Catching the Lost Train of Zanzibar

Zanzibar Island was the first precinct in East and Central African Region to have a train.

Yes, the Indian Ocean archipelago introduced the steam locomotive back in 1879.

It was the first railway in East Africa and third in the African continent behind the Egyptian and South African railways

During that year (1879) Sultan Barghash bin Said ordered the construction a seven-mile railway from his palace at Stone Town to Chukwani.

Initially the railway was served by two Pullman cars that were hauled by mules.

Mulling to replace the mules with steam engine?

Two years later, the Sultan decided to upgrade the technology.

In 1881 the Barghash placed an order for a tank engine from an English locomotive building company.

In 1904 the Zanzibar government signed a contract with the American Firm, Arnold Cheney and Co. to build the famous Bububu railway that connects the Zanzibar Urban Municipality to ‘Mashambani’ or rural area.

In 1905 ‘Arnold Cheyney and Company,’ succeeded in extending the track by constructing another piece of railway.

Arnold Cheney and Co. was the agent for New Zealand of the Colonial Oil Co. formed in New York to supply New Zealand and Australian markets with oil.

Cheyney made the connection from Stone Town via sea-front to the village of Bububu.

Reports has that, the railway was susceptible to series of fire incidences.

All the same, despite causing fire hazards to the properties surrounding countryside into which it cut through, the contraption would run for quarter-a-century, that is twenty-five years, until 1930.

During its days in commission, the Zanzibar train was quite popular and largely served the local communities.

Actually the village of ‘Bububu’ acquired its name from the locals who used to refer the train as ‘Bu-Bu-Bu,’ imitating the chugging sound coming from the steam engine.

The railway line crisscrossed some parts of the town streets, causing interest among residents.

The railway would also play an important role of aiding the general electrification of the island.

Zanzibar had electric powered street lights long before London City acquired the technology.

The Government took total control of the railways system in 1911.

Ten years later, the passenger service stopped, essentially in 1922. Apparently increased and improved roads network opened up new and alternative modes of transport.

People would be moved on faster machines such as motor vehicles and cycles, later introduced onto the Island.

Zanzibar Railroads

The upgrading of the Zanzibar Port required heavy shifting of materials including rocks and gravel and the train was converted into construction site wagon.

After the work was done, the train was retired from service in 1930.

But the Bu-bu-bu area exists to date and can be reached by public transport from Zanzibar’s stone town.

Lucas Ben