Cobbling together transportation in Accra, or how I learned to relax and hitch a ride

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.

The National Theatre in traffic

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.
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.)

The back of a taxi that says "No hurry in life."

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.

Trotros.
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.

Back of a trotro that says "Think twice"

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.
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.

Hitching.
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 elusive Metro Mass Transit bus

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Back in Ghana!

I had a really nice visit home, and effectively missed Harmattan, though a residue of dust on my clothes and books proves it was here in my absence. It was wonderful to see friends, enjoy the luxuries of good public infrastructure, share Christmas with my family and wander around New York City.

Unfortunately, I was so busy enjoying myself that I forgot to take pictures.

I also got to talk (a lot) about life in Ghana. Two old friends, Vik and Matt, invited me on their radio show, American Reason, where we chatted about wild animals and African feminism, among other things. It was a really fun conversation; you can download it for free in iTunes here (it’s the episode from 1/1/12).

And a wonderful reporter from my hometown newspaper interviewed me and somehow managed to string together a story from the disarray of my commentary.

I also got to spend a few days in Istanbul, which I visited last year on my travels. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, with an amazing blend of modern and seriously ancient.

Istakal Street, Istanbul

Istakal Street

Turkish sweets

And some of the best food I’ve ever had, especially the classics: mezzes, small plates usually eaten as appetizers, and raki, a clear anise liquor that is usually mixed with water, which makes it cloudy.

Raki

I’ve been back in Ghana now for about a week, and I’m glad to be back. It’s warm, for one thing. And though it’s true that I’m missing some of the conveniences of life at home, I hadn’t even realized how much I missed how really amazingly friendly Ghanaians are. I stepped off the plane to a chorus of Welcomes and more help with my luggage than I could possibly need. Even when I’m haggling over prices with a taxi driver, it’s almost always a light, fun conversation.

I moved out of the University of Ghana dorms into a neighborhood in nearby East Legon. I’m sharing a house with an American guy who is here teaching entrepreneurship – more on that later – and it’s so nice to have a room of my own, a kitchen, and reliable internet.

And a place for friends to hang out…

Friends on the couch

We invited friends over for dinner; they took over the couch.

I have a lot of projects and plans to make the most of the last half of my year in Ghana. Lots more interviews, serious traveling, climbing, socializing… and of course trying to keep up with the reading and writing required for graduate school.

Perhaps most exciting: my dear friends McKinze and Sean, who are in their second year of service as Peace Corps volunteers in (the Republic of) Georgia, are coming to visit me in a month! These two are great adventurers; it’ll be fun to show them around.

Rough Cuts: Anansi and Ancestral Wisdom

This will be the first installment in a series of very rough audio clips from interviews I’ve done with people here in Ghana. I’ve been privileged to have a number of fascinating conversations with wonderful people here, and I’m working on cleaning them up just a bit to share with you.

Rough Cut Number 1: Anansi and Ancestral Wisdom

Most have you have probably heard of Anansi the Spider, the trickster character in children’s tales.

Anansi actually comes from the Akan people, the name for several related ethnic groups in Ghana, including the Ashantis. He is an important part of the Akan people’s heritage of folktales. These stories were passed on from generation to generation, often dramatized in traditional oral storytelling practices.

Oral storytelling at Auntie Esi's house

In August, one of my professors – Auntie Esi – invited us to her house to see some traditional storytellers interacting with Ghanaian children.

Later, I spoke with one of the girls who attended the event, Richlove, and her father, Clement.

Richlove and Clement

Clement and Richlove were a wonderful pair. He is a pastor in a Pentecostal Church near Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra, and had some amazing insights. He told me about the long walk to the fields in his rural village as a child, his grandmother telling stories along the way.

Now his life is more focused on the Bible, prayer and his congregation. But Richlove’s participation in Auntie Esi’s events has made him think deeply about the importance of their ancestral roots, and he’s even begun incorporating traditional stories in his sermons.

The events have also changed Richlove’s sense of life and connectedness with her family. Plus, she says, they’re fun.

Powerless

The power and the water have been on and off all week. After the water went out for the first time, I started keeping a full bucket in the bathroom. But when the power goes off, it’s just a minor inconvenience. I can’t boil water or turn on my fan. No problem. So it wasn’t until last night, when the darkness fell, rapidly, that I really took notice. I was sitting on the balcony, eating my bowl of rice in the waning light. In the time it took me to finish, it became totally dark. Small lights began to go on in the windows of the dorm across from mine. I sat outside in the darkness for a few minutes. The group that stands and chants beneath a nearby tree every night began gathering, their voices slowly swelling.

