My first train journey was from Kano to Lagos in 1961. We were in first class and travelled in luxury. Dinner was in the dining carriage with livery service. And, I slept in the top bunk in our cabin. My memory is of a single track with stops at sidings to allow the train from Lagos to go past. And the crossing over the Niger was spectacular. And, of course the inevitable grit in the eye as you leaned out of the window to look out. This was after all the day of the coal-fired engine. There was much talk of electrification and diesel as there was of other modern developments. When we arrived in Lagos at Iddo terminus, it seemed as though we were at the end of the world. The train came to a stop practically where the land ended and the Lagos lagoon started. To a child’s eyes, this was as close to travelling to the end of the earth as was possible. The 700-mile journey had taken 2 days.
Since that first journey, I have made many more long train journeys. Indeed, I made one from Ilorin to Bussa to visit family friends in December 1966 whilst Kainji Dam was being built. I had travelled from Ado-Ekiti by ‘Mammy Wagon’ to Ilorin and then by train from Ilorin to Bussa (before Bussa was flooded), travelling 3rd class. The train was packed full of traders with their produce of hens, baskets, etc. The seats were hard planks and we felt every jolt. I imagine I was sandwiched between two market women of enormous bulk, every movement of the train squeezing me even tighter between these massive stores of fat! And, in-between carriages, the rails, sleepers and land rushing backwards were a sight. When you used the lavatories, it was a long drop to the ground below. At the end of my trip to Kainji I returned to Lagos by train. That holiday was memorable for other reasons too. I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for the first time and Ezekiel Mphalele’s Second Avenue, Ngaio Marsh and Denis Wheatley novels. The young man who picked me up from the station, in his small Fiat car that had doors that opened backwards, a civil engineer newly graduated from Imperial College, died not long afterwards in a car crash! When you’re a child, you have no sense of the permanence of death. You somehow pick up on the tragedy of the reported event, you learn that the demeanor of the adults speaks of sorrow and may be of fear too. I recall thinking of the laugh and smile of this young man, of his quickness, of the way that his eyes flashed, I suppose of the life that quickened his spirit.
It is not accidental that Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid are about journeys. Since our ancestors stood up on the East African Plains and migrated across Africa and into the Levant and then into Europe and Asia, travelling has come to stand for the journey of life and the trials and challenges depicted in poetry, in symbolic terms, speak to the nature of legend and myth-making but also to heroism and courage, chiefly to mastery of the course of life. But, the experiences need not be epic in form, although it helps for the travel to be long and arduous, as in Ibn Batuta’s travels.
One year we travelled from Osaka to Tokyo by Shinkansen. We had learnt not to blow our noses in public, this was apparently as rude as farting loudly. You had to sniff and in our case surreptitiously wipe our noses. Yet, it was seemingly all right to read pornographic magazines in full view of others. This was not taboo or frowned upon. Journeying reveals the fragile sometimes imperceptible boundaries of what is morally, socially, or culturally acceptable and what is likely to provoke disgust. It points out and underlines the arbitrariness of value systems. When is it right to eats termites but not frogs? Do you look a person in the eye as you speak to them or not? What about holding hands, if you’re two men walking down the road? One man’s meat is another’s poison.
The 7-hour journey from Perth to Kalgoorlie by train was especially memorable. This was a genuinely different terrain. The vista, the colors, the vegetation, the unending and far horizon, these manifestations of a previously unknown life kept our attention. All travelling, in any case, provokes a particular kind of attentiveness, a clamoring of the heart that is both anxiety and expectation, a straining and perplexity that can be unsettling yet pleasurable with anticipation. The destination was as far from our imagination as was the journey. That particular train journey like that from Nanjing to Chongqing was much an exploration of our own inner lives as it was travelling in the physical world. There are journeys that drive the mind inwards to reverie, journeys that dislocate the familiar, unmooring metaphor and signals, and for a brief ever so transient moment, making possible a reconfiguration of the grammar of existence.
And, there are other train journeys where it is the surprising company, the unplanned for intimacy of a carriage that facilitates congress. Across Morocco and USA, from Memphis to New Orleans on Amtrak, we made friends that lasted the length of the journey. In one it was a young man from the Emirates trying to impress two young Moroccan girls with his wealth and generosity. He insisted that we enjoy his largesse, Coca Cola and peanuts, freely given. In America it was an elderly retired couple, the man a railway enthusiast and his wife, both seasoned railway travellers across continents including the UK. An unlikely conversation between these Bostonians, an English woman and a Nigerian spouse ensued. We sat in the dining car and spoke of trains, of stations including the new St Pancras station in London, of the marvel of seeing the country light up at dawn, of the vastness of America, of mist and wisteria, of the mystery of Southern forests, the swamps and bayous, button bush and bald cypresses. Particularly we exchanged stories of other train journeys.
But, the train journey need not be long or through novel, unfamiliar territory to be memorable. Of course, a degree of alienation helps. I often travel the line from Hebden Bridge to Manchester. This route takes in Todmorden, and to my left would be hills and trees that in April are yet to sprout new leaves. Houses nestle against the hills, the stone grey and the slate roofs black in the evening light. The Pennines rounded with fullness to them that are pleasing to the eye. Then there is Castleton, with boarded up buildings, a decrepit air and Moston that is not really a place but a station.
I remember one Xmas when we lived at 46a Colby Avenue (later Ladoke Akintola Avenue), our next-door neighbor an English man invited me over to see his train set. Here was a grown up with his train set on a large table in his garage. There were miniature hills, bridges, stations, pretend trees, railway crossings with people and cars. He was a red faced man, portly, with stomach hanging over his trousers but kindly. I marveled at the incredible display. He too, stood back from the table and I think saw once again, through my eyes, as if for the first time, this ingenious scaled down world. The movement from one place to another, like the stations of the cross, but observed in toto from above, as if we were God, gave us a sense of power. It gave me a preview of what it is like to stand apart from oneself and observe the world, discovering what is to be human in an inanimate world.
Photos by Jan Oyebode