Lightning Storm over the Savannah

Just before sunset yesterday I left my hotel in Nkrumah Road, Mombasa.  I took a tuktuk to the station, booked in and got onto the train.  I tried to read my book during the one and a half hour wait that followed, as the train sat in the station, but it was far too hot to concentrate properly.  Even though it was dusk, the heat of the day was still very strong and inside the train carriage it was roasting.  During this time I discovered that the window in my compartment was jammed and couldn’t be opened, and that the fan on the wall didn’t work either!  I sat and sweltered, realising that the closer I got to falling asleep the less unbearable the heat was.  This was an important finding, and after I realised it I just sat doing very little, not moving at all and trying to slow all my body processes down like when you go to sleep, and it was marginally better that way.  Inside I was burning and desperate for the train to move.

After seven we pulled very slowly away from the platform, and the coming of darkness also made it that bit cooler.  I asked two men if anything could be done about the window, but just got an apology and the train manager told me “Just get fresh air here” beside the windows in the aisle.  So I resolved to spend all my waking hours hanging out of the aisle window!  Above every window there is a notice saying: “It is dangerous to lean out of windows”, but nobody takes any notice.

As the train got moving there was a wonderful breeze blowing through the carriages.  The train I took on the way to Mombasa was in fairly good condition, but this second train was a wreck.  Most people’s windows were jammed and the only fans that worked were the ones in the dining car.  The front of the cabinet was missing in my compartment, the door between compartments wouldn’t shut properly, so it couldn’t be locked, and the door into the passageway was a real struggle to close and lock.  The drinking water burst out in a few drips and then stopped, and the toilet door, like all the other doors, didn’t close or lock.  The back of the toilet was leaking and a few hours into the journey, the floor was swimming with water.  I didn’t mind too much about these things, because the whole experience overall is so fantastic.  We left the island of Mombasa and ran parallel to the road.  I saw the shining yellow headlights of all the cars, driving slowly in a kind of convoy because of the terrible state of the road.  In the darkness we passed over the pale, gleaming water of the sea around the city, and carried on through the shanty town beside the rail track.  There are hundreds of huts lining the railway behind Mombasa, houses made of mud and sticks, people in the semi-darkness of dusk looking up at the clanking train rocking slowly through their midst.  Children in the darkness, carrying large tubs of water on their backs.  A whole civilisation down here beside the railway line, of huts without electricity, of people who live in complete darkness from when the sun goes down, until it it rises again.  It gave me shivers to see those people, luminous in the lights from the train, watching us from their imposed darkness.  It was like looking into the deep past.

As the night deepened, the stars became very sharp and clear, and numerous.  We were travelling through the bush, across the wide open space of savannah, flat natural darkness as far as the eye could see in any direction.  The only electric light was the light on the train, which had power surges and was sometimes dim and sometimes bright.  The rest of the horizon was dark, with the dense darkness of vegetation below, and the clear darkness of space above, lit up with ten thousand stars.  I kept seeing an eerie red light burst out of nowhere in the distance, and it happened frequently but the position of the light source kept changing.  It seemed to be exploding in the sky, but didn’t have the points of fireworks, it was just a huge cloud of light, appearing and then disappearing, before I could see where it had emerged from.  As I continued to watch, I realised it was a lightning storm.  Vast clouds high above the savannah were crackling with electricity, and spontaneously bursting into light.  Sometimes the lightning was so extensive it lit up the whole sky, right across the horizon.  In these seconds, the dark savannah below was lit up in a flash, the flat tops of the Acacia trees suddenly revealed in a burst of red glow.  Sometimes the lightning would jump in a jagged fork down to the earth, but the majority of the time it stayed in the sky, jumping from cloud to cloud, spontaneous sheet-lightning.

The lightning was all the more remarkable because of the complete absence of any other light in the landscape.  It made me think how lightning must have terrified and amazed our ancestors when they, too, lived in darkness, like the inhabitants of the African wilderness today.  The power of nature seemed so vast and powerful, and the train was so small and insignificant, with its flickering lights and slowly snaking its way, clanking and shunting, across the plain.  The storm was still going on when the gong was sounded for dinner.  It was far away in the distance, but because of the flatness of the plain you can see for hundreds of miles.

