By Muyiwa Adetiba

Otis Redding’s evergreen song, ‘Sitting on the dock of bay’ came severally to mind as I sat on the embankment of the lake at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Ibadan two weekends ago with a fishing rod in my hand.

There was no discernible tide on the languid lake so I was not, like it said in the song, watching the tide roll away. But the feeling of marking time was exactly the same. It was a beautiful morning in a beautiful environment and everything felt just right.

The lake was almost still. The breeze was gentle and soothing. The forest was dense and lush, looking unviolated. The typical forest sounds from birds and reptiles completed the scenery. It seemed the perfect place to be if you were on a get-away holiday. I was. We were.

I like water. Always have. I find the pull of water strange because I can’t even float talk less of swim. Yet, I find an incredible closeness to nature when I am by a body of water – lake, river or ocean. In the 70s, I used to go to the Bar Beach in the evenings just to gaze at the fading sun. I almost always felt the tension in my body ebb away as I watched the ebbs and flows of the waves.

At the Festac home where I lived for almost thirty years, I tried to find my way to the waterfront whenever I could. Especially in the early years when it was still safe to do so. Now on the Island, I never get tired of the frenzied activities on the lagoon. In the mornings, I like to watch the exploits of fishermen in their canoes as they try to earn a living.

Or the ferries pouncing up and down, picking and discharging passengers. In the evenings, I like to see the lights of the ‘big boys’ boats and yachts as they ‘stroll’ by. Night time is to enjoy the serenity of the lagoon and the different patterns of reflected lights on the waves. But the ultimate high for me is to be in those fifty storied cruise ships as they cross Continents into territories that man has not yet subdued and abused. Strange; but I intuitively believe that the calming freshness of water prolongs life.

I found myself in IITA in the last weekend of September because it was the 40th wedding anniversary of Mr and Mrs Sola Animashaun and they had planned a private get-away. Two weeks earlier was our own 40th wedding anniversary. The children wanted us to mark it. But fate had other plans.

My mother died about two weeks to the day. So when Dr Niran Akintola who also got married 40 years ago on the same wet, raining day in Benin and in the same church with us, called to ask if we had a Covid19 compliant plan for the day, I had to tell him the death of my mother had scuttled whatever plan we had. As it turned out, her interment was a day before the anniversary while the day itself was spent mostly on the road coming back to Lagos.

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So the offer of the Animashauns saved us from having death and interment as the only memories of this landmark anniversary. The offer also had other attractions. We were to go by train and we were to lodge at IITA. Both were new experiences I did not mind having. The final bait of a possible fishing outing got me inextricably hooked. The icing on the cake was the 70th birthday celebration of my sister for that same weekend in Ibadan.

Train travel is not new to me. Even in Nigeria. But it was so long ago in Nigeria that I can no longer recollect the experience. It certainly wasn’t for the experience or for pleasure then. This one was for both. I wanted to witness the ‘second coming’ of the train service in Nigeria and to compare it with other services around the world. In this I was lucky to have met Soji Awogbade at the station. Soji has become a convert to this second reincarnation of rail travel.

He travels as often as he fancies for the pleasure of it, often sending a car ahead to compensate for transportation deficit on the other side. He once had the Minister and high officials for company. So he got a first-hand brief about the goals of the service. His brief helped me to understand many of the lapses I saw on the trip. We are as it were, still taking baby steps. Be that as it may, the Corporation must start as it means to go on. It should pay attention to little details.

As they say, it is the little foxes that spoil the vine. (Songs of Solomon Chapter2).For example, the announcers on the trains need to undergo some voice training. It won’t cost much but will do a lot to set up the standard. The diction of one of them was atrocious.

Secondly, in this era of Covid19, the officials should maintain Covid19 protocols beyond the cosmetic. Otherwise, the train service could be a super spreader especially when it is full. Quite a few passengers removed their face masks as soon as they settled in and no officials to put them in check.

In fact, many of the officials had their face masks on their chins as they walked up and down the aisle. There was a sloppiness that is typically Nigerian but which should have no place in a modern service. We got down at 3 pm to be welcomed by two clocks that showed 10.30 and 11.30 am respectively. Little details. Telling details.

The ride was smooth. Though it was a little jerky on the return trip. The stations I saw from where I sat in the coach looked comparable to any station in the world. But they must be seen as work in progress. Not just the building, but also its administration.

The scenery was beautiful which is to be expected in a way. Nigeria has a lot to offer its citizens and the world in topography. But it has also exposed possible commercial activities along the train route. The vast expanse of untamed land shows that the South-West can feed itself easily if there is the will.

There is a lot to say about IITA, our destination. But right now, the experience has left me speechless. There is not a piece of litter anywhere. Not a blade of grass out of place. Not a pothole on the roads. Not a single broken-down vehicle. Not a single staff without a mask.

 IITA could have been anywhere in the world. I mean that as a high compliment from somebody who has been around. For an Institute set up over 50years ago still looking so pristine says a lot about what is achievable even in Nigeria if we learn to put the right people in the right places. The NRC could learn a thing or two from IITA if it aims to be around for another 50 years.

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