My first posting on joining the Colonial Medical
Service in 1937 was Minna, the headquarters of Niger
Province in North Nigeria. It was also an important station
on the Nigerian Railway's main line from Lagos, for there, a
branch line from Baro on the River Niger joined the main line
northwards to Kano. The branch, with little traffic, had
once been the southern part of the first railway in North
Nigeria. Historically it is very important. Lugard in The Dual Mandate called it a model "colonial" railway, using
what we would now call intermediate technology for the Developing
World. It followed contours to avoid inclines and the need
for tunnels, embankments and cuttings; bridges and
engineering works were comparatively simple, with nothing
like the engineering of the great Victorian railways. Though
traffic was slow, with unreliable timekeeping, it was
infinitely superior to the only alternatives, head-loads and
donkey or camel—packs. It carried freight between Kano and
the nearest point on the Niger. There, stern-wheel
paddle steamers, which plied between Baro and ocean-going
cargo ships in the Niger creeks, opened worldwide trade to
the North, supplanting the centuries' old caravan trade,
moving at walking pace across the desert to North Africa and the
I used the branch once or twice on
special occasions. There was no regular passenger service
and I travelled at various times (to investigate and
organise vaccination and control in a smallpox epidemic) in
an empty freight waggon, a brakevan and, luxury of luxuries!
the District Engineer's coach. He happened to be passing
with his private coach attached to the freight train my wife
and I were waiting for to return us to Minna. Compared to
our routine of travel, over endless miles of earth roads,
arriving, covered with red laterite dust, at mud-walled,
mud-floored, grass-roofed resthouses, he seemed to be
travelling in great comfort.
But the journey I remember best was my first. The
District Engineer called me to say that "George, a foreman
platelayer" (foreman platelayer was the name used for
expatriates working on the railtrack) had sent a message to
say that his wife, Mary, was ill and in urgent need of
medical attention at Kataraeggi, some 20—30 miles down line.
The only ways of getting to the place were on foot or by
rail, for at that time, there were very few motor roads in
the province and none anywhere near Kataraeggi.
The engineer was sorry, but the only transport he
could offer one was a rail-trolley used by people working on
the track. It was driven by a 2-stroke engine and vibrated a
bit, but was faster, at 10-15 mph than the man-powered jobs.
These were driven by gangs of men standing each side of a
trolley, pumping away reciprocally air two long poles, Wild
West Hollywood style.
With my emergency medical kit, I
embarked on the trolley and set off with the Eboe driver,
Joseph, in charge and a couple of crew.
The engineer was right about the vibration. As we
bowled along the Baro Line the whole of Africa seemed to be
shivering, The 2-stroke engine was bolted to the chassis,
with no shock-absorbing suspension and it made more noise
than rapid-fire small arms. The line was single track
divided into sections controlled by passkeys. Joseph had
ours slung round his shoulder.
We crossed a river, it seemed far below in a deep
ravine. The single-track rails were bolted directly to the
bridge's steel girders with no ballast or superstructure, so
one had the scary sensation of making a vibratory passage
across a deep ravine without visible means of support, After
about an hour a small station marked the end of the first
section. The next, the only one between us and Kataereggi,
was closed by another foreman platelayer's trolley, His
wife, who was in their railway bungalow, said that he would
soon be back for his dinner. When he arrived, pumped along
on his Wild West trolley, he told me what to expect at
Kataereggi. He was a very big, muscular, physically fit man,
looking as if he could chuck his trolley into the next
province. He died of yellow fever, not long afterwards, before vaccination had become routine. Joseph obtained his passkey from the signalman, and we continued our vibratory journey.
After another house, we reached Kataereggi and George took me to see Mary. She was in bed with dysentery in their bungalow and I did what I could for her in those days before the anti-biotic revolution. A railwayman's bungalow was no place for her, so the railway ambulance coach was called to move her to Kaduna Hospital. Mary apologised for being unable to be hospitable, but their cook had produced a meal for myself and George; she hoped I would enjoy it.
Like many lonely expatriates, George and Mary had domesticated animals and pets, a yapping dog, an African Grey parrot and, as George and I sad down to the meal, a large and friendly sow came in from outside to join us. The sow spotted me for a sucker at once, came straight to me and rested her snout on my knee, which was bare below my shorts and at a convenient height. She grunted expectantly and I responded by giving her a bread roll; this disappeared instantly, with no sign of mastication. "She'll get rid of the lot before we start if you feed her with them" complained George, so I restricted my attentions to pulling and stroking her ears. This made her grunt and slobber with pleasure over my bare knee. "I'll never be able to kill that pig" said George; but he did and they had her for Christmas dinner.
Sitting at lunch with the pig's snout on my knee and my
patient, Mary; lying on her bed with dysentery through the
open door of the bedroom, I was a little uneasy about my
food, but decided that canned corned beef with some
overcooked vegetables and bottled beer was fairly safe,
During the meal, the parrot decided to give me a recital
from its extensive repertoire, a vivid glimpse of daily home
life. Its finest piece was the pig grunting followed by the
dog barking, the grunts turned to squeals and the barks to
yelps as George's voice came in, "Get out yer noisy
buggers", I looked at George, he was blushing.
Mary made a good recovery in hospital, On her way back
down the Baro Line to Kataereggi she met her husband at
Minna, They both came to lunch with me.