When you think the railway you think of something old. A relic that belongs to a museum and whose time is past in this age of smartphones and driverless cars.
Tayiana Chao is a stunning contrast to that thought.
Tall, slim, with long dreadlocks, afro jewellery and an infectious laugh she would pass for a uni student who moonlights as an model.
I met her in in a gallery but rather than her being the subject it is her photographs that are under the limelight.
Still in her early 20s, this retired computer scientist has a story to tell and she has already written her first chapter – Save the Railway.
Save the Railway is an exhibition that is ongoing at the ShiftEye gallery.
It is the fruit of Chao’s 3 years labour of love.
Chao was picked to go to JKUAT and study Computer Science but instead of Juja she was sent to the Voi campus. Her first instinct was to say no but as a history buff and introvert, Voi won her over.
Being away from the city was heavenly and in her weekend exploring she stumbled on the Voi Railway station.
The picture of the Voi Railway station is stunning. A house built with red bricks, with a tree on the side and with the horizon endless. It stands bang in the middle of the exhibition taking pride of place as her first love in this project.
Chao puts it brilliantly “…it takes you to a different time…the station exactly as it was..not in the present time..grand… antique..
With that a dream was born. To tell the story of the railway. Not as an item in the history books but rather as a living being.
Everyone knows about the railway start in Mombasa and end in Kisumu but what of its impact? Basically, what did the railway do for Kenya and Kenyans?
Through her journey across Kenya searching for and photographing railway stations Chao learnt just how much the railway was part and parcel of people’s lives.
It was not history for the people who lived next to the railway but rather a living breathing thing.
She felt the emotional aspect of the Railway. The lives touched, the grievances, the poverty, the lingering hope. And she learnt that the Railway mattered. Life for many Kenyans revolved around the railway and you can not put a value on the Railway’s importance.
Chao’s journey is curated in the Save the Railway exhibition that runs from the 19th of August to the 2nd of September at the ShiftEye Gallery at the Priory building on Arwings Kodhek Road.
What started as a hobby has taken a life of its own.
“..someone come all the way from India to see this! I felt so honoured…” gushes Chao.
She graduated as a computer scientist but she has taken time off being a programmer to think of the way forward.
She wishes to write a book on her experience chasing down Kenya’s forgotten train stations. She also wishes to complete taking photographs of the off-road train stations.
But that is just the second chapter of her book.
Computing for heritage is where her book will anchor next. As a techie Chao wishes to do culture tech and believes that restoration of history through tech is the way to go. Chao envisions a day when Gedi ruins will be mapped and one will be able to relive the 13th century.
With Kenya in the middle of the SGR hype, I had to ask if she has plans to photograph the current history being made.
“..why did the old railway fail? Even as we do SGR let us ask ourselves that. Development is great but we need to learn from our past..” was the deep response.
Chatting with Chao feels like taking a walk down memory lane as well as how the history looks at the present.
What made her achievement even more amazing that is that this was mostly a solo-project with Kenya Railways chipping by providing permission and transport for the first phase of the project.
The bodies you would expect to be involved the National Museum, Brand Kenya and even the government ministries were not.
Now to the twist to this tale of Kenya’s railway.
Hilary Ng’weno is Kenya’s best known historian. A nuclear physicist turned journalist turned historian Ng’weno has curated much of Kenya’s history. Makers of a nation anyone?
The movie which is in the funding stage will look at life in African railway quarters in the early 1920s-60s.
How the railway as one of the biggest employers in the colonial time impacted in the urbanisation, the arts, the politics, the music of Kenya.
Chao is also involved in the movie and when I asked her if she will be an actress, she laughed her infectious laugh and said maybe as an extra.
My gut says that when Kenya’s history in the next 5o years is written, Tayiana Chao will be a name worth noting not least because she will have photographed, written and technologically curated it.
Be sport. Go check out the Save The Railway exhibition.
GOD BLESS KENYA!