In a country of 25 million people, where most people don’t have the money to own a car, transportation is a key issue. In most modern towns public transportation has always been in the center of city development discourse. No matter if you talk about Rio de Janeiro, New York, Moscow, Lagos or Accra. Streets are the life lines of a city. Not only do they bring people from A to B but they also transport goods from and to the markets. Their condition is generally seen as an indicator for the business environment because one can estimate the tangible and intangible transport costs and therefore somehow forecast the expected profit margin.
Even though the big orange buses of the Metro Mass Transportation Company of Ghana with their incredible loud horns and rock hard plastic seats can’t be missed when they drive through the traffic, the most common mode of transport are the tro-tros. Known around the African Subcontinent as bush-taxis, danfos or matatus, their appearance is the heartbeat of transportation and a huge plus to the mobility of millions of workers who can’t afford to buy their own car and are smart enough to share a vehicle. Like flies are attracted to the biggest feast, this buses drive, where the big streams of people are. Bringing workers into the city and out of the city. Going overland as well as through the cities, this cars run as long as possible. They know no age of retirement. A car that is broken can be fixed.
You can’t open your windows? Keep them closed!
You can’t close your windows? Keep them open!
There is a hole in your footwell and you can see the street? appreciate the wind around your legs!
Your feet are getting hot from the heat of the engine and the lack of isolation? Nobody cares!
The main route for trotros in Accra is the north-south axis.
Independence road coming from Aburi going straight from north to south through Adenta/Madina, followed by Airport Area is the main artery of the city. Clogged with cars, trucks, buses and trotros as early as 6 am in the morning, it is a rolling metal snake. Close to a total infarct but somehow staying alive. It can take you two hours for a distance of less than 15 km. People take it stoically and will sleep in the car. Despite all the fumes and the heat. I can’t. It’s too much for me. Sometimes, when it is getting too much, I just get out of the car and walk for a bit, just to catch another car, when the traffic is getting better.
There are some key-junctions where the traffic goes into different directions. After that it is getting better and the traffic starts flowing again. Sometimes. If you are lucky.
The trotro business is in men’s hand. Even though there are some rumors about female ‘mates’, there are 99,9% men working in and around the trotros.
The average trotro driver is male, between 25 and 40 and works with the golden rule for the trotro business:
Time is money!
The loading and unloading process is commented by the driver, sometimes asking vociferously for the mate to hurry up, even though he can’t do anything about it. The car is full when the car is full.
There are different types of stops. Some are formal bus stations and people will wait in line for their car to come and get into it and the car goes off when it is full. Others are on the way of the trotro. Sometimes official passenger bays, sometimes just a certain spot or junction that attracts the attention of people.
There are always two people in the car. The driver and the mate. If you want to communicate with them you call them ‘driver’ and ‘mate’.
The mate is responsible for packing away luggage if possible, telling people where to sit (sometimes when it is very crowded you don’t want to sit on the same bench with 2 or 3 obese people) and most important collecting the money. This is done in two ways. Either he collects the money of everybody beforehand and than asks in order of collection where the people are going and gives out change according to their destination, or he handles one customer at a time.
In any case it is always initiated with ‘yes front!’, ‘yes back!’ or if its only one or two he will tell how many customers haven’t payed their dues.
Being a taller person, trotros are always a challenge. Since the whole vehicle is meant to be as economic as possible, the seats are torn out and remade to fit in more passengers. A car that would have seats for 9 people back home carries up to 23 people here. I don’t have to mention that the seats are not the original ones. Welded from iron rods and cushioned with foam they can cause dead legs in the weirdest positions. Sometimes when I sit in a trotro since two hours and my knees are black and blue I imagine the people arranging the seats to be either this really tiny mechanics or people with very weirdly short thighs. In any case its really tight in all directions and its difficult to get in and out.
But its the only way of transportation besides taking your own car or a taxi. There are some okada drivers in town but it is illegal, the prices are high and its freaking dangerous to go on a bike skipping cars with a made in china helmet that reminds you of a tinpot or a nutshell.
You might not like the hassle, but you can’t get around them.
Something that I think is really special are the different trotro stations that have different spatial meanings in the sense that they work for different people in different ways. They can be the area of a community in the sense that people live in and around them. At the 37 military hospital you will find people living at the side of the station and working in and around it. They can be markets and selling grounds for a wide array of products. Fruits and bread and hydrogen peroxide; books, fake jewelry, cloth and food are sold in and around. If you are unlucky somebody picks your pocket while you try to get on your trotro.
Other than outside the station, where the only rule is the survival of the fittest, the trotro stations work in a very British way of standing in line and waiting. That can take you easily half an hour during peak hours in addition to station-internal traffic because its just packed with people and market stands.
I drive trotro every single day for about three hours and I still love it. They show you the real city. They don’t care if the neighborhood is dirty or considered dangerous. If it is faster to go through Nima, they will drive through Nima.
You see the live of the street unfiltered because most people don’t see your white face fast enough. You see the real life and how people are so positive, so desperate. Some pay with 50 cedi notes and others scramble for their last coins. Its one of the places where Ghanaians are friendly and solidary. Strangers are entrusted with sleeping children while market ladies collect their luggage. When the child is carried on the back everybody takes care of its head when the mother is getting out of the car. elderly people are given the best spots and no one complains about the body size of their fellow passengers.
Trotros are used for heated discussions about the newest events in politics and it is more common than unusual that people are listening to political debate on the radio for the whole ride and commenting on it loudly as well as including people like me. I often get into interesting conversations with random people who have to tell a lot about their life or their living situations.
It can happen that people start praying at 6:30 am. Anybody who knows how Ghanaians pray know it is not done quietly for themselves but very loud for a long time because everybody has to hear it. Call me ignorant but I’ve changed many trotros because I couldn’t take it for long.
One thing that bothered me for long and is still on my mind is the security situation of trotros. Inside the cities and on short distances its quite safe because they wont go faster than 60 km/h. Going long distance is a different story. Simply because time is money. Overspeeding kills. It even kills more when the cars are shitty, the tires are imported used because they are considered as unsafe for being driven in any European country and the drivers are tired and have to go as fast as possible.
Just recently a fully loaded trotro was in a T-collision with a truck. The truck was going full speed with a huge container in the back. The trotro was totally wrecked and everybody died. 22 people died in the accident.
2012 about 2000 people died on Ghana’s roads. 2012 about 3600 people died on Germany’s roads.
Considering the size of Ghana and Germany population wise as well as the fact that Germany has Autobahns and mostly no speed limit on them makes it even more scary to drive long distance here.
The best way is: trotro for short distance, bus for longer distance. Safety first!