08.07.2010 - 10.08.2010
We thought it would be nice to write some general entries about themes that we most related to our adventure in Ghana. This is a detailed entry about transport in all its glory with information as well as funny annecdotes of things we experienced ourselves.
Tro-tro – best described as a mini-van run by the people for the people, with as many seats as possible fitted in the back. And it is not unusual to have many people share seats no matter how broad they were and no matter how long the distance they would cover. Mothers with children often do not have the money to pay for extra seats for their children, so quite often you see a woman with a baby on her back and two or three children squeezed on her lap. Ghanaians are used to this and as long as they can get to their destination they are content. At one point, the tro-tro was so full that the mate had to sit on the roof! (The “mate” is the driver's assistant, who sits with the passengers at the back next to the door. He shouts the destination out of the window to attract further customers and he also collects the money through out the ride, carrying a thick wad of banknotes in his left hand at all times.) You often see passengers with the strangest possessions entering the tro-tro: bulky items such as TVs and fridges or even live chickens and other animals. One day we even saw people carrying five plastic chairs stacked on top of each other on the tro-tro by holding them out of the window! A very surreal experience!
(a special site dedicated especially to tro-tro's in Ghana, including amazing pictures and funny annecdotes about everything related to getting a tro-tro)
The popularity of the tro-tro's is due to the tro-tro is the cheapest and best form of transport in all of West-Africa. If you want to travel somewhere, you just stand anywhere by the road and shout out your destination to any passing tro-tro's. Easy peasy! Getting a tro-tro from an actual tro-tro station is a completely different and hectic experience. Drivers don't customarily leave the station until the tro-tro is entirely filled up, leaving many of the passengers waiting inside for over an hour, to hold on to their seats. Finding the last passengers so that the mini-van can at last leave is therefore a mighty quest that involves a lot of shouting and pulling. On top of that, the waiting tro-tro is surrounded by vendors at all time, carrying all kinds of refreshments as well as underwear, bibles, toothpaste, machetes, bread, windscreen-wipers, … anything you could possibly think of and more, on their heads. No need for shops, the goods get delivered to you in person! And whenever the tro-tro stands still through out the drive, a sea of hands will appear inside through the windows shoving their goods in your face, much to the annoyance of those who were just enjoying a nap. I have had several Ghanaians rest their heads on my shoulders, which did not add to the already rather uncomfortable ride. Luckily none of them drooled!
Tro-tro's may at times be extremely uncomfortable, but we loved them, because it brought you closer to the people and therefore to Ghana.
Taxi – recognisable by the flashy orange colour that is painted on the wings of the car. Taxi's are privately owned and usually come with a variety of broken car parts. We drove in a taxi without any mirrors; with a shattered windshield; without a back windshield; without a key-hole and therefore without a car-key; without a fixed driver's seat, meaning he just wobbles about everywhere; without lights, etc. Any car that would have ended in a scrapyard in Europe, would lovingly be adopted as a taxi in Ghana
There are two types: the 'dropping' taxi and the shared taxi. The dropping will get you from one specific destination to another, without picking anyone else up along the way. So, as we would find them in Europe. The shared taxi usually goes from one main point (junctions, car-parks) to another, picking up people along the way. And they will fit in as many people as is humanly possible: 4 in the front seats (yes, even sharing the driver's seat!) and about 5 or 6 people in the back seat. We always took the shared taxi as it was a lot cheaper, but when Yavoos are present, they tend not to overcrowd them as much, which we appreciated a lot We did however see two very lolo (fat) people share the front seat, which was quite an entertaining view. They were strangers to each other, but did not object to the uncomfortable ride at any point, because, as Simon would say: “This is Africa!”
STC Bus – (State Transportation Corporation) upmarket and therefore expensive inter-city busses, mainly created for tourists. They do long-distance journeys from one big city to another. They have all the mod-cons such as air-conditioning, TV blaring Nigerian movies to keep you entertained (or aggravated!), windows with curtains and... everything works! It may be the safest, most comfortable and most efficient way of travelling around Ghana, but we could not help but feel dis-attached from the real Ghana sitting there, amongst all the wealthier Ghanaians and whiteys.
