With pomp, circumstance, fanfare, some political rhetoric, and lots of promise, the people of Kenya welcomed the maiden ride of the Standard Gauge Railway, now known as SGR, the first high-speed rail project in Eastern Africa.
The historic event started in the port city of Mombasa, 472 kilometers away from the capital city of Nairobi. President Kenyatta had arrived in Mombasa on Tuesday night to launch the first freight ride, which left with cargo containers, cut across six counties and reached Nairobi less than eight hours later and after making all required stops for offloading. Prior to the SGR, this freight route used to last between 16 and 24 hours.
On Wednesday, May 31st, the President boarded the SGR along with government officials, foreign dignitaries, diplomats, journalists, and 47 students from grade schools from across all counties of Kenya. Flags flew, the band played on, and the locomotive started under the watchful eye of a delegation from the People’s Republic of China, a significant investor in the project.
President Kenyatta’s speech was brief and to the point. He called the project a cornerstone paving the way for Kenya’s path towards becoming an industrialized, middle income nation. He was also thankful for the cooperation provided by China, a country the President regarded as a “true friend.”
Overall, the event was joyful and patriotic. The fact that the 54th anniversary of Madaraka Day was less than 24 hours away added to the symbolism, for this is the day when Kenya took the first step towards independence from British rule.
Security was tight at the ceremony with KDF guards and air police units providing escort, a sad reminder about armed radical groups operating in the Eastern Africa region; not necessarily in Kenya, but nonetheless a threat.
There was also concern about the hard message the President delivered against individuals who have been arrested under suspicion of sabotaging the railway. The President said that those found guilty would be subject to capital punishment, which in Kenya means being sentenced to death by hanging. The comments got the attention of the international community, which is largely against the death penalty; it should be noted, however, that executions are rarely carried out, and thus his words could possibly be influenced by the fact that political elections will be taking place later this year.
Of particular note was President Kenyatta’s announcement of an immediate reduction of the SGR fare for economy class tickets, which have effectively come down from 900 shillings to 700 shillings. A concert featuring musical performers, musicians and celebrities was held in Nairobi to coincide with the train arrival on the eve of Madaraka Day.
In the end, all the political rhetoric in the world cannot take away from the fact that Kenya is now a proud nation where high-speed train service moves cargo, commuters, families, and tourists from the coast to the capital.