A Slow Train or Three Across Nigeria (7 of 9)


Saturday

I have some new flyspray, cheap at N100 a can, and acrid, but mosquitoes visit just the same. Then at 3:45am, a train arrives from ahead! The track must be clear at last. Even so, we stay put until six a.m., so as the red glow of dawn just begins, we move off slowly, almost leaving a boy behind in the sudden swirl of action. Around seven, the kids throng my doorway and come in to chat. They had left home at 4:30 in order not to miss the departure; it is not just me who has been arranging their days around the train’s possible departure. As for the journey, slowness is in order. Despite a pace of only about twenty m.p.h., the carriages at times sway widely. The track will require a lot of ‘rehabilitation’ before the contract’s target speed of eighty m.p.h. can be supported.

Even so, progress is steady: Balawa at 9:15, Zongo at 10:30, Kuru junction (for Jos) at 2:15. I don’t see the sites of the derailments, but wasn’t looking as I’d been told that the wheels merely came off the rails, rather than the carriages falling over, though as the day progressed, thoroughly wrecked wagons could be seen abandoned by the track. Exactly the same is to be seen alongside the roads and no doubt the air routes have their share of wreckage too. The only way to avoid this is to not be there.

These last few days, Saharan dust has stayed there so the air has been clear, allowing a view of the scenery. Granite blob hills and mountains, but generally plateau covered by savannah with scattered trees and scrub, plus an occasional herd of cattle. The prevailing colour is yellow/brown, and dry, though there is ground cover here, further away from the Sahara.

In villages, the damn goats are numerous, also dusty, ragged children. Rural areas are in slow decline: roads fall into disrepair, buildings deteriorate. In towns, there are many signs for establishments that are no longer operating. I notice the hotels and restaurants especially, but the English nurses I’d met in Jos while they were on holiday said that over the two years they’d been in Nigeria, they’d observed that the economic decline applies to just about everything.

Water taps that work are the exception. Hotels have rooms with defunct a/c units (often falling out of the holes bashed into the wall to install them), bathtubs with no water supply even if you have a plug, toilet cisterns whose valve gear has fallen apart, TVs that don’t work, dud lighting arrangements even if the power hasn’t failed, and doors whose locks are barely intact. So far, only in Maiduguri have I not experienced a power failure during my stay, not that it mattered much as both the a/c and ceiling fan were u/s.

Thus it was that I had finished off my can of fly spray, to no lasting benefit as fresh attackers repopulated my room via the gaps between the a/c and the wall, which I noticed when daylight could be seen. Previous sufferers had rammed newspaper into the ragged hole, but there were other entryways also, such as around the ill-fitting door. A meal of protein from blood is so much more nutritious then plant sap that successful mosquitoes can lay many more eggs. Our half-measures are driving their evolution into a super race, determined on its goal, nimble in its assault, resistant to many chemicals and appreciating repellent as we do chili sauce.

As we head onwards the air becomes blue thanks to smoke from agricultural burnoffs but even so, I can for once see the sun setting on the horizon as we roll towards Kafanchan junction, arriving at 6:30 shortly after sunset.

The staff here recall me from the trip to Jos, as does the soft drink stallholder. His stall is closed, having sold out, but a boy is sent to fetch some more stock, so in a while some more fizz. As always, there are women on the station platform, with bowls of food set up on benches. For N15 I get a blob of gari (manioc paste) plus some scoops of soup that amounts to stew. As usual, I am ready to request “No meat”, but this being a vegetable curry, there is no need for me to puzzle the ladies. I do have to turn down an offer from an adjacent lady for a meat stew. If beef, it would certainly be to my taste, but I can’t bear its presentation: small fist-sized chunks that look as if they’d been hacked off with an axe. Which is exactly how it is done. Segments of bone, lengths of tendon, pieces of skin, and no shortage of gristle. Naturally, it is not the best cuts that appear in cheap eats; these are recipes for using the oddments of a carcass.

Anyway, you eat with your fingers: grab a blob of paste (be it pounded manioc, cassava, or yam), dunk it in the sludge, work it about a bit – maybe into a scoop or fold some sludge in – then to your mouth, trying not to leave drips. The vilest-looking sludge is called “okra” and despite being made from a vegetable, it resembles nothing so much as raw egg yolk, both to sight and to feel. Its taste is innocuous, once you ignore the sliminess. Which is difficult.

Well, a bowl of water is supplied for you to wash your hands before and after eating, then in the last glow of dusk, I borrow a bucket and have a shower, or rather a splash in the carriage’s shower cabinet. I’m clean at last, but it won’t last long because more dust is surely waiting for me.

Meanwhile, the engine has been shunting about. It is attached to what was the rear of our train at eight p.m., and the lights come on. There have been some engine toots, but we stay put until at 9:05. There are some more toots, then whistles from the platform master, and we roll, so now for a night on the move.

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