Tro-tros and getting from here to there

6:07 a.m. I walk towards Comet Junction near my house, the intersection of two packed, red-earth roads where the Comet Roofing factory marks a high activity and improvisational transit stop. I need to be at the American embassy, about 30 kilometers away “as the crow flies,” by 10 a.m. It’s a distance that normally takes about 75-90 minutes by private car so I know it will take longer using public transit. I have only seen one bus labeled “Berekuso – Accra;” its infrequent appearances seem to be in the early mornings; and my colleagues joke that the buses run as they please. So I decide to set out early. (I secretly hope the bus comes at about 6:30, the time I saw it driving south, because if I am early to the embassy I might be able to enjoy a brewed coffee or American style pastry from their café!)

Given the unpredictability of the buses they have known, my colleagues teach me alternatives for at least a week in advance of my appointment. “You can take a shared taxi from Comet Junction to Abum Junction – from there get a tro-tro to the  round-about. There many tro-tros going into Accra, but you’ll have to cross the road at the round-about, that’s Kwabenya…and depending on where the tro-tro goes you may have to take a taxi from where it drops you.”  The instructions continue with pricing schemes, alternatives, and the names of places that sound the same but are significantly different. I’m overwhelmed with possibilities.

I am also timid about tro-tros – they seem to operate by secret language and invisible network. The “No Worries” guidebook explains: Tro-tros “are easily recognizable, battered minibuses that have seating for 15 people, but often seat more. They are cheaper than STC buses and travel more routes” (p. 215). The Brandt guidebook encourages my hesitation: “…you will have little choice but to depend on them when you travel between smaller towns – nonetheless we would strongly advise you to use buses wherever possible, not so much because tro-tros are slower or less comfortable than buses (though generally they are both), but because the risk of being involved in a fatal accident is so much greater” (p. 70).

I am delighted that Berekuso has a bus to Accra.

6:25  Waiting becomes harder than I thought. I have established basic greetings with the 3-person family also waiting at the junction. I don’t understand the language the father is speaking but hear several words – the names of junctions my colleagues have taught me – that I recognize. He’s wearing dress trousers and a neat shirt. The woman is wrapped in a long fabric skirt, a comfortable knit top, and another fabric draped over her head. These are not what I think of as  “work” clothes; perhaps she works in the home and is on today’s journey for a unique reason, just as I am. The child, perhaps 8 or 10 years old, seems neither dressed for school nor play in her ironed, uniform skirt but acrylic knit striped jumper. I cannot read her expression.

A taxi pulls over and the father discusses something with the driver. They all turn to me – I ask, “Abum junction? Or Kwabeya?” The father nods and we all climb in.

Many have explained “shared taxis” to me – four persons going in the same general direction each paying ¼ of what an established fare would be.  In principle, one waits around for others who are going in the same direction.

I begin to buckle my seat belt in the taxi when the driver stops me indicating that I’ll get dirty. Only then do I realize the contrast between my bright navy and turquoise, capped sleeve, American business dress, and the now common to me layer of reddish brown dust saturating the taxi seats (that dust also saturates the quiet morning landscape and several pairs of my shoes.) I appreciate his concern but wonder what I will look like by the time I return from Accra for class this afternoon!

70 pesewas each (100 pesewas = 1 cedis, which currently equals about $2 US).

6:40 a.m.  I hesitate a moment leaving the taxi in Abum junction in hopes that the father will point me to where I find a tro-tro for Kwabenya junction. I had not rehearsed this part; I had planned that the bus would have arrived. I am relieved that he acknowledges they will also go to Kwabenya, he motions for me to follow, and he navigates his wife towards the tro-tros too. We are the first to board an empty tro-tro. Within minutes it’s full and we depart (40 pesewas). I don’t understand any of the quite conversations, all in local dialect.

I have ridden this route before in a private car and van. The surrounding look more still and quiet than usual. People stand in windows of 2 and 3 story buildings that are under construction, looking out in their night clothes. Tables that serve as vendor stands for fruit, phone cards, kenkey and such lie on their sides, I suppose to keep chickens from roosting there over night.

7:20 a.m. Still standing in a que at Kwabenya vaguely listening to a man prosthelytize as he waves his bible in the air.

By the time we had reached the round-about in Kwabeya, I had explained to the father that I wanted to go to “37,” a large tro-tro station in Accra, because I was attempting to reach the American embassy. They were also going to 37 so I followed them out of the tro-tro, across the round-about, and down to a vast open lot rutted with tire tracks and dusty from lack of rain.

I joined the que behind them.

Shop tables remain turned on their sides, the lot seems more still than the packed chaos I’ve seen in an evening, the day has not yet begun for commerce…except for already full tro-tro’s, taxis, and the beginnings of dusty private cars.

The daughter in “my” family has now begun to look at me periodically, still very reserved, almost guiding her mother. The father leaves our que repeatedly to visit with people.

7:50 a.m. Three tro-tro’s have come, filled, and left. We are next in line. I’m relieved to feel part of this little band of 4 because the father knows I am going to 37. I explain myself as a university teacher going to get work papers validated. (Somehow that explanation culturally translates more easily than explaining I’ve missed part of an orientation the previous week due to the host institution’s new faculty orientation, and that now I must go – on a Tuesday – in order to sign a paper and get a photo identification for entry and exit to a building compound that I may not use often but to which, by organizational design, I belong as a Fulbright fellow. Am I wrong?).

