Oh my, something’s got to be said about Taxi drivers in Accra. Not just about the Taxis, despite being half the population of all cars in Accra. Their brightly colored, neatly numbered exteriors do little to conceal their rickety, rusty insides. I do find interesting the fact that all Accra taxis most assuredly have two things – a radio and scented air fragrance. They may not have a much needed air-conditioning system or any of their doors opening from the inside, but without a doubt, they shall have a working car radio. Just one of the peculiarities of Accra and its Taxis.
Now back to the loud Taxi Drivers -who to me are a fascinating Ghanaian phenomena. There they go, enthusiastically hooting and honking in their quest for customers/passengers. But it’s not just their search for customers that causes them to constantly hoot; hooting is their way of signaling too. Where you and I use our right and left tic-toc (signals) they honk. Honk to turn left at the Tetteh Quarshi interchange, honk to tell the car ahead of you that you are about to cross onto its lane, honk to turn right at the lights…just honking and hooting everywhere…makes for a lot of noise on Accra roads, but who is to blame them, Accra taxi drivers are an outwardly communicative people!
For what it’s worth, they are generally much better drivers than any Matatu driver on our streets. You do not have to worry about them rudely cutting in; they follow the rules. Which is quite a necessity on Accra’s remodeled road network. I still gawk at their three level road interchanges (now when is Mombasa road going to get one of these?) or their pothole-free motor ways.
My qualm with them comes in their knowledge (more like deficiency) of the city of Accra which in my inexperienced estimation is about half as large as Nairobi. Now, let me recreate an everyday scenario. Say you want to get to the International conference center or maybe even to Oxford street (their Moi /Kenyatta avenue but narrower and more like Tom Mboya). So you hail a cab, just like you would in New York (super cool). It pulls over to the side of the road, and you ask the driver if he can take you to the international conference center. And he says, “oh yes, I know the place.” And then you ask him how much it costs to get to… Now these cabs are quite cheap, but only if you establish the price before you get in the car, otherwise a 3 cedi (about 200ksh) ride shall cost you 7 cedi (500ksh). So always ask first. Now you’ve established the amount to be paid, and you get into the taxi car, just glad to be out of the hot-hot Accra sun. Actually it’s more like 4 suns, if Kenya has one sun, they they must have more than just one. Anyway, you roll your window down and settle into the business of passengering – watching people on the streets can be a full-time activity. Ghanaians are full of life, and full of expression. Every emotion – joy or pain – is displayed in its full aptitude; no subtleties here.
Just look at the many interesting signs. God and religion are big here. You go past ‘the Anointed telephone service’, ‘Holy spirit led cyber café’ which is right next to ‘He gave me living water clothes shop’. The faith of the Ghanaian people is something quite amazing. But back to the streets, you pass the plantain and nut sellers. In traffic, these men, women and children with their wares piled high upon their heads. Their sturdy necks keep balance as they walk past declaring their wares, which in fact are quite the variety. It could be food like plantain chips or home-made bread/cakes, or drinks such as chilled water sealed into plastic bags (or paper bags as we Kenyans call them) and milk products, or it could be fruits (imported apples or local cut pawpaw) or toilet paper (truly comes in handy when you forgot to pass by the supermarket). My colleague insists that these products are more practical than the picture frame, sunglasses, watch, army-green plastic airplane toy (that is certainly one that I don’t get), puppies or baby guinea pig that are on sale in Nairobi traffic.
Suddenly your passengering is called to a stop as your taxi driver says to you, “Oh please, excuse me madam, I forgot the place where you are going…do you know the place?”, and I go like “what? You don’t know where we are going? But you just told me you did before I got into the Taxi.” Seeing my reaction, he quickly says “oh relax madam, don’t worry we shall get there”. And I shoot back, “Get where? I am not from here; I don’t know how to get anywhere…!” “Oh relax madam, no need to be concerned, I told you not to worry we shall get there.” I cannot believe it, he really does not know where he is going. If this had not happened to me umpteen times, perhaps I would be less frustrated/agitated. Maybe he wants more money, but they are all (okay, super-generalization) like this. He drives on and seeing another taxi passing by honks until it stops. He leans out of the window and goes to ask the driver if he knows the place. In another minute, we are on our way though no closer to finding my desired destination. Now, what kind of taxi driver does not know how to get to the only place where all heads of states summits are held, especially when it is located in the middle of the city? I tell you, only Accra taxi drivers, they are special.
We are driving around at 30 km per hour. Although to be honest, Ghanaians do drive much slower than we do, must have something to do with the hot sun or their boisterous, cheerful spirits. Twenty-five minutes later, I am perspiring like a steamer. And oh yes, we have now consulted a total of 4 taxi drivers and 3 passersby. We are still not any closer to getting there. Finally, I fish out my phone, call a Ghanaian friend and kindly ask them to help us find our way. I pass the phone to the sweaty driver and after some 2 minute back and forth in Chwi, we drive exactly one kilometer and turn to the left and voila, right there is international conference center. I start fishing out the agreed 3 cedi and the taxi driver quickly jumps in and says that since we have been driving longer than he expected it should be 6 cedi. Yah! I know! After using my phone credit to get us to the place that he said he knew. Sigh.
One just has to laugh, really what else is one to do at this point? I give him 4 cedi, pick my bag up and pull the knob to open the door. Of course it doesn’t work! Taxi driver jumps out of his side, comes and pulls at some metals and eventually opens the door. I jump out, thanking God that I’ve arrived. I try to remind myself that I am in Ghana, this is the way things are here, and I should not be upset with the driver. I groom myself (read – pull at my disheveled outfit and flatten my wind-blown hair), straighten my shoulders and walk into the building, glad to be out of the sun, and ready to survive yet another ride with a Ghanaian taxi driver!
Written in October 2008
Disclaimer – I know, I’m on the outside looking in