By Rosie Coleman
Pretty much the first thing you need to figure out when you travel to a new country is how to get around. It sure was the first thing I felt completely out of my depth with when I arrived in Ghana last month. But, over the last 4 weeks, I’ve gained a strange sense of understanding and appreciation for the Ghanaian way of doing things. It definitely seems crazy to me, but maybe it’s crazy efficient for locals too?
We were picked up from Accra airport by our Team Leaders on the 26th September, packed into a minivan and driven to our hostel, where we received a warm welcome from our in-country volunteer counterparts. Travelling just a few miles had taken a long time and, at seemingly every set of traffic lights, street sellers would offer us branded cold drinks from refrigerated units or metal bowls carried on their heads. We even picked up an ice cream man (frozen yoghurt, actually) and dropped him off a mile or so down the road once our bus load had had their fill. I was grateful to have our local support staff with us who navigated the route like second nature.
Moving to Kumasi a few days later proved even more out-of-my-ordinary. We travel to work by tro tro – a sort of custom-fit minivan; even when you think it’s full, another seat can fold down or pop up and a few more people can cram on. The tro tros have no obvious indication of their destination: rather, a bloke who sits with the passengers shouts from the window where the van is headed, getting especially vocal about it as we approach busy parts of town. He also collects the money (it’s the highlight of my day when a. he understands where I want to go – silly English accent! – and b. he gives the expected amount of change back!). He goes simply by ‘mate’ and everyone, except me and my fellow UK volunteers, appears to understand the system just fine.
Most people use the tro tro system to commute to work and, much like it used to entertain me to see people bring incongruous items onto the London Underground, it’s fascinating to see how much extra stuff can magically fit into the tro tro with you. Anything from baskets piled high with plantains, newly bought cellophane-wrapped televisions to a family worth of small children is commonplace. The loveliest part of the “unwritten tro tro rules” is how much everyone helps each other to manoeuvre these items. Our ‘mate’ helps carry things on and off each tro, sometimes quite a distance up the street for their customers. Fellow passengers wiggle and scoot to allow passengers off or make the utmost use of the available space. It’s not as much of a squash with people’s ‘luggage’ as I ever expect it to be and sure is the most efficient way to travel across town with whatever items you might need to transport.
I’ve also come to appreciate the ease and efficiency with which the street sellers work. On first glance, it scared me how dangerous it must be wandering around many-lane roads with large amounts of produce balanced precariously on your head. It’s not just cold drinks, but local snacks (plantain chips, bags of groundnuts, savoury doughnuts), phone credit coupons, mints and even loaves of bread! So whilst I’m still sceptical about the road safety element, being able to buy necessities whilst you’re stuck in traffic is a consumer demand that they are definitely filling – and one that I am so often grateful for.
I’ve already started to understand that, whilst the means of operating may differ from those at home, there is always a reason why it has sprung up like that. Maybe, just in the same way the Brits’ love of queuing seems to run through our blood stream and into our bus networks, maybe here the vibrant, exciting and community-driven nature of Ghana has created a transport system that seems crazy to us, but is simultaneously crazy efficient travel for the locals too.