Published to journeytosolidarity.org by Jay Kwabena Breitlow.
Driving West out of Accra is not what many would call easy, nor something for the faint of heart. To picture the scene, imagine that you are 5 years old and you have all your matchbox cars out and lined up for inspection in a nice neat line.
Remember how some were shiny new and a variety of others had paint chips out and there were dings and dents in the metal from repeated use? Now take your arms around all the cars pull them all together in seemingly random order and you have a Friday afternoon drive in Accra. Big trucks, small cars, cabbys with nothing to lose, the phat 4X4 Benz SUV, and yes goats and the occasional monkey just for good measure. Compounding the situation is the fact that just off the side of the road there are smaller dirt roads and vendors selling everything from pineapples and ice cream to Irons, Blenders and flip-flops. Were you hoping for the 3rd season of ‘Lost’ for $2? Yep they go that too. Some guy even showed us that he had porn available to complete the buying experience. Several of these stands send ‘runners’ out into traffic with their goods trying to bring you front door service. I admit it, I love it when a little boy brings ice cream in a bag to the door and another brings prepaid phone cards. Clearly two items not needed until they were presented, and bless their heart for bringing us the tasty morsel among the choking smog and 95 degree heat. Not sure what my $0.25 will buy them, but I know they will find a way to put it to good use. Perhaps the most impressive feat of all is the woman balancing an entire trees harvest of plantains on her head while dodging this shark feeding frenzy of a market.
The biggest problem with driving in Ghana is not actually the seemingly chaotic use of space and vehicle. The problem is that signs that generally point you in the right direction, don’t’ how you say…. exist. Instead what happens is you drive down the road and if you are going the wrong way people yell in broken English ‘WRONG WAY!’ Likewise if you were to ask someone for directions they give you directions to their buddy down the street, who then gives you directions to another friend or perhaps you have now made enough progress to find the roundabout or hotel you were looking for. Not that you even are guaranteed to take the right turn out of the roundabout. In fact I have a rule about all roundabouts in Ghana: ‘If you are not 105% sure which turn is correctly pointing you to your destination, you take at least two trips around, al la Clark Griswold when he was in London looking at Big Ben. Sometimes I take a good five turns just for Pete’s sake.
Another real danger with driving in Ghana is when there is no sun left to burn in the sky. Most countries require lights for driving, in Ghana is seems that bright headlights are optional, and to the opposite end of the spectrum if you want to have a one million candlelight torch as your set of low beams, then please feel free to shine those things directly into my rearview mirror, where I will remain blinded until sometime next week. Did you think that you had difficulties previously with the sparse signage? Prepare for nil on the signage folks, because there is just no way as illumination on the road isn’t there. There are some advantage though to growing up in an area where ice and snow line the ground for over half the year, enter the rain. When it rains in Ghana people hibernate. What was a once bustling street with vendors and cars is now either devoid of traffic and people or else pulled off to the side. Those who do brave the rain do slowly with a very meticulous nature. All of a sudden stoplights seem to exist and where people were once oblivious to the suggestion of a speed limit, they are now a good 30-40 km/hr under the speed limit. But not this guy! I’m used to rain, sleet, ice and snow and now I’m the crazy Ghanaian driver and people look at me like I’m on a mission to meet my maker. Alas I live to write about the tale, albeit Ghana won this round again because I missed my turn and had to drive an additional 45 minutes to find a proper turnaround.
Ghana is a very safe African country and largely because there are good police officers here. In fact I see about 6-8 on a regular basis in the clinic. Most if not all of them are very nice and well intentioned, however there is always the exception to the rule. Last weekend when we drove to the Eastern part of Ghana we had the pleasure to meet Ghana’s finest boys in blue. The men (and women, because Ghana is very much equal opportunity) are set up about ever 20 km with a policed checkpoint. What are they checking exactly remains a mystery to me, but that is not the point here. Assuming they are checking for proper identification and proof of registration would be one guess because that is what is usually looked at when we stop. The thing is that on most occasions they are looking for an opportunity to make a few extra bucks. Take these two examples. The first is the normal ‘tea bribe’ and you know that when you are stopped and the officer is overly friendly that you are going to be expected to pay the ‘tea tax’. ‘Hello office how are you tonight, everything well?’ Yes, yes sir it is wonderful. ‘Tell me where are you going tonight?’ Insert idle chit chat here and then: ‘So do you have your registration and license with you tonight?’ ‘Well yes auntie I do would you like to see it?’ ‘How about instead you just buy me a tea?’ or the always friendly ‘How would you like to buy me a water tonight to keep me cool?’ To which I always respond friendly and smiling ‘For Ghana’s finest? Well as long as the tea is hot or the water is cold I would love to!’ The customary handling over of two Ghana Cedis follows($1.50 US) and you are off.
Occasionally there is the attempt to price gouge you though. You have to understand that many of thee people are collegiately educated and paid a salary of $100 a month, sometimes less! What they see is a white person in a car and they know straight away that we are likely to be more financially secure then they are. They also assume that we are travelling on a holiday, which in most cases is indeed correct. Of course this is not true for me. I am a volunteer doctor working in their country giving up my time and money to make their country a better place. The coolest part is that even the gougers understand this as illustrated in my second story. As a side note and prelude to this story is that I’m told that in neighboring countries like Togo and Benin is that checkpoints and the hassles at them are 10 times as frequent and twice as expensive Ahhhh!!
Nearly the whole way home I pull off at another police checkpoint. This time the officer asks me to get out of the car after he checks my license. My heart begins to race, this is not good. He looks very solemn and concerned, not because of my destination (Accra) or my license, instead he is concerned that one of my bulbs in the taillight is burned out. ‘You see this is a violation in Ghana to drive without your bulbs correctly installed. I am going to arrest you.’ Oh geeze if this was really the case then 99% of the people on the road would be pulled over. I’m clearly being targeted for a bribe. My heart rate continues to climb and I am becoming uneasy as I wonder if I will see the inside of a Ghanaian jail today for a burned lout 4 Watt light bulb. Before I can even start to ask about where to have it repaired or what the fine is he asks me ‘Why are you in Ghana?’ The honest response was ‘Well sir I am a doctor and I am volunteering my time in Accra at a clinic there.’ No response. Instead he turns his back to me, drops his head and hands back my license. A flick of the wrist, a look at his buddies dejectedly and the word ‘Go’ was my ticket out of there. He understood that he was witness to someone who was here of his own choosing, to help his people and to redistribute the wealth of the world, and could not in good conscious rub that the wrong way.
I’m not at all bitter about this system; in fact I just smile internally because they get it. I get that they are underpaid and protecting the country, keeping it safe for people like me to visit. Perhaps if there was a better understanding of this in other countries, like Madagascar, I would be there volunteering. Instead I am in Ghana. Wonderful Ghana. Please continue to help me to redistribute some of our good fortunes here and make the world a better place where social solidarity and peace live each and everyday.
Pictures courtesy of the author and available via email for distribution with permission.