"The Flying Train" by Jérémie Mazard.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
THE LUNATIC EXPRESS
by Munene Kilongi
They laid the train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d think you were on the train to New York and arrived in Kinshasa, or to Shanghai and found yourself lost in Istanbul.
At one stop women heaving crates of fish and vegetables scrambled to get into the compartments in a mad wrestling contest. The crates bundled in first, followed by heaving bosoms. The women shrugged their plump shoulders left-to-right and displaced some standing passengers in the crammed space.
Angry grunts and curses rent the mood that was getting fouler every stop. Neat office workers in nice suits screamed in horror when a crate smeared mud on their clean well-ironed trousers. From where I was ensconced, the entrance at the far end of the compartment looked like a dogfighting den.
We dug in tighter on the javs. My hands knotted stiffly on the warm metal as I tried not to topple on the seated passengers. Sweaty armpits, stale breath, the smell of chicken shit, and the soft mellow notes of an expensive cologne wafted in the hot compartment whose windows never open. I could feel the hard groin bone of the man behind me. Meanwhile my front disappeared under the soft ample rump of a well-endowed lass. I have heard of tales of men getting serious hard-ons in this congested situation and receiving angry slaps. We were stuck so firmly on each other I could lift my legs and be suspended in air.
A chicken jumped above our heads causing the human grid to loosen as people tried to grab it. My friend Mwangi gestured that we move to the next carriage. Good idea. I could feel warm snaking lines of sweat spiraling down my arms. The train chugged on, its ancient engine rumbling in loud clanging sounds that felt like an angry blacksmith’s incessant hammering.
It took the energy of a rugby scrum to get past the impenetrable tangled mass of people. I wondered if I should have taken the road. But I was late and the thought of being cooped in a bus in Nairobi’s endemic traffic jams was reason enough to forget my current discomfort.
“Hey, over here.” Mwangi, a plump middle-aged man, probably had to stand on his toes for me to see his raised hand.
I followed him and squeezed past some passengers to get to the next compartment. By the time I reached Mwangi my trousers zipper had made a 180 degree turn and I had to turn it back round like a screw. Then my spirit was dampened once again. This carriage was filled with noisy members of the Legio Maria, a religious sect that infuses traditional African religion and Christianity. Dressed in purple flowing gowns these passengers prayed in an animated fashion that made me wonder if we had jumped from the pan into the fire.
Their bass drums could bang the morning blues out of any sleepy head, and they hit them as if driving out demons. The accompanying metallic jingles left a constant buzz that tingled deep into my ears as they sung with an unusual vigor for this time of morning, when dawn was breaking. Although the carriage was packed, impatient passengers behind us pushed us on, still trying to find a seat.
The man who looked like the leader of the Legio Maria suddenly went into a njathba and his adherents followed suit. They broke into raptures singing in foreign tongues and flailing arms and fists. Now the crowd behind us was pushing even harder. Those of us at the front shouted to those behind to pull back and the ones behind howled we move forward. The compartment became a room full of madmen and the loud clanging of the train joined into this choir of inhuman sounds.
It was impossible to move in the din of rocking bodies and jostling men. My highly polished shoes had been stepped on so many times that it felt like I wore socks. Once the Legio Maria adherents got exhausted, the passengers behind us shoved Mwangi and I all the way to the next carriage. We moved into that carriage, bumping several people out of our path.
Not again. The next compartment was yet another church. A street preacher was hustling for his daily bread. There was ample standing space though. Mwangi even got a seat, right behind the preacher. We were just in time for the money collection that was being passed around in a faded-blue plastic bowl. The preacher was spitting out verses about giving unto charity. His voice would growl loud then come down to soft whispers which were completely drowned by the din of the noisy engines. Several of us grabbed the jav and held on.
Mwangi had carried a bright smile on his face ever since he’d got a seat. A comfortable seat. Then the preacher shouted, “Mwangi! Today you will lead us in prayers.”
Mwangi’s eyes nearly popped out in shock at the sound of his name coming from a stranger’s lips. Believing him to be one of those preachers who have unknown powers Mwangi stood up slowly. His legs shook as he stood and turned to face the crowd. I smiled. I doubted Mwangi, who fondly asserts that our local bar is his church, knew how to pray.
“My name is Mwangi and Jesus is my personal savior. Halleluyah!”
“Praise the lord…Amen!” the other passengers said. A relieved Mwangi hurriedly went back to his seat only to find the preacher man seated comfortably cradling his Bible and counting coins. The Lunatic Express’ horn hooted as we arrived at the main station. Rain dripping from the rusty gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks.
Munene Kilongi lives in Nairobi, Kenya where he works as a freelance writer and videographer. His stories both as a journalist and a writer have appeared in several international newspapers. You can read his peculiar stories in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian online blog Voices of Africa, or his own blog The Peculiar Kenyan. He loves music, a good laugh, and making new friends. You can follow him: @kilongi.