By Vivian Ogbonna
When I heard the Abuja airport was going to be shut down for six weeks, I became anxious. I had to travel to Abuja and my first thoughts were to travel to Kaduna by air and take the train service to Abuja. That’s what most people were doing.
But I had never travelled by rail and was skeptical. The second option was to get to Kaduna by air and then to Abuja by road. But all the news about armed bandits doing this and rampaging herdsmen doing that didn’t make this option appealing. The third option was to go all the way to Abuja by road. But I remembered I hadn’t made that very long road trip in about six years, so I wasn’t looking forward to the aches that would follow after I sat in a cramped space for that length of time. The fourth option was to travel to Benin by air and on to Abuja by road. Eventually, I decided on the first option. I am glad I did.
At Kaduna airport, the government wanted to finish us with hospitality. Come and see! They had provided buses to convey people to Abuja, a four-hour journey, free of charge. Come and see people boarding – corporate looking men, Babanriga-wearing ones, women and children. But I wanted to experience the train service as I never enter train for Naija before. I lingered at the exit, unsure of what to do. A man in uniform asked where I was going. When I said I wanted to take the train to Abuja, he said I should wait for the bus conveying people to the train station. It was free but it had already left with passengers. The train schedule on the internet had it that a train would depart at 9.00 am and another at 14.40 pm.
Another man approached me. He was a cab driver. I asked how far the train station was from there. He said not too much. This was about 8.20am and ‘not too much’ could turn out to be a one hour ride. We argued back and forth, then I said, “Oya, let’s go.” His name was Mohammed and his car was a small, black Golf car. He was speeding as though his village people were coming to visit him and he was trying to dodge them, while at the same time cussing other drivers for driving too fast. The road became very gravel-ly at a point and I feared he’d lose control of the steering. I kept exclaiming, “Take it easy o, take it easy o,” while he kept replying, “Don’t worry madam. I know the road very well.”
We arrived at the train station five minutes to departure time. A man wearing a kaftan with a green apron over it [great fashion sense there!] grabbed my suitcase and we ran up the stairs. I thrust out my ticket, they waved me through and we ran into the coach that was reserved for passengers coming from the airport. I sat down and looked around me, feeling like somebody who was coming to town from the village for the first time.
At exactly 9.09 a.m. the train pulled off.
Clean and spacious coaches; windows with nice blinds; air conditioned; television sets; two young ladies selling snacks [even though I was hungry and wanted food] and nice scenery from the windows.
All through the journey I was just prouding and saying to myself, “Waaoh! [Nigerian version of Wow.] Is this my country? So this is possible?”
But, sha, the train was slow. Almost two hours; same amount of time if I was going by car. I also forgot to mention the heavy presence of gun-carrying security personnel – Mobile Police, the regular blue-wearing Police, Army, Civil Defence, sniffing dogs. Every coach had about two security personnel manning it and each one of them looked professional and non-threatening, unlike those we see in public spaces.
A lovely experience altogether but a sharp contrast to the Port Harcourt-Aba service which a friend said she had used in December. According to the account which she posted on her Facebook timeline, what would have been a stress-free ride was marred by over-crowded coaches and smelly toilets. Not to talk about the dirty scenery on the route. Furthermore, there was no first class coach; it had been moved to Enugu because there was more money to be made on that route. According to her, the only advantage gained by taking the train was the convenience of not having to drive to Aba on bad roads. So, I’m typing this and wondering why the Kaduna-Abuja line is different from the Port Harcourt-Aba one. Kilo happen? Do they have different managements? Were the two routes commissioned at the same time or is the Port Harcourt-Aba line part of the relics of the colonial train service? I’m also wondering why, in the name of everything sacred, we can’t have an efficient rail transport system that connects all the nooks and crannies of Nigeria. I don’t mean those ones that carry cow o. I mean the type our government officials see and use when they visit other countries and continents. Is it such a difficult thing?
We eventually arrived Kubwa in Abuja at about 11.00 am. But it won’t be Naija if there had been no drama to close the day. No be us again? We no dey carry last naa.
As we alighted, a scream rang out. Shouts. Loud voices. Hurried movements. I saw somebody sprawled on the ground. A couple of people stood over the person. From a distance, it looked like the very elderly woman who was sitting opposite me in the FAAN bus that took us across the tarmac at Lagos airport. I thought she had tripped while descending the steps. I came closer and saw a young lady. She was un-speaking, her eyes wide, one leg bleeding. A dog and its handler – a staff of the Civil Defence – stood close by. The handler was looking surprised? Shocked? Afraid? I couldn’t give words to the expression on his face. The dog, a brown and black mix whose breed I couldn’t place, was… well, just being a dog -panting, barking at intervals and straining against its leash, perhaps angry it wasn’t being allowed to finish what it started.
It turns out that this dog had pushed the young lady down and sunk its teeth into her leg. You could even see the set of teeth marks against her bleeding flesh. A school girl of about five years old, who seemed to have witnessed the attack, clutched her father’s hand, crying softly. Poor child. Afraid was catching her. Then, I heard a man say, “This is the second time…” He didn’t conclude the statement but I put two and two together – either the Civil Defence keeps some very exuberant dogs or, as my sister said when I narrated the incident to her, the dog hadn’t been fed! Chei! Ogas-At-The-Top, how can you fall our hand after such an impressive outing by the Nigerian Railway Corporation?
In no time, a small crowd gathered around the lady. That is one thing I love about us – the way we rally round people in need even if they’re strangers. At such times, you can almost bet the last piece of meat in your food that there’d be a pick pocket hovering around to do his work. But there would be many other people offering help and comfort, some of which will be downright weird, but help all the same. It reminds me of an account I read on social media where a lady said she had fainted at a bus top and when she came around, a concerned passer-by kept asking her, “Aunty, did you do abortion?” SMH!
Back to The-lady-That-Got-Bitten-By-Civil-Defence-Dog. Advice about what she should do or not do was flying around for free. A day of freebies, indeed. Me sef, I follow put mouth. I approached a staff who looked like the oga and told him they needed to take her to a hospital for anti-tetanus injection. An elderly Hausa man beside me didn’t quite agree with me. He was visibly upset at the incident and kept saying, vehemently, “Madam, not tetanus. Let her take anti-rabid. Anti-rabid. If not, it will enter her head and she will start barking like a dog.” It wasn’t funny but I smiled, wondering if it was true that a person would start to bark if bitten by a rabid dog.
A Mobile Police man started massaging the bleeding leg. Then, he started to wipe off the blood with a dirty rag. I expected somebody to emerge with a sachet of pure water, bite off the tip and give the lady to drink. You know how, when people have been in accidents or similar situations, somebody will just wash their face with water, then pour the rest on their head. Sigh! Dear fellow Nigerians, water is not the best form of first aid when people are involved in accidents. Whether the weather is hot or cold, please keep them warm so they don’t go into shock. But I’m not a doctor, so don’t come and go and be quoting me, biko.
Back to my story. I fished out my almost-finished roll of tissue paper [Thank God for the contents of a woman’s bag], tore off a bit for myself and gave the rest to an older woman who was with the lady. The Mobile Policeman wanted some to wipe his hands but I declined, saying, “You don’t need tissue. You need to wash your hands thoroughly.” He went away but not before glaring at me. A woman wearing a green apron appeared with a first-aid kit and set to work. Oga-looking bros was appealing to the crowd for calm. People started to disperse. I picked up my luggage and walked away.