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The Black City

Photograph of a boy standing by a train track
  • By Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
  • Issue 17
  • On BeautyOctober 2016

It was the end of June 1959, and it was like a dream. I boarded the train at Limuru, in Kenya, at the same station that four years back had seen me shed tears of despair when the officials would not let me get on the train bound for Alliance High School because I did not have a permit to travel to another region as then required by the martial laws that regulated African travel. I had to be smuggled onto another train by a sympathetic lower ranking officer. Now, four years later, I was boarding another train bound, not for any region within the country but for Uganda, and Makerere University College.

Even the land we entered after crossing the border seemed enwrapped in a nimbus. The tidy manicured tea plantations of Limuru and Kericho in Kenya were replaced by Ugandan coffee plants and by banana trees that seemed to grow in the freedom of the wild and yet carried full bunches. The vast verdure before us, all African-owned, was breathtaking in its extravagant display of untrimmed tropical luxuriance.

Such must have been the scenery that greeted writer Winston Churchill when, in 1908, on his first African journey, he finally left the Kenya of cantankerous British colonial settlerdom and crossed into the British-protected African kingdom: “Uganda is from end to end a ‘beautiful garden’ where the ‘staple food’ of the people grows almost without labour. . . . Does it not sound like a paradise on earth?” And in summary, “Uganda is the pearl (of Africa).”

The only interregnum to my view of the wild verdure was the Indian Madhvani’s sugar plantations in Jinja, but even these, seen through the windows of the second-class coach, came across as green blades dancing in the wind. It was also my first encounter with an Indian-owned and -managed plantation. In Kenya, Indians, by law, were not allowed to own land—this despite their having helped build the railway from Mombasa to Kampala. But in Uganda, it was a different story as evidenced by the Madhvanis. Past the sugar, it was a sudden reentry into the rich tropical lushness, a continuation of Churchill’s beautiful garden.

Churchill had erased human presence from the Ugandan landscape. But when fifty years later I reemerged from the garden into the city at the railway station in Kibuli, it was into a human bustle and hustle of black presence selling matokes, potatoes, peanuts, clearly the fruits of their hands on their own soil. Black Baganda women in flowing busutis and black men in white kanzus and regular Western attire dominated the streets. Even the sight of Indians outside their shops along either side of the city streets added rather than took away from this incredible sight of black people who did not walk as if they were strangers in their city. Kenyan cities and towns always gave off an air of segregation and tension. Here there seemed more ease in the urban racial mingling, among the Asians and Africans particularly. There were no visible effects of the trade boycott of the year before. Absent, even among the few white bodies, was the armed swagger of the Kenya settler.

It was my first encounter with a modern city dominated by black presence, and it was strangely exhilarating. More personal, I had finally entered the capital of a country about which, from as early as I could recall, I had sung “To-Uga-nda” in rhythm with the sound of metal on metal of the trains bound for Kampala and the Buganda kingdom.

Years later the train and its sounds would ring in the prose of my fictional world, in the novel A Grain of Wheat, in particular. The fact is, the railway, built in the 1890s, the high noon of the imperial Scramble for Africa, had an impact on the economy, politics, culture, and life of the region so profound as to make it inseparable from the history of modern East Africa. A product of British imperial dreams, the train had landed me in the city of my dreams.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is a Kenyan novelist, essayist, critic, and playwright. The founder and editor of the Gikuyu-language journal Mũtĩiri, he is the author of over thirty works, among them Weep Not, Child (1964), Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), and Wizard of the Crow (2006). Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening (The New Press) will be published in October. Photo from Jinja, Uganda © Chien-Chi Chang/Magnum Photos