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In exercise of the powers conferred on him by section 25 (1) (e) of the National Museums and Heritage Act, the Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Culture and the Arts in a Gazette Notice No. 374 of 2015 declared Maktau railway station a national monument early this year. The declaration reads in part “… all that area and structures on it known as Maktau Railway Station measuring approximately 8.4 acres on geographical coordinates 38 degrees 07’ 47’E, 3 degrees 24’ 29’ S situated in Maktau town within Mwakitau sub-location in Mwatate Division in Taita Taveta County…” shall be a national monument.
WHAT MAKES MAKTAU RAILWAY STATION A PLACE OF HISTORICAL INTEREST?
Maktau, according to folklore was used as a resting place by early explorers coming into the interior of Kenya from the coast. It probably derived its name from “Mark-time”, a place where armed escorts tarried for a while when accompanying expeditions (Willson 2014:81). Between 1914 and 1916, the general area of Maktau was a theatre of an Anglo-German war. Maktau railway station which was built as a terminus for disembarking commonwealth forces during the First World War campaign lies 70 kilometers on the Voi – Taveta railway line. The construction of the this railway, the first and only military line in Eastern Africa, began in February 1915 and by March twelve miles of the first tracks had been laid by the estimated 3000 men working on it. To standardize with the rail equipment already in use in most parts of the Indian sub-continent, the railway line was constructed as a meter gauge with an initial rail weight of 50lb per yard track although other weights were also used depending on availability. Rails, sleepers and rolling stock were available from the Indian Railways stockpile or were supplied through the Crown Agents, the British Colonial Overseas Office supplies and logistical department.
The construction of the Voi-Maktau railway line was under the direction of Sir William Johns and Lt. Col. J. Sutherland, director and deputy director of the Uganda Railways respectively. The building of a water pipeline running parallel to the railway line began in February 1915 from Bura to supply water to the railway and garrison at Maktau. The source of this water, Bura springs, at 1,500 feet above sea level enabled the water to move by gravity to Maktau. The East African Pioneer Corps did build the pipeline. On June 23rd 1915 the railway reached Maktau.
During the First World War (1914-1918), the Mombasa-Voi section of the Uganda Railway was regularly bombed by Germans who breached the common boarder at Taveta. German soldiers under the general command of Oberst Paul Otto Von Lettow-Vorbeck recognized the railway line’s importance to the British and its proximity to the Anglo-German boarder made it a strategic target. The War Office under Field Marshall Earl Kitchner then emphasized the need to protect the Uganda Railway. These acts of aggression by the Germans eventually led to an all out war between them and the British. The proclamation of war against the Germans appeared in the British East Africa Official Gazette No.16 on the 5th day of August 1914. The Germans under Lt. Gutknecht unsuccessfully attempted to vandalize the railway at Mile 33 west of Bura on June 27th 1915. However, they succeed in doing so on July 4th and 6th at Bura and close to Maktau respectively. This time they were under the command of Lt. Walter Spangenburg. On August 22nd 1915, a German sabotage team under Lt. Koch bombed the railway at Maktau. An engine pulling wagons with supplies was blown up and five wagons were derailed after running over a delayed action contact mine at 11 am.
Among those who fought to protect the railway from German bombardment was the Uganda Railway Volunteer Reserve (URVR) team comprising of Railway European staff. The Uganda Railway was then the largest corporation and employer in British East Africa. The URVR was mobilized on 9th August 1914 and put under the command of Lt. H.V Kershaw, an assistant accountant with the Uganda Railway. On 15th August 1914 a column of 200 German soldiers (Schutztruppe) crossed over the British East Africa Frontier and attacked a police post two and a have miles from Taveta. By 16th August 1914 Taveta had been captured by the Germans. The 3rd Kings African Rifles (KAR) mounted infantry detachment set up an observation post at Maktau. One of the reasons a military camp was set up at Maktau was to prevent the Germans in camps located on the lower slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro at Himo, Taveta, Salaita Hill and Mbuyuni from accessing the only permanent source of water,Tsavo River. Many kamba people living in the expansive Voi area acted as camp guards to native prisoners of war taken by the British most of who were the Makonde from the south eastern highlands of German East Africa. The Wakamba assimilated the Makonde techniques of woodcarving. Today they are renowned for their expertise in wood carving.
On 20th September 1914, the Germany cruiser Konigsberge attacked and destroyed the British light cruiser HMS Pegasus while the latter was lying in Zanzibar harbor. Pegasus had some of her guns salvaged. Two nicknamed HMS Peggy I and II were mounted on railway carriages stationed at Maktau railway station and were used to defend the garrison at Maktau. In June 1915 the Uganda Railway transported 1,160 wagons for the military and many were destined for Maktau. During the following six months this number rose to 2994 wagons with an additional 25 engines and 200 ten-ton covered goods wagons from the Indian Railways to replace those damaged by the Germans.
March 23rd 1916 the line was extended from Maktau to Taveta following the defeat of the Germans. Kenya Railways is currently working with the County government of Taita Taveta to set up a museum within Maktau railway station.