Yesterday was almost spring-like. We walked along the Deeside Way in Slewdrum Forest. This forest is managed by the Birse Community Trust, a local charity, and is situated on the south side of the River Dee. There are some beautiful open views of thickly forested hills and the river.
On the way home, by way of contrast, I listened to an item on Kate Adie’s radio programme, From Our Own Correspondent. This described a journey the narrator had made on the railway line that runs across Nigeria from Lagos on the coast to Kano in the north. The line was built by the British over a hundred years ago and has recently been upgraded by the Chinese, who nowadays seem to be everywhere in Africa. He said that he had taken the sleeper train from Lagos, which involved a journey of some thirty hours. Apparently many people now use the train because it is much safer than travelling by road, where there is a constant risk from armed bandits as well as groups of Islamist militants who have committed a number of atrocities in Nigeria in recent years. Even the train carries armed guards.
Forty years ago I undertook exactly the same journey, myself.
At the time, I was working as a volunteer teacher in a small Catholic teacher training college in the south of Cameroon. During the long rainy season holiday in July and August, together with a fellow volunteer teacher, I travelled across Cameroon and Nigeria by public transport. In West Africa, and in Nigeria in particular, public transport in those days meant either a cramped, uncomfortable taxi shared with nine or ten others or a “mammy lorry” – a Mercedes lorry with a rickety wooden superstructure on the rear capable of carrying several dozen passengers and animals in close sweaty confines and often an optimistic slogan above the driver’s windscreen – “Man No Worry”, “God is Love”, “Redemption” or the like.
By the time we had reached Ibadan in western Nigeria, the thought of exchanging hours of bumping along muddy roads for some 30 hours in a train seemed quite appealing. Doubtless there were bandits in those days too, but, being young, we never thought of them, though we did always give our taxis a cursory inspection before agreeing to be transported in them to the next destination on our trip. Uppermost in our minds, in our relatively poverty-stricken state, was how much the driver was going to agree to charge us for the privilege of travelling with him and our other companions. I say “relatively poverty-stricken” because compared to most of our fellow travellers we were financially and materially well off.
But, to Ibadan railway station. Our long, clattering train pulled in about an hour late, having left from Lagos earlier that day. There may well have been a sleeper carriage, but we did not even consider that, knowing that we had to keep our costs to a minimum. In the early afternoon, we fought our way on to seats in any available carriage along with dozens of other travellers. Do not imagine the deep self-contained, polite silence that is typical of crowds travelling on long-distance trains in Britain. Our fellow travellers were a noisy, colourful crew – big mammies with small children, business men with cases, people on family visits, soldiers returning home or travelling to a new posting. The Biafran war had only been over for a few years so Nigeria was big on soldiers and policemen at the time. All of life was there in that hot, sweaty carriage.
As our train trundled north and west we gradually left the crowded, humid towns and cities of southern Nigeria, first for forest and then for more open, arid country, regularly crossing rivers in high, rushing torrent. Nigeria is a vast country with a host of different cultures and traditions within it. As we dozed uncomfortably in our seats we crossed over one of the biggest cultural and religious divides in the country – that is the divide between the largely Christian south and the predominantly Moslem north.
This difference was brought most noticeably to our attention the next morning when we ground to a halt in apparently dry, empty countryside. From all along the length of the train, men emerged with prayer mats and water to kneel and pray beside the track. Some minutes later, as if from nowhere, dozens of women and children appeared from what had seemed to be empty bush, bringing with them pans and dishes of food and bottles of water and other drinks. For fifteen or twenty minutes this colourful, noisy human host traded with and served the culinary needs of the hundreds of passengers on the train. This short stop in the vast plains of northern Nigeria felt like a brief spiritual pause for all of us. The pause for reflection and sustenance was more important to all these people than any adherence to an officially designated timetable. A blast on the train’s horn brought proceedings to a close and we were on our way again, but this procedure was repeated several times as we snaked our way north to Kano and the dry edge of the desert.
Forty years have intervened, but the reporter’s account of his trip in the twenty-first century suggested to me that, Chinese upgrade apart, little has changed along this line.