Cameroon Train Ride North

The Yaounde train station is a two-story concrete rectangle with a grill-gate shutting off the main hall.  When we arrived an hour-and-a-half before the train was due to leave for its sixteen hour journey North to Ngaoundere there were already hundreds of people in front.  Thousands would want to get on board, many did not have tickets yet and the train had been sold out for days.

It was the last week end rush home before school started on Monday.  The soldiers had opened a small gate the size of a door.  Through this people tried to enter: screaming porters carrying incredible loads of boxes, cases and big plastic bags; fat mothers elbowing through dragging kids along; elderly and crippled, all yelling and pushing.  All of a sudden the soldiers lashed out with their clubs, boxes flew and people fell and the gate shut.  The result was more chaos.  The gate opened again but this time the soldiers gave up trying to control tickets.  

We were bounced around, pushed in and shoved out, elbowed and beat with the heavy cargo carried by porters and those who tried to keep up with their belongings.  Once through the gate came another obstacle course as we tried not to fall over the baggage those who had just passed the gate set on the floor right where the others would follow.  Trying to swim through the masses fighting to get to the ticket windows to buy supposedly non-existent tickets, we finally made it to the stairs where first class passengers enter.  

In fact, they allow first class passengers to go up for air before being thrown into the mayhem again on the other side.  

First class.  Imagine a train car of seats which had not been serviced or re-fitted for twenty years, stuck on a side track and squatted by homeless junkies and then sent to Cameroon.  What differentiated First class from Second is how high you could stack bags and sacks in the corridor and how many people could sit, squat and sleep at your feet…for sixteen hours. In all honesty, they do try to keep it clean and maintained but with the minimum means.  The holes in the floors are patched with pieces of plywood.  

Getting to your seat was only the beginning.  The train stopped everywhere, all night, and out of seemingly nowhere, people would appear yelling the name of whatever it is they had to sell in the line of food.  Each stop had its specialty: cooked manioc wrapped in leaves; oranges and other fruit, dry manioc and yams; honey and banned bush-meat and everywhere kids selling water and hollering in their shrill voices LO-LO-LO.  The people on the train bought bundles of food.  They bought enough groceries to last them the rest of the month and somehow found room to stuff it into their bulky bags.   

The stops often seemed like slamming on the breaks and I never realized a train could jerk so when starting, as if they were burning rubber.

Soldiers.  A captain with a killer’s smile-less face and a pistol tucked into his back, a colonel escorted by a sergeant about to put someone out of a sleeper for himself,  (Sonja and I could not get a sleeper.  Sold out!)  rifles and the rifle-less heading North to bases and training centers, up all night talking louder than the train-noise.   

There was a constant stench of urine coming from toilets which don’t lock.  Men and women slept between the cars and at the door of the toilets whose floors were a puddle of piss. There is a man who goes up and down all night with his brushes cleaning toilets.  Be sure to get out of the way when he walks past with his big brushes in the air.  Most of the women preferred to pee in a pastic container at their seat and empty it out the window.  Be careful how far you lean out windows when the train is at it high speed of 80 km per hour.

Through the open windows came odors often of sewage (or was it the cooked manioc?) but perhaps of swamp as we passed villages with neither electricity nor running water.  They showed up black in the moon’s light.  Through all this, the children slept, women sang and babies never cried. They accepted their two whites sharing their voyage and an old woman with two grandsons in their best shirt offered us an orange. It was good humor all around except for the poor conductor who could not get people to show him tickets.  Once they started protesting he gave a threat and moved on.  

One man was lying on bags on the floor pretending to be sleeping when the conductor wanted to see a ticket.  “Can’t you see I’m tired?” the man snarled.  The conductor moved on.  

Once in Ngaoundere, a cross roads between the Savannah and deserts of the North and the rain forests of the South, the chaos began again.  Porters forced their way in the cars as passengers tried to get off.  There was pushing from behind and from the front.  Taxi drivers of cars which had been junked in Europe years ago and with no shock absorbers fought to get passengers.  We chose one and another guy came and said “I handle the whites here.” We kept our first choice which may have been a mistake.  

Ngaoundere is a busy city like any cross roads and rail head can be.  People are wonderfully friendly and Sonja was chosen by members of the Royal family to visit the King’s palace.  The Lamido as he is called also has judicial and tax powers parallel to those of the state.