Nairobi-Mombasa on a Scary Train

Arriving at the old Nairobi station.
Arriving at the old Nairobi station.

Dangerous Strangers on a Kenya-Bound Train

By Luke Maguire Armstrong

Our rail car tumbled through lands now hidden by the setting sun.

To my right, a baby fondled his sleeping mother; two snack vendors sat across from each other, pulling at their pant legs to examine their knees; a boy in a tie walked past selling soft drinks, eager to profit from our thirst.

The overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa is considered one of the greatest rail experiences left on the modernizing continent’s dwindling tracks.

It’s essentially unchanged since the first car left the station in 1901. After traveling through the night, you awake to the African sunrise and if you’re lucky, you’ll sight all sorts of wild game as the train chugs along.

The books and travelogues sing the trip praises from the safely guarded second and first-class cars but stop just short of calling travelers in third class clinically insane.

The four of us—my Kenyan brother Calvin, his cousin Anita, and Steve the other mazungo (foreigner) shared a tusker beer on the train, as we leafed through Steve’s guidebook. “Do not ride in third class,” it warned. “Robberies are frequent and little is being done to curb them.”


We were in the third class car, which was comfortable, enjoyable, but for the warnings that we would likely be robbed. Codswallop, I thought, since I had recently learned the word. But as if on cue, they came an hour after the train pulled out of the station.

Both were baseball caps and faux designer jeans. From the get-go, they belonged in a category of their own—train robbers. They drew my full attention when out of the corner of my eye I saw one of them take a pen from his pocket and clip it on the front of his shirt collar so that all but the cap was hidden behind his shirt.

A Special Bic Pen

This Bic had been upgraded. On the ballpoint side, the razor of a scalpel had been attached. I was sitting across from my three travel companions at the time in order to get a view of Nairobi as the train pulled east.

The vintage 1901 Nairobi-Mombasa train.
The vintage 1901 Nairobi-Mombasa train.

I waved Calvin over reported what I had seen. He questioned whether or not I had actually seen what I thought I had. I did the same.

Was it really a blade on the other end of the pen? It had happened in a flash; maybe it had been something else? Maybe it was just a pen and I was getting all gringo-paranoid over nothing.

The Writing Types?

But the duo didn’t seem like the writing type. I doubted the pen was handy to compose sonnets about butterflies. They pulled their hats down in gangster fashion and what unsettled me most was how aware they were of our presence.

We were mzungus and that meant we constantly attracted the curious attention reserved for foreigners. But this was a different, scheming sort of attention.

Lots of Factors

As my friend Ron from Texas says, this was not my first rodeo. When traveling through shady situations it’s important to notice people noticing you, casing you out. Most muggings are opportunistic. People don’t decide to mug the next person they see.

Lots of factors go into the decision. Does that person have money or valuables? Can I physically overpower them? It also depends on their experience, what weapons they are carrying and how comfortable they are using them.

Since this is Africa, an example of lions stalking water buffalo is an apt metaphor. Though thousands of buffalo might comprise a herd, lions don’t just go for whichever. They are looking for a sure thing, looking for a buffalo to stumble or show some other sign of weakness.

Scary Train to Mombasa

The train ride to Mombasa is not one to leave the camera home for. I also had my iPhone and the duo had seen us all do the touristy dance—hanging out the window with expensive cameras taking pictures and video as we gained speed outside of Nairobi and made our way through the dark countryside.

Every car in the train has an unlocked door that you can open. People hang out with them smoking or gazing. One security guard patrols dozens of cars. Sometimes you’ll find him snoring on an open seat. By the time anyone can cry for help, the criminals have jumped the train and though you’ll have a story to tell, you won’t have any more photos to show from your trip after that point.

The Muzungas and a Kenyan on the train.
The Muzunga and a Kenyan on the train.

Watching Us

The shady duo continued to act in such a way that it was impossible not to assume they planned to rob us. They watched us with eyes that saw everything. If Anita opened her bag, they glanced.

If Steve went to the bathroom, their heads turned. If I changed seats, they looked up from the cell phones they hid behind and took note of it.

Because there always is, there’s a chance that their behavior stemmed from some other cause. But we’d have been morons to go with an interpretation other than the obvious Occam’s Razor one.

Without them seeing (which wasn’t easy since they were watching my every move,” I shifted most of the cash I carried deep into one of the money belt pockets of my pick-pocket proof pants.

I took a handful of money I could afford to lose and put it in an accessible pocket of the vest I was wearing. I thought about whether I’d rather lose my camera or my iPhone. My G12 would take much better photos of the journey, but when I returned to New York, it wouldn’t be able to text girls or tell me which subway stop to get off. Such difficult decisions we must make on the railway of life.

Make Yourself Look Badass

I wasn’t planning on letting these guys rob us, but wanted to prepare should it come down to it. I changed seats to join my three companions, whispering to them the situation we were in and a game plan. We needed to follow nature’s 101 playbook: make yourself look as badass and dangerous and possible.

I took out my pocketknife and opened the knife blade. Both the perpetrator’s eyes moved to it and then to each other’s. We had two empty bottles of Tusker beers, which Calvin held in hand threateningly. Then I began talking boisterously, for them to hear, how I was surprised they didn’t find the small pistol I was carrying.

“I can’t believe they let me have a gun onboard! We are going to have fun shooting things on the beach with this in Mombasa,” I reached my hand inside my Scottevest as people do in movies when they’re packing heat.

Telegraphing their Next Move

View of the Kenya scenery passing by on the train.
View of the Kenya scenery passing by on the train.

The most dangerous criminals, and for that matter people in life, are the ones that come at you with no warning. The ones that have mastered the art of masquerading, of hiding their feelings and intentions to the point that they can come across to you any way that want to.

They are invisible until they choose not to. Others, the ones who telegraph their next move like a junior high quarterback, can still be threatening, but they give you time to brace yourself.

Ninety-five percent of the time, your gut knows what it’s rumbling about. I never give it complete credence, because otherwise 5% of the time I end up misjudging people and situations.

But when it comes to getting mugged at knifepoint, throw that five percent out the window and go with your gut.

I’ll never know if we had done nothing if we would have been robbed. But I know that my suspicion seemed plausible to the three others and together we executed a plan that we hoped would keep us safe. It either did, or there was no danger in the first place.

A few stops after our talk of guns and my flashing of a knife, the baseball-capped duo disembarked the train, leaving into the dark Kenyan night and we breathed relief and found comfortable positions to get some sleep for what was to be a marathon visit to Mombasa.

Luke Armstrong, left.
Luke Armstrong spent three months in Kenya with his adopted brothers while covering political elections there. Read his blog.

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