I do not much like to take up the tone of a moralist or an advisor or I’m I in the habit of tagging alongside my work my own personal challenges but a principle of mine also is living one’s truth. The Tsavo Express, as the previous collaborations we’ve partnered together in with the good bros Pekat — or any other creative work thereof, started out as a tiny seed idea nothing more than a few images on a train and some text to back up the story but slowly and surely evolved into a fully fledged project. We are not like the most funded start ups (we’re far from that) or anything like that, and we are limited in most cases in terms of how far we can go with our ideas due to the amount of resources we have access to but we try to make the most of what we have, and honestly we are doing a lot with what we have and therefore we feel a certain way every time, such as in a project like this one, where we may want to take it a step further in terms of our idea and the execution of it and packaging but we can only do as much.
At the same time we are very much aware of our work and our artistic sensibilities and we would never compromise on the quality of our work for any given reason and so as we may wish for a certain type of production and packaging and what not, we are committed to, and contented with sharing with you guys what we have in our now. Perhaps in the future when God bestows us abundance of life and blessings, we shall be able and happy to gift you our ideas just like the way they are at the altitude they fly on, meanwhile we will live a day at a time. We are incredibly thankful to our team, and anyone who helped in the production of our visual The Tsavo Express from the technical personnel to anyone who offered a kind word. Many thanks!
Anyone who has followed our collaborative work knows our fixation on history and how it relates to the time we live in. The Man Eaters story was one that we immediately fell in love with when we began the conversation; partly because of its cultural significance as seen through its contribution to history but mostly because we felt there was almost a singular narrative that had been forced down on us since and before the two lions roamed in the Tsavo and brutally killed a hundred plus railway personnel in 1898 before they were gunned downed by colonel Patterson.
Whilst the original setting of the Tsavo lion man eaters story as contained in col. Patterson’s book “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo”, and subsequent stories that have emerged from Patterson’s account may be the most accurate formal documentation of that historical event, one raises a few questions upon reading the book; “Was killing the lions, in the manner Patterson did, the best approach, given his interest as a hunter in “wild Africa”? “What was the cultural state of indigenous African communities who had been living with the lions long before any civilization had started to trickle in? As there is virtually no elaborate record of any African story”, “As being Kenyan and living in this internet age, what does the whole story mean to us? Why should we care?” These questions and many more led us to make The Tsavo Express.
The Tsavo Express is, more than any other reason, our curiosity packaged into 4 images that try to introduce a different outlook on the whole story in its entirety. We tell the story of an old African man named Suri, who grew up during the construction of the Kenya — Uganda railway of 1896–1901, and who had previously worked as an art collector; who gets an only chance to travel back in time to his young self and change what he deems needing of change. What will he do? Will he save the lions from the deadly hands of col. Patterson? Will he be able to rescue his father from being killed by the lions? Will he change a history? Will he change his future?
“A new perspective” can feel like a throwaway buzzword when most creatives or artists are busy trying to tick every box and cater to a “woke” public but when the essence of the term comes at you in a genuine heartfelt way, you think about the real impact on just a story that could take place further down the line when this generation or any other becomes “agents of change” and as a result make a valuable contribution to not only just stories, but culture and history.
More often than not, whether it’s in history class or a communal conversation, stories from our past are given to us in a particular format that could sometimes only address surface level interests or even could dangerously have been weaved to place people in a certain mental space; thankfully, in the age of information that we live in, its new perspectives such as The Tsavo Express that spark actual conversations. Suri is an ordinary man with goals and misgivings like any other ordinary man, who is gifted a onetime chance to travel back to his childhood and use his time the best way he sees fit. There is wishing for a chance to turn back the clock, there is hoping for a chance to rectify your past. Suri gets that chance!
I think the primary goal for The Tsavo Express is to show that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary/ heroic acts and that knowledge always more than often forms the basis of actual change.
