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Some Kenyans Say Chinese-built Railroad Leaves Them Out

Emily Katembua poses for a photo outside her farm near the town of Kiu, south of Nairobi, Kenya. (REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Some Kenyans Say Chinese-built Railroad Leaves Them Out
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The sound of insects fills a former train station in the Kenyan town of Kiu, a two-hour drive from Nairobi.

The train station, built during British colonial rule, was closed in 2012. Now, old railroad sleeper cars lie in the grass around the building.

The 6,000 people who live in the area did not lose just their train station eight years ago. They stopped using rail service. They depended on the old train to get to their jobs or the nearest hospital. Traveling by road in this part of eastern Kenya can be slow and costly.

Just 500 meters from the old station, the Chinese built a new rail line. Its high-speed trains pass through Kiu every day, but they do not stop at this forgotten town.

Opened in 2017, the new $3.3 billion railroad is part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. The Chinese have provided support for a series of infrastructure projects, changing trade and transportation between China and the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa.

The new railroad reduced travel times by 50 percent for passengers and products going between Nairobi and the port of Mombasa. The train takes just over four hours to make six stops, but only runs once a day. The old train ran two times a day and made 46 stops.

“This new railway is just for the rich. We do not benefit,” said Thomas Mutevu, who lives in Kiu.

Mutevu added that he used to go to work in Nairobi by train every day. But now the train no longer stops, and it is too far and costly by road. He has stopped going to the capital. Others who took the train daily to Nairobi now live there full-time during the work week and return to Kiu on the weekends, he added.

State-operated Kenya Railways said the new line has increased local travel. People who used to travel by road or airplane now take the new train.

Last year, nearly five million tons of goods were shipped on the new line.

The railroad tracks for the line cut Emily Katembua’s farm in half. Although she was given money for her land, she now struggles to get to the market without the old train.

“The government should put a station here so we can benefit since we are traders who need to travel and sell our produce,” she said.

Vegetable seller Margaret Njeri finds it difficult to visit a doctor without the old train. The nearest hospital is 24 kilometers away, mostly on a dirt road.

Local residents must now pay nearly $5 to get to the hospital by motor-bike or minibus. That is five times the cost of taking the old train line.

“We have to wait on the road many hours for transport because the new railway does not have a stop here,” said Njeri.

The British built the old train line more than 100 years ago. It was often called “the Lunatic Express” because it made so many stops. However, over the years many people came to depend on the train line for everyday transportation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the “One Belt, One Road” initiative in 2013. The plan calls for an inter-connected system of railroads, energy pipelines, road projects and rebuilt border crossings that head west from China. More than 60 countries have signed up for projects or are studying the possibility of starting a project.

China has spent an estimated $200 billion on the initiative. But the projects are not free. They are financed with low-cost loans and often require the use of Chinese companies.

When Sri Lanka asked to refinance its debt for BRI projects, China refused, asking instead for a long term lease on a major port in return for cancelling the debt. In 2018, Pakistan owed China so much money for BRI projects that it had to seek loans from the International Monetary Fund and others to keep up with payments.

I’m Susan Shand.

The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

infrastructure - n. the basic equipment and structures (such as roads and bridges) that are needed for a country, region, or organization to function properly

lunatic - n. an insane person

benefit - n. a good or helpful result or effect

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