Steve's Yarns-- All those years growing up
and living in Oklahoma, California, Arizona,
Texas, and Africa..... Ain't done growing up
'til I get over on the other side :-)

Steve Van Nattan







By Steve Van Nattan


This series of yarns is all about us missionary's kids traveling from home to boarding school, and back home again, on the East African Railways and Harbors trains and lake steamers.

Because I lived in the colonial era of the British in East Africa all this traveling was done under protocols which no longer exist anywhere on earth. The colonial European powers have all handed their empires over to the people they once ruled, and life has become very different. Many of my experiences, if duplicated today, would be considered absolutely lawless and improper.

So, let us go back in time and meet some of these missionary's kids and see them living a life much like Huckleberry Finn or Penrod, but in Africa.

In Part Four we will contemplate the effect which boarding school had on missionaries' kids, and we will look at solutions to the ongoing myth that God needs missionary kids out of the house so he can get more souls saved.

This is a brief primer on the colonial era to explain how, why, and with what results the European powers gobbled up Africa long ago. You may have been sent here from other yarns of mine to learn the context of some other story. I am certainly not the final authority on colonial Africa, but then, I did see the end of that era and the beginning of national independence of African nations. I think I have some knowledge that qualifies me to discuss this story.

To understand the Kenya railways and the lake steamers on Lake Victoria, and to learn the context of this narrative of mine, you need to learn how the railways and lake steamers came into existence. The history of colonial railways under British rule is very unique and full of strange and picturesque twists. So, we look first at what caused Great Britain to build a railway into central Africa with little or no real reason other than, "The Germans are coming."

At my age today I have developed a well rounded but somewhat bigoted view of this discussion. My attitude is probably because of all the stupid revisionist history of Africa written by Liberal activist nut cases at American and British universities. Also, many modern African historians have tragically destroyed the true facts about their own history in a misguided effort to make of their nation more than it is. It is a well known fact that, in the first years after national post-independence events take place, local historians like to hide the occasional clunky disgusting behavior of their founding fathers. But, I shall try to slap the idiots, but with some restraint in the classic British colonial congenial way. After all, if you are stupid, my friend, perhaps you came by it sincerely, and I shall try to keep that in mind. Cough cough, spot of tea what, one lump or two?

In the mid 1500s Africa was an absolute blank space on the world map. Ironically, the coasts of North Africa were actually part of Europe and had been for thousands of years. But, beyond that even the coasts surrounding the rest of Africa were unknown except by legend and by Arab slavers who mined living black gold and carried it off to the slave markets of Arabia, Persia, and the Gulf states.

The Portuguese were the first to send their explorers off south along the West African coast to explore.

What those first European explorers found was colonial pie. By this I mean that Africa was, from day one, seen by the European powers as a pie they needed to rush forth and grab, even if they only got one small piece of the pie. As you may know, the British, Spanish, and the French were the best pie eaters in world history.



The method was first to establish trade with the natives on the coast. Once some White Race presence was located in a coastal city, traders arrived and started plying the rivers into the interior and making pacts and blood oaths with the native tribes who seemed to be the most rational.

Next came the colonial government approved dons, flag in hand, and Catholic Padre nearby to claim the land for the Holy Mother Church. These European potentates were sent to set up an office in a port city for the purpose of representing the king or queen of the European nation to the local chiefs and sheiks.

The Portuguese never went further into the interior of Africa than the coast, nor did they care much. They simply planted forts all the way around Africa from West Africa to Cape Town on the south tip of Africa, on up the east coast at Biera and Mozambique, and finally at Mombasa where Fort Jesus was built in 1591. [ See photo above right. ] These forts were the life line of a trade and shipping empire in the Far East which the Portuguese dreamed of, and the end of the line was Goa in what is now India. They also took Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in about 1520.

The British got into the colonial expansion business by taking all the Portuguese forts on the way to India. This might be called an old world "leveraged buy out," but without having to pay anything for it. The legend of the British going forth to claim the world for Britannia is largely myth. The British let Spain and Portugal make the first capital investment, and then the King or Queen of England sent forth the British Navy to evict the first tenant and take over the condominium. Sir Francis Drake of England made himself famous in the empire business by foreclosing on the Spanish.

The Portuguese simply lost the enterprise because they were too small a nation to finance it and man the forts and ships to defend it. This shift to England, as the main colonial force in the pie eating contest in Africa, resulted mainly from England's defeat of Spain in the battle of the Spanish Armada in 1575. England became the premier marine power in the world, and they loved it. They were on a roll, and Sir Francis Drake (El Diablo) was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth of England to go pirating against Spain in the Caribbean.

