Ghana is good place for people whose modus operandi is something akin to “go with the flow.” (It is, of course, also good for people who are the exact opposite; they get a lesson in the fact that they cannot control everything. But obviously for these folks it’s a more lengthy and painful process.)
Let’s take, as an example, transit. The act of moving your physical self in space from one place to another. In the U.S., most people do this by getting in their cars and driving. Or if they live in a big, dense and well-planned city, by hopping in a bus or on a subway. In Ghana, this is not so straightforward.
How do I get from here to the National Theatre?
Learning how to get around Accra was a big hurdle when I first arrived. It’s a big, sprawling city, and the University of Ghana campus in Legon is a good twelve kilometers from the center. Traffic is terrible – truly horrendous, warranting its own post – and if, like 97% of the population of Ghana, you don’t own a car, getting around is twice as challenging.
Essentially, you have four options, aside from walking (impossible for long distances in the heat and without shade) or biking (which is great but very dangerous outside of local neighborhoods; Accra drivers are totally unconcerned about bikers and bike lanes are virtually unheard of). (1) Taxi; (2) Trotro; (3) Shared taxi; (4) Hitching. (There are actually some public buses, but these are so rare that I think they should go on the endangered species list.)
Taxis in Accra are great. There are zillions of them. Unlike New York City with its crazy licensing schemes and set rates, the taxi industry is unregulated, which keeps prices fairly low. (Though lately the drivers have been citing the hike in petrol prices as an excuse to tack on an additional 20% or more to fares. My roommate says he sometimes calculates the ACTUAL increased expenditure the driver will have to make on this particular trip and shows him this figure – usually no more than 20 or 30 cents. I’m not sure how well this works.)
Not in this traffic.
Of course, the quality of the taxies themselves varies widely. Sometimes you get in a beautiful brand new cab with air conditioning and a great stereo system blasting azonto music. But most of the time it’s clear that the car you’re in has seen better days, stalling several times in a ten minute ride or choking out exhaust or just vibrating in a slightly terrifying fashion.
Taxi rides, though, add up. A trip from Legon to Osu, a popular neighborhood with lots of restaurants and bars, costs about 8 cedis (around 5 dollars). Do that a few times a day, and you could be eating a pretty fine dinner (or paying for less expensive dinners for a week). Plus, us obrunis have to fight hard to get the right price. First you have to learn the appropriate prices, then insist that you should not be given the obruni price. This can involve a lot of discussions, arm-waving, walking away in a huff, drivers driving away in a huff, etc. And then prices go up for any reason a driver can think of: traffic (legitimate, if there IS bad traffic), it’s late (there’s never traffic when it’s late, so this one always elicits a storm of criticism on my part), they won’t be able to get a fare back from where they’re taking you (not my problem), etc.
All of which makes trotros, which cost ten times less, a lot more attractive, especially if you do a lot of running around.
Generally rickety and always crowded, these are large vans, a size which in the U.S. would hold perhaps 15 passengers, but here in Ghana are designed for almost 25. A ride on a trotro is super cheap, like a maximum of 75 cents a trip, and closer to 10 cents for short trips. The rates are set by the government, but they’re privately owned and run.
A trotro rolling along
Trotros run on preset routes. There are no guides or maps published delineating trotro routes You just have to learn them. They operate on a sort of hub and spoke system. There are large and small transit hubs – such as “37”, referring to 37 Military Hospital, where a smallish station serves as a hub for the northern part of Accra. Typically the trotros run from one hub to another. When a trotro pulls up, the “mate” – a guy who sits in the back, operates the sliding door, collects money and solicits passengers – indicates with gestures and calls which hub they are going to. This seems straightforward, but until you learn the signals and calls, it’s totally mystifying. For example, when the mate points his finger down and moves it in a circle, he is going to “Circle,” which short for Kwame Nkrumah Circle, a really giant hub. He may also call “Cir, cir, cir!”
Once you know the route, call and gesture for your desired stop, you jump on!
A view from inside a trotro. The guy in front was preaching.
If, that is, you can find a trotro that is (a) going where you want to go, (b) when you want to go there and (c) has enough room for you in it. This is one of the problems with taking trotros, which, on the surface, seem like the best option for someone on a budget who doesn’t mind rubbing shoulders with strangers in the middle of a virtual sardine can in the heat of subtropical Africa. At peak hours, it can be hard to get a trotro, and after a certain time, usually around 7 or 8 in the evening, many fewer of them are on the road. Which means you can stand at a stop with 20 other people who want the one spot left in the next trotro that stops. You can stand and watch trotros go whizzing by for hours, and your fellow would-be passengers throwing some serious elbows to get on the few that stop. I don’t usually fight for a spot, but now and then, I do get into the fray. (I’ve heard a lot about people getting pickpocketed while fighting for trotro space, but so far I’ve been spared. Knock on wood.) Usually, though, when prospects look this dire, I give up and take a taxi.
