So, after my first experience on the Standard Gauge Lagos-Ibadan train in December 2020, I have been on the route on 5 different occasions in each direction since then. The novelty of been a first-time passenger is slowly wearing off and teething issues or what we call the Nigerianness is beginning to rear its ugly head. The only joy I get these days is watching first-time passengers express and enjoy the novelty of a first time on the train and all the overexcited chatter amongst Passengers.
After the Christmas break in Ibadan, I decided to return back to Lagos via the train, and based on the information I had on the schedule, I had to get to the train station in Moniya before 8 am. If you have lived in Ibadan, you will appreciate how we love our beauty sleep, and waking up early is a sport we would not compete in (winning it is reserved for Lagos folks). Getting out of my Estate on the far side of Ibadan and getting to the station before 8 am via the popular Nissan Micra Cabs might be pushing it a bit. The Micra Drivers are notorious for stopping to pick passengers at any and every point and this tends to increase the travel time.
From Elebu I decided to take a Bike all the way to Ojoo which brings me closer to the train station and I could decide to take a cab or another bike. It was a cold January morning and the bike ride to Ojoo seemed to take forever with my facemask doing its utmost best to appear to cover my face (never mind about my nose and mouth), water streaming out of my eyes, and me pretending to keep up a conversation with the rider even though I couldn’t hear a word.
We got to Ojoo and I gladly disembarked from the bike and approached a cabman who insisted he would only take a charter to the train station and insisted on charging twice the fare I paid from my house. I politely refused and approached another bike who agreed to charge five hundred naira for the rest of the journey. Cue another long ride with facemask drama, dust, watery eyes, and the cold wind; but we eventually arrived at the station to what looked like a dust storm (the ground around the Station is mostly dust and it has not been tarred or paved).
At the station, there was already a sizeable crowd sitting on the plastic chairs provided for passengers and also at the ticketing/ registration points manned by the NRC Staff. As I pointed out in my previous article, cash is still the only acceptable form of payment and I promptly paid =N=2,500 for an economy ticket after providing a valid means of identification. Thankfully this time, there was no repeat of the scenes in Lagos where we had to endure our names been called out before we could purchase our tickets (I am an optimist and I keep looking for signs of improvement).
At exactly 7:50 am, the sound of a diesel engine announced the arrival of the train into the station (the gist is that it goes back to Kajola Station in Ogun State each night to be cleaned and serviced for the next trip). NRC Officials asked Passengers to please wait a few minutes for us all to be called to board, but as typical Naija folks, people pretended not to hear the advice and still approached the train.
Tickets checked to ensure we were all on the cabin we paid for and were assigned to sit in. The seat allocation system is something a lot of people are going to have to get used to in time. You still hear phrases like “Sebi na to reach where we dey go matter”, or the very scornful “oga when you reach Lagos, make you carry the seat go house” when someone insists on seating on his/her allotted seat. Recall the “anyhowness (please allow me the liberty of making up words, am sure that’s how the everyday words we now use evolved) I mentioned earlier, this is one of the many times it reared its head” and it always brings you back to the reality of where you are.
Exactly 8 am, we began the journey to Lagos and we were in Lagos by 10:30 am as planned. A smooth and uneventful journey and I looked forward to the next train ride as I disembarked at the under-construction Mobolaji Johnson train station in Alagomeji, Yaba.
On Friday, February 10, 2021, I decided to embark on an unscheduled trip to Ibadan to surprise my family (more like my wife for Valentine before they accuse me of schmoozing one Lagos babe), and so on, I closed early and went to the train station at Alagomeji. Ticket purchase and boarding have become a routine and all was done smoothly. I was on board one hour before departure and so I got a chance to watch people. You will be amazed at how much you learn about humans by just sitting and observe people.
Most of the passengers in the cabin I was in were first-time travelers and seeing the almost childlike excitement from gown men and women almost brought a tear to my eyes. Seating was an issue as always, but unlike my first experience, the NRC Staff seemed to have left people to sit where they liked or assumed passengers would sort themselves out. They only paraded themselves in between Cabins and were only concerned with the wearing of facemasks and generally looking very officious. The passengers on the train are a microcosm of us as a people and how we are both different, yet alike and I will take my time to describe the different kinds of passengers on this most fateful of trips.
Mr. I-Am-a-well-travelled Nigerian was the star of the entire train ride. He conveniently was seated in one of the few seats with a table (I still wonder how they allocate or assign those seats) and could be seen and heard in every corner of the cabin. He had a voice in between loud and bold and I had to applaud his diction and the clarity of his arguments. He had an opinion of almost everything and regaled other passengers with tales of places he had and sundry experiences. Yes, there was a bit of exaggeration, but then which good story doesn’t have? The sole cabin Attendant who seemed to be available for questions was his ultimate showcase for his excellent wit and range.
