The history of massive smoke emission as a result of fuel burning in Kenya can never be told without mentioning the railway. It was in fact the railway that gave birth to what today is known as the republic of Kenya. And as Sir Charles Elliot, Commissioner for East Africa Protectorate said in 1903, “it is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country. The railway was the first “modern” form of mechanized transport in East Africa. It was built in Kenya many years before the Wright brothers took to the air in 1903.
Following the terms of the Berlin conference of 1884, European powers divided Africa into spheres of influence. The British East Africa Protectorate was declared in July 1895.Each power was required to stop slavery and slave trade in its protectorate, and instead develop infrastructure in their respective territories. A sure way to fight slave trade in Kenya was to construct a railroad running parallel to the slave route from Mombasa to Uganda. “You will never have struck a blow at it (slave trade) so fatal and so direct as the construction of this railway that the Government has set foot” said Lord Rosebery, Leader of opposition, in August 1896.
However, the plan was opposed by some parliamentarians led by Henry Labouchere who in his famous poem lamented,
“What is the use of it, none can conjecture,
What it will carry, there is none can define,
And in spite of George Curzon`s superior lecture,
It is clearly naught but a lunatic line.”
*Lord Curzon was the British Foreign Minister at the time.
On 11th December 1895, Eng. George Whitehouse arrived at Mombasa with the mandate of the Uganda Railway Committee in London to build the “Lunatic line”. He was a veteran of railway building having served as Chief Engineer in Mexico, South Africa,South America and in India. The first rails were laid at Kilindini on 30th May 1896. Whitehouse soon ran into a series of problems the first being lack of a deep water harbor in Mombasa that would be used to unload tons of construction materials and for landing the estimated 320,000 Indian coolies who would do the actual laying of the rail. Other obstacles were lack of fresh water, the Makupa creek, tropical diseases, torrential rains, swamps, the infamous man-eaters of Tsavo, drought, overcoming the Rift Valley and attacks from the Nandi and the Kipsigis. In May 1899 the railhead reached Nyrobi (Nairobi), a Maasai word meaning a place of cool waters. Nairobi was serene and unpolluted.
In spite of the problems the railway builders faced, they pushed on and reached Kisumu (Port Florence) on 19th December 1901 having covered a distance of 920km from Mombasa. The Uganda Railway (UR) as it was known then, was build at a cost of 5.5 million pounds and four human lives for every mile among them 5 Europeans. An associated steamer service was established on L. Victoria to transport passengers and goods across the lake to Uganda. In 1907, for example, Winston Churchill, then Under Secretary of State for Colonies, (later Britain`s Prime Minister) travelled on the railway and on a steamer on L. Victoria. These coal- burning steamers also produced a lot of smoke on voyages to Uganda, Sudan and Tanganyika.