A TRAIN RIDE INTO HISTORY
By Femi Olugbile
It was going to be an excursion like no other, a celebration of life for senior citizens of Nigeria. There was a lot of history riding on this one. It was the first such ‘joy ride’ on a train for this target population ever to be held in the country.
On the 26th of August 2021, a group of people took off on a train ride on the newly commissioned Lagos-Ibadan train.
In truth a Lagos-Ibadan railway service of sorts had been available from 1901 when William MacGregor was Governor of Lagos, and it was extended to Oshogbo by his successor, Walter Egerton in 1907. Like many other colonial infrastructural developments, such as the Lagos Tramline and the city’s streetlights, it had gone into abeyance due to the lack of a connecting vision between the past and the present.
Lately railway travel has been reinvented in Nigeria, with much chest-thumping and fanfare by the federal government and its officials.
Railways have played a part in Nigeria’s history, for good and for ill. The Spanish Flu, which killed an estimated five hundred thousand Nigerians between 1918 and 1920, was spread to the hinterland from the Lagos port where the ailing ship broke quarantine and disembarked stricken passengers and carriers who sneaked into town and headed to Iddo Terminus to take the train onwards to their homes in Abeokuta, Ibadan, Calabar and even farther afield, carrying death everywhere they went in a killing spree that still makes COVID19 look like child’s play.
On the other hand, when Michael Imoudu the popular Trade Unionist was released from detention in 1945, he arrived back in Lagos, at the same Iddo Terminus, by train, to a reception by a massive crowd made up of workers and Lagos market women led by the indomitable Iyaloja of Lagos, Madam Pelewura.
This ride was different. Fifty-six elderly people -aged from sixty to ninety, were going on a day trip to Ibadan, to enjoy the sights and sounds of the ancient city.
There is a growing interest among Medical, Mental Health and Social Welfare professionals, as well as the generality of the caring public, in the lives and welfare of the elderly all over the world. Due to improving healthcare, the population of people who are surviving into the zone of life that qualifies them to be labelled variously as ‘elderly’, or ‘geriatric’, is increasing. This gradual shift towards an ageing society, which is most prominent in a place like Japan where people routinely live to be eighty to one hundred years old, brings with it a need for society to make provision for the special needs of older people. As people grow older, they tend to have more health problems, including problems unique to ageing. They also have social, financial and mobility problems. In societies where no special provisions are made to anticipate and deal with these problems, the elderly become a burden on their families, and on society at large.
In traditional African society, elders were treated with respect and valued as repositories of wisdom and experience. Sadly, much of that is being eroded by ‘modernity’ and urbanisation.
A few efforts are ongoing in Nigeria to improve the lives of the elderly. Some of the major hospitals have created Geriatric Units for the specialized treatment of their medical conditions. An increasing number of NGOs are coming on board. There are a few well-run Homes for short or long-term stay for the elderly. There are increasing numbers of ‘Carers’ who are trained to various levels to look after old and ailing people in their own homes.
The excursion was organized by NGOs – Family Ark Mission and ‘University of 3rd Age’, in collaboration with another Abuja-based body known as National Senior Citizens Centre, and with support from the Nigeria Railway Corporation.
As the elders climbed into the neat cabin of the Ibadan train for the 8am departure, most of them clad in ankara ‘aso ebi’ that had been chosen for the occasion, they were in high spirits. There was a saxophonist belting out gospel and highlife tunes as the train ambled along. There was singing and dancing, and general merrymaking. Some people played Ludo.
The key moving spirit for the bold venture was Dr Oludare Mark-Okusanya, a man who has been busy for several years working on sensitizing government and people about the rights and needs of the elderly. He was assisted by several people including Dr Emem Omokaro from Abuja, and Prof Segun Baiyewu, a retired psychogeriatrician from UCH who helped to tidy up the Ibadan end.
Among the team from the Nigerian Railways was 90 year-old Nathaniel Okoro, the first indigenous Managing Director of Nigeria Railways, and Dr Edith Nwosu who had worked as a physician with the Corporation before she retired. There were people from STRIPES, a privately run Home for the elderly, as well as men and women from several other groups.
At Ibadan, they were conveyed in buses loaned from UCH to the palace of the Olubadan who, quite fortuitously, was celebrating his ninety-third birthday.
After spending quality time with the Olubadan and socializing in the convivial atmosphere of the palace for a long period, the tourists were informed it was time to head back to Moniya to catch the four-thirty train back to Lagos.
Joyfully they returned to the neat and elegant cabin of their Lagos-bound train.
On board, it was now time for lunch. Steaming Amala with Abula. More singing, more dancing.
The advent of the intercity train is an opportunity for Internal Tourism, something that is a goldmine in places like Egypt and China. Enterprising Nigerians could develop business taking individuals and groups on day trips between Lagos and Ibadan, and even other places, spicing up the experience with visits to interesting places and meetings with interesting people.
For the elders, as they disembarked in Lagos in the gathering dusk, it was a day they would never forget.
For the organisers, it was another step on a journey to improve the lives of senior citizens in Nigeria by focusing not just on treating their ailments, but enhancing their happiness.