According to NRC, the train only stops at the Abeokuta and Ibadan Stations for passengers to alight/ board along the entire route. So, we were all left confused when the train stopped at Kajola Station for a considerable length of time at the end of which it resumed the trip. That was when the unfortunate attendant walked into our cabin and was accosted by Mr. I-am-well-travelled and his gang of co-travelers. He was asked why the Train stopped for 10 mins and if there was a mechanical issue, we were not made aware of; to which he casually retorted,” no some of our Staff got off the Train in Kajola and some joined the Train”.
The answer and the casual manner of his response did not go down well with his audience and he had to stand and endure a 15-minute lecture on why the rules for stopping and boarding must be universal if we are going to have a functional train system. According to them, what if the wife of an NRC bigshot wants to alight at any of the stations where regular passengers can’t get off, that means they will just stop. All in all, Mr. I-Am-A- Well-Travelled was a delight to have on board and life generally would be so boring without people like him around.
Mr. Excitable was a middle-aged man who I was not sure his obvious excitement was based on him been a first-time rider or it was just his everyday nature. He sat across the aisle from Mr. I-Am-Well-Travelled, was a constant listening ear for him, and did not sit down at any point in the entire trip. He let out whoops of joy and excitement at the sights and wonders we all beheld as the train traversed Hills and Rivers. It was both amusing and entertaining seeing a grown man show such childlike joy and exhilaration.
The Young-Guns got on the train together and subsequently became immersed in their phones and laptops. I discovered toward the end of the journey they were first-time passengers, but their obsession with their gadgets had deprived them of the rich experience offered by the other passengers and the awesome scenery that was there to enjoy. At a point, I had to look over my shoulders at the ladies that walked in together and obviously knew each other but could somehow not keep up any meaningful conversation with each other. As wonderful as our newfound gadgets are to the ease of living our lives, they are slowly taking away an essential part of human interactions which is face-to-face interaction that enriches our human experience.
So, we approach the Ibadan Ibadan station in Moniya and the reality of our Nigerian situation hits us. There was a light chatter amongst passengers about an ongoing situation developing in the Ojoo area. As we disembarked, an NRC Official was on the Platform and informed us that there was ongoing fighting between Yoruba and Hausa youths and there were reports of burning and looting in the area. According to him, the Cab Drivers and other persons had been made aware of the situation and the alternate routes they could take to avoid the escalating situation.
Off the platform, we went and into the open arms of an army of Taxi Drivers jostling for our attention. Unlike my previous experience, the Cab Drivers themselves organized passengers in groups based on similar destinations. This had the effect of significantly reduced fares and quicker departure times. Four of us cramped into the Taxi and off we went into the unknown that was the Moniya-Ojoo axis that night. It was just past 7 pm and as we approached the Oyo expressway junction from IITA, the road was blocked and we could see flames in the distance. An Amotekun Van speed past us in the opposite direction beckoning us to turn on the expressway to avoid what looked like a brewing conflagration ahead of us.
As we turned onto the expressway, other vehicles were turning away and facing oncoming traffic on the Oyo bound lane and at this point, some of the other passengers were very apprehensive and asked the driver to join the other vehicles on the other lane. I and another passenger looked ahead and asked him to proceed as the fires were raging one side only and we could safely navigate our way through the mass of young men with Cutlasses and machetes. As we approached them, they asked if there were any Northerners in our midst and asked a particular passenger to say some words in Yoruba before they allowed us safe passage.
After this frightening encounter, it was smooth sailing all the way to Ojoo and down to the University of Ibadan and the rest of Ibadan. The striking difference in the calm around the U.I axis and the chaos in the Moniya-Shasha axis was so striking and it felt like what we just experienced was some sort of movie. Finally, I got home safe and sound, but could not shake the feeling that a very enjoyable train ride could have ended in a dramatic way none of us could have envisaged.
The reality is we cannot insulate ourselves from the reality of the situation on the ground in our nation. Security is key and without it, even the most enjoyable and pleasant experiences can turn sour without any notice. Businesses thrive in a safe and secure environment and as a collective, we have to do all we can to lower the temperature and create an atmosphere of peace for us all to prosper.
On the advice of my wife, my train boarding forays have been suspended till further notice and I have grudgingly reverted to the Lagos-Ibadan expressway for now and the trip is not very eventful, so it might provide material for me to write. I will open my eyes more as I go about my business, there is a lot to see; all we have to do is look.