Analysis: A Bumpy Ride And Half A Loaf

By Sunny Awhefeada,


Part of what conditioned our growing up years, in my part of the world, was street wisdom obtained by association with our age mates and those older. A significant aspect of street lore was the apt use of language to describe phenomena and evade or ameliorate problems and sanctions. We picked up words and expressions which enriched our minds on a daily basis. Some of them were wholesome while others were anchored on mischief and meant only for our ears and not that of those older than us, especially our parents. Such words or expressions could be in Urhobo, pidgin or English.

The environment where we grew up was largely multicultural long before social theorists “invented” multiculturalism to define and describe society. Hence, it was during one of our bird hunting expeditions in Evwreni that one of our friends on his first holiday from a boarding school uttered the expression “half a loaf is better than none”.

That expression never featured in our feeding habit before that material time. Our friend told us that it was a consolatory expression in the boarding house for those whose bread had been tampered with by greedy and overbearing senior students. He said that it was better to eat half a loaf than to reject it and suffer howling hunger till after two o’clock in the afternoon when lunch would be served.

From that moment, the expression “half a loaf is better than none” became part of our linguistic repertoire. As we grew older, it came to mean “something is better than nothing” and it made so much meaning in the Nigerian context of half measures.

My generation has always been served half measures. As we emerge around the corner, we would be told stories of how good things had been just before we made the turn.

This experience is manifest in every facet of our lives, private and public. When a few days ago I told my colleague about my intending trip to a university in a neighboring state to moderate final year scripts, my colleague and her husband suggested and insisted that it was better I go by train.

I smiled with mixed feelings. Mixed feelings because the suggestion threw me back to 1978 when I had my last train journey from Kaduna to Ibadan. I remembered the rhythm of “Lokoja too far” and the bridge at Jebba.

The thought of another train ride forty-six years later elicited nostalgia. The other feeling was that of misgiving arising from what many thought of as the failure of the Nigerian enterprise in all ramifications including railway transportation.

Many have complained about the inefficiency of the system depicted in the old engines, outdated coaches, slow speed, delays, frequent breakdown and insecurity challenges. I had engaged my colleague in a little debate and hesitantly I accepted her suggestion of travelling by train. Internet hitches made it imperative for their daughter to book my ticket from her location. The day came and I was at the terminus some minutes before the train’s arrival.

The lounge was anything, but clean. It was stuffy and noisy as if a brawl was ongoing. Security presence was negligible and I was told that the policemen often took off once the train leaves.

The long old and slow train was soon in sight as it loomed like a clumsy python in pursuit of a fleeing prey. It rumbled, jerked and jerked and finally halted. The check in was so casual that some people who didn’t buy a ticket hopped in and joined the ride free of charge. The journey commenced in no time and the bumpy ride began.

The old coaches vibrated as the wheels ground against the rusty and angry rails. The vibration destabilized the passengers who became unwilling dancers as the seats threw them up and down in the coaches that had become mobile dancing halls. The speed was clumsy.

The only consolation was the beauty of the countryside on both sides of the train as it tore through the forest. The sight of the verdant vegetation was soothing and it took the passengers far from the maddening crowd.

But for the infernally disruptive noise of the train which made low-voiced conversation impossible, the ride would have been an excursion into serene nature. But this was not to be. The ride was taking place in Nigeria and Nigeria manifested on the train.

Hawkers soon emerged from nowhere hawking items from “gbogbolese” to “kparaga”, egg rolls, meat pies, water, Fanta and a brand of balm the seller called Niger Delta lion balm which he claimed to have collected from a lion in a nearby forest.

The train’s slow speed was made worse when it stopped at the next terminus and didn’t depart until thirty minutes later with the excuse that it was refueling. The original travel time from my base to my destination was one hour and forty-seven minutes. This was not to be.

Nigeria happened to the journey and it took more than three hours! Looking at what the arrival schedule was and what the reality turned out to be I was forced to recall the consolation of “half a loaf is better than none”. Yes, we have had to make do with what is available no matter how bad. So we have become a nation that celebrates half measures. Those who applauded the commencement of rail services in parts of the country did so in view of “half a loaf is better than none”.

Despite the inconveniences, it is not only cheap, but it is a means of mass transit and can also help in the movement of goods and services across long distances. It has also provided employment for some people no matter has insignificant the number.

The unenviable character of Nigeria’s railway service has long been reflected in the poetry of Niyi Osundare who captures that deficiency in the following words, “The rails criss and cross/in a crisis of sleeping steel…../tortuous millipede on legs of iron/crawling wearily”.

These lines which bemoan the inefficiency of the railway system in Nigeria were written more than forty years ago.

Nothing has changed. Railway transportation has undergone positive revolution across the world. In most climes, trains do two hundred kilometers per hour, some do far more, and the ride provides the kind of comfort guaranteed by a well-appointed home. The passenger’s security is assured and the time schedule is not disrupted. Yet the cost of providing railway services in such climes is ten times cheaper than in Nigeria.

As we disembarked from the creaky old train and walked into the scorching sun, another leg of my journey on roads that have become valleys of suffering began.

Ten years ago, the travel time from the railway station to where I was headed was twenty-five minutes, but it now it takes two hours! The entire trip was to take two days instead of half a day that it took ten or more years ago. As I got into the university town and began another ride, this time on a motorcycle, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. So much has happened and still happening that we can no longer cry. Smiling and laughing have become our therapy if not aphrodisiac for living.

My smile enlarged into laughter when the aroma of roasting maize wafted into my nostrils. Then I remembered the song “ema fi iya alakara sere….iya alakara..”.

Although, “iya alakara” wasn’t the one roasting the maize, the aroma of akara has the same pleasant magic for like that of roasted maize. I grabbed a cob and I wouldn’t have minded if it was half a cob. Wouldn’t half a cob be better than none? I think so because a bumpy train ride is better than none! This is Nigeria!

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