Fifty years ago, as Uganda looked forward to self rule, a highly efficient railway transport system was operational in the country. Eng. Nekemia Besigiroha, one of the country’s first railway engineers, looks back.
‘CLICK-etty-clack, clicketty- clack, click-etty-clack’ That sound means a lot to me. I first heard it 52 years ago, when as young rural men, Hon. Yona Kanyomozi and I saw and boarded the train for the first time at Kasese Railway Station on our way to the then Royal Technical College (incorporating the Gandhi Memorial Academy), Nairobi.
We were in the company of two Manyindos, one of whom (Seth) later became Uganda’s deputy chief Justice, Wenkere Kisembo and the then Peace Sabiiti (later Mrs. Mwine) and other passengers.
Bishop Eric Sabiiti, who was Bishop of Rwenzori Diocese at the time, saw his daughter off at the station. We travelled second class, on Government concession for the overnight journey to Kampala.
We were treated to a three-course English dinner, to which we were summoned on the dot of time by a melodious tune of a gong sounded by a catering staff in the corridor.
The first passenger train leaving Mombasa for Voi
On the dining tables were pristine white table clothes with matching serviettes, complete with made-tolast- forever silver cutlery, straight and stemmed water and wine glasses, engraved with the Railways logo.
Years later, I discovered some of the cutlery as far as Cumberland in the north of England, apparently having been pilfered by either former staff or tourists, to remind them of their rides on East African Railways and Harbours (EARH) trains.
Those who talked about the pilferage remembered the dining call gong with the same nostalgia as I did.
In spite of the clicketty- clack of the train, the coffee, wine, or beer rarely spilled unless one had naively filled their cup in the first place.
However, there were occasional unexpected sways and jerks that upturned a few things which invariably attracted a profusion of apologies from the crew to the passengers and extremely quick action in returning things to normal.
Somebody came to make the beds, courtesy of EARH and made for the most comfortable of journeys. Certainly nothing to be compared with the dusty bus and lorry rides on unpaved roads that we were accustomed to.
The gentle sway and surge of the carriages accompanied by the click-etty-clack, which at that time we had not deciphered, was the most luxurious travel one could ever think of.
On the next leg, the journey to Nairobi, the discovery of kipper, scrambled eggs, bacon and toast on the breakfast table after a shower, the Timboroa cold and the Limuru tunnel where the train suddenly plunges into absolute darkness, only to emerge a few minutes later, were just marvels.
Raw as we were, we travelled, as was the norm of the day in Nairobi, from the railway station to campus by big new 190D Mercedes Benz taxis of the Archer’s Cabs fame, allowed only three passengers and gliding over well-marked multiple lane roads as even as tartan running tracks, unlike the boda bodas and crater-lake like potholes that everybody is condemned to today.
When I joined EARH five years on, I enjoyed the exotic travel free of charge. My memorable journeys were the 1,000km runs from Kasese to Mombasa, where the traveler did not have to be woken up at the border for immigration or customs formalities.
I also learnt what the click-etty-clack that mesmerised me on my first train journey was the noise of the wheels, four in each bogie at either end of the carriage going over the 6mm gaps between the 40-foot lengths of rail connected by fish-plates, reverberating from the sleepers and ballast below.
I learnt how the railway had been built from Mombasa from 1896 using Indian coolies who were later President Idi Amin’s bane.
Mpanga brigde constructed in three and a half weeks out
of local materials
I also learnt how all the materials and equipment, including the bricks and roofing tiles were imported, the latter two from India, and the ingenious rack tracks that were used to lower materials and the equipment, rudimentary at the time, down the escarpment as the railway line labouringly hacked and blasted its way down the Rift Valley to the plains of Nakuru.
A relic of these times that I still treasure are two bricks and a roof tile, commonly known as Mangalore tile, which together weigh nearly 20kg and are artistically and individually engraved “Bassel Mission Patent 165” and “UR 1925”.
Some may recall that from Mombasa the original idea was to get to Uganda so that by creation of the Uganda Railways after the collapse of the East African Community in 1977 we were simply going back to the original name – Uganda Railways.
Having been recruited into EARH in 1965 as a cadet engineer after completing my studies at the Royal Technical College, with the collapse of the EAC, I returned home to become the first Chief Civil Engineer of the newly created Uganda Railways.
Though the click-ettyclack and the tinkle of the dining gong have long been silent, I still carry fond memories of Railways, as I do of railway travel, which has a uniqueness only by experiencing.
Africanisation of the railways
Those days, engineering was only civil or military, the other disciplines being subclasses of these as and when they were developed. J. Mimano (Dip. Mech Eng. EA), a Kenyan, was the first African to join EARH when he was recruited as a ‘cadet’ (trainee) on July 1, 1961.
I joined the Royal Technical College Nairobi when he was about to leave. Initially, the college did not offer degrees, but in 1961 it became a university college, offering degrees awarded by the University of London.
Other Africans followed Mimano into EARH. On August 26, 1963, J. Mudhume (Kenya), joined as cadet engineer in the civil engineering department. October 15, 1963, LMK Mujegu (Lamech Kalega), a Ugandan, was recruited as an assistant engineer in the civil engineering dept.
January 10, 1964, Joseph Sentongo (Ugandan) - Assistant engineer. June 1, 1965 Nekemia Besigiroha (Ugandan)- Cadet engineer July 22, 1966 OBK Mwema (Ugandan)- Assistant engineer 6 September 11, 1967 M. Okwakor (Ugandan) - Civil engineer.
To entice young graduates into Railways in anticipation of Africanisation in 1963, EARH started paying potential employees a small bursary (the students were then called Railway Bursars). The students were also guaranteed vacation employment.
Most of the first beneficiaries of the scheme were Tanzanian and they begun real work in 1966 after graduation as cadet engineers. They were J. Shuma, David Mosha, J.S. Sifa, O.J. Munupe, A.S. Mawenya, I.M. Kemibaro, and G Mirasano .
Mimano and Mujegu became the very first African chief mechanical and civil engineers of EARH respectively.
Sadly, Mujegu passed on early. Sentongo, rose to become assistant chief engineer before passing on, while Mudhume and I were works engineer and planning engineer respectively, by the time the East African Community collapsed in 1977. I returned home to become the first Chief Civil Engineer of the newly-created Uganda Railways.