orange and gray and we returned home and my brothers pondered over ways to cross the fence.

Another afternoon, James and Bartho stole secateurs and a clamp from madam’s store. The secateurs chewed the fence in seconds and we wanted to shout with joy. We came face to face with the smoker at his usual spot. Bartho spoke to him first and the mzungu looked lost. He fished out biscuits and canned coca-colas under his seat and handed them over to us. “Take.” Bartho threw them on the ground and trampled on them. My heart went out with the coca colas.

“We don’t want railway in our land!” said Bartho and the mzungu stopped smoking his cigar, a frown on his face.

“Government sent us,” he said. Bartho scoffed and explained using gestures and all the English he knew until his mouth dried. The man was utterly lost. James jumped in.

“Sir, this place you are sitting on was our house. You destroy our house.”

The man shook his head and called out to his compatriots who poured out from the tent. I giggled as they spoke in their strange tongue, their eyes darting from one person to another until one of them who looked like he could swallow us said, “No work. You are children.”

Bartho’s hands trembled. “Do you not hear? We are not looking for work; we want our land! Hawa zuzu aina gani?”

James gripped his hand. Had all the talk left his head? What happened to talking to them calmly? Did he want us to be shot dead or eaten?


The men shooed us away and returned inside the tent. The construction workers, covered in dirt, asked us what we were looking for. They said the wazungu were only working for the government and if we had a problem with that, we should locate the government. Did we think this site was our mother’s kitchen, that we could walk in and out as we pleased?

That night when the adults went to sleep, we huddled around the table and drafted a letter to Honorable Kazungu, the minister of lands. James explained about mother’s silence; madam’s hospitality; baba’s lost grave and our lost house. When James finished writing, he tore up a new paper and Bartho rewrote with a better handwriting. The next day as madam sat outside reading and mother was feeding the chickens, my brothers left the compound to post the letter. When they returned, their faces shore with delight. They looked like people who had just eaten roasted meat and kachumbari.

The houseboy told us to stop counting months because it would make us sad even though James had crossed all the days on his calendar. We watched the railway come into shape. It stood on giant beams and pillars the size of houses and if we hadn’t watched the cranes installing them, we’d have thought they grew from the ground like mushrooms.

“You are not going to believe what I am about to tell you,” the houseboy said one night. Madam and mother were already asleep. “But don’t go shouting. And don’t go asking madam questions. Especially you James.”

“I will not ask her anything,” said James.

“Tomorrow the train leaves Nairobi for Mombasa. It will pass right here in Mtito Andei,” he said. His smile refused to leave his face. “And before you ask, yes. I will take you there.” I jumped and clapped and the twins looked at us, terrified and went to sleep.

The next day, as we stood near the terminus, the houseboy told Bartho and James to cheer up. This was history! My brothers carried stones in their pockets and the houseboy told them a stone couldn’t bring down a train, that it was like a frog’s croaks trying to stop an elephant from drinking water. When Madaraka Express peeped from a distance, my stomach clenched and unclenched and the houseboy lifted me on his shoulders. Batho’s eyes reddened. As the monster approached the station, it hooted in greetings, the red and white and orange carriages clinging on each other. The wardens dressed in navy blue uniforms saluted it as though it wasn’t a bully walking away scot free. James wiped his tears and he might have forgotten about the stones. The carriages stopped being colourful and solid and transformed into grey blurry lines like a vanishing spirit from the station. We couldn’t see the passengers; we couldn’t see if they were waving at us or not and the train did not have the decency of stopping for us to see it properly.

I knew that Bartho had been right all along: how was a stupid railway ever going to help us?


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