He wakes up at 11.35 p.m., much earlier than his body would like, but he hasn’t yet adapted to the change in weather that has characterized his small quiet town of Vanga for the past few weeks. Normally the weather on these parts of the Kenyan coast is hot but there is something about this heat that he has experienced in the past two or so weeks that doesn’t feel right. He wants to desperately convince himself to go back to sleep but the grudges from his past that he has been tending to like little pets lately won’t allow that to happen.
Firstly there is this white man who had arrived and tried to fight God and a culture when he — for a reason Suri has never come to understand — chose to leave his perfect world and brave the horrors of the sea and come to a world where he was unwanted by the sky, plants, the insects, humans, animals, and all of God’s soldiers; and for all Suri knows and believes, is that he would have lived to see his father grow old and share with him this wisdom of old age that had come at him at a painful frequency, had the white man stayed at his God-given home.
How can a man be so foolish? He thought. This mind is not taught in school or by pen, in fact, the more he thinks about it, this is a matter of looking, seeing with your eyes! Just eyes; how God gave him signs in the sea by sending storms at his boat that wrecked his vessel and threw his compass off the course, and if that wasn’t enough, he sent on him mosquitoes upon his lucky arrival and tormented him with a host who wished death upon him in his heart while wearing a fake smile on his face when he forced his welcome, and certainly of all torments none is painful and permanent as someone showing you false teeth.
As if all that wasn’t enough, God, in specific and bold terms, sent on him two lions that, in the most vivid and practical of ways, reminded him of his unwelcomed stay and publicly asked him to pack his bags and go back to his earth. Suri was fully aware, as all these memories rapidly came at him, that it was a build up to his second feeling, which was the unfair, and truly unfair by any acceptable standards at the time, death of his father or more specifically speaking, the killing of his father by one of the, what has now come to be known in history as, Man Eaters of Tsavo.
On the night of, his father was coming back home from a quick errand, in his capacity as a member of the department of the village’s elder’s council that handled marriage and dowry affairs — him and his mother joked about this and asked how a man with one wife and an only son would be able to speak about marriage and dowry in front of real men with multiple wives and tens of children, and he laughed silently. This was a joke he had been laughing at for eighty five years and was fond of it. That was an African joke for those days, he thought, Africans have the most peculiar sense of humor. He remembered the context in which the joke had presented itself and suddenly felt silly and unkind for having laughed at the thought of his father’s death, but having committed the crime, he squared his conscious thinking how good a woman his mother was and continued laughing.
On that particular day, the meeting had unusually gone on for longer than expected; anyhow, what was not unusual was the route he had taken heading back home and the timing of it. This was a path, he and his ancestors had walked lifetimes before him and certainly that wasn’t an unusual timing for a man of his status and experience to walk around. And so when he met his death at the hands of one of the Man Eaters, this was not only strange among his people, but further cemented the idea that white man’s presence and existence in itself was a curse from God, and now this cursed man had inflicted his curse on their land by default- merely by his walking their paths and laying foot on their soil.
A curse? Yes, a curse, that’s the most accurate word, Suri, as though he was trying to secure a perimeter for his hateful thoughts and exercise the usage of the most appropriate hateful grammar, paused. Up to this point, he hadn’t moved an inch from his initial position neither had he blinked like an archer wouldn’t when he has his eyes on his target, dreading moving or blinking will steal all his hard work. He only blinked to have a brief muted laugh and catch a breath at the recollection of his favorite joke between him and his mother because everything deserves a rest, even thoughts. Now, as he clearly saw his next thought, he felt the need to move because this was an important stage of his thoughts and it needed to be assigned its importance as a matter of principle, and a slight change in position would do just the trick; and so he rolled over to his right side of his body with his hand carefully placed under his head to provide just the right amount of comfort to cool down the intensity of this next thought.
