The Bauchi Light

Courtesy of OSPA

by A. S. Webb
The Bauchi Light
Zaria in the 1950s
The Bauchi Light was a narrow guage railway in Nigeria which used to run between Zaria and Jos. For around a hundred miles it gently undulated over the plain to Jingari from whence the two foot six track climbed a tortuous twenty miles or so, winding through rock cuttings and clinging to the steep sides of the escarpment to Terria, a thousand feet above Jingari, where, with a sigh of relief, from the driver and the engine, the water hose could be passed to the near empty tender.

The advertised service of a passenger train from Zaria to Jos on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with a return passenger train from Jos on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays was difficult to keep going even in the late 40's and maintenance everywhere on the line was reduced to a minimum consistent with carrying passengers; the days of the line were numbered. But for all its dilapidation and political unimportance, it was a romantic little railway which seemed to attract more than its share of anecdote and adventure. It was whilst on an inspection as Section Engineer stationed at Zaria that I came across this story.

The Bauchi Light
Zaria Province
The inspection coach had been attached to the Monday passenger train and after an uneventful journey we reached Terria just before sundown. Jock Robertson, a rotund diminutive Scot, the Permanent Way Inspector for the line, met me and after arranging for the coach to be detached, we departed to spend the evening together. The bungalow was perched, it seemed, on the very edge of the escarpment, the garden falling away so rapidly that the breathtaking view from the verandah looked over the tops of the trees growing on the slopes to the vast plain a thousand feet below, the horizon for ever lost in a heat haze or the early morning mist. The sun had already set and only an occasional twinkle from a fire relieved the darkness beyond the circle of light cast by the oil lamp hung between us on the verandah. We settled luxuriously into the voluminous basketwork chairs to enjoy a quiet drink.

We chatted of this and that until Jock asked me whether I remembered a 'chitty' he had sent regarding his Head Trolley Boy, Michael, who, following an accident, was no longer fit for the heavy work on a pump trolley. No, I could not remember. Jock admitted it was some months earlier but apparently I had agreed to his suggestion that Michael should be kept on as the P.W.I.'s 'maigardi" - night watchman. He went on to tell me the story of Michael's accident, "It happened on the pay train and he referred to a date some four months previously. At this point I will interrupt the story to enlighten those of you not familiar with a 'pay train'.

Towards the end of every month, usually about the 28th, from each district headquarters station, a train composed of a few goods vehicles, brake vans and a special pay van, hauled by the oldest and most decrepit engine which could be found, would set out to travel from station to station at each of which would be assembled the local station staff and the maintenance personnel normally dispersed up and down the line, who walked in to the nearest station for their pay. It was an event eagerly looked forward to by everyone, an occasion for the assembly of market women, food vendors, tradesmen, beggars, money lenders and ladies of easy virtue, all hoping to collect their debts and persuade the railwaymen to part with some more of their money should they have any left after settling the debts. Wives and families accompanied the menfolk and it was looked upon as a good day out by all except the luckless P. W.I. who, as officer in charge of the train, had to sit in the pay van, identify each man as he came to the side window for his pay, count out the pay and see that the man left his mark, usually the left thumb print. Altogether it was a long, hot and boring job which could go on for two, three or four days - The Bauchi line was not too bad and could usually be paid off in two days.
The Bauchi Light
Bauchi Light Locomotive 4

To continue with Jock's story, by the middle of the morning the pay train had reached Dutsan Wai, a village larger than most with a station which boasted of several sidings, a legacy of the more prosperous times when in a small way, tin was mined in the area. The usual noisy crowd was spread over the station with a concentration around the pay van window straining to hear the name being called and to catch sight of the man who climbed the short flight of steps to reach the pay window; the Railway Police providing the armed guard were as always, kept busy forcing the crowd back and trying to keep those waiting for their pay in some sort of line, for they quickly learnt the order in which their names appeared on the paysheet.

It was always an easy time for the pump trolley crew, who no doubt, enjoyed the rest as they lounged in a brake van. Michael, the head boy, had descended from the van to stroll along one of the sidings when he was spotted by a large and powerful market woman to whom he owed money. She set off after him but Michael, lithe and fit, with no fear of being caught, took off along the siding. He quickly outstripped the panting fat women but suddenly he disappeared near the neglected end of the siding. The woman reached the spot where she had last seen him and there in long grass was Michael, unconscious, his right leg badly contorted beneath him with the fractured end of his femur protruding through his thigh. A debt was one thing but to be accused of maybe murdering him, was quite different and she decided she wanted no part of that; she hastily returned to the station to mingle with the crowd. No one noticed Michael's absence, Jock thankfully pulled down the pay van window, the steps were loaded in the brake and the train set off for the next station.

When Michael regained consciousness, the crowd had dispersed and it was some time before his cries for help were heard. The station staff carried him to the waiting room being used by the Station Master as a private grain store and made him comfortable amongst the sacks of corn. The broken leg had completely doubled up and when someone found a pair of splints in an ancient first aid kit, they bound the leg in that position with the splints along the thigh. There were no more trains that day for the passenger to Jos had overtaken the pay train before they had reached Dutsan Wai.