At dinner I sat next to three young Americans working for the Salvation Army, who have been in Kenya since January, and are going home this Thursday.  They were a boy and two girls, and the boy was married to one of the girls, although they were young, probably a bit younger than me.  They said they had been teaching Bible lessons and holding Bible camps, in schools right across eastern Kenya, (except for the north, obviously).  In spite of this evangelical tendency they were lovely people, and I had an enjoyable time discussing aspects of travel with them; for example, which was the worst road we had encountered on our journeys, and the everyday absurdities of life in Kenya.  Dinner was very slow, but that’s okay, the food was uninspired but completely edible.  I avoided the beef, knowing in advance it wouldn’t be possible to chew it.  After dinner I went back to watching the lightning storm, as were many other people, because it was such a phenomenon, and all the windows on the other side of the train were jammed.  The lightning storm was actually all around us, and could be seen on both sides of the train, although there was no sound and no accompanying rain, just sheer electricity, without thunder or water.  It was very curious.  Above the riotous electric clouds were the stars, very very clear in the primordial darkness of the savannah.  There were also many shooting stars, and I saw more shooting stars last night than I have in the rest of my life combined.

Standing in the passageway at the open window, it seemed like all the insects in Africa were trying to come in, to fly around the light above my head: all variety of moths, flies, mosquitoes, beetles.  Two blue-uniformed policemen went past me in the passageway, heading for third class.  I looked closer, and saw that both of them were carrying guns.  I couldn’t believe this; were they actually prepared to use them?  Would they really fire guns on a train?  I resumed my leaning out of the window, only to duck back inside again as the cook emptied a pot out of the window, and several green things resembling cabbages were flung out into the night.

Around half ten I tried to get to sleep.  The lightning storm was still going on, and it continued all night.  I know it did, because after sleeping two and a half hours I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep.  It wasn’t the train, the movement is very soothing, it sways from side to side on the rails, a gently lulling movement.  But I kept thinking about going home, and things I have to sort out when I leave Africa.

My sleeplessness was punctuated with visits to the gradually flooding toilet, and listening to the rain drumming on the roof of the train when around 3am we finally hit the proper storm.  That was when it got cold.  I must have partially dozed off at some point later on because I was called back to consciousness at 6.30am by the gong being sounded in the passageway to indicate breakfast.  I felt very sleepy.  I could hear absolutely no-one else getting up.  I got up and dressed and joined a few people who were waiting for breakfast in the dining car.  The Americans I had met at dinner the day before did not come.  I sat opposite a young and silent Italian.  It was a very long wait for breakfast.  The train stops very often, and when I was in the dining car during a stop I saw one of the waiters go outside and stand on the line and screw something back on to the side of the train.  This was just a mild diversion, and nobody made anything of it.  Indeed I have become so accustomed to the usual sights in Kenya that the most common things are no longer noteworthy, or even really register on my consciousness when I see them.  For example it is so common to see large overturned trucks by the side of the road, or trains derailed and lying rusting by the side of the track, with people living in them, that I no longer really notice them when I see them.

After breakfast I watched the view again, as during the next two hours we gradually got nearer to Nairobi.  The landscape changed from green savannah dotted with Acacia trees and shrubs, with zebra, wildebeast, impala, Grant’s gazelle, and secretary birds living on them, to the dusty brown, barren plains surrounding Nairobi.  The approach to Nairobi by rail is littered with dead cows, and the increasingly powerful stench of human sewage.  I must have seen over a hundred cattle corpses, laying in the dusty plain, and this is just by the side of the railway track.  If there are hundreds there, it’s difficult to conceive of just how many dead cows there must be, across the whole of the dry regions in Kenya.  Closer in to the city, are miles upon miles of slum.  We could not see these when leaving Nairobi on the train going to Mombasa, because it was dark, and there is no electric light in the slum.  This time, however, in daylight, the extent of the slums was clear.  A part of me wished there hadn’t been daylight to see it by, because for more than forty minutes we were rolling through an incredibly demoralising human landscape.  There is a long stretch of stagnant water that lays in a ditch beside the railway, and at the edge of the slum.  It reeks, so badly that it sickens you to smell it, to travel alongside it in the train.  The litter, absolutely everywhere, no method of waste disposal at all, just a million poor people, living in absolute, horrifying filth.  In the city slums there are no mud and stick houses; instead they are constructed of corrugated iron, bits of wood covered over with plastic bags to provide a roof.  Everywhere is strewn with rubbish, there is not a single clear patch of earth.  Children waving to the train from this other-world of horror, and adults, watching glumly, and us watching glumly back.  I physically felt ill with seeing it this morning.

I got out of the station, refused three taxi touts, and got to the “Kitengela Express” matatu.  It was actually a little difficult to find it; at first all I saw were coaches, and the whole arena seemed empty of matatus.  The crucial thing is not to look like you are having any kind of problem.  I remained calm and no-one harassed me.  Indeed I looked so rough and inured to the surroundings that nobody bothered me at all the entire time.  No doubt it helped that I was still wearing that same wretched shirt.  I got packed into the matatu and so did my backpack, and I was on my way back to Kitengela, on my last matatu journey.

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