I went inside to chop the vegetables I’d washed earlier for a salad. I chopped in the dark, slowly. I was thinking about the power outages of my childhood. After a storm, usually.  We would light candles and gather together as a family in the living room.  Those nights had a sacred quality; the darkness brought us together, the candles making a flickering circle in a cradle of dark. I wondered, as I stood there chopping, if Ghanaians here in Accra gather like that in the candlelight, if there is something special to them about nights without power. Or is it too commonplace?

Thinking of the togetherness of those nights of my childhood, I paused in my chopping. I walked down the dark hallway. It looked endless, like a hall of mirrors stretching into black. I knocked on Sarah and Lesego’s door. I told them to bring their bowls. They brought their light. Sarah made some dressing. I chopped more lettuce, cucumber and tomato.  And we ate and we talked and then they left.

I was in Madina market when the power went out. I had just purchased a small used refrigerator, which the owners were cleaning for me. I went to look for a few more things while they finished. After about five minutes, I received a marriage proposal, from a surprisingly well-dressed young man. I laughed and told him I was already married, which is generally the easiest way out of such suggestions. “Second husband!” he said, also laughing. “And second priority!” I shot back. We both laughed and I continued on my way, walking into the heart of the market. I was standing in a cloth shop when the lights went out and the fan stopped whirring.

It was my second time at Madina in two days, and my second trip to a market of the day. I had been to Madina the previous day, Friday, at 6 a.m., on an assignment for my class, Drama in African Societies. The five of us met to observe the real-life dramas at the opening of the market. People lining up to catch tro-tros. A church service. Early-morning transactions. A woman sleeping in her vegetables. A man with a new shipment of used clothes calling out, One cedi! One, one cedi!

Headed to work

Or school…

Having a chat

Praying

Carrying stuff on your head

Getting in a quick nap before the day begins in earnest.

We even had a little real-world drama of our own…

Mariama (far left) was taking issue with the fact that Zablong (far right) had reprimanded her earlier for trying to buy fish while we were working, and was now buying women’s clothes. (For his daughter, he told us.) Margaret (next to Zablong) and I were amused, while the guy selling clothes (next to Mariama) just kept trying to sell the clothes.

After we finished our observations, I went to buy a small hotplate. Almost on impulse, I also bought a small battery-powered radio, which, I discovered later, has an LED flashlight (“torch,” they call it, like the British) on the end. It came in handy last night, though the fridge and the hotplate were totally useless. The fridge got up to my room thanks to David, a young man who does odd jobs around the hostel. He saw me getting out of the cab, and came over to help.  The fridge went on his head and up the stairs and down the hall to my room. I gave him all the cedis left in my wallet.  Which sadly was not many thanks to the fridge and the temptations of the cloth shop.

Then I went to take my sheets off the clothesline outside the building. Some Ghanaians have washing machines, but they’re fairly uncommon, and we don’t have one in or near or building. You can hire someone to do your laundry for you or just do it yourself and hang it out to dry. I’m no stranger to washing clothes by hand, especially after my six months of travel with only a few items of clothing. But every time I mention laundry, the Ghanaians I’m speaking to seem amazed. “By hand?!  You know how to do that?” As I was hanging my sheets, two guys who were “having brunch” on their porch at ground level called out to me. They were amused by an obruni doing her very own laundry. “It’s your first time, though, right?” they asked, when I told them it wasn’t so hard. One of them, Raza, told me he can’t do it – laundry, that is – so he bought a washing machine to keep in his room. I told him we were now friends.

But when I went back that afternoon, my sheets were gone. My sweater and t-shirt that I’d also hung out were still there, but the sheet and the matching pillowcase were missing, just the clothespins stuck forlornly to the line. Washing them had taken me two hours and I was looking forward to fresh-smelling, sun-dried sheets. Next time, I’ll have to hire David to keep an eye on them. They were really ugly sheets; whoever stole them has terrible taste!