The Bauchi Light
Bauchi Light Locomotive 56
On Tuesday the passenger train returned from Jos to Zaria and it was the intention to put Michael on it so that he could be taken to Zaria hospital but Michael was a man from the plateau who had no faith in these 'bushmen' from the plain, he would not go to Zaria. So he lay for another day to wait for the train to Jos. The Wednesday train was late arriving at Dutsan Wai and with Michael on the floor of the brake van. it progressively lost time so that it was dark by the time they had reached Jingari. The journey through the many rock cuttings where rock falls were not uncommon could be made at night if the driver was willing, the headlamp was working (though a pitifully weak beam it cast at the best of times) and there was no rain. The driver decided his headlamp was not working, there was a likelihood of rain, and since this was his home station, after a frustrating day the loco should go to the shed and he to his home. It always amazed me the fatalistic way the public accepted the news that they must spend twelve hours at Jingari, never a word of protest, it was half expected as though a journey straight through to Jos was a rarely achieved bonus.

Jock, who had by now of course, received news of Michael's accident, met the train when it drew into Jos station on Thursday morning and saw him safely into Jos hospital. They did not keep him in very long; they tidied up his thigh, got the bone back out of sight and presumably united the two pieces but could not straighten his leg from the doubled position with the knee joint frozen stiff. He was discharged with a recommendation he should be given light work and hence the note from the P.W.I. to me.

Jock equipped him with a long bow and a bamboo quiver full of arrows allegedly with deadly poison tips. By winding the damaged leg around the bow he was able to dispense with the crutches given him by the hospital, and he quickly mastered the art of propulsion by taking two hops on the good leg followed by a prodigious leap using the bow in a manner reminiscent of a pole vault. Despite his cheerfulness, he was dissatisfied and after only a few weeks back at work, he approached the P.W.I. with a request. "Please massa, lend me one pound and give me one week off." Jock let him have it and Michael disappeared from the district. Jock paused in his story and called into the darkness. Michael emerged from the shadows into the ring of light on the verandah steps, grinning from ear to ear, and after greeting me in Hausa, he carefully mounted the steps to stand before us. "Tell the Engineer your story", said Jock, motioning him to sit on the floor.

Michael squatted rather awkwardly close to my feet and took up the story where the P.W.I. had left it. "Massa lend me one pound and me and my wife go see one medicine man who day for bush. Medicine man he make me lay down and he done sit one man here (he indicated one shoulder), he done sit one man here (he pointed to the other shoulder), and one man he done hold 'um good leg. Then he done make one man pull 'um this leg (he indicated someone pulling the ankle of his crippled leg), and he done push down my knee - Ah massa. he done pain me too much!" "Then he cut my leg here and here." He held his crippled thigh out for me to see two cuts, each about two inches long just below the kneecap and four cuts, each almost three inches long arranged rather like corporal's chevrons on the thigh. "He put plenty white medicine and tite 'um with my wife lapa cloth and tell my wife make me walk only small small for one week. Then we come home and Sar, - look!" With the help of his bow he pulled himself up from the floor to stand on his good leg whilst he held the right leg out for my inspection. It was still bent at the knee and it was considerably shorter than the left leg but what pleased Michael was the movement at his knee as he swung his foot a few inches backwards and forwards. I congratulated him and with a happy grin on his face he hopped down the steps to melt back into the shadows.

It was six or seven weeks later that I was again passing through Terria on my way to Jos. The train, near enough on time, was standing in Terria the engine taking water and in the fading light I stood on the steps of the coach watching the bustling scene in the station yard, when from the direction of the P.W.I.'s bungalow came the figure of Michael hurrying towards me with the determined but awkward gait of two hops and a leap. He arrived breathless and as ever, grinning and could scarcely wait for the customary greeting before demonstrating how much his leg had improved. Holding on to the handrail, he showed me he could almost straighten his right leg from the bent position in which it hung. What pleased him most was the powerful way in which he could swing and kick his foot. Unfortunately, even when straightened, the damaged leg was several inches shorter than the left leg so that normal running or walking seemed impossible. But there could be no denying a tremendous improvement had been made and with exercise possible it would gain strength.

I did not see Michael again; Jock gave me news of him from time to time, his leg continued to improve until he could even enjoy kicking a football around with his former teammates. He begged to go back to the pump trolley but that would have been too dangerous. For a while he became a local hero.

There is an unfortunate sequel to this story. Railway employees were, for the times, well looked after medically, receiving pay during periods of sickness and free medical attention providing they attended an approved doctor for treatment. News of Michael's accident, the failure of the treatment by the big white doctors and the 'cure' by the medicine man spread like wildfire along the Bauchi Light. Sick employees refused to attend the clinics and hospitals in consequence of which they were at best, sick without pay but several died as a result of refusing to attend for proper treatment. We never heard whether the medicine man profited from his success!

British Colony Map
Map of Central Nigeria
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 51: April 1986


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