The whistle sounds across the arid plains of scrub brush and exposed rocky cliffs. It blares through the narrow, crowded corridors of city market stalls, piles of clothes and hot red peppers lying a mere arm's length away from the vibrating metal track. Its rattling coaches draw stares as children run toward it, waving, as it leaves Lagos, Nigeria's massive southwestern city, on the long trip north to Kano. But in the north, boys wearing tattered soccer jerseys herding cattle watch impassively, with machetes and long-barreled guns over their shoulders.
The train is back in Nigeria, and the 35-hour trip along its 700-mile (1,125-kilometer) route offers a glimpse of the nation's history and landscapes, while also allowing travelers to see its ethnic and religious diversity firsthand.
As a resident of a Nigeria for more than three years, I can say the trip also offers a bit of the daily, careening madness of life in Africa's most populous nation, a place where few have access to electricity, armed police demand money at checkpoints and nothing ever seems to go according to plan.
Nigeria reopened its train line to the north Dec. 21, marking the end of a $166 million project to rebuild portions of the abandoned line washed out years earlier. Before the restoration, it had been a decade since the last Lagos-to-Kano run, and train service elsewhere had deteriorated to a crawl. The state-owned China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. rebuilt the southern portion of the line, while a Nigerian company handled the rest.
The rebirth of the lines constitutes a major economic relief to the poor who want to travel in a country where most earn less than $1 a day. Airline tickets remain out of reach for many, and journeys over the nation's crumbling road network can be dangerous. The cheapest train ticket available costs only $13.
But while the route is newly restored, much of the infrastructure is old.
"I want them to improve more, because most of the things you see, they are outdated," shouted Bello Adebayo, 50, seated in a clacking, worn passenger car made decades ago. "But due to the pressure of the masses, we have to manage it. ... No one will complain. It's OK, for now."
On the Friday morning of my own trip, the cavernous lobby of the train line's Lagos terminus filled with travelers. Young Muslim girls in hijab sat and waited amid colorful plastic bags filled with belongings. Men carried their belongings on their heads, including one precariously balancing suitcases and a motorcycle.
Many of those traveling north on the train, called the Ooni of Ife, appeared to be Muslims returning home. While Nigeria is predominantly divided into a Christian south and a Muslim north, the two faiths live together largely peacefully and intermarry in sprawling Lagos. All of Nigeria's more than 250 ethnic groups can be found on the city's busy streets, hustling out a living otherwise not possible in their home regions.
However, radical Islamic extremists have been carrying out a bloody guerrilla fight with Nigeria's weak central government in the north for more than two years now. Foreigners also have become a new target of extremists, often killed while in captivity. That's why a team of Nigeria federal police officers carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles boarded the train with the passengers. They would accompany it all the way to Kano.
On this trip, people crammed into the second-class cabin, spilling out into the aisles in stifling heat. But passengers weren't the main reason British colonialists built the narrow-track lines at the start of the 1900s. Instead, they wanted it to carry tin mined from the central city of Jos, peanuts harvested across the north, and other commodities to Lagos, then the colonial capital. The restored line follows that route, bypassing Abuja, the Nigerian capital since 1991, in a wide swing west.
After Nigeria's independence in 1960, the trains became notorious for carrying the slaughtered dead of Nigeria's Igbo people to their southeast homes after riots in the north. The nation's 1960s civil war followed, killing some 1 million people. As corruption fueled by oil money gripped the country, the railroad began its slow, decades-long collapse. The nation paid millions of dollars to Romanians, Indians and later the Chinese to manage promised improvements that never came, but their fingerprints remain.
The mauve-colored sleeper car I slept in with my two Associated Press colleagues had been built in China, the light switch panels bearing Chinese characters. As the train stopped at one point in the dense bush of Nigeria's southwest, stamps on the rail underneath said it was forged in England in 1958. A worker at a stop in Minna pointed to an old steam engine alongside the track and said Indians taught him how to drive it.
