LAMENT FOR THE SGR
An integrated line would have unified East Africa like nothing else.
About this time four years ago, Presidents Yoweri Museveni, Paul Kagame, and Uhuru Kenyatta, as the newest member of the East African Leaders Club then, had really got us excited.
They were talking of hooking East Africa to booster rockets, and doing a lot of New Age stuff. They conjured up visions of a connected electricity grid, a new standard gauge railway running from Mombasa through Uganda to Kigali, open skies, name it.
Today, those dreams have faded. Kenya built a leg of the SGR to Nairobi, but it will take a while, if ever, for it to make its way to Uganda.
A body was set up in Uganda to do the SGR, but it went the way many things in Uganda go these days.
Out on East Africa’s Central African flank, landlocked Rwanda waited in vain. Then John Magufuli came along, and Kigali will now build its bit of the railway through Tanzania. Hopefully in the years to come, they can form one big loop.
It’s a real loss, because though the railway to Kigali was seen as an economic, not social engineering, project, I think it could have refashioned 21st century East Africa like nothing else.
The example of Ugandan expatriates in Kenya reveals why. I know some of them who used to get on the express bus from Nairobi to Kampala on Friday, even if they could afford a business-class air ticket, because they wanted to take the longer time to work all way to Kampala during the bus ride.
They would see family in Kampala on Saturday, attend a wedding, visit their building site, and even throw in a funeral on Sunday, then get back on the bus to Nairobi in the evening and work all the way back into Monday morning. On Tuesday, they would catch a flight to London to go and present the project they were completing on the bus to and from Kampala.
I therefore conjured up images of the Mombasa-kigali railway and the world’s longest innovation corridor.
The trains would have Wi-fi, and young innovators would crisscross the region, blogging, writing code, making new friendships and dating.
They would stop along the way, exploring what lies beyond the railway line, getting drunk in the small towns, and discovering new realities.
If you were a photo blogger, and hopped from Nairobi to Kigali and back, with other likeminded explorers, you would probably be more likely to find a young woman (or man) who isn’t from your village, tribe, church, or country, whom you like and to whom you would perhaps pop the question.
A new type of citizen, different from your typical, parochial, corrupt, ethnic warrior of East African politics, would emerge. They are already there, these new East Africans.
You see their social media pages when they come from Uganda and climb Mt. Kenya and post photos of their conquests. When they land in Uganda and go water rafting. When they make their first visit to Kigali and post photos of their teary and subdued moments at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
And a lot of them gather at that craziest of East African music festivals, Nyege Nyege near Jinja in Uganda.
Come to think of it, the old industrial town would make just the perfect place for their capital. For now, it will have to wait.
Though the railway to Kigali was seen as an economic, not social engineering, project, it could have refashioned 21st century East Africa
Charles Onyango-obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3