Trotros are so expressive. I have a habit of taking pictures of them.
For a fun, hilarious discussion of trotros, check out this post. I could go on about trotros forever, so I’m going to stop there for now. (Fair warning to friends back home: if we’re ever out for a drink and you get me started on this subject, I apologize in advance for the loss of a perfectly good evening to trotro lore.)
Shared taxi is my preferred method of transportation. Basically, shared taxis supplement trotros. They are usually twice as expensive, around a cedi or two (75 cents to a dollar fifty), but MUCH cheaper than taxis. They’re just regular taxis, but the drivers go between various hubs. A driver pulls up at a stop, calls out his destination, and waits until his car fills up. You can get out anywhere along the way.
Shared taxis are awesome: because they’re more expensive than trotros, there’s slightly less demand for them. And they don’t stop nearly as often as a trotro on the same route, which means that as long as you’re not stuck in traffic, your travel time is much shorter. And you’re sharing space with only four other people, instead of 20.
There are shared taxi stands at most of the hubs (like 37), and if you’re lucky one will pull up at a regular bus stop. But unfortunately, a shared taxi at a random stop along a main route is as rare as a dinosaur tooth. If I find one going even approximately where I want to go, I jump in and consider myself very lucky.
Ok, so I know some people are going to be immediately freaked out by this. And it’s true that hitchhiking, especially in the States, has a bad rap. (They don’t talk about it much, but I’m pretty sure my parents did their fair share of hitching in their youth, so I’m hoping they don’t worry too much about this…)
But consider this: Trotros come idiosyncratically. There is no timetable and reliably open seat. And if you happen to be off a trotro route, or out later than 7 in the evening, you’re sort of screwed for public transit. The best you can do is cobble something together if you don’t want to pay full fare for a taxi.
A glimpse of the rare and elusive Metro Mass Transit bus
For example, the other day on the way back from a reading, I took a trotro to 37, which was packed and had no trotros going my way. But I found a shared taxi (what luck!) going past Legon. I took that to the intersection of a road going up into East Legon where trotros going my way always pass by. I took the trotro halfway to the East Legon hub, then got out and walked for about 15 minutes.
Then a guy in a car stopped and said, Hey obruni, where are you going? and offered to drop me off. I jumped in. Turns out he’s a detective who works at the police station just 100 meters from where I live. He told me his name is George, asked where I’m from, told me he’d been in the NYPD and lived in Brooklyn before coming home to Ghana. He gave me his number and told me to call if I needed any help from the police.
This happens a lot. I think I’ve gotten short rides three times in the last week and a half, twice alone, once when I was with my roommate. There are lots of reasons why this does not worry me:
- Ghanaians are just so nice and helpful. It may sound strange, but I feel safer here in Accra than most cities in the U.S.
- Most Ghanaians are just interested in foreigners. Almost everyone knows someone who lives outside of the country and they like to talk about their own or their friends’ and families’ experiences abroad. They generally like Americans and America.
- Most Ghanaians don’t have cars and can’t afford them. So it’s not at all unusual to see people waiting and waiting at bus stops. While I may get preferentially offered rides as a foreigner, I also see Ghanaians stopping to help out other Ghanaians, especially at stops that don’t get a lot of trotro traffic in the evenings. It’s sort of a public service; there’s a culture of hitching and picking up hitchers. That means that it’s not just crazies or weirdos participating in this culture. It’s your average, everyday Ghanaian.
I’ve hitched with a detective, a businessman who was incredibly nice and invited me to his family’s house but I lost his card in the laundry, a 20-something kid in the insurance industry who was borrowing his father’s Benz, two Nigerian students, grounds laborers from the University of Ghana, and a preacher, among others. These have always been positive experiences, and I never felt in danger. Most of the time they’d go out of their way to help me get where I was going.
The first time I hitchhiked, I was with Mel, one of the other Rotary scholars. We were with her husband, Joel, trying to catch a ride along a crowded beach road on a Sunday after running a half-marathon. They started trying to wave down everything from trotros to taxis. Finally, a guy in a nice car – maybe a Benz; you’d be surprised by the number of Benzes on the road here – stopped to pick us up. We talked about America and his work at a government office downtown. He took us all the way to the restaurant we wanted to go to in Osu, probably 20 minutes out of his way. Joel got his number and we all agreed to keep in touch.
The restaurant was closed and the three of us ended up in separate trotros going home. But that’s how it goes in Ghana sometimes. You have to go with the flow.