Traffic is the bane of many city dwellers’ existence, but as Stacey Knott discovers, Accra in Ghana takes it to a new level.
In Accra, the capital of Ghana if you need to commute to get to work, chances are you will spend at least two hours of your day stuck in traffic. Sometimes a lot more. I have colleagues who deal with a six hour round trip daily – that means getting up at about 4am, and home around 8pm.
Before I moved right opposite my work, I had a three hour return trip, depending on the traffic.
Sometimes the traffic is so bad that the city will be at a standstill, like last week, when a heavily-used tunnel in Accra was temporarily shutdown.
This tunnel is in the suburb I live, which is on the outskirts of the city. The tunnel is one way, and cuts under one of the main motorways here. Apparently it was originally built to herd cattle.
I stayed home that day, but asked friends and colleagues about their experiences in it. One was stuck in traffic for four hours. Others reported people getting out of buses and walking in the heat and car fumes. Someone heard a guy on a local radio station who called to say the traffic made him so late for work, that his boss fired him.
It’s no secret that the roads here were not built for the amount of people that now populate the capital. The roads are often pot-hole riddled and people will basically create a second or third lane squeezing along the side of the traffic to sneak through.
I’ve seen some outrageous manoeuvres on these roads – and the aftermath when they’ve gone wrong.
As soon as a traffic light goes green there is a mad rush from all directions to meet it, and then a bottleneck as the idea of lanes disappears. Cars are millimeters from scraping each other and horns beep obnoxiously.
On the motorways I’ve seen people overtake on blind corners many times, and the results of these moves are often shared on social media, or in the newspapers; gory photos of crushed cars and bodies. There’s one stretch of motorway I used to have to traverse along daily before moving, and every day I would pass an upturned car, truck in a ditch or burnt out vehicle of some sort.
Statistics from 2015 showed over a third of all reported road crashes and casualties in Ghana happened in Accra. The statistics I could find were up until November last year, and provisional.
It’s safe to say not all accidents are reported or recorded here, but last year at least