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Along the Way

James Maxwell

Africa, the Great Rift Valley, a selection from:

Eva's Plot

Magadi Train

Sunday we took the Magadi train to Kajiado. Earlier that week David had requested the sporadically used passenger cars hooked onto the business-as-usual soda ash train. How that news got out around the community was a mystery. The last car was already full, and it was 7:30 in the morning. The conductor, a man about nineteen, wore a uniform of starched black cotton. He doubled as ticket-taker and trouble-shooter – trouble-shooter if someone neglected to purchase a ticket. A sweaty look of surprise seemed permanently painted on his boyish face. I felt immediate kinship. The last passenger car on the train was filled with Maasai and the CEO of the company with family and friend had just boarded. (David, Eva, six year old Paul and me.)

The passenger cars were a time capsule of the 1920s: straight-backed bench seats, sturdy windows that pulled up to open or pushed down to close, and would catch, held fast with worn steel pins that springs once made easy. Peeling paint scratched away by bored travelers, bare yellow light bulbs stood out where light fixtures were missing – the car was very clean, old and used. We gave the young conductor our tickets; he directed us to seats safely away from the sun. Eva and David faced toward the end of the train. They could see the parade of faces and watch the landscape. Paul and his plush kangaroo sat a few rows back next to the window facing his parents; I sat next to him on the aisle. Our mostly-empty car was closest to the cars forward. Another passenger car separated us from the buzzing conversations of the Maasai.

On the other side of the plant’s gate, the train stopped to let on more passengers, all Maasai. The central car was soon filled with brilliantly dressed, bejeweled, and beaded women with their baskets full of goods. Intense red-and-blue shúkàs draped casually over the women’s bare shoulders. A charcoal-black young man in a pink short shúkà, his spears upright, made himself comfortable on the hard bench. Lone men settled into their seats, then their eyes darted around wanting to know everything, revealing nothing. Animated adolescent boys hung together, their play was rowdy, acquisitive. Their little shúkàs were clean, but in tatters. These newer passengers mixed with those already on the train. Was there a destination or were they going for a ride? They were all dressed for Sunday – so, visit the relatives, put on your good clothes and spend a day away from the usual, on a train, in the country, but there was something different with this outing – there were four interesting white folks in the front car.

The train left the valley floor, climbing the steep cliff overlooking the lake. The narrow-gauge train would regularly be pulling fourteen tanker cars filled with soda ash destined for Mombasa on the coast. The three passenger cars tacked to the end would stop at Kajiado and return to Magadi with empty tankers. The narrow-gauge cars were equipped with standard gauge wheels that fit above the narrow ones. These wheels were lowered to engage the wider tracks at the junction of the Magadi and Mombasa lines. The train made its four-hundred-mile trip to the port at Mombasa to ship soda ash to India and southeast Asia.

David had arranged for us to have lunch at Kajiado and until then we could enjoy the ride while he continued his duties inspecting the company train’s service. David had to check one dicey spot on the train tracks halfway up the valley’s wall. The only bridge on our route was considered for refitting. The ballast that held the bridge’s footings secure had to be filled often with gravel that mysteriously disappeared. Previously, David had ordered a survey of the area and determined that baboons were the cause. The bridge spanned less than one hundred feet and the grade was significant over the deep canyon – a dangerous hurdle, costly to replace. Warring baboon tribes, each positioned on opposing sides, used a good portion of the ballast rock to throw at each other across the ravine, putting the stability of the bridge in question. David’s solution was to house the ballast under chain link fencing. We would be able to see the footings and assess if they were full and protected as we passed. We would all lean out the window and give David a report of what we saw, even though before our departure, a maintenance train relayed that his plan proved successful.

The wind in my face felt cool as we crossed the bridge. The engine gave a little whistle. The valley stretched out into the morning’s yellow haze, the lake shockingly sky blue with no indication of the rusty algae at the edge of its shore. On the other side of the bridge I didn’t see any baboons, but I did see the steel fencing surrounding the piers that held the ballast in place. David smiled.

Passing the rim of the valley, the landscape became fertile. The other passengers became animated when the train slowed approaching a village. People stood next to the train tracks as the train came to a halt, some were impressed enough to step back. A bare patch of earth separated the tracks from an incline where paths led up to the village. A stand of shade trees hid a sizable community. Mostly women met the train. Older children and a few men stood back quietly waiting. A few of our passengers exited. One thin woman was met at the bottom of the landing by a chunky woman’s high-pitched greeting. The two women did not budge during their intense meeting; other passengers had to squeeze past them. They moved directly under my window to continue their visit. They jabbered back and forth. Ringed with swinging bracelets, their arms animated their conversation; their heads bobbed with understanding, their ears swung with their movements. Compliments were exchanged about their clothes, their jewelry, all this in Swahili – two girlfriends catching up. I understood everything that mattered.

