A Slow Train or Three Across Nigeria (2 of 9)


Second: Kaduna to Kano

140 miles in 5 hours for 120 Naira

Kaduna is not such a pleasant city now, due to the usual fervid growth, but it does have a letter for me at Poste Restante so the system does work after all. At the railway station there is not much happening. Some fellows say that the next train to Kano will be on Sunday, the previous having been yesterday. That is too long to wait in this drab city, but then they remember that there is also a train from Port Harcourt that may pass through tonight. One goes away to enquire, and on returning says to get here early tomorrow, by 7 a.m.

Despite a late night, I still awake at 5:30, which is too late to go back to sleep, so a slow start to the day. The hotel’s night guard has to unlock the door bars to let me out onto the street, and I am soon at the station, just before the nominated 7 a.m. As if it mattered. There are few people about, even at the market area shack forest in front of the station, so I can’t yet have breakfast. On the platform is a train control office, whose inmates say that the train to Kano is on its way, and mumble something that sounds like 9:30. Their boss approaches, and after checking on my intentions (Hopes? Fantasies?) says “Yes, you must wait”. Just so.

I think there should be a name for this special tense, as used in much of Africa, the patent obvious. If you greet someone with “How are you?” the response could well be “I am here.” Actually, considering the difficulties of life in Africa, that is not such an empty statement. Of course, it would help to avoid making patently silly statements, as with the fellow who camped by an ant hole and the next morning complained of ant attack, to receive the response “Yes, it is better to avoid them.”

There is a covered area on the platform where some people are selling smallgoods and others just sitting. As I approach, a child runs for his mother, so I suspect that few white ghosts have spent time here. To add flavour to the child’s memories, I make monster faces at him, prompting a scream and a rush that sweeps up two ladies who had been dozing nearby, to my startlement and others’ amusement. Whoops.

I find a place to sit and start reading, finishing my book at 8:30 so why not go and have some breakfast at the Jamil Food Restaurant (is there any other sort?), a shack in the market area where I’d eaten yesterday. Ah. Still closed. A passerby says “Closed for the fast”, except that yesterday it was open. So, back out to the street to spot another sign for an eatery down a parallel alley and yes, this one is open and displaying a “Food is Ready” sign. Except that it won’t be until nine, so I sit down to wait for what turns out to be the usual rice and curried beef and as usual, rather chewy. Then back to the station to sit and wait, entertained by a passenger train finally setting off south, followed by a freight train.

At 2 p.m. I call again at the ‘Information Office’, which is closed, but adjacent offices are occupied and I’m told that the train could arrive “Any time now”. It had left Kafanchan at 8 a.m.! But I will have time for lunch, and this time the Jamil is open, for spaghetti and sauce (no chewy meat chunks, thanks), and why not, a second yoghurt drink. This time no blunt knife is to hand so the lady uses a fork to rip the second sachet open and knocks over the cup which splashes my trousers on the way to the floor. A replacement sachet is carefully slit with my knife (which is very sharp), to the amusement of all. With the prospect of a trip continuing to be delayed, I ask for a second spaghetti and sauce so as to be prepared against any absence of opportunity to guzzle later, and also, it was yummy. Just now, two locals come in for a meal and sit at ‘my’ table; we chat, and they insist on paying for my eats, even though double.

Back at the station, nothing continues to happen until four when a bell is rung. Urchins cheer, as this means that a train is arriving and indeed, at 4:15 one rolls in slowly from the south. I had been chatting with a cloth merchant woman on her way back to Kano with her trade goods, who had been sleeping on them for two days waiting for the train rather than pay the price demanded by bus operators. But the Green Toad and I have a first class ticket, so farewell.

The front carriages are all well-filled “Standard Class”, so I continue towards the rear where again there is a ‘staff’ carriage and a snack car, but this time no sleeper. There is a carriage marked 1st, but it has degenerated more than somewhat. Even so, it is no worse than the other carriages and also the least crowded. But I can’t get in! The door is blocked. People are struggling into the adjacent carriage, despite those struggling to get out, so I join the mob and in a brief quiet moment, climb up. Sacks of yams (?) are piled in the vestibule so it is a matter of the usual clamber to get past.

Once I’m in the carriage some youths point out a place for me. The seats are in pairs on each side, and the selected one’s corridor seat has its back collapsed on the floor while its window-side mate has no seat so that you get to sit on the frame rim. There is not much other prospect though so this will have to do. A relic of first class at least means that there is a fair amount of leg room, so with no luggage rack surviving in the section above me, the Green Toad has the floor.

Time passes. A woman with a squalling baby takes the adjacent backless seat, but later I’m saved as she finds somewhere else, distant. We roll at 6:15, past a trackside strewn with rubbish and plastic bags, through another market, on and on past scruffy suburbs if not slums, then out at last into the dusty countryside, except that night has fallen. Our pace is good with few slowdowns, though at times we rock and bounce vigorously. Alas, hurry merely means a night arrival at Kano. Outside, a full moon illumines the landscape through the dust. Flat country with the trees now more widely separated, and many more are shrub-sized. Inside, it is pitch black.

At 10 p.m. we arrive at what I take to be Zaria station, about half-way, so unless there is a big delay, we will arrive uselessly pre-dawn. Many people get off here, so I try to find a more comfortable seat. However, with the chill breeze through the (uncloseable) windows, and the small smooth seats allowing me to slide off when dozing, sleep is impossible until we arrive at 4 a.m., at a station devoid of a waiting room. I stay on the train awhile but then give in as no-one else remains, and I fear being shunted away somewhere. There are benches on the platform, but they are already occupied, so I end up dozing in the entrance way to the ticket lobby, propped against the Green Toad. Always a pleasure to have it support my weight. Stevedores make a racket with their trolleys, somewhere nearby an infant grizzles interminably, and maybe I doze occasionally.

At 7 a.m. I give up. The rose of dawn has converted to the white haze of day and it is time to find a place to stay. But first, some questions. A sign names two trains a day running onwards from Kano to Nguru, but when I check with a railwayman, he says that as the track is being rebuilt, none are running now. As for trains from Maiduguri to Lagos, the departure is on Tuesdays, and back from Lagos on Thursdays, he thinks.

So I can spend some days in Kano, an interesting city with a colourful history. Lonely Planet’s information is also historic, and their map distorted but I find what I look for, except at the post office: a slight pause until someone remembers what poste restante is, then no mail for me anyway.

As for the bus journey to Maiduguri, it reminded me again why one should travel by train. By day, twisted wreckage strewn along the roadside is a direct testament: by night you should not be on the roads at all. An oncoming single headlight might mark a motorbike (or rather, a suicide in progress!), but is more likely to be attached to an oil tanker with one dead headlight. Ah, but which one? Which one! Which one! Given that drivers maintain 70 m.p.h. or more when weaving across to the far side of the road to dodge potholes, this matter can become urgent.

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