Our tro-tro turns off of the main road which I recognize. We are weaving our way towards Accra through neighborhoods and along packed dirt roads that I could swear were only meant for utility vehicles harvesting whatever is being produced in the high grasses on either side of us. But taxis, tro-tros and private cars keep emerging and disappearing along other paths. The city is coming alive, and we are indeed on an established road. I don’t recognize any of our surroundings.

We turn onto a paved road. Within several hundred meters, our tro-tro pulls to the side of the road. The driver and mate get out, prop open the hood, and tinker beneath it. The father in “my family” joins them, chattering together in concepts and words I do not understand. We wait. 2 more men climb out to look, perhaps to advise. The father motions to us; the mother and daughter climb out and therefore so do I.

Taxis have begun to swarm behind the broken tro-tro like sharks smelling blood.

A young man next to me has begun to chat with me in English; he invites me to join him in a taxi; I decline and join my family by the road side. “A car is coming,” the father explains – does he mean a replacement tro-tro? A hired car? A taxi? I smile, nod, trust and wait. The trip is now truly an adventure.

8:25 a.m. The father frantically waves to a Toyota 4 Runner. The driver pulls over. Within moments, the father is waving to us. The 10 year old takes me by one hand and her mother by the other and quickly gets us to the Toyota. I hear the father explain, “and my white friend is going to the American embassy.”

We pile into the back seat and immediately our new host gets back into traffic. He and the father laugh and chat, switching into stilted English, I presume out of courtesy to me, and I appreciate it. They complain about the city’s growth, the traffic, the way policemen often choose to drive the wrong way, and they laugh. The mother has warmed to me and the girl keeps making sure I am comfortable. The ride is a welcome change – thickly padded seats, good shock absorbers, and the dust colored upholstery has a recently vacuumed look.

We pull over at a shop – our new host must pick up his dry cleaning. He’s wearing a starched white shirt and suit trousers, the suit jacket hangs in the back with us. The family father explains to me in English, this is his boss, an attorney and in insurance. The boss had just happened by the broken tro-tro and it’s purely coincidence that we have gotten this ride.

8:40 a.m.  The 4 Runner pulls to the side of the now fully alive and chaotic city streets. “Mama, here,” says the father. So I open the door thinking we are dropping his wife. I get out to let out the wife and daughter, but the 10 year old climbs out, the door closes, and the father, mother and host wave as they drive way.  The 10 year old takes my hand with the confidence and clarity of a ballroom dancer leading a partner with clear yet gentle direction. She’s leading with twice my clarity and half my size.

Have they left their daughter? Can I find “37” from here? The girl stares at the traffic poised to cross. I ask her name; “Vi-vee-anne” she tells me slowly and precisely as if she has practiced these phrases in school. I wonder what name she goes by, what her African name is, and I say, “Hi Vivian, I am Mary Grace.” She nods with a brief smile and refocuses on the busy street that we are apparently going to cross without a light.

Vivian says nothing until we are among the parking lot of market stalls and tro-tro’s called “37” where she clarifies that I need a tro-tro going to Osu. Vivian apparently makes this trip twice daily to and from school. Her mother and father were intending to continue on. She leaves me at a tro-tro, smiles, and disappears to make her own way.

9:05 a.m. I am the first to be let off the Osu tro-tro (30 pesewas) at a junction I don’t recognize. I ask the mate where to find the American embassy; he points in one direction, reboards his bus, and they drive off.

The mates impress me fluently managing multiple streams of activity. They hawk the name of their route out the window, collect money and provide right change, keep count of the numbers of places available and the destination each rider intends, and they know surrounding areas to direct novices like me. I practiced tro-tro riding last week with a Ghanaian woman and her baby twins. I had one of the babies. When we were to alight, my teacher said, “give him the baby – the mate, give the baby.” I could not believe what she was telling me; in my culture, one would never hand off a baby to a stranger, let alone a young man. Such a bias! I did as she kept telling me. The mate received baby-Jessica as if it was his baby sister and as if he had done this all of his life, likely he had. When I had climbed out and straightened, the mate handed baby-Jesssica  back to me as quickly and effortlessly as he received her.  I appreciate the kindredness of that moment.

I walk 4 blocks in the direction the mate pointed before beginning to see the back of a structure and fence system that I recognize. 3 more blocks to reach the front. I pay attention to where I walk so that I can retrace my steps after my brief visit to get my embassy badge.

9:15 a.m. I arrive at the embassy, phone my host and escort for entry, and sit on the bench to celebrate how far I have come – about 30 kilomenters, just over 3 hours, 1 downed tro-tro, and a total cost of under 2 cedis. I’m sticky and dusty. I still have a full day ahead of me. How do people do this day in and day out for work or school?

10:45 a.m  I negotiate a taxi to get back to Berekuso. We arrive at Ashesi, without incident, in under 90 minutes, and at a total cost of 30 cedis.  Here becomes clear the time-value trade-off classic to consumer decision making and to modern pricing models. I appreciate the privilege I have to hire this taxi.

5 responses to “Tro-tros and getting from here to there

  1. Impressive story. Pretty good for a white girl 🙂 You are super good at making friends so I have every confidence that you will get where you need to go. Sometimes definitely worth the experience to try and make it work given the basics of resources as it does makes you value what $$ can buy. I bet this tale makes your two minute commute to Southwestern seem pretty snappy, doesn’t it?

  2. I read this the other morning in a rush to drive my 2 minute commute to work. Suddenly I realized I probably could take the time to sit and read this and take those moments to appreciate how easy it is for me to travel to work (and play) on a daily basis. That traffic into Austin doesn’t seem so bad anymore.

  3. Pingback: Familiarity | Collaborative Worlds

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