And now, TA DA, let them eat pie-- African pie.

This new role of England resulted in military officials being sent to grab all the Portuguese forts and in building more forts along the way. Unlike the Portuguese, the British were extremely fascinated with the interior of Africa which was a virtual "terra nullius," the Roman legal term for "land belonging to no one." Of course, it belonged to the Africans who lived there, but the Wogs' role in the Calvinist destiny of Europe was to pretend they never owned Africa until they were "discovered."

In the scheme of Anglo Saxon and Roman Mediterranean logic, nothing was "discovered" and "owned" by anyone until.....
-the White Race arrived,
-the White race planted their flag,
-the White race anointed it with holy water for the Pope or the King of England,
-the White race gave it a name (often based on the explorer's or his sovereign's name),
and finally,
-the White race levied a "hut tax" on all the "primitive" residents.

By paying the hut tax, or head tax, which was trivial in value, the residents gave legal recognition of the Anglo Saxon (or earlier, Spanish) race as their new masters. Not being British lawyers, the Africans thought they were simply placating the latest chief who would be in power until they whipped him in battle and ate him for supper. These childlike Africans innocently handed the pie to Great Britain, and later to France.

The same process was used with the American Indians. Undiscovered people in the USA are called Native Americans, that is, natives who long ago were renamed by an Italian map maker named Amerigo Vespucci. He called them Indians, revealing how utterly defective the White Race was at ethnology. Smoking the peace pipe seemed innocent enough. Becoming a blood brother of a pale faced red haired trouble maker seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Little did the American Indians know that the White Race owned their soul and would break every treaty made with the Indians. I am part Cherokee, and that is why I do not smoke around White people.

What a lovely experience it has been over the centuries for people minding their own business around the world to be "discovered." And, thus, the British and French "discovered" West Africa. What yummy pie!

In Australia the Anglo Saxons, in a fit of collective guilt, have transformed the Aboriginal people, who were "discovered" long ago by Captain Cooke, into first class honored citizens and even welcomed them into Parliament. This must be a great relief to the Aborigines, for Charles Darwin called for the extermination of the Aboriginal people completely because they were subhuman. Thus, from endangered species to Member of Parliament-- quite a journey. At least one specie has been saved from extinction.

The photo at right is of Honorable Neville Bonner, first Aboriginal member of the Australian Parliament elected in 1972 from Queensland. I wonder if old Chuck Darwin would lower himself to have a cup of tea with this alleged beast of the outback?

Back to our plot and the frenzied acquisition of African pie.

The British eviction of the Portuguese from the east coast of Africa resulted in the great India type colonial bureaucratic British monster being duplicated around the coast of Africa. These officials ruling on behalf of His or Her Majesty soon learned about the vast resources in the interior of Africa. Portugal was allowed to keep Angola as a consolation prize.

This resulted in each European power defining a particular area of Africa as their "sphere of influence," and England's wanderlust for "the interior" became an addiction. More officials were sent, along with colonial soldiers, and expeditions were commissioned to explore the interior of the "Dark Continent" to see exactly what sort of pie they were looking at-- apple Betty or four and twenty black birds? In the process a number of these fearless explorers were asked to stay for dinner, never realizing until too late that they would BE dinner.

Let me explain what a "sphere of influence" is in British legal terms. It simply says, to the other pie eaters of Europe, "This area is ours if we ever want to play there and if we can survive the native attacks to take it and build tea shops on dusty streets in the interior." All that was needed for a "sphere of influence" to become officially part of the British Empire was for a corrugated metal building the size of a shoe box to be built, and a colonial office official was installed in the metal box to sweat profusely and fill out forms and reports all day. He would literally have a desk that was sloped toward him so that, as he sweat, the sweat would run off the desk top onto the floor before it totally washed away his entries into the eternal almighty ledger.

The final step in claiming one's piece of the African pie was to send officials into the interior to establish forts, start token trade to justify the horrendous expenditure back home in Parliament, and finally to draw lines on the map and send copies to other European rulers to notify them which pieces of the pie they no longer could claim. The race to grab African pie eventually became a frenzy of colonial lust, and any explorer or thug who was willing to die of malaria or black water fever was sent forth from the European nations with great fanfare and prepayments to his future widow. The European powers seldom had any idea what they had actually grabbed in the interior, but the need to beat the competition to the pie was reason enough to grab one more piece.

Few people understand the colonial era. Today, greed for natural resources drive the USA and world bankers in a morbid process to destabilize various Third World nations with the objective of keeping those nations in eternal chaos while harvesting their oil, titanium, uranium and so forth. This is what the USA is doing in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and soon they may try it in Iran. The neocolonial drama in Syria is in progress as I write, with Russia and possibly China in a struggle with the USA for another kingdom, in the land of chaos and oil.

