public transport a way of african life

I wonder if they’ll ever get this rig moving. I’ve been sitting in this butt-numbing position  —  doubled-over, knees…

I wonder if they’ll ever get this rig moving.

I’ve been sitting in this butt-numbing position  —  doubled-over, knees separated from chest only by my small travel bag — for more than an hour, and we haven’t even started the five-hour drive.

They call this automobile a ‘tro-tro.’ That’s the name given to multi-passenger vehicles, everything from a battered Volkswagen minivan to a Volvo lorry, like this one, that has been retrofitted for maximum human cargo.

Tucked in the rear corner, I’ve watched ours fill beyond capacity.

Market women dressed in brightly patterned wraps and Muslim headscarves take their seats: six across each aisle, including the centre, interspersed with children and toddlers, with sacks of goods held on laps or propped on the floor between feet.

Outside, muscular young men toss bicycles, baskets of fish and bags of grain to fellows on the tro-tro roof, who lash everything down.

There’s no livestock coming on this cross-border trip into Ghana, but it’s not uncommon for a coop of chickens or a couple of live goats to join the rooftop cargo, or be tucked under the rear seats.

The surrounding parking lot is quiet.

Kpalime is a relatively remote mountain town, so it’s hardly surprising that the noisy chaos of Lome, Togo’s capital, is missing.

In large cities the tro-tro park is a commercial nexus, a place where potential buyers sit captive at vehicle windows, waiting to leave — sitting ducks for hawkers selling anything that might be needed on a journey, and many things that will not.

“Peuwatah!” is the most common call, from women and children selling sachets of purified water from metal basins carried upon their heads.

“Meetpay,” goes the cry from women selling meat pies; “Byappo,” from the ones selling apples.

Men exclusively fill other roles in the tro-tro park — not just as drivers, money takers and traffic co-ordinators, but also as salesmen of such masculine products as frozen yogurt or socks.

There’s always at least one fight, though it’s pretty much an ongoing melee over who needs to move out of the way of whom.

Thus the tro-tro inches back and forth constantly, making way for full vehicles arriving or departing as drivers and their ‘mates’ call out their destinations, seeking passengers from the throng.

In more laid-back Kpalime they packed 30 chatting adults and eight (visible) children into this lorry, shin to seatback. We’re all sweating, breathing each other’s air.

The breeze passing through the window is a welcome respite when we finally start rolling.

Beyond the town limits the tro-tro crawls along at about 30 kilometres per hour on an unpaved road, its roof overloaded, its body swaying from side to side on the chassis.

The passengers all go quiet, heads

bowed on crossed arms against the seatbacks before them for an accustomed pseudo-nap.

It will be much more than five hours to Accra, the Ghanaian capital.

Plenty of time to think.

Why don’t Western societies employ this kind of cheap public transport? Minivans cruising set routes throughout cities, picking

passengers up and dropping them off … sure it’s uncomfortable, but so convenient and cheap.

On the smaller inner-city tro-tros fares cost between eight and 30 cents. Taxis are also shared among strangers.

Rides between cities are more expensive, but still ridiculously cheap by Western standards. This trip, roughly 300 kilometres from Kpalime to Accra, cost each passenger 2,000 West African Francs, the equivalent of $4, plus $1 per cargo bag.

The answer, of course, is that the scheme doesn’t work out in the West because of insurance law.

Many African jurisdictions don’t require insurance, but even where they do the law is not enforced.

Customs officials do some perfunctory checks and charge a tariff, but otherwise allow cross-border commerce to flourish

Police at random checkpoints might grumble a bit about the roof load being unsafe but a small bribe usually quiets them.

Passengers use such interludes to pass the kids through the windows for a roadside pee.

The sun is setting by the time we approach Accra and a line of single-driver vehicles heading to affluent neighbourhoods on the capital’s fringe are caught in a traffic jam reminiscent of the big city back home.

‘That’s the life Africans are taught to hope for,’ I think to myself as we disembark at Nemi Markeet, handing kids and packages to each other down the aisles and through the windows.

Our neighbour passengers gather their belongings and bid us farewell, as though we were, however briefly, members of their tribe.

As I massage circulation back into my butt I wonder which culture really has public transit figured out.

Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.