The First Time I Saw a Train

I was a thirteen year-old village boy who was going to see it for the first time any minute now. My dad and I had just completed a grueling sixteen hour bus trip from the country. We were dusty, black and blue just from the physical pounding we had endured while riding the bumpy bus on a dirt road. We had spent the night at the station and we were seconds away from seeing it. I stared in the southern direction with great anticipation as it approached.

First it was the loud moaning piercing steam whistle blow that echoed around the adjacent downtown sky scrapers of Cairo Road in Zambia’s Capital City of Lusaka. I saw the billowing thick black smoke. Then the train platform vibrated as the massive engine thundered by amidst a loud cacophony of screeching metal, sparks, and jets of white steam furiously shooting from the sides of the massive engine. The train gradually ground to a halt. Suddenly doors flung open and people poured out of the passenger cars like ants as my dad and I excitedly moved forward to board the train. The legend and my dream of the train had met with my reality. I was ecstatic. It was just as my uncles had described in the village and even more exciting. This was to be for ever my life before and after I first saw the train. I have been in love with the train ever since.

My uncles had traveled from our African village to work in plantations one thousand miles away in the former British colonial Southern Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe in the 1940s and 50s. Some relatives had gone as far as Johannesburg and Cape town in South Africa which were almost two thousand miles away. They told riveting stories about the train on their return to the villages.

The train was an imposing technological phenomenon. But there is an aspect of it that creates tremendous enchantment. I experienced the wonder during that first train ride from Lusaka to Kitwe in Savannah Africa over three decades ago. My dad and I were in a third class car and I stuck my head out of the window to a vista of short prairie grassland interrupted by commercial farms, grass hut villages, valleys, and grazing live stock. At the first stop people ran to the sides of the train with oranges, guavas, bananas, biscuits or cookies, the famous yellow chikondamoyo home- baked buns spread with jam or butter, boiled eggs, and an assortment of soft drinks. I had been warned that there traders often ran away into the bush with your change if you were not careful during the hasty transactions. Some crooked passengers also deliberately delayed in paying the traders until the train would take off with the trader running along the train shouting for his or her money as the train picked up speed.

Since that first memorable train ride, I have come to understand why the train as a technological marvel became such a legend and inspired so much imagination. At the time of my first train ride there was a famous song in Zambia among the Nsenga people of  Petauke in Eastern Zambia in which someone in the country side was longing to travel to see the train before they died. Alick Nkhata was one one of the most popular Zambian singers in the 1950s. The song is on Alick Nkhata’s CD “Shalapo”.

Nsenga Zambian Language

Naima naima neo
Naima nkaone njanji
Ningafwe osayiona
Maye we ehhh
Olile olile
Ningafwe osayiona
Maye we ehhhh.

English Translation

I am leaving, I am leaving
Yes, I am leaving
I am leaving to go
And see the train
Before I die
Yes, to see it
Before I die.

Many people at the time described the train as “moaning” and the loud chugging along was characterized as “nashupika” which is an indigenous word for  “to suffer”. They were almost attributing human qualities to it.

Memorial Day signals the beginning of the long dog days of summer travel in America, a reminder that the train was a staple of the  American frontier in the West that inspired numerous Cowboy-Indian movies. Travel also became possible between the South and the burgeoning city life of the Industrial North-East cities such as Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, New York and Boston. Ray Charles’ version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in the “The Genius Hits the Road” album and James Brown’s “Night train” are some of my favorites. Perhaps the most touching impact and enduring legacy of the train is in Blue Grass mountain music of West Virginia, Appalachia to Kentucky.  “Oh, train I can hear your whistle blow…” is one of my favorites by the Seldom Scene.