This railway line has been deemed the most ambitious project in Kenya since the country became independent in 1963. The massive 13.8 billion USD rail project will link Kenya’s port in Mombasa (on the Indian Ocean) with the capital city, Nairobi, and then continue on to Uganda and South Sudan. This railroad is part of an ambitious attempt to link Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, although the feasibility of the project has been questioned. The line connecting Mombasa and Nairobi is expected to be completed by June 2017 and the journey between the two cities will be reduced from 12 hours to 4 hours.The project is being carried out by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and a whopping 90 percent of it is being financed by the China Export-Import Bank.
The currently existing railway, dubbed “Lunatic Express,” was British-built during the colonial era. It connects Kampala, the capital of Uganda, with Mombasa, Kenya and was completed in 1901. The new Chinese-built railway however, promises to be a major boost to the African nations. When the foundation of the project was being laid in 2013, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta professed, “The project will define my legacy as president of Kenya…what we are doing here today will most definitely transform…not only Kenya but the whole eastern African region.”
Researchers have suggested that local industries are benefitting from this project. Uwe Wissenbach and Yuan Wang form the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University have found that thanks to organized pressure from Kenyan manufacturers and negotiations with CRBC and the China Export-Import Bank that were personally led by the Kenyan president, all of the cement used in the construction is now purchased from Kenyan companies. The researchers also found that local markets and shops have enjoyed increased demand from the influx of workers during construction.
The project has not been without controversy, however. It is expected to cut through Nairobi’s wildlife sanctuary. Wildlife officials and the government made an agreement that would conserve the boundaries of the sanctuary and wall off and raise above the ground the railway line so that animals may pass safely underneath. Richard Leakey, chairman of the Kenyan Wildlife Service articulated the dilemma faced in this situation saying, “Ideally, there should be no transportation in a national park…[but] we can’t say to the Nairobi resident ‘you have to sit in a traffic jam for the rest of your life.’”
Nevertheless, local communities, including groups from the Maasai, have been protesting the railway and its intrusion in the park. There are also reports that the railway has already disoriented elephants and interfered with their migration.
Labor is another controversial issue that has plagued the project. The aforementioned researchers from the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins have found that CRBC, the Chinese company undertaking the project, employs about 25,000 Kenyans and between 2,000 and 3,000 Chinese workers depending on the construction phases. Articles depicting the dissatisfaction of the Kenyan workers with the lack of opportunities and low paying jobs have recently been published. For instance, in the Kenyan county of Narok, local communities stormed the worksite and attacked Chinese workers. This perhaps perhaps is related to the findings of the Johns Hopkins analysis, which found that although Kenyans are being employed, they are brought from other parts of the country and not sourced from the communities where the railway is passaging through. This creates a resentment against the “Kenyan outsiders.”
There have also been complaints against low wages. CRBC’s own workers in another railway site had blocked traffic in demonstration against their low wages and demanded that their payments be increased from 2.50 USD per day to 5 USD per day. The Chinese managers, on the other hand, insist that they are abiding by local labor laws and their contracts.