Motorbikes – the old type of motorbikes. These were especially used in the smaller villages and when you walk past, the driver usually screams something in the trend of: “Yavoo! Where you go?” After we heard a story of one of the volunteers getting a nasty burn on her legs from the exhaust pipes, we were too much of a chicken to ever take a ride with them. But they are used as public transport, fitting up to four people on them! I once saw a guy carrying three rather hefty-looking women on the back, each of them lifting up their long dresses to their knees and holding on fiercely to each other. I'm not sure that must have been very comfortable. The best thing we saw being carried on a motorbike was a massive double mattress rested in between the driver and the passenger! Everything is possible in Africa!
And on Lake Volta and the many lagoons across the country there are of course a variety of carved out wooden boats and canoes that serve as transport. These are only used by the fishermen as they seem to be the only people in Ghana that know and dare to swim. The strong current that the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea create are extremely dangerous, meaning that even those that wish to learn to swim generally don't get the chance to.
One thing all modes of transport have in common is the many religious sayings stuck on them, such as “Nothing Pass God”, “No Food For Lazy Man”, “Jesus is Alive!”, “God is Great”, “Nobody Knows Tomorrow” etc. which are equally featured as names of enterprises to which I will return in another entry.
Driving in Ghana is quite a scary occurrence:
1) As you may have guessed, there seem to be no rules whatsoever: “this is Africa!”, says Simon, “and as long as your ping ping works, everything is fine!”, referring to the horn. This is indeed the most important aspect to keep in mind when driving in Ghana as it is used for everything: to tell other cars that you will be overtaking, to frighten animals off the street, to greet pedestrians or to let them know a car is coming up behind them, to show your anger, your happiness or excitement, or even as a back-up instrument to the song you are singing or listening to. Africans love noise as everybody will have experienced while watching the World Cup this summer. The main reason behind South-Africa wanting to host it was merely because they needed more noise, hence the beloved vuvuzelas!
2) Seatbelts are merely for decoration.
3) There is hardly any lighting, so it is not unusual to see drivers using their high-beams during the evening, blinding you dangerously. Or even worse: some cars don't have any working lights at all. On our way to the Wli Falls at 4am, judging by the nearing single light in the distance we expected a bicycle to come our way. It was in fact a gigantic truck with only one working light! We got the biggest shock and Simon and I jumped on our seats!
4) Speed-cameras do not exist. It is therefore custom in Ghana to drive as fast as you can, usually doing about 160km an hour (which is extremely fast in a small shabby car!).
5) Footpaths do not exist. Pedestrians can just walk wherever they find some space. No need to make a fuss about it.
6) Insurance? What's that? If you happen to therefore get yourself in an collision or accident and your car is still working, your best bet is just to drive away as quickly as possible. If you however drive into a pedestrian, the surrounding people and cars will immediately take action and either beat you up or take you straight to the police. A Ghanaian, in presence of other Ghanaians will never get away with fraud, crime or murder!
We actually witnessed a driver running over a woman in Denu. She was not killed, but her organs were so badly hit that everyone knew she would pass away sooner or later. As soon as it happened, everyone hurried to the driver and shouted at him: “You killed a woman!”, “What were you thinking?”, “Who drives like this?” etc. The man in question could not care any less though, looked on his watch, mumbled something and drove away. I did not understand how someone could get away with such a crime, especially after what I had been told, and I turned to Simon. He explained that the driver was a former diplomat and that trying to bring him to justice would be doubtful and pointless. Luckily, the next day he went to the police-station with some of the locals and reported it. Now we can only hope for the best...
BUT it all works without too many incidents due to an overruling sense of community with everyone watching out over each other. Ben called this “organized chaos”.