But the day ended well, with a meal with friends in the dark. And it started well too. I met Mel, one of the other Rotary scholars not long after dawn to run together to Dome market. Both of us are registered for the half-marathon next weekend. It was a great run through a part of the city I haven’t been to before, and we ended at Dome, a charming small market full of fantastic fresh vegetables. That’s where I’d bought the ingredients for my salad. Mel’s really great and very interesting. She served in the Peace Corps in Cape Verde Islands off Senegal several years ago, and her husband came with her here to Ghana. I’m excited to get to know her better, and I hope Saturday morning runs with her become another ritual.

And the day started and ended with music. Music is everywhere here, all the time. At 6:30 in the morning, four boys with guitars came to sing outside the hostel, right below my window. And at night, with the lights out, the praise-singers’ voices and clapping seemed to fill the air more than they usually do.

So, the beginning and the end of my day:

(Folks who get this by email may need to go to the blog to see this link.)

My first palanquin

We talked about palanquins in class. I was astonished. Delighted. Real palanquins?! I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to actually use the word, except when singing along to The Decemberists, so I had to be sure I had the right meaning; “A palanquin is a litter, right?”

Yes, it is. And last weekend, I saw one. More than one, actually. Regina and I went to Fetu Afahye, the big yearly festival of the Fanti people. The festival takes place in Cape Coast (Oguaa in Fante), which is both their main city and the site of the infamous Cape Coast Castle.

Women walking by Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle

The symbolism and ritual significance of festivals in Ghana is rich, and unfortunately much of it is still lost on me. They have a ritual aspect and a public aspect, and the two are intertwined. They reflect and reinforce – but also sometimes invert and mock – the traditional social order, and often span days. Fetu Afahye lasts a week, events and rituals gradually building to a climactic procession on Saturday.

That’s what we went to see.

We got up early, having heard that the procession started at 7:30 a.m. We were informed otherwise by people on the street. So we had some egg sandwiches at Janet’s Spot. They were to die for. And then we explored.

The Main Square

The Main Square in early morning, all decked out with MTN advertising. MTN is a big cellular and internet provider, and they seem to be the dominant advertisers here.

Cape Coast street before the procession

Before the procession

Regina and clowns

These clowns were everywhere. They would ask for money and then either dance for you or do some stunts. Pretty much everyone would give them a coin or two.

After we’d found a good place to watch the procession, we fortuitously ran into a really nice young man who worked at our hotel. (Actually, there were no rooms available at our hotel, so we stayed in a tent. It was really very nice.) He invited us to join his clan. They were hanging out in a back alley, preparing to join the procession. We shook hands with a couple of chiefs, told the queenmother she was beautiful (she was), and asked lots of questions. Then suddenly we were all pouring out of the alley into the street, where everyone began clapping and singing and dancing.

The chief

Me with the chief of our adopted clan, and a stunned onlooker.

Queenmother

And the striking queenmother…

Enthusiastic man

This man really wanted me to take his picture.

And then came the palanquins. With spinning elevated umbrellas.

The chief in his palanquin

A big chief in his palanquin

The chiefs in our adopted clan were sub-chiefs, so they walked instead of riding in palanquins. Apparently, at social functions, status disputes sometimes arise in various symbolic acts (like arriving in a palanquin vs. a car) between chiefs; there’s a whole mess of protocol to be observed. That’s what we’d been talking about in class when palanquins first came up.

I was there!!!

Each chief has his or her (yes, there are some female chiefs) entourage. Women dancing in front, the chief’s linguist walking seriously with his staff, drummers walking behind.

Entourage

Part of the entourage. All of the dances, movements, gestures, clothing have significance. I’ll get into that later, as far as I’m capable.

There were all sorts of interesting characters. And way too much going on to begin to recount it all. Drums, dancing. Acting. Flag-spinning. A guy on stilts. I got a sunburn.

Flag dancing

Flag dancing. Among the Fanti, each clan (there are seven, I’m told) has its own flag. The applique tells a story unique to each clan.

Some kids dancing

This kid is awesome.

A vegan

There was even a hipster.

Revelry

A festival’s not a festival until you throw your hands in the air.

Photographer

The tables are turned….this guy saw me snapping him snapping me and started laughing, then came over and asked to take some together.

I couldn’t resist the urge to collect lots of sounds and pictures, so I’ll post more later, along with a (slightly) more in-depth look at the significance of some of aspects of this festival and Ghanaian festivals in general.