PARENTHETIC: I must warn you that this story will be much like any conversation with an expatriate "wog" like me who grew up in Africa at the end of the colonial era. We are going to end with stories about traveling by rail and by lake steamer in central Africa, but there will be many side trips down various rabbit trails along the way. My old friends from Africa will relish this I trust, but I also hope to add to the vast body of writing about the old days in Africa for you who are willing to risk your sanity wandering about with me.

Back to colonial pie.

The Portuguese had the pie all to themselves at first. They even had a small tart sized piece of pie in Goa in India. The great European powers, England, Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, Germany, and France, were all preoccupied in wars with each other, and what colonial aspirations they had were with North and South America and a few other small corners of the world. Africa and India were two great pies waiting to be gobbled up. So, the Portuguese, over many years, ventured step by step down the west coast of Africa building forts along the way to guard their new interests. As noted above, the Spanish were put out of the colonial business after the Spanish Armada was defeated and Philip II of Spain trashed the treasury and wore out Spain at the instigation of the Pope.

England clearly did the best job of grabbing African pie. They first took large areas in West Africa, and then they went forth to grab South Africa and the Cape. Angola was left to the Portuguese who had very little pie to themselves. There were actually occasional fits of "fair play" as certain European pie eaters agreed to share the pie with one another. Congo was a steaming swamp, and the British bypassed it, and it later fell into the hands of King Leopold of Belgium as personal property, a unique innovation in all of colonial history. The British were of course headed for India, but they wanted outposts up the coast of Africa for supplying ships going and coming from India and the Far East.

The Indian experiment was handed to the East Indian Company for management, and as is the case with all capitalists, the EIC was brutal on the natives. They also hated the Gospel being sent to India by missionaries because it turned the Indians from the most crooked rascals on earth into model Christians. This East India Company policy caused a furor back in England because the sending of the Gospel to "poor meunited Hindus" was one of the tearful stories used in Parliament to justify the horrendous budget for colonial pie grabbing. So, the British/Indian government fired the East India Company and took charge. Tin buildings and red tape proliferated in abundance, and things improved greatly, the Indian masses fell in love with their distant mother, Queen Victoria, and the Gospel flowed to India while the tea and curry powder flowed back to the UK.

The British were benign rulers most of the time and much more restrained than other European nations with their subjects. They usually left the structure of local government in place and simply added their hierarchy to it on top. This almost always worked well. But, as the British Empire grew larger England had the same problem Portugal had earlier-- not enough men to rule these vast lands. So, they simply gave huge areas to one man, usually a District Commissioner, and he used the existing local government and added his own hired officers who were trained to administer and conduct business in the classic red tape infested British way. The Indians loved it and it took many years for them to long for something more. The only difference between British red tape and Indian red tape is that the Indian red tape smells of curry.

The bizarre thing was that some young Englishman, eager to help build the Empire, would go to university, usually a lower lever colonial minded school other than Oxford and Cambridge, and coming out with a more down to earth outlook, he was sent off by the Colonial Office to India. At the age of 27 he might end up being the only British ruler over an area of India the size of England. The fellow soon was transformed into a mighty ruler who was conditioned by his fellow higher officials to be very dignified, be merciful while condescending, live in some degree of pomp to impress the Indians, and generally make himself the benevolent father of his children, the Indians.

England's mistakes in India were mostly in their conduct of military events in which they subdued areas of India that rebelled. The British were rather brutal at times and did culturally dumb things too often. So, when they looked into the interior of Africa from Mombasa on the east coast they decided to use kinder and gentler tactics and use local rulers, and even local fighting men, for their military as much as possible. Missionaries were encouraged by the official system to take the Gospel to the African tribes in order to civilize them. Though the official motives were mongrel in nature, must of the missionaries did preach a simple authentic Gospel, and a real African church came into existence. The tribute to the early missionaries is that the African church thrives in biblical Christianity far better today than the hip hop American church and the European church which is a lot of fluffy rubbish.

The map shows the African colonial pie divided up after the rush ended. Most of the European powers were content with the spoils of their efforts, and they all got down to the business of trying to justify the cost, in cash and lives, to acquire it.

Meanwhile, Germany was on the move also. They showed up in what is now south Tanganyika (Tanzania today) on the coast. They then took Dar-Es-Salaam virtually across narrow straits from the island of Zanzibar which the British had locked into their "sphere of influence" by taking charge of the Arab Sultan of Zanzibar and civilizing him. This was a very touchy moment, and England and Germany were close to firing shots over the German intrusion. Germany then began developing trade with the interior of Tanganyika. By the 1800s Germany was into a program to build rail service from the coast to Lake Tanganyika where David Livingston had based his work of exploration while abandoning his wife in England.