Africans, he thought, had lived peacefully with lions for many years. Occasionally, there would be a few bad seeds, just like in any other species of living organism, that would kill a human and accordingly, in return, the community would assemble and find a solution for this misbehavior because that’s the only proper way to treat a neighbor who has lost his ways. Also from time to time, they would hunt down lions in their ritual ceremonies and that would keep their population in check but it was a question of disciple more than any other reason; because the mind meant man superior and lions needed to be reminded of that fact periodically lest they forget. Outside those special circumstances, man and lion lived harmoniously. Lions were respected and admired for their courage, intelligence, bravery and beauty but -and only -disliked when they preyed on livestock and lions were reasonable and principled and only killed for food; the elephants and hyenas fell into the despicable category.
As a matter of fact, a story was told of a mama who had left her husband’s boma for her father’s home. She had been walking for three days. She was tired and hungry and stopped to pray. She prayed to God that she arrive safely. The woman was carrying a young child and had become so weak that she could barely walk. She saw a lion in the distance, was startled, and sat down and cried. The lion just sat and watched the mama. Then the lion killed a young gazelle, walked towards the mama, dropped the gazelle in front of her and walked away. The lion did not go far but sat at a distance and watched as she ate the gazelle. Another lion came to take the gazelle and the original lion pushed the intruder out of the way so that the mama could continue eating. The woman kept walking and came across the footprints of a group of men. She followed the footprints and a man came out of the woods and saw her. She asked for water, which he brought her and she bathed her child. The man told the woman that she should wait and he would bring her some meat. The lion was watching all of this and came to sit with the mama. When the man saw the lion he wanted to kill it but she said, “No, do not kill it, it was sent by God!” So the man left the lion alone and helped the mama find her way to her father’s boma and the lion went home. And so the news of the killing of his father by a lion, and particularly one of the man eaters could only be interpreted in one way; that the curse of the white man had stolen his father from him. This thought ramped up his resentment for the white man a few notches higher.
Suri and the rest of the villagers had received the death of his father with great sadness, and the story was kept that he met his death as he was passing nearby a sleeping camp that belonged to the Indian coolies whose tents had been erected in close proximity to railway construction sites for convenience purposes and whose fragility made it easier for the man eaters to sneak in and grab a coolie or two with the least effort. It was said that on this day, after the railway company had put in some security measures to keep away the lions, one of the lions had unsuccessfully attempted to obtain his favorite meal and that’s when, in a moment of desperation, an unsuspecting Suri’s father fell in the sight of a hungry lion. At first, Suri, and any reasonable person, thought the death of his father an accident and attributed it to the lion but Suri was smarter than that, learned — by disposition, not by education -and he wouldn’t buy into a lie; this was the doing of the white man’s curse. In another show of respect and according important thoughts their importance, Suri got up from his bed rather quickly for someone his age, and sat on his favorite chair and only chair which always laid awaiting for him just a few steps from where his bed was.
As he got to his seat, he felt himself a different man, utterly unlike what he had been before while laying on the bed. He suddenly felt free and gleefully youthful. It seems as though he had left all the hateful sadness on the bed because, although he was still sad, it didn’t feel like quick sand wherein he was slowly drowning, like before; now the sadness stemmed from a place of positivity. He wanted to go back. To go back and change things, do things differently. Indeed, perhaps after all, the bed is a dangerous place from where to view the world. And so he wished to the heavens, above all other wishes, to grant him a chance to see his father one last time. Perhaps to warn him not to attend the meeting, or to simply hug him or, more radically — having learned his ways –to join the soldiers of God and get rid of the white man and his curse from their land; or, in the event all his aforementioned options are rendered futile, to politely remind and warn the lions of the human mind and its capability to reign havoc, and thus save everyone.
