Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The African train-ride

Painting by Nyanda

Never had I encountered life threatening dangers while on my expeditions, but traveling in Africa changed that fact. The following event did not only make me value life more, but it also made me wonder about the world’s mysterious ways and how everything in life eventually works out well.

The afternoon heat made everything fuzzy while we were waiting to get on the night train in Mombasa, Kenya. Our tickets were first class so we were waiting in front of the first two wagons. The conductor didn’t want to take our tickets for some reason – there seemed to be some sort of complications with reservations and since we didn’t really care what wagon we traveled in, we didn’t complicate things more and just let him take us to the compartment that was still free. Finally, we entered the fourth wagon at the very end of the train and traveled with the African natives. As the train finally took off at five o’clock, we stacked our luggage and our photography equipment underneath the beds and lay down. I stared out of the window, totally overwhelmed by the beautiful African landscape flashing by my eyes. Never had I seen a more beautiful sight. The setting sun made the sky look as if it was burning, the fire kissing the land beneath it as if they were lovers.

As it turned pitch black, I closed my eyes and drifted off into ‘never-never land’. Rain drops falling on the roof woke me up several hours later and made me want to pee. It wasn’t until I got up and looked out of the window that I saw it was pouring down rain. I went to the toilet and lay down again. The rest of my crew was fast asleep, so I made myself busy daydreaming about the future expeditions in beautiful Africa, reading stories my father had written when he was in Africa.

All of a sudden, the train stopped forcefully. All of us fell off our beds, holding to whatever we could, our hearts beating fast and furious. I could hear the water running outside. I figured it must have been a river raging somewhere nearby. A lot of people were screaming and the wheels underneath us were squeaking like thunder until, finally, the train stopped completely. Still, people were screaming and crying. We opened the door of our four-bed compartment to see what was going on, but the night was pitch dark and it was still raining pretty hard, so we couldn’t see anything. All we could hear was people screaming and water running furiously as if we were in the middle of a waterfall.

The clock turned one in the morning and we were still waiting in the train. Not knowing what was going on made me extremely nervous, especially because we knew something bad had happened. Some of the cries became more distant. On and on we waited for hours for the sky to get brighter and it wasn’t until four that it got bright enough for us to go out and see what was going on. There, in the middle of what seemed to be a never ending prairie, we walked to the tip of the long train, and saw the first two wagons had been swallowed by the river. Apparently, the bridge over the flooded river broke loose as the train tried to cross it. Some people were still alive in the wagons screaming for help, but none of us could save them because they were too deep down there for us to reach them. Besides, we had no equipment suitable to rescue them and the river was still raging. All we could do was stand there and watch the crying children and women dying. Dead bodies were piling up down there, hungry crocodiles waiting their turn to fill their stomachs. Standing there helplessly made me want to scream my guts out. There was absolutely nothing we could do to rescue the unfortunate souls who were drowning.

A man with a radio called for help, but the helicopters would not be coming for another four hours. We took our luggage and started walking towards Nairobi. None of us could speak. It wasn’t until we reached Nairobi and reported to the police what had happened that it struck me that we too should have been us among the two hundred people that died in the first two wagons that night.

What happened in the African prairie that night is something that seems like a distant nightmare – a nightmare which will always remind me of how valuable life is and that we should not take it for granted but be grateful to have it and cherish it day by day.

(This was written for my language-learning class; it is now my story, but it really did happen to some one else )

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