January 30, 2020
A TROTRO RIDE FROM NEW TOWN TO ACCRA
Accra! kra! kra! kra! kra! Screamed several youthful voices in discordant harmony. Repeating it over and over and over till you hear it in the sound of the radio, the crying of infants, the tread of footsteps, the whining of school children and the chime of your waking dreams! The whole street is engulfed in one rousing cry of Accra! Kra! Kra Kra! Kra! Like fireworks going off. Without a word, I climbed into the trotro in which four passengers were already seated and settled down to wait. The mate, standing in front of the car and leaning against it continued to announce the destination of his trotro – Accra!
The ‘loading’ of passengers is usually much faster in the morning but as the day wears on, the numbers get thinner and the trotro takes longer to fill up. It was a quarter past ten in the morning and so I did not expect to wait long. I took my seat at the very back of the car by the window. This is the least favourite seat of most passengers. Besides a few of us, most people take this seat with some reluctance because goods are typically loaded beneath those seats and this takes part of the legroom. The occupants are also invariably the last persons to disembark once the trotro reaches its final destination, and if anyone sitting there wishes to alight before the final destination, they would have to squeeze themselves, twist and turn and tread the feet of others to get out. However, there are also quite a few advantages – fresh air from the window and the least chance of being trodden upon by embarking and disembarking passengers. I am always motivated by the fresh air from the windows so that when the other seats are taken, I have no problem going to the back if the window seat is not taken.
After seating for about 10 minutes, I began to look around at the other passengers just to amuse myself. This has become quite a hobby for me – watching people. I do it to pass the time and it never fails to get interesting. In the front seat beside where the driver will sit, sat a young woman and a young man. By their posture and demeanours, either they were not travelling together or they were an unhappy couple forced to undertake the journey together for some reason. The second option was more probable for a fight is difficult to mask. They both looked in opposite directions. The young man was looking intently through the window on his right side at something, whether far or near I could not tell whilst the lady laid back a little and focused on the driver’s side and the dashboard. She looked intently from the steering wheel to the gear lever both of which looked like the stumps of dead trees jotting out in a burnt field and surrounded by a mass of wires. They did everything to avoid each other’s gaze. I became quite interested in them and made a mental note to see whether they would pay their fare differently or the man would pay for both of them to confirm my supposition of a domestic fight. On that note, I turned to the main part of the car.
The first seat also had two passengers who appear to be moving together for though they were both fixated on their mobile phones, they occasionally looked at each other and exchanged a word or looked at something on each other’s phones and nodded or smiled. They were in a world of their own and appeared not to notice or hear anything going on in the bus. They even succeeded in ignoring the voices and flying spittle of the two young men who entered and sat in the seat directly behind them. These two hardly sat down before they began or rather continued a lively discourse; complaining and lamenting about everything – their friends, family, the economy, their MP, Assemblyman and their constituency chairman. One of them gesticulated angrily but after the tantrums, they both laughed and then looked around amazed as if realising for the first time that they were not alone. They paused their talk for a couple of minutes but resumed just before the last passenger embarked and continued to talk for the rest of the journey.
Two women were sitting on the seat right in front of me and were engaged in conversation albeit in muted tones about the price of goods in the city. They appear to be traders going shopping to replenish their stocks. They compared and contrasted prices of wax prints, ladies dresses, children’s wear, sandals, and foodstuffs in Makola, Mallam Atta, Kantamanto and Nima. They complained about costumers’ complaints, about the demands of their suppliers and about dwindling profits. They counted their moneys, sighed, recounted it, and carefully packed it into purses hidden deep in generous bosoms and resumed their complaints. Beside me sat an elderly man and a teenage girl. The Oldman embarked first and the girl joined a minute or two after. The Oldman went to sleep, resting his hands and head on the seat in front of us whilst the girl was engrossed in her phone. She was obviously on a call and did not mind the rest of us following her conversation. Though she had the headphones on, she talked at full volume and laughed heartily from time to time whilst flipping through a large collection of photoshopped images on Facebook. I laid back on our seat in order to observe her and what she was doing closely. She’s now telling the person at the other end of the line about an Islamic wedding she attended recently and the fashion on display at the ceremony. I guess the photos were taken at that wedding. Just as I took my eyes off her phone, the last passenger entered and the mate shouted, “Away massa”! He took his seat beside the sliding door and pulled it shut as a burly man rushed out from the adjacent building and half walked, half run to the car, jumped into driver’s seat and bent down to connect the ignition wires to start the car.
My experience has shown time and again that many Ghanaian trotros do not have ignition switches. They are either started by the driver touching two wires together below the steering wheel or by connecting the wires and then pushing a button on the dashboard. That is the innovation and creativity of Ghanaian drivers and mechanics. When the ignition switch is old and broken, it is not replaced, instead, the wires are connected to one of the buttons on the dashboard or a new button is created for the purpose and thereafter that button is used to start the car. The driver was down for a couple of seconds and the engine zoomed alive at once. He sat up, engaged gear and turned into the main road right in front of us. The journey to Accra had started. Sit tight!
The traffic on the main road was moving slowly amid the shouting of drivers’ mates calling out different destinations. Dzorwulu! Pigfarm! Pigfarm! Dzorwulu! By those coming from Kwame Nkrumah Circle and Serk! Serk! Serk! By those returning from the aforementioned place. Driver mates always have their head and hand outside the window of the door beside which they perch and are constantly calling out the names of the destination of their cars. As our trotro snake eases its way along the narrow New Town – Circle road, I focused on listening to the destinations being shouted by the drivers’ mates going to and from Circle.
In less than 200 metres, we were at a section of the road adjacent to the Mallam Attah market. Getting through that section of the road was not an easy affair. The noise was deafening. It was a continuous hubbub of running engines, frustrated drivers shouting, horns tooting, mates calling passengers, music blaring from giant speakers, and hundreds of people attempting to converse by shouting to be heard.
This traffic was a self-inflicted misery, for despite the narrowness of the road, there were many cars parked along its shoulders whose owners had gone into the market to shop. Other cars were either loading or off-loading goods bound for the same market. On the sidewalk were numerous sellers of second-hand clothes trying to stop pedestrians to have a look at their wares. The trotros literally stop right in the middle of the road to take on passengers or to allow those inside to alight.
As I observed the loading tactics of the trotros along this crowded section of the road, a mate ran across the road to help a woman carry her wares to his trotro. Another mate rushes towards the woman with the same intention. The two mates began ‘fighting over’ the woman as each one tried to carry the goods and so win a passenger. All this while, their masters (the drivers) were shouting and cursing other drivers and mates who were playing similar tricks.
Sometimes a frustrated driver gets out of his trotro and walks to another trotro to shout at that driver or mate before returning to his car. In the midst of all this were also ‘okada’ riders [endnote 1] meandering their way through the traffic at incredible speeds.
To complicate matters, the market traders, were desilting the drains on either side of the road. Several young men and women wearing real and improvised nose masks were busy scooping out garbage from choked drains. The garbage was heaped in small mounds along the sidewalk which had been encroached by traders and shop owners. I looked at the heaps and shook my head in dismay.
The content included black earth, pieces of clothing, black polythene bags tightly wrapped around mysterious substances suspected to be faecal matter, numerous ‘pure’ water sachets, and just about anything else being sold in the numerous shops lined along the road. The stench from this operation was overpowering. Those of us at the windows did not know where to put our noses – outside the trotro for ‘fresh’ stinking air, or inside for stale choking warm air.
In all, we spent over 20 minutess navigating through less than a 100 metres of road to get out of the traffic. It felt like 2 hours and I only realised it wasn’t so because I looked at my phone when we finally emerged at the other end and the driver accelerated. We had left the humdrum of the market and the stench of the drains behind us and were headed towards the Kwame Nkrumah circle.
The air was still filled with the voices of drivers’ mates shouting “Akra! Kra! Kra! Kraaa! Or Serk! Serk! Serk!” Or “New Town, PigFarm! New Town, Pigfarm!” But we could feel movement here and fresh air on our faces. I sighed in great relief [endnote 2].
In less than 5 minutes we had turned onto the Accra road and were on top of the overpass near Kwame Nkrumah Circle. The first bus stop was located here and the two young men in the middle seat who were discussing their problems for the world to hear had indicated that they would alight there. This is usually done by calling out the name of the bus stop and saying “bus stop!” So one of the young men had said “Overhead, bus stop!”
When the trotro stopped and they alighted, a middle-aged man entered with a giant tape recorder that was playing some French music. I say French because I thought I heard a French ‘sounding’ word. But it might have been Mandinka or Wolof or Zulu. The pace of the music was unlike the graceful Ghanaian beats.
With the music, the trotro had become too noisy for comfort whilst the music man himself appeared to be unaware that he was being a nuisance. I had not thought to find this kind of behaviour in Accra, but then this was the most cosmopolitan city in Ghana, so what did I expect?
It reminded me of the behaviour of some Fulani young men who used to come to Sandema market in my childhood and teen years. Two or three of them would be roaming in the market with a big cassette player in hand booming some incomprehensible music. We used to generally point them out to each other and laugh at their weird behaviour. Here was a ‘Fulani’ man carrying on the tradition right in the centre of Ghana. Indeed as the old Key Soap commercial used to run: “the best tradition goes on!”
This man, however, could not be allowed to carry on the said tradition. Not when the mate was still trying to collect his fare and looking for passengers at the same time. Several people including the driver sharply reprimanded the man and he turned his music down. He did not put it off but turned it down enough to allow people to converse in normal tones and still tap to his rhythm.
This was not my first encounter with a radio ‘carrier’ in trotro. Just about a month ago, I went to the 37 trotro station at New Town to join a trotro to work in the morning. Whilst waiting for it to fill up, a man came in and sat beside me with a huge cassette player which was tuned in to one of the popular stations in Accra. The presenter was playing some music and sending out greetings to some individuals whilst announcing the programme for the morning. It was so loud that the sound of the PA system that the station drivers had installed to announce their destinations was drowned out. I was so irritated that I protested and was supported by a couple of other passengers so that the man was forced to turn down the volume.
In this day and age, it never ceases to amaze me that many people are unaware of the existence of headphones. But then how can I expect them to know how to use headphones when the streets are lined with shops playing loud music for who doesn’t care to listen and every street corner has a self-styled man of God raving and ranting at the top of his voice to passers-by for their monies and every bus station has several loudspeakers announcing in monotonous tones, the various destinations of their trotros or buses.
Aside STC, I have not seen or heard of a bus station operating in Accra that does not have loudspeakers mounted overhead to announce the destination of their buses. The whole city is like a million people shouting to be heard and it is a matter of who can shout the loudest.
Amid the complaints about the loud music, the trotro had set off again and we wound our way round to join the main traffic from Kwame Nkrumah Circle overpass (Ghana Dubai). Our trotro joined a long line of other trotros heading towards Adabraka with the drivers’ mates shouting: “Akra! Kra! Kra! Kraaa!” Whilst pointing their index fingers upward to show that the city centre is up ahead.
It is one of those innovations by drivers and their mates in Accra and perhaps other parts of Ghana. They are able to use their hands to clearly sign the destination of their trotros. The signage of Kwame Nkrumah Circle is unique because of the ‘circle’. There are few other places like it. Aside that the mates point straight up as if poking the eyes of God to show that their destination is straight ahead on the road. They point to the right or to the left in quick stabbing movements to show that the destination is to the right or left of the road their trotro is travelling on. Passengers also use the same signs to indicate where they are headed so that the mate can stop for them or pass on.
If the destination cannot be so easily signed by hand, the mates would simply call out the name of the place repeatedly. Because of the repeated calling, the names of some places are often contracted in to just a syllable or two. Hence, one would hear shouts of “Akra! Kra! Kra! Kraaa!”, “Serk! Serk! Seeerk!” “Kanesh! Kanesh! Kaneeesh!”, “Jowu! Jowu! Jowu!” “Ashaama! Shaama! Shaama!” “Sawom! Sawom! Sawom!” Can you guess the places being referred to? Of course, they refer to Accra, Circle, Kaneshie, Dzorwulu, Ashaiman, and Nsawam respectively.
It can sometimes be quite musical to listen to the repeated calling of these contracted names. If you should happen to hear “Ter seven! Ter seven! Ter seven!” doubt not that the trotro is bound for 37!
When we joined the main road from Circle, it didn’t take long to get to a bus stop known as Roxy. The first time I heard the name, I had wondered how it came by its name. After using the road a couple of times, I chanced to hear from a passenger that there was a cinema hall nearby known as Roxy. I haven’t been able to confirm whether this is true or not. I simply accepted it because I have learnt from experience that bus stops in Ghana often have official as well as common names.
In some cases, public officials have been wise enough to label the bus stop with the common name or to not attempt labelling it at all. In other cases, they would write one name on the shed at the bus stop but mates and passengers alike would continue to call the bus stop with their own name.
The common name is often in relation to a nearby landmark. There are bus stops known as ‘Airport 1st and 2nd, Hospital (besides the 37 Military Hospital), GBC (bus stop adjacent the state broadcasting corporation), Novotel (the name of this hotel has since changed but the bus stop is still called so), Shangrila (in reference to the now-defunct Shangrila hotel), Overhead (for any bus stop near an overpass), Spanner (I cannot imagine how this name came about), 18 (community 18 junction on the Motorway), Underbridge (bus stop over a tunnel on the Motorway), White Cross (I think this is around Weija) and many others.
Apparently, this is not unique to Accra but is common throughout Ghana. I am sure you know many interesting names by which the bus stops on the roads you frequently travel on are called. I currently live in a place where I have to tell the taxi driver every time that I would alight at ‘Cross’!
If you haven’t been paying attention to the names of the bus stops along the roads you travel, try to do so and you would hear very interesting names.
At the Roxy bus stop, I was lost in thought trying to recall the interesting names of bus stops that I had heard before and was nudged into the present by the hand of a young woman thrusting a white envelope into my face. It is the type of envelope usually designed and used for soliciting, which we call in Ghana, “Appeal for Fund Envelopes”. The young woman didn’t speak, she just thrust the envelope at me and shook it in front of my face until I saw it. I took it from her and looked at the design and writing at the back.
It proclaimed that she was a mute and a member of an association of mute people. She was soliciting for funds to support their association. I looked up after reading and realised the woman was looking at my face intently and pleading with her eyes. I handed it back to her shaking my head. She took it and turned to other passengers to whom she had given other envelopes. Several envelopes returned empty but I think one person put GHC5.00 in one envelope before returning it. She took it, removed the money, and added the envelope to the other empty ones.
I began to reflect on all the strategies by which we defraud each other in this country and shook my head in dismay. It is not the first time I was encountering these ‘mute beggars’ and their envelopes. I use the mute here with great caution because I am not even sure that they are mutes. Sometimes I play with the horrible thought that some people are glad to become disabled in any form so that they can have a ‘legitimate’ reason to accost us on the roads and to beg. A couple of people may actually be faking it – and I have heard of a man in the Nima – Maamobi area who does that. One blogger has labelled such people “professional beggars”.
Begging on the streets has become so rampant that a news reporter recently discovered that those who beg either as blind or lame persons and need other people to lead or push them around on a wheelchair actually share the proceeds in the ratio 2:1. It is now a lucrative business, not an act of need. So, many able-bodied persons can be seen begging at intersections and traffic lights along major roads. I generally ignore them when they approach me. To paraphrase the Nigerian proverb, since people have learnt to beg without ceasing (in diverse ways and strategies), I have learnt to be stingy with my money.
Whilst I was lost in musing on the menace of begging in Accra, the trotro had run into heavy traffic at Kingsway and was snake easing in and out of different lanes in an attempt to get ahead of other vehicles. I cannot help telling myself every time that this style of driving by trotros and taxis in Ghana contribute to the traffic situation. On a 2 or 3 lane road, a trotro or taxi would be found in the innermost lane even though they intend to stop at a bus stop just ahead to alight or take on passengers. The said trotro or taxi driver would then cut across the lanes to his right in order to get to the bus stop thus forcing all the vehicles in those lanes to stop.
A police officer at an intersection once compelled a trotro driver to drive down a side road because the driver had been following the moving vehicles and hoping to ease into his lane further down the road. I was happy with the action though I sympathised with the passengers.
Our trotro was taking such a long time to get through the traffic at Kingsway that most of the passengers simply alighted and walked in different directions. There were 3 of us left in the car with the driver and the mate. It was very hot and I was sweating very profusely.
After trying our patience for more than 10 minutes without moving beyond 50 metres, the passenger closest to the mate indicated that he would alight. The mate asked his master whether it was safe to let the passenger alight and the driver stuck out his head and looked ahead and behind whilst the mate did the same from his side. Satisfied that there was no police officer in sight, the driver gave the go-ahead and the mate opened the door in the middle of the road and we all alighted.
Other trotros were doing the exact same thing and the road was filled with many disembarking passengers trying to find their way around the lines of stationary vehicles with engines breathing heavily and spurting out heat and smoke from broken exhaust pipes.
It was still more than half a kilometre to the city centre but I don’t think anybody ever sits in the trotros for that part of the journey. It was better to walk than to sweat out all the water in you for a half kilometre of resting your limbs. I followed the stream of pedestrians headed towards the city centre and had to end my musing abruptly because it is impossible to combine musing with walking in Accra. Not unless one is ready for a head-on collision with other pedestrians. Let me, therefore, look to where I am going and catch you all on another journey soon. Bye byeeee!
1 Okada: a motorcycle taxi used in Nigeria and becoming popular in Accra
2 Poems by John Agandin referring to subjects and episodes similar to those described here (e.g. “Accra”, “The Preacher”, “How to help Ghana and Yourself”) can be found in the author’s blog:
- Patrick Seidu aka Saala-Biik Soakatoa: My Life and Career
- Franz Kröger: Daniel Bukari, an Amateur Artist
- Eric A. Anadem, a Photographer and Artist
- Ghanatta Ayaric: Hard Road to Travel
- John Agandin: A Trotro Ride from New Town to Accra
- John Agandin: The Kayayei’s Tale
- John Agandin: Korona Vairosiwa Tugurika
- Ghanatta Ayaric: In the Meantime!
- Anbegwon Atuire: Rhythm of the War Dance
- Robert Asekabta: Continue Revolution