RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
More than 100 years after the British built a railway through East Africa, Kenya has built one of its own. This time with a big assist from China. NPR's Eyder Peralta took the scenic inaugural ride last week from the port city of Mombasa to the capital of Nairobi.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Just as the sun rises, passengers begin arriving at the Mombasa terminal station. There's a red carpet, helicopters and Kenyans dressed in suits and dresses.
Consolata Muvea took a bus from a far-away rural town to ride this train. And she is enthralled, all smiles and tickled by the fact that attendance will bring her tea and that there is a toilet on board.
CONSOLATA MUVEA: Just imagine, how? I am always traveling with a bus. And there is not toilet. How can be a toilet here? So (laughter) I'm happy.
PERALTA: Just a few steps away is Peter Asiokomweka. He's marveling at the machine in front of him. The train will take about four hours to get to Nairobi - half the time it takes by road. Asiokomweka says he's sure this train will make Kenya richer. But, really, he says, this is about Kenya breaking from their colonial past and building their own history.
PETER ASIOKOMWEKA: The last history is being overrun by the history of today.
PERALTA: The rail line, however, was financed with more than $3 billion borrowed from the Chinese government. A Chinese company built it. And a Chinese company will operate it for the first five years.
Critics have denounced the project for settling the Kenyan people with debt. And back in 2013, the World Bank decided not to help finance the project because it would have cost about half as much to simply upgrade the rail line left behind by the British.
PERALTA: Indeed, Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, does not mention debt as he boards an inaugural train in Mombasa.
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PRESIDENT UHURU KENYATTA: Today, we celebrate laying one of the key cornerstones to Kenya's transformation to an industrialized, prosperous middle-income country.
PERALTA: I board a separate media train for a journey that the British called the Lunatic Express in part because lions had a habit of eating the men working on the railway.
One of the treats of riding this train is that you pass through Tsavo National Park. It means that you get these amazing vistas of the African bush. They're dotted by majestic baobab trees. And just a little bit ago, I looked out my window and counted seven elephants walking through a plain.
PERALTA: Jubilation greets the train every time it makes a stop. And little kids run toward it waving and smiling. Despite any controversy, it's clear that this is a proud moment for Kenyas.
PERALTA: Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.
(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS SONG, "AS IF YOU'VE NEVER BEEN AWAY")
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