The History of Resilience Tour
Earlier this year, I was privileged to participate in the History of Resilience Tour at the Nigerian Railway Compound, Ebute-Metta, Lagos. As I arrived early, I was able to walk around the grounds for a while. The historical compound encompasses several quaint buildings, the overall effect immense and beautiful with greenery. The Central Bank of Nigeria commenced here, as well as the second oldest leisure club in Nigeria—Club 1919, which is still functional and in this compound.
The itinerary for the tour comprised of visits to some structures entrusted to and managed by LEGACY 1995—the historical and environmental interest group in Nigeria, an NGO interested in the preservation of historical sites. We started the tour from the Old Running Shed built in 1898, where faulty train engines were brought for repairs. Our guide showed us part of the carriage, which Queen Elizabeth II used when she visited Nigeria in 1956. Even though the place looks run down, we were told LEGACY had improved greatly on what had been a dump and harbour for miscreants. The Nigerian Railway Corporation has entrusted the project to LEGACY, which will soon be converted into a museum with exhibition spaces and office apartments. As with all their restoration projects, they seek collaborations and are open to working with the government, corporate organisations, and individuals interested in preserving our history for future generations. Our guide also explained that the relics restored would maintain their old world charm. There were some interesting graffiti done on some of the coaches and it was mentioned that a certain lifestyle festival SLAY was held there recently. The festival featured art installations, fashion exhibits, and performances; coaches were cleaned out and used as mini-restaurants. It is a space with great prospects and even in its present state, it can be used for music videos and film shoots.
Next, we were taken to the Ilukwe House, a colonial style storey building, built between 1898 and 1900 and named after Gregory Ilukwe, a former sole administrator of the Nigerian Railway. In the typical style prevalent then, the ground floor is built with concrete while the first floor has pinewood flooring resistant to termite attacks. It was built to allow cross ventilation, as well as keep out the sun with the aid of wooden shutters. All the materials used for the building were imported and interestingly the sanitary wares in the house are still present since it was built over a century ago! The building has a main lounge, breakaway rooms for visitors and sleeping areas. There is a concrete side stairway for the family and another at the back of the building leading straight from the servant’s quarters into the kitchen. This was the only access servants had into the house. Ilukwe House also awaits restoration and there are plans in place to change the structure to an ICT centre.
Our last stop was the Jaekel House, a beautifully restored, classic colonial mansion, which houses the Nigerian Railway Museum, initiated by LEGACY. It was initially built as the home of the general manager of the corporation who deputised for the governor-general Lord Lugard. The railway compound was the most secure for governance at the time. The design and construction of the building allowed for the flow of naturally occurring breeze, which helped to cool the house as was typical of colonial houses built in equatorial latitudes around the world. Set on a large expanse of moor, it is named after late Francis Jaekel OBE, a former superintendent of the corporation, who retired in the seventies after almost thirty years of service. He would later write a three-volume history of the Nigerian Railways, published in 1998. The former sole administrator, late Chief Gregory Chinweuba Ilukwe, funded the restoration of the building by Professor John Godwin in 2010, as well as a museum project. It contains objects brought together by the Railway Corporation and a team of professionals from different disciplines. Our guide explained the use of the exhibits outside the building and within the museum. In addition to hosting relics of the railway system, there were evocative photographs of our national history on display. Photographs are not allowed in the gallery. This building and its grounds are used for several events like picnics, fairs, film shows and shoots. Some scenes from historical Nigerian movies like Kunle Afolayan’s October 1 and Tolu Ajayi’s The Encounter were filmed here.
Another guide explaining the use of the water column and other objects
The curator of the Railway Museum, Abdurauf Akinwoye worked with the Nigerian Railway Corporation for thirty-five years before retiring as the director of public relations. He provided us with information about the corporation, the house and the trajectory of his career.
“The Nigerian Railway Corporation was established in 1898 and this compound is a unique environment and a place of firsts even though it was neglected along the line. It was the main institution, which existed, in the colonial era, as well as the citadel of learning and technology. The determinant of the national budget planning and implementation of this great country then was the Nigerian Railway. Working here then was like working in the present top oil companies because of the salaries and work conditions. Big organisations in the transport sector like the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), started here as departments and units. This compound also has the oldest technical training school—Railway Technical Training Institute, which was established in the 1930s and the first printing press, The Nigerian Railway Printing Press. The history of Nigeria cannot be told or better expressed without this place. Many Nigerian communities were discovered because of the passage of the rail tracks through their terrains. All my youthful life was spent in the rail sector; I was born into a railway community. My grandfather started work in 1900 with the corporation, then my father worked here too.
I started off my career as a primary school teacher and had a stint with the Nigerian Paper Mill. My father motivated me and when there was an opening for work, I joined the system in 1981 as a wages and records officer. Due to my natural talent and zest for public relations, I ended up in that department and this extended to my appointment as curator of the museum, post-retirement. Having benefitted immensely from the system over decades, my love for the arts has helped my work here. I composed the railway anthem still in existence and was the coordinator of the railway cultural troupe for some years because I believe in using my talents for the betterment of the institution and the nation.
I am happy the federal government decided to return to the rail system and this effected its modernisation. We have 3, 505 kilometre stretches of the old narrow gauge within Nigeria. The new railway system stemmed from the old and my last official assignment was at the commissioning of the modern standard gauge operating from Abuja to Kaduna. Everyone is patronising this. The president, ministers, and top functionaries have also taken rides in the new trains. The new standard gauge from Lagos to Ibadan is currently been worked upon.”
The tour was concluded with group photographs. In all, it was indeed a great immersion in history and culture.
Image credits: Adebimpe Adebambo
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