England saw the German strategy, and England panicked. Many breathless speeches of terror and suspense were made in Parliament by MPs who knew about as much about Africa as they knew about the South Pole. The Hun was on the move again.

Intelligence in England reported that Germany intended to go around the west side of Lake Victoria and take Uganda. Meanwhile, England totally controlled the ruler in Egypt, Mohammed Ali, and together they ruled up the Nile River to south Sudan by financing Mohammed Ali's extravagant glory. Beyond that, no single European nation had a presence in the lake areas of central Africa other than a German doctor, Eduard Schnitzer. He was commissioned by the Egyptian ruler, Mohammed Ali, in about 1875 to govern Equatoria between Sudan and Lake Victoria as a private venture not exactly under British authority. He was a kind hearted man who loved the people and even joined them in battle to defend their territory.

He was also called Emin Pasha by the local Muslims, and he made a token conversion to Islam. Both Germany and England felt they could take charge of Emin Pasha because he was German, after all, but he was also working for the Egyptian government which was being ruled by British influence.

So, the British colonial office began to panic. If Germany put a rail line through all the way to Uganda, they could then surround the British territory, now Kenya, that is, if they could convince Emin Pasha to throw in with their German enterprise. The Germans even sent a delegation in from Somalia to make contact with Emin Pasha and recruit him for the Fatherland. It never reached him, but the gesture frightened the British. Thus, the idea was hatched-- build a railroad from Mombasa to Kampala, Uganda. The colonial office pushed the idea based on two things, stop the Germans from taking central Africa, and convert the Baganda tribe and the King of Uganda to Christianity once and for all with the help of the Church Missionary Society missionaries.

The king of Uganda, Mutesa, was surrounded by Catholic priests, Church if England missionaries, and Muslim traders. It was thought that King Mutesa would convert on the spot to whomever bid the highest in guns and ammunition. He was also fond of navigational instruments made of glass and brass. With the grand appearance of a solid British presence, in the form of a large corrugated building with white washed rocks along the pathway, King Mutesa might become a Christian and not backslide again to Rome or Mecca. Mutesa had a terrible time making up his mind, and as British missionaries reasoned with him, he would be fondling the private parts of young naked pages standing around his throne. The Church of England was asking for a really serious work of Christian grace to convert Mutesa once and for all. The British convinced King Mutesa eventually that with the guns he must accept schools. The end of the story is that the Christian Church in Uganda is possibly the strongest in the world as to its effect on life in Uganda. Uganda is one of the only nations in the world with laws against sodomy. Quite a reverse actually.

The possibility of Uganda becoming a Christian island of British theology was preached loudly in Parliament. Also, the colonial office produced alleged evidence to skeptical MPs that Uganda was a virtual paradise and had great potential as a food producing source for the Empire. That turned out to be true later, but up front it was based on nothing but invention.

Parliament balked and balked, but the Colonial Office prevailed in its panic party, painting visions of Germany eating all the pie, and finally they managed to stampede Parliament into approving the cost of the building of a railroad from Mombasa to Uganda. The whole thing got off to a rather flamboyant start with plenty of careful planning to cross a semi-desert region near the Kenya coast, and then on through to the Kenya Highlands. The Masai tribe would be certain to disrupt the work, so some local diplomacy was arranged, partly using Maxim guns which misfired terribly, but the revolving multi-barreled machine gun terrified people. Also, copper wire was used to both pretty up the Masaii ladies, and to convince the Masaii warriors to simply ask for the wire instead of cutting down the telegraph wires for the railway.

Thousands of Indians from India were recruited to go to Kenya and work on the rail right of way. Experienced British engineers from India were assigned to the work. Much pain and sorrow came to these men, especially when man eating lions near Tsavo started killing and eating workers about every other night for weeks. You should find a copy of Man Eaters of Tsavo. There is no other story quite like it for suspense and melodrama.

A railhead work camp was set up at Nairobi, "the place of water" in the Masai language. It was either fiercely dusty or muddy, depending on the time of year, but it thrived and became a city of corrugated metal boxes over night. The right of way was then extended up the escarpment of the Rift Valley and was a nightmare of engineering. Tunnels were ruled out because the British Government was concerned that they could be bombed in the event of war. So, extremely deep cuts were dug through high ridges and the dirt poured into the ravines just following as huge fills. All of this was done with "karai" pans about 2.5 feet across and then carried on the heads of the African and Indian workers. Everything was done by hand work. The grade is one of the steepest in the world, and engines had to be made that could develop exceptional traction. The Garrett articulated was the choice. More on this later.

