Taking a tro-tro and going to the market are two of the most impossible topics to do justice to in print. If you ever feel yourself approaching a mid-life crisis, or need to snap out of the dullness and monotony that can be office life, just take a tro-tro. You will not only feel alive, but you will also be thankful for every living moment, suddenly find yourself thinking “there must be a God” because you’ve spent the last 3 hours defying death and have arrived to your destination safely. You still run the risk of developing lung cancer from all the fumes you’ve inhaled en route, and I’m unaware of the long-term effects of exposure to goat feces in a closed environment, but you’ll kiss the ground if/once you arrive safely. Despite all of this, sitting as a passenger on a moving vehicle viewing a landscape is probably my favourite activity to do while travelling. Here is my best attempt at capturing the experience in Ghana…
As far as I understand, Ghana does not actually have a publicly-run transportation company, but what I am trying to capture in the title is that I have been using the same cheap transport that locals use. Not the air-conditioned, safe-like, comfortable modes of transport usually associated with foreigners travelling in developing countries. Ghana does have two bus companies with this class of travel available, and if I lived along a route that was served by a safer means of transport, I would definitely use it. Unfortunately, I live in the mountains where only tro-tros seem available.
According to my guidebook, a tro-tro is “pretty much any passenger vehicle that isn’t a bus or a taxi…ranging from crowded minibuses to customised covered trucks with densely packed seating, a pervasive aura of sweat, no view, and not much more chance of finding an escape route should you be involved in an accident.” All the tros I’ve taken here are between 14- and 22-seater vehicles which could be described as military vans, where the only seatbelt present is for the driver, although the coveted front passenger side seat sometimes also has a seatbelt. Generally on the tro you pay for your seat, but leg room and head room are not guaranteed, and you will inevitably need to concede part of your seat space to the two or three people in your row who exceed their own seat’s capacity.
“aaaa-eeeee-sssss-uuuuu-wwww-aaaa-tttt-a”, “mmm-eeeeeeeeeee-ttttt-ooooo pp-eye-wa”, “beeeeeeeee-sssss-kkk-it-wa” and my favourite, “o-rrrrr-e-n-g-eeeeeee” [ice water, meat pie, biscuit/cookies, and oranges]
We westerners like to depend on signs and other forms of print rather than on people when we travel. Deal with it – in Africa, you just need to accept that you are always at the mercy of strangers. Once you find the station, everyone will start asking you where you’re going – at first, I walked straight past these people, because years of travelling has taught me that anyone who approaches you in tourist areas like stations are trying to cheat you – in Africa, these people are your best source of the most accurate information. Expect it to take about an hour to find your tro-tro, and then expect another hour or four for your tro to fill up.
As you and the other 21 people sit baking in the oven atmosphere characteristic of an un-moving vehicle sitting in the equatorial sun, every crevasse of the vehicle which could otherwise act as a passage for wind to ventilate the suffocating interior of the tro, is instead occupied by someone trying to sell you things. Since the competition is so fierce, vendors need to be creative with their attention-grabbing tactics. They also need to have eyes on the backs of their heads as hundreds of tros are being shuffled around the station to maximise parking space.
The journey is spent with Ghanaian music blaring from the speakers, interrupted by passengers yelling at the driver for not being more careful
I’ve never seen organised chaos like in a tro-tro station, or any Ghanaian street intersection for that matter. My first time in a busy tro-tro station in Accra seemed like a cartoon version of real life. The nerve of the tro-tro drivers and their skippers – the intimidation tactics and parking manoeuvres used to assert their right to a space in the station, in the intersection, along the bank of the highway – is quite remarkable. Every centimetre of the station/intersection/road not occupied by a vehicle is filled with a 14 year-old carrying products on their head while shouting “aaaa-eeeee-sssss-uuuuu-wwww-aaaa-tttt-a”, “mmm-eeeeeeeeeee-ttttt-ooooo pp-eye-wa”, “beeeeeeeee-sssss-kkk-it-wa” and my favourite, “o-rrrrr-e-n-g-eeeeeee” [ice water, meat pie, biscuit/cookies, and oranges].
It’s a toss-up – is it better to get one of the last seats on the tro, meaning you don’t have to sit uncomfortably in the heat waiting to depart, or whether it’s better to be the first on the tro, affording the opportunity to choose your seat. You often have to choose between time and comfort, though I have had one or two tro-tro skippers ask people to offer the front seat to me because I couldn’t actually fit my legs into the only seat left available in the back. However, I also spent 6 hours on a tro-tro where my knees didn’t fit between the seats, so I had to sit on an angle with a tiny sliver of space for my legs, my luggage on my lap, and a goat under my seat. A few times when my legs began to cramp and I had to bend them under my seat to stretch them, the goat started to pull at my shoes.
But these are also the moments I am most inspired. It’s on the tro that I saw my first real African slums, saw the roaming hills by moonlight, and most of the thoughts I’ve contemplated here first struck me while sitting on a tro-tro
Once the entire floor surface area and air space of the tro is finally filled, your driver will begin the journey of ploughing through people and vehicles to exit the station. My tro yesterday from Accra took 15 minutes to get out of the station and another hour to get out of Accra. At every bottle neck, a group of vendors is gathered waiting for their prey to get stuck in the web of traffic. On the road to Kumasi, there are 3 construction zones where only one lane of traffic can pass, and a community of about 100 vendors has formed at each one to sell to vehicles waiting for on-coming traffic to pass through the only available lane. What an entrepreneurial spirit – collectively there must be about 300 people who have set up these temporary communities along the highway construction schedule, who arrive every morning from their communities with their goods to sell. I should also note that along the Kumasi-Koforidua corridor, I saw the remnants of an oil truck that had vered into on-coming traffic and into a house on the other side of the road, and evidence 5 other severe car crashes.
The journey is spent with Ghanaian music blaring from the speakers, interrupted by passengers yelling at the driver for not being more careful, or for going over a pothole too quickly. Most of the main roads are paved, but since traffic is such an issue drivers often take one of the many clay road “short-cuts” which zig zag through quiet communities, trying to catch enough speed to both intimidate locals out of crossing the street and to be air-born over the potholes. When the drivers play lively Ghanaian pop music it can really add to the thrill of the ride. I’ve also been on tros which played calm and peaceful Ghanaian gospel music – it was quite surreal being enveloped by smooth, serene sounds while you’re clinging to the dashboard in front of you, trying to prevent yourself from going through the windshield into the people and vehicles flying past you .
But these are also the moments I am most inspired. It’s on the tro that I saw my first real African slums, saw the roaming hills by moonlight, and most of the thoughts I’ve contemplated here first struck me while sitting on a tro-tro, hoping our vehicle doesn’t strike someone else.