And the things we were truly shocked about had nothing to do with any of this, but with the many police barriers and stations that are scattered by the roads in all of Ghana. Initially, we thought this was a really good initiative of the government: making sure that nobody smuggles weapons or illegal good across the country and insuring the safety of the citizens. At least that is what they are meant to do and some police officers do genuinely stop you to quickly look inside and check inside your boot. But it was soon clear that the intentions of most police-men were soon of a different nature. One day we got stopped and the police officer demanded 'coco-money' of Simon ('coco' being the name Ghanaians give to their local porridge). Ben and I did not understand why Simon had to pay him a couple of Cedis, but it did not take us long to notice that the police officer in question was bribing him. After mentioning this to other Ghanaians they tell us that it is the custom here and that there is nothing they can do to stop it. If you refuse to pay, the police officers can take you to court for whatever reason that suits them. If you just continue driving on, the police officer will advise the next police barrier of your number plate, so that you will get stopped there with all the consequences that go with it. And where do you complain about this? Exactly, at the police station! And there is no way a police officer will betray his fellow men, especially if it might stop him from putting some illegally received bank-notes in his own pocket. Because that's what it is: illegal. I could not understand how in a country, where every single person is religious, something like this could happened. Simon explained it as followed: “once the person puts on his police uniform, he takes off his Christian uniform”, giving way to corruption. He also added that we were his “guardian angels”, because police officers are generally afraid of Yavoos as there could always be a chance that they carry an official title and take them to court. We noticed however that their desire for money was at times greater than their fear to get caught. And it is a powerless feeling to see hard earned money go to corrupt officials.
Mind you, there are times you can get away from it all depending on how creative you are. One day, our car got stopped and the police official tried his luck on us, Yavoos. He demanded our passports and when we gave him our photocopied versions (the originals cleverly stored in a safe-box in the house), he asked us to follow him out of the car into his office. We were rather petrified about what would happen and about how much cash we were going to have to give him to let us go. Simon, however, knew exactly what to do and to our surprise he took out his mammoth of a camera out of the car. Was this really the moment to take pictures? But soon we realised his plan. When we followed him inside a little later, the police officer was singing a different tune, kindly gave us back our photocopies and asked us to please carry the originals on us next time around. Confused we looked at Simon, who told us, safely back inside the car, that he told the police officer that we were both very respected journalists for a famous newspaper in Europe and that we were documenting Ghana. And so, if he created problems, there would surely be trouble for him Yes... creativity goes a long way! Thank you, Simon!
The only other time I heard of this kind of bribery is from Stefano, the school-headmaster's son. We shared University experiences one day during my long breaks and I was absolutely appalled when I heard him say that even though he received outstanding grades every year, this still did not ensure that he would pass the year. He had to first have a “meeting” with some of the teachers and pay them their “commission rates”. In other words: they bribed the students and if they refused, you would suddenly discover that your grades were in fact not that outstanding at all. Many students “miraculously” failed the year this way, he told me. He asked me how many times this had happened to me, but of course I had to tell them I had never heard of such bribery at the University of Glasgow before. He was happy for me, but I could tell it was something he was truly struggling with and that he wished he could also attend a more “honest” university. Since I do not know of many people having attended university in Ghana, I never had the story confirmed by anyone else. Regardless of this, it is a matter that needs to change, especially knowing how many years most people have to work before they can at last afford to study at a “higher education institute”.
However, as far as corruption goes, Ghana is in fact a wonderful country full of the most honest people we have ever met. We discovered this, for example, when we travelled by tro-tro and realised that the “mate” (driver's assistant) could have easily made us pay whatever price for the fare he fancied as we had no clue how much each individual journey cost. But as I said: in the presence of other Ghanaian passengers, he would never dare to rip us off. The dishonest people you do encounter are always the ones that are wealthier than their compatriots. They know the taste of getting what they want and constantly yearn for more, in whatever possible ways. We have therefore heard of stories of volunteers travelling every day by tro-tro without a single incident and then travelling by STC bus and have their iPod or wallet stolen while they nodded off. We never experienced anything like this and compared to living in Glasgow, we never felt unsafe at any point. Oh Ghana, you treated us so well!