He looked at a broken piece of wood hanging on his door that appeared to remind him of his weakness as human and he prayed, silently — without uttering a word or moving his lips, but surely, asked God Almighty from his strength, which holds the seven heavens above without a pillar and from his knowledge, which sees the black ant on a dark hill in the darkest of nights and from his love, which surpasses all love, to grant him his wish…
The Train Station: Suri Mwanza meets little Suri
“What, for you, is the meaning of life?” a young boy’s voice asks. Suri, who has been standing rooted on the same spot for a long while and whose mind is busy trying to figure out where he is, has heard the words but hasn’t heard the question. He is not exactly sure whether it’s because he has found himself in a place he doesn’t recognize or it’s the suit he has found himself inside of or that he knows his prayer has been answered and wish granted by the warmth and newness he feels in his heart or it’s because of the fear that seizes one’s soul when you answer that question… “Sir!” the young voice interrupts. This time around Suri has clearly heard the young boy but his mind and eyes are still busy looking around for clues. “I suppose you can’t expect much spirit from a man with diabetes and a dead wife.”
This statement strikes him as thunder would strike a tree in an open field. His conscious crawls back to his skin and his heart appears to start pumping again just now. He looks down at the boy and doesn’t understand where all the affection for this little stranger he had just met was coming from, and in an act of politeness, bends down to him like a nurse speaking to a child and with a false smile says, “I’m sorry young man, I’m sure I do not know to what you are referring to.” The boy, looking straight into his eyes as if he could read his secret thoughts, smiles and slowly looks away. There is a brief awkward pause. “You know, you deserve the truth. But sadly, unfortunately the way you adults function, if a truth is presented to you by someone in a child’s costume, nobody would believe him.”
At this moment, an awful feeling of danger sweeps over Suri and he suddenly feels silly and undignified. Since his wife died, he hasn’t shed a tear nor has he ever wanted to think about the topic any more than it hurts and consequently, the weight of his wife’s death has been hanging over his head as a dark storm cloud waiting to unleash its wrath. “I am the only one in the world with enough wisdom and gentleness to understand you.” The boy tells Suri, in a soft polite voice which Suri very much, frightfully, recognizes.
A strange feeling of safety takes over him and suddenly his whole soul is filled with memories. There is another long awkward silence and then Suri grudgingly begins to open up. “I fell in love, I’m an ordinary man; I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people…” he is rudely interrupted by the loud chugging of the train. It appears that they had arrived at the station at exactly five and half a minute to spare. Suri, with a feeling of new found purpose takes the young boy’s hand and they make their way to the train.
Aboard the train: private dreams and early childhood passions
They were in great luck to find an empty seat in one of the rear cabins because the train is generally packed on most given days at this hour of the day. Adults are too sane and uncomplicated! See grownups normally want to save their true moments of joy and laughter for later when they are in front of children and they have a few theories to explain themselves: one cannot live without principles, self control etcetera, while children, for their part, argue that the young can do nothing more useful than renounce everything and as this may be strictly correct for both cases -or not, Suri, as he sat next to his companion, did not want to put it an appearance. Because he knew he would be bound to look back at this moment and wish it had lingered on longer. “This now is life, this is happiness,” he thought.
The little boy had serious reason to believe that the planet from which this old man lived was lonely and cold. He thus learned a second fact of great importance; that they needed to finish that earlier conversation and so he inquired from Suri one more time, this time he did not look him in the eyes so as not to scare him, “What, for you, is the meaning of life?”
To be continued…
Words by Haji Mutonye, DRESS CREATIVE AGENCY
Casting,Props and style -DRESS CREATIVE AGENCY
Makeup -KANAI BEAUTIES
Video- ROBERT NJOROGE
Video Assistant- Soyenna Milanoi
Video editing -KENNEDY
Music -ETHAN MUZIKI
Hair -KATE RAJORO
Assistants- NICK MITALO, ELOGES KADIMA
Talents- DARWESH HASSAN, KAMUU MUNYASIA.
A collaborative work by DRESS and PEKAT. Originally Published on www.pekatphotography.com/blog/tsavoexpress
~Words by Hajji Mutonye , Dress Creative Agency
~Photography By PEKAT.