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The Lunatic Line

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

The Uganda Railway was a railway system and former British state-owned railway company. The railway linked the interiors of Uganda and Kenya with the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa in Kenya. Built during the scramble for Africa (1881-1914), the Uganda Railway was the one strategic railway to be constructed in tropical Africa during that time.

Nearly all the workers involved in the construction of the line came from British India – consisting mainly of Sikhs from Punjab. This was the first mass migration of people of South Asian descent to Africa, although merchants from India and Pakistan had earlier arrived in Africa as traders. Circa 32,000 laborers were brought to Africa under indentured labor contracts. There was an agent appointed in Karachi, with a separate recruitment branch located in Lahore.

Although most East Africans believe that the people of Indian origin in the region are descendants of the laborers who built the Kenya-Uganda railway, this is not actually the case. Of the 32,000 that initially came over, only about 7,000 decided to stay after their contracts ended.

The railway opened up East Africa for trade, and large numbers of “free” emigrants, both Hindu and Muslim, mainly from Gujarat, followed in the years after the Sikh laborers had left. They set up trading posts deep in the interior and became the traders and merchants of East Africa.

What stories have you heard about South Asians coming to East Africa to build the railroad?

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