Thursday, 25 March 2010

Going home...to the trotro

We had been flying for some time when I looked out of the window and finally saw the city spread out in tiny shapes and greenery. Only a short while earlier, I had gazed with amazement at the beautiful sunrise and fluffy clouds. Now, as the plane began its descent, and the shapes below grew bigger and bigger, I was very much aware of my quickened heartbeat. And as the wheels of the plane hit the runway with that unmistakeable thud, the whole carriage erupted in shouts of ‘Awurade ye daase!’ (Thank you, Lord), and a smattering of applause.

We had landed at the Kotoka International Airport, Accra, and I was back home again. What a feeling!
The hot, humid air hit me as soon as I reached the top of the stairs of the aircraft. It came with all the subtlety of an elephant in ballet slippers, and if I had in any way doubted that we had indeed landed at Kotoka, the heat was a sure reminder!

Going home is such a strange feeling sometimes. Everything is at once familiar yet foreign. Sometimes you re-adjust to life and fall in step with everybody else, you walk to the market and engage in a vigorous bargaining game with the trader over a basket of tomatoes...and before you know it it’s like you never left. And even if you may not be current on the latest, you can always count on your friends to bring you up to date.

Some readjustments, though, just have to be experienced first hand – as I did with the ‘tro-tro’, the most popular form of public transport in Ghana. With a driver and a mate, the tro-tros are public buses that are guaranteed to take you close to where you are going in the capital or elsewhere. They are a common sight in Ghana, transporting a diverse group of people that, in a way, reflects the core of the country – businessmen and women, students, nurses, market women etc. The word ‘tro-tro’ comes from the Ga language word ‘tro’, meaning ‘three-pence’, a throwback to the cost of a ride in past colonial days. Like a hawker who sings a catchy ditty to attract customers, the mates would sing-song ‘tro-tro’ to attract passengers, and when they were finally in, to solicit fares and call out bus stops. Though the penny is no longer used, the name has remained, and is viewed with nostalgia about the good old days when life was relatively cheap.

With the exception of a few, tro-tros are notoriously dirty, and when you’ve had a shirt or trouser soiled as you got on or off, you won’t forget that in a hurry. That’s why on my first journey back in one, I was clad in a formidable pair of black trousers that could quell any would-be dirt. It was the morning of my first day as an intern with a media company. As it was the morning rush hour and most tro-tros going in my direction were packed, I watched in dismay as several more zoomed past
without stopping. At those moments, the driver and mate barely bat an eyelash in your direction, a sharp difference from when they are likely to veer off the road without notice if you so much as give a little wave when their buses are half-full. I’d eyed the other people around me who were visibly annoyed at the consistently full tro-tros, and realised that the next few moments would be a crucial test in the survival of the fittest as we all clocked the approaching tro-tro with the mate circling his forefinger to indicate that they were going towards the Kwame Nkrumah Circle. As it got nearer, the bus stop became a little battlefield as people pushed, shoved, and struggled for position, with a few expletives thrown in for good measure. But I was determined to get on that tro-tro, and when it finally pulled up and people reluctantly parted to let passengers out, I saw my chance, and quickly slipped in after the last one had got off. The journey had finally begun!

A trotro ride is sometimes peppered with petty passenger-passenger arguments or full-blown passenger-mate war of words, but, if nothing at all, it is a lesson in religion and marketing, as you are almost always likely to find a preacher or salesman on board. That day was no different. Wedged between a student and a woman carrying a baby who seemed to be resting more on my lap than her mother’s, I had resigned myself to a ride made torturous not only by the discomfort, but by the traffic moving at a snail’s pace. It was almost a relief when a salesman introduced himself, and proceeded to laud the joys of some suppositories he was selling. Really, you have got to smile at these original trotro moments. When he had made customers out of some passengers, he sat down, and, as if on cue, another man stood up and did a little preaching. His progress was however, staggered, as each time someone at the back wanted to get off, practically half the passengers had to get off the bus to allow them. But a determined preacher he was, and before the tro-tro reached its terminus he had delivered his message.

The ride was a reminder of the many problems inherent in the tro-tro as a major means of transportation for people in Ghana. A simple journey could be fraught with a struggle for space, and when finally in one, there is dirt and grime and very little legroom.

Needless to say, after that morning’s struggle for a seat, getting the tro-tro at its terminal meant that I, at least, had a choice as to where to sit. So I made a beeline for the front seat, hopped in, and flashed a big smile at the driver who bared his teeth in an uncertain smile, probably wondering about the enthusiasm with which I’d jumped. If nothing at all, it was to avoid having most people get down to allow me to descend. Really, though, it was to be able to enjoy a bit of fresh air as the bus moved!


You see, amidst the hustle and bustle, a trotro ride is an exciting, if slightly uncomfortable, way to be Ghanaian, or to experience Ghana if you are a foreigner. If you have been party to the lively spin-off discussions passengers engage in whilst listening to a radio programme, you will know that the trotro is as fertile a ground for debates as parliament.

Long live trotros!

No comments: