Riding the Ouagadougou - Abidjan Railway
05.12.2016 - 07.12.2016 28 °C
Settling into the hard, blue plastic seats in the second class carriage is all, but easy. Typically for West Africa, one-half of the passengers insist on sitting on the seats designated to them by their ticket. The other half of the passengers are just as keen to ignore those seat numbers. Many loud arguments quickly erupt, and it’s not before three train staffers and a police officer armed with an AK47 have passed through the train that people come down and everybody gets seated. In any such situation, the people insisting that the numbers do not matter wins.
My seat was a window seat in the sun. So predicting where things were going, I quietly found a spot on the opposite side of the aisle. At the window, but in the shade. Interestingly, enough nobody wanted my seat. Maybe, because I had picked a seat that was free, perhaps because the person with my seat had found somewhere else to sit, or maybe because nobody wanted to bother the only white guy on the train. That’s not usually something holding people back, but for whatever the reason, I could sit back on the uncomfortable hard plastic and “enjoy” the spectacle...
Readers who have follow my past travels in Central Asia know that I’m especially glad for train journeys. However, for train fanatics, West Africa is a bust. Nowadays, railways here are built by the Chinese for the sole purpose of transporting raw materials from the mines inland to the coast. Most often the trains run directly into the ports. No stops needed.
West Africa used to have some legendary train rides. The journey from Dakar to Bamako (Senegal to Mali), especially. Not because it was enjoyable, though. It was slow, delayed, dusty, and uncomfortable. But the experience was always worth writing about. The less-than-flattering description probably also explains why the line is now defunct. Only a small section, just outside Dakar, is still functioning – these days, it’s nothing more but a suburban line. Elsewhere in West Africa, passenger trains have met the same fate as the Dakar-Bamako train. Almost all have been overtaken by the highways. You could count the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania, after all, there is one passenger carriage on the 2.5 km long train. But really, that’s little more than a cargo train with a small upgrade.
All this makes the rails between Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, and Abidjan, in Côte d’Ivoire (the country uses the French name internationally), West Africa’s last passenger railway of significance. It’s the only railway that can be travelled for a major distance, and it’s the only one to cross an international border. This being my only chance to experience life on the West African rails I had to jump aboard.
I could have bypassed most of Côte d’Ivoire by buying a ticket all the way to the coast, but I got places to be and things to see in the northern part of the country, so I opted to take it for about 200 km only. That’s out of a total of 1250 km. Departing from Bobo-Dioulasso in southeastern Burkina to Ferkessédougou in northern Côte d’Ivoire.
My only other sub-Saharan train experience has been driving with the Lunatic Express in Kenya (twice). Leaving Nairobi with a delay of three and eight hours respectively, the one hour and fifteen-minute delay in Bobo was a pleasant surprise. However, it didn’t change the chaos on board. Assigned seats and Africa are two things that do not go well together. I experienced the same chaos flying between Dakar and Capo Verde: Half the passengers insist on sitting in their assigned seats, the other half don’t care.
To be fair, some of this chaos is unavoidable in countries with a high rate of illiteracy. Even numbers can be difficult to follow if you have no knowledge of how they are written or how the system works. You try to figure out Korean bus seating (unless you’re Korean, that is, then I’d imagine it to be pretty easy). But a lot is also attributed to a stubbornness and defiance. No one likes to brag about not being able to read numbers, so quite a few passengers seem too proud to care for the number system. Others were simply not giving a fuck, taking a “no numbers shall tell me where to sit” approach.
The police officer and train staffers were more interested in getting everybody seated than getting everybody seated correctly. The result, naturally, being that people pretty much just stayed put, while people standing arguing for their spots were shown other places to sit. Interestingly, none of this happened at the smaller stations we stopped at along the way. Maybe people only get assigned numbers on the bigger stations? This lack of general commodity, unfortunately, made the most of the six hours train ride a somewhat tedious affair. Nothing like the charms of the Tran Siberian or the Lunatic Express.
At least there was a tiny bar, at one end of the train. But it was packed and standing room only, so I decided to give that a miss. This changed as I reach my destination of Ferkessédougou (gracefully shortened 'Ferke') at around midnight. A tiny station, I was pretty much the only one getting off the train. I needed to find a place to sleep, and the guys running a small bar in the station parking lot was happy to help. They just needed the train to leave the station first. This, incidentally, took more than an hour. A bunch of the guys working on the train even joined me at the bar drinking beer, while the waited for the train to take off. At which they seemed happy almost to run after, and jumping on to, the already rolling train...