Our car filled with those villagers. One older woman sat across from Paul and me. She was bedecked with many neck rings, her ears pierced and decorated with dangling ornamentation. Her shúkà was an exquisite rose-colored print that must have been from India. She was such a vision of Maasai style that Eva, so impressed, asked Paul to sit with his father so she could get closer to this woman. The woman didn’t speak much English. We learned she was on her way to her daughter’s marriage ceremony. I mentioned how much I admired her necklaces. She had brought presents for her new family and proudly showed us beadwork on neck rings for the bride. We complimented her on the beautiful designs, her craftsmanship, her use of English. She never smiled at our attention. Eva invited Paul back meet this woman. We visited, spoke mainly of people in our families. Impressed with her beauty, Eva asked the woman if she could photograph her. The woman sat for her, unsmiling; the picture showed her expressionless. When Eva put the camera away, the woman moved to another seat on the other side of the train and looked out the window.

The train rattled along. Searing sun dispelled the morning chill. All the windows were open. There was the scent of vegetation in the air. A boy pointed out a giraffe running alongside and away from the train, followed by another. A clearing appeared between the train and an outcropping of apartment building-sized boulders, sun bleached on the surfaces, black at their bases. A herd of cattle grazed, unruffled by our passage. I didn’t see the herder. The train followed a shallow riverbed, hugged the shadowy edge of a low ridge, huffed up over it and slid down into wide shrub-covered plain.

Meeting up with the distant hills, we slowed down when manyattas appeared through shrub trees. Families tending gardens stood erect to wave at the train. Before we pulled to a stop at this village, the train had spooked a herd of goats. They had been grazing on the tracks unattended as we approached. Next to the tracks was a steep embankment; little goats, all quite young, scampered up the side. Like little children crawling, their back legs frantically pushed at the ground to escape. I understood for the first time why baby goats are called kids.

This village didn’t have a train platform, but alongside the track people had planted a row of white hibiscus. They were in bloom against the darker trees, their scent mixing with hot dust. The large white blossoms reflected the glare of the sun. As the train began to move again I could see village life through the flowering bushes. As we slowly moved past, I saw a slender young woman in a stark white shúkà saunter – as some women do when quietly lost in thought – between the flickering shadow-marked path. Moving through the cool of the dark and warm light, only the bracelets on her long dark arms brought out any details of color. She balanced a basket effortlessly on her shaved head. Her long strides were languorous, lost to time. A three-year-old solemnly followed her, kicking up dust.

Moving through the middle of the drought-ridden bush with nothing around save for wildlife, the train slowed to stop. Our conductor leaned out the window to see what was up ahead. I imagined the rustling in the passengers’ conversation was about not having a breeze coming through to cool the cars. The conductor climbed down off the train car, and walked toward the engine. A bit later he returned with an older man. The conductor entered first then stood back respectfully as the fiftyish barefoot Maasai climbed aboard. His spears looked used. What kind of man is it that can stop a moving train?

Questions arose from the passengers followed quickly by silence and audible intakes of breath. The conductor offered the man a seat that was behind me, but the man chose to sit on a bench facing the rear of the train with his back to the soda ash cars, across the aisle from David and Eva. He was skinny and strong with skin like black parchment. Teeth were missing. On a once- shaved head there now appeared a half-inch of peppery gray growth. The cloth of his short shúkà must have been dyed with blood to blend into the red-ochre rocky landscape. He was the most native native I had ever seen. I grasped by how the other Maasai in the car looked or didn’t look at him that this man was important. He must be a warrior’s warrior, definitely a hero, to have lived as long as he had and be in one piece. He was venerable, that was clear. The other side of my internal argument was the possibility that he was dangerous. He did personify the image of “Mr. Slim,” the African specter mentioned in the buzz of everyday conversation – the bringer of AIDS.  He was alone, sitting down, not throwing spears. I gave him space.

As the train resumed its rattling speed I recalled last night’s conversation. Eva and I had dinner again in the Managers Club; two Kenyan businessmen joined us at our table. One was well over seventy and his partner was most likely his assistant. Over dessert, our conversation turned somber when I asked the older man about his understanding regarding sex education in schools as AIDS was a topic not to be overlooked. The young man turned silent, the older man’s shoulders slumped. “We don’t talk about that at home. There is no sex education except what the children hear from one another. I don’t think we know how to do that. We are quite a modest people. What is different now is the warnings we give our children. ‘Be very careful around anyone that appears very skinny. Don’t get too close – you can get a bad thing from Mr. Slim.’ ”

The breeze had returned and the car’s familiar rhythm sliding over the tracks eased my mind. I stretched my back, then realized Paul was missing. He wasn’t with Eva and David. He was inches away from the old warrior. My adrenalin kicked in, David was resting and Eva was watching Paul out of the corner of her eye.

Schoolboy curious, balancing to keep upright while standing in the aisle at the old Maasai’s knee, Paul had introduced his kangaroo toy to the warrior. The man had taken the plaything, crossed his legs, straddled it on the top of his foot and, holding the paws of the toy with both hands, the man rocked the toy up and down to the rhythm of the rails.

When the train finally stopped at Kajiado there was a flurry of passengers, color and activity. The passengers dispersed, appeared to melt into the shadows of the trees that surrounded the train station. We saw Charles standing next to the white SUV; we watched the train wheels being lowered and locked into place to connect with the tracks to Mombasa. On a sidetrack, empty tank cars were waiting to return to Magadi, our passenger cars would follow them. We would arrive home before the train did.

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