Facilities and infrastructure leave much to be desired. The old cars and sometimes aging rails offer some bumpy travel and even a few moments of panic when a particularly hard strike comes. Muslim passengers lack space to pray, rushing down off the train at stops to lay their prayer mats on the gravel. The bathrooms for the first-class and second-class cabins are rudimentary at best: steel floor with a hole that drops waste onto the rushing track below. In our sleeper car, our private steel toilet came with a 25-liter (6.6-gallon) plastic jug of water for flushing.
Simply trying to walk into the second-class coach proved difficult, as luggage and people lay sprawled everywhere. The first-class cabin had the equivalent of a live disc jockey playing Nigerian pop songs at times, while locally made Nollywood movies screeched from a flat-screen television.
Inside the bar car, 75-year-old Sanya Olu sat on a plastic lawn chair, her head resting wearily on her fist. She had bought a ticket for first-class, but it had been oversold, she said. So instead, she spent her trip in the chair she'd brought, en route to Kaduna to verify her status as a pensioner.
"They have just started and see how it is congested; it is full," Olu said.
As night began to fall, the inside lighting went out. My colleagues and I returned to our sleeper car to also find the air conditioner broken. We sweated in our beds in the dark, waking up at first light to see the lush green forests and cassava farm fields of the south fade overnight into field after field of yam farms, each planting rising like a burial in the dusty soil. Straw storerooms stood nearby, with mud-walled villages in the distance.
The train rushed past abandoned stations and stopped briefly at those in service, where villagers rose at all hours to greet passengers with shouts of "Pure water!" They sold the water in plastic bags.
We rumbled on, past the rock formations and hills of Nigeria's central belt. Alongside the track, I saw more than a dozen abandoned, derailed train cars, axles littering the hills like the bones of metal beasts as the sun beat down. In passing cities and towns, billboards featuring smiling evangelists at Christian churches slowly gave way to the austere green road signs of the Muslim north, Arabic and English reading: "There is but one God: Allah."
Reaching Kaduna, police officers took positions looking out of the train, Kalashnikovs at their side. The train raced through the military bases of nearby Jaji, the West Point of Nigeria, where a suicide car bombing by Islamic extremists in November killed at least 30 people and wounded another 45. Soldiers in heavy green flak jackets and helmets manned a roadblock on the highway running alongside the train track.
Night fell again. The dusty plains of northern Nigeria raced by, with police officers shining flashlights out into the darkness. Occasionally, a light would wink on in the distance. By the time the train finally stopped in Kano, exactly 34 hours, 57 minutes and six seconds had passed since we lurched out of Lagos. A direct airline flight between the two cities typically takes an hour and a half.
Traveling the route through the all-encompassing darkness of Nigeria's countryside let the stars shine brighter than I've seen them in years in the city. Under that canopy of a thousand pinpoints of brightness, the trains rumble on.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .
If You Go...
NIGERIAN RAILWAY CORP: http://www.nrc-ng.org
GETTING THERE: The closest airport to the Lagos train terminal is Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport, about a 30-minute drive. U.S. citizens and others require a visa to enter Nigeria. The train leaves Lagos at noon Friday, a 35-hour trip to Kano. It returns to Lagos on Monday, though a return flight can be purchased in Kano at the city's airport.
MONEY: Nigeria's national currency is the naira, which trades at around 157 naira to $1. ATMs can be found in Lagos and Kano, though not along the train's route. It is better to bring U.S. dollars or euros and exchange them with moneychangers before boarding.
TICKETS: A ticket for a bed in a first-class sleep car costs 4,990 naira ($32). The sleeper cars have rooms of two beds and four beds, so consider buying the extra beds to have privacy on your journey. A ticket for a first-class seat costs 2,890 naira ($19). A second-class ticket costs 1,930 naira ($13), though it will be overcrowded.
DINING: There is a canteen and bar car on the train, but it is wise to pack bottles of water to drink and energy bars to eat on the journey. Hawkers surround the train at stops, so carry small denominations to buy drinks and food. Bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer as the toilet is rudimentary at best.