The girl at the left has a karai on her head. Before the automobile came along the karai was the utility truck of Africa.

The first right of way ran along from Nairobi for forty miles until it reached Kijabe where my wife and I went to school at Rift Valley Academy. The school, of course, did not exist until much later. Right after this point was reached by the work crews, a section of the Rift Valley escarpment was so steep that the engineers could not find a way to descend to the floor of the Rift Valley. So, they ended the line there, and a winching arrangement was made (see photo) whereby the train was disassembled and the cars (bogies) were winched down a steep slope to a lower level and the train reassembled and an engine connected. By our time in school there they had rerouted the line without interruptions.

Right after the Uganda Railway was finished the opposition in the British Parliament started mocking at it because it served no use. There had been a conference in which the royal cousins, Queen Victoria and the Kaiser of Germany, drew lines on a map of East Africa and formally divided the pie and called off the contest for more pie. The Germans backed off and totally abandoned their aspirations to conquer central Africa. So, the Uganda Railway was nicknamed "The Lunatic Express." The dream of using Eduard Schnitzer to grab Equtoria and the headwaters of the Nile ended when he fell off of a balcony (cough) on the way back to England against his will.

The Colonial Office was encouraged by the Prime Minister to try to come up with some legitimate use of the railway other than hauling local corn crops to market. They came up with the idea that British folks might be enticed to visit East Africa if they thought of the rail line as a tourist destination. Thus, the poster you see at the right. This was not a joke. They were desperate to see tourists come and ride. They did eventually, but many years later. The poster, as absurd as it is now, was very serious in trying to sell Englishmen on the idea of visiting East Africa and even settling there.

The above photo is of President Theodore Roosevelt riding on the engine so he could stop the train and shoot game with the Governor of Kenya at the beginning of his visit to Kenya in 1909.

The British press also spent a lot of time lampooning the British colonial officers. The assumption was that they were the same pompous sort who had reigned supreme in the model of the British Raj for many years in India, and there was some truth to the accusation. The illustration at the left was from Vanity Fair and is of a colonial official.

In 1909 President Teddy Roosevelt needed something to take his mind off of losing the third term election bid in his Bull Moose Party attempt, so he went off to Kenya to shoot hundreds of animals and send them preserved to the Smithsonian Institute. When he arrived in Mombasa he boarded the train and headed for Nairobi. The Governor General of Kenya met him half way, and they both climbed onto the front of the train engine and rode along looking for game to shoot. Roosevelt the Rough Rider was a great hit with British White settlers in Kenya after he told them they reminded him of his ranching friends in Arizona. Before he left to return to the USA Roosevelt laid the corner stone of Rift Valley Academy, the school my wife and I attended growing up.

Well, time passed, the railway became central to Kenya's and Uganda's development, and it was not many years before it was carrying millions of Shillings worth of coffee and tea from Uganda to the world. It had also finally become a very popular tourist attraction. The formal pampering of the White man by himself, which was made famous in India, found its way to Africa, and a trip on the Uganda Railway, and on the steamers on Lake Victoria, was an experience of some real luxury in the heart of Africa.

Enter yours truly: I arrived in Kenya at age 11 in 1954. The ship we took from New York City docked in Mombasa, and my parents took me inland on the train. The name of the railway had been changed from the Uganda Railway to East African Railways and Harbours, and it then also included the lake steamer service on Lake Victoria. I learned later that I would travel that railway from my school to Lake Victoria, and then board the lake steamer to travel two days to my parents mission station in Tanganyika (Tanzania)-- making three round trips a year.

And now, we come to the rest of the story in which we talk at random about all the things we missionary kids experienced on those trips back and forth.

This is the magnificent Garret 59 engine, the work horse of many British Empire nations. Its wheel arrangement is a busy 4-8-2 by 2-8-4. See also the engine at the top of this page. The engine was double articulated, meaning the engine virtually hung between the water tender running first, and the coal (oil later) tender running last. This engine, while having exceptional traction, could also negotiate very steep grades and very sharp curves. The livery colors made the engines look quite royal with maroon with gold trim. Mount Kilimanjaro is in the background. Over my years in Rift Valley Academy I logged nearly 17,000 miles riding behind a Garret engine. As you might guess, I am a steam fan to this day.



These two videos have little to do with the flow of my story about the railways and my school days.
But, my readers must be shown what horrors the whole world is causing in Africa in a new pie eating contest.



Americans who watch this video will weep for Africa if they are God fearing people.