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By: Booksa

As They drew the Lines of Nation States

Large 14761239411 7483e4f50b o  1 Indians Repairing The Uganda Railway, image from 'The Times history of the war' (1914)

P: Some warn, I’m headed from “nowhere to nowhere”. Others insist I’m all it takes to make nowhere somewhere. I’m a line – the oldest way of marking yours and mine. Or making yours mine.

S: Who is this?

P: Good question. Let me start.

Syokimau the Seer said: the pale people will come on an iron snake; its tail will lie in the ocean, its head in a great central lake. I am that creature. Contested, resented, expected long before I arrived. Time will tell whether I connect or divide.

Thus spoke the track that was started in 1896 from the port city of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, and continued to be constructed over five years and more than one thousand kilometers, to the eastern shore of Lake Victoria. It was known as the Uganda Railway. I first saw it as a child, in the 1980s. It seemed like a discarded old fish skeleton. I would have struggled to believe – even if I’d known my history, which I didn’t – that this spindly single track had been a transformative thoroughfare, coercing the land through which it passed into the shape of a nationstate called Kenya.

Around thirty thousand Indians, so-called coolies, were brought over by the British to build the track. Some had been involved in constructing the vast network that had railroaded their own land into colonial compliance. Most were unskilled labourers considered to be more “reliable” and “hardworking” than the natives/locals who, for reasons the British found hard to comprehend, wouldn’t always obediently cooperate in fettering their homeland for foreigners.

The land the track would cut through, then designated as British East Africa Protectorate, was considered useless, just a region of bush the colonists needed to penetrate so that their claim on the area could be entrenched and resources from Uganda more easily exploited. What's the sound of your track?

S: Although I (or “we,” am not sure which would be more appropriate) was familiar with this language, having heard humans make use of it, I have never used it as such. Why are we destined to use another (another’s) language to communicate? Did we (you and I) once have a mother tongue that was severed and silenced by history? And now we have to translate and translocate ourselves (and others) across geographies of meaning and intelligibility.

I am obsessed with my/our painful pre-history (is there such a thing?). What were we before we became the ribs of an empire? I will tell you my story and I want to hear more of yours.

P: Elementally, we’re not so different you and me. The red of your blood is the grey of my bone, for iron is the essence from which all is grown. Easy enough to trace, though hardly free from the complex strains of gender, creed and race. Born of the earth, built by men – I am something in between, neither natural nor machine. I borrow from all and the ensuing reaction makes a sound you might call Trac(k)tion. A language punctuated by the grammar of moving metal. A loud, echoing, aching, hoping rattle.

The idea of the Uganda Railway was conjured in English clubrooms filled with cigar smoke and callous confidence . Those in support tried to win over the doubters with a humanitarian argument: a railway would help stamp out the last vestiges of the slave trade in East Africa. Surely no one could object to such a noble goal! In case the suppression of slavery was not adequate incentive, those in favour of the railway venture also emphasized the risk of other colonial powers, like France and Germany, making gains in East Africa. Retaining influence over the Nile was critical – for to master the Nile was to rule Egypt, which was to hold the Suez Canal, which was to own a vital gateway between Europe and the world. Therefore a track had to be built to secure access to the stretch of the Nile in Uganda.

“Africa is the last frontier of capitalism”, Achille Mbembe has often said. “It is the last territory on earth that has not yet been entirely subjected to the rule of capital.”

S: No, we’re not so different. I, too, was “mined and melted” when that precious black gold was “discovered” sleeping in the bowels of this earth. Imperial desires dictated that it be awakened and summoned to the surface to serve and flow. I, and many of my kind, was born of collusions and concessions across continents, meant to redraw geopolitical maps, to expand and extend power.

I was placed here (somewhere between Baghdad and Samarra) rather late in the game. I relate what I have heard from those who put me here. From neighbors and elders. From travelers, too (who think that having no ears we can’t hear). I have heard (and seen) too much.

I was born in times of war. Names and titles are often misleading. “Berlin to Baghdad.” Deutsche Bank invested in linking the banks of the Spree with the banks of the Tigris. But the ultimate goal was Basra. Access to and a port on the warm waters of the Gulf.

Black gold was, and still is, I hear these days, very tempting and destructive. The concession (what a word), back then, included rights of exploration up to 20 kilometers on both sides of the track.

Ah, well!

P: Ah, not so well, I’m inclined to say. Local land rights here were disregarded in a similar way. Any area within a mile radius of me was automatically declared British crown property. But by the end it was clear, the price had been dear: four Indians died for every mile of my track – the Brits didn’t bother to count any dead who were black. As for the damage to nature it too doesn’t feature, only profits decide the success of a venture. Far apart as you and I are, our histories are tied – and I think our futures too will be strangely allied. Mark my rails! Our tracks are destined to connect, thanks to China’s Belt and Road project. A fresh incarnation of the ancient Silk Route, it heralds a new era of imperial pursuit. This time, I’ve heard, countries join in by choice, this time they are partners with cause to rejoice.

Since 2000, the Chinese have extended about one hundred billion dollars worth of loans to Africa. Around a quarter of the credit Beijing extends to Africa is for rail and road projects. New tracks have been, or are in the process of being laid all over the continent, including between Abuja and Kaduna in Nigeria, along the Nile in Sudan, from Tanzania to Zambia, from Ethiopia to Djibouti. In some places the new lines snake right alongside the old colonial ones.

China’s Belt and Road initiative aims to connect the country with Asia, Africa and Europe through an elaborate set of overland and maritime transport corridors across various territories including Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. It is set to involve more than sixty countries, which together represent a third of the world’s total economy and more than half the global population. In May 2017, at a summit arranged to win support for the plan, China pledged to invest one hundred and twenty five billion dollars in this “project of the century”, which it claims will “add splendour to human civilisation”, and is a chance not “to assert a new hegemony, but an opportunity to bring an old one to an end”.

The infrastructure is supposed to help realize Agenda 2063, the African Union’s vision for an “integrated, united, peaceful, sovereign, independent, confident and self-reliant continent” of “seamless borders”. The aspiration is also that “by 2020 all remnants of colonialism will have ended”. How often can colonialism end?

Surely kowtowing to China could not have been what Frantz Fanon meant when he concluded in The Wretched of the Earth: “…the European game has finally ended; we must find something different.”

S: I once thought that colonialism had died, but I was wrong. It is chameleon-like. Its ghosts (and bodies) continue to haunt and hunt this land until today.

I thought the British were gone for good, but they returned.

As I mentioned before, I came to being just before their soldiers “arrived” in Mesopotamia. On July 27th, 1912, the Baghdad rail heading north was begun. An august ceremony was held, attended by the then Ottoman wali of Baghdad, Jamal Pasha. Two years later, the British occupied Basra in the south and pushed forward, extending their own tracks. By the time they reached Baghdad in March 1917, the Ottomans withdrew north. They passed on me. I felt the weight of their soldiers and weapons. I heard that had torched what they couldn’t carry from Baghdad. I saw the black smoke plumes carried by the winds. The British kept pushing forward until they took Mosul and they added more of my siblings and expanded the network.

We carry the victors and the vanquished on our backs!

It wasn’t until 1924 that Iraqis were to administer their railways, but ownership was still British. In 1936 Britain sold Iraqi Railways to the Iraqi government for 494,000 GBP.

The British reoccupied Iraq (they hadn’t left, but hid in military bases) again in 1941, but were forced to leave in 1958 when the monarchy was overthrown. The early republican years were good for my kind and for the mortals who lived here. But then there were violent coups. In 1980 a devastating war started and lasted longer than WWII. Another war started in 1991 by the Americans, followed by a brutal embargo. I and my kind suffered a lot during those years. I relate all of this to say how shocked I was when I heard, through the track-vine, that the British had returned, yet, again, in 2003. They stayed in and around Basra, but the Americans, their fellow-occupiers, were the colonial masters.

Chaos reigned and there was looting and sabotage. Many of my kind were wrenched away to be smuggled or sold. There were plans and promises of reconstruction, but very little materialized. New borders were drawn in blood and passage and movement became treacherous. Overnight journeys ran only between Baghdad and Basra.

Being where I am, it is difficult for me to imagine connectivity in the near future. Much of this country lies in ruins and is ruled by militias. They prefer pick-up trucks to trains. My Syrian siblings and neighbors would say the same. There was a time when we carried everything and everyone all the way to Palestine and back, but geographies are mutilated. 

P: Mutilated. Abbreviated. Reconstituted. Borders extend and shrink, histories shift in a blink, all the while over the same land you and I slink. Once I too was a source of plenty for others, some stole pieces of me to share with their brothers. Massai took my bolts and made jewels for celebration. Now I’m rusty, unwanted, hardly fit to ride, and there’s a brand new version of me just off to one side. 

During the construction of the Uganda Railway, it’s estimated that two thousand five hundred Indians died, and six thousand were disabled. Most of the survivors returned home after the track was completed, but around seven thousand opted to remain in Kenya. They worked primarily as traders along the track and were soon a vital, thriving part of the local economy. Tales of Indian success reached the homeland and compelled others to go try their luck in Africa. Variyam Singh Jandu was one of these. He came by dhow in the early 1920s, without a passport or a visa or a trade. He settled beside the railway, almost midway between Mombasa and Lake Victoria, in a spot called Ewaso Nai’beri, “a place of cool waters”, which, true to its name, was temperate and pleasant. The colonizers dubbed it Nairobi, and in 1919 it had become the capital of British East Africa.

In 1934, Narinder Singh Bansal, a newly qualified young engineer, left India to take up a job maintaining the Uganda Railway. By then, the last section of the line had been completed and it had finally reached the Ugandan capital, Kampala – where Bansal ended up settling down after several years spent overseeing various sections of the track. He was one of those who thrived because of the railway. Along the route, though, somewhere in the maze of Empire bureaucracy, his surname lost a consonant and swapped a vowel. He became Narinder Singh Basil.

One day, Variyam Singh’s granddaughter would marry Narinder Singh’s youngest son. The couple would have a daughter called Priya Basil who grew up with no idea that a rail track was responsible for her existence and was naively pleased about the herb-scented clerical error, which had endowed her family with a name that had such a distinctly British ring to it.

Lunatic Line. Lunatic Line. Lunatic, lunatic line. Ah, stray stanzas dazzle me, nettle me, unsettle me! The mettle of metre versus the metres of metal – me. What are word-ways or railways but different lines, different signs of something on the move – meanings, memories, materials, different ways to race the fleeting hour, to (dis)prove the claims of power. 

S: Yes, the prefix in postcolonial marks a beginning and not an end. The beginning of the aftermath. I'm not sure how easy it would be to disentangle ourselves from the messiness!

In my hours (rather days or weeks) of prosaic solitude I recite what some humans have said about us in poetry. It seems that our form and function ( I know am a mere track, but am taking the liberty of speaking for the whole as I have often done) crystallize their paradoxical existence and their political plights. They do have plenty of joyful songs of lovers meeting and reuniting and workers and warriors returning home, but I find the poems about separation, departure and loss more intriguing.

From: At the Station of a Train Which Fell Off the Map
By: Mahmoud Darwish

The train was a wild ship docking. . . and carrying us 
to the realistic cities of imagination 
whenever we needed some innocent play with destinies. 
The windows of the train have the status of the magical in the mundane: 
everything runs. Trees, thoughts, waves and towers run behind us. 
The scent of lemons, the air and all things run. 
So does the yearning for an ambiguous distant. The heart runs. 


I stood at the station 
I was abandoned like the time attendant’s room in that station. 
I was a robbed man looking at his coffers and asking himself: 
Was that field, that treasure, mine? 
Was this lapis lazuli, wet with humidity and night dew, mine? 
Was I, one day, the butterfly’s student in fragility and boldness at times, 
and her colleague in metaphor at others? 
Was I, once, mine? Does memory fall sick with me and have a fever? 
(Like the sound of bells: Time was broken right here)
I stood when my wound was sixty years old
I stood at the station not to wait for the train
or for the cheers of those returning from the south to grain spikes,
but to preserve the shore of olives and lemons in the history of my map. 
Is this. . . all this for absence? And for what is left of the crumbs of the unseen for me? 
Did my ghost pass by and waive from a distance and disappear? 
Did I ask it: Is it that whenever the stranger smiles and greets us we slaughter a gazelle?

Priya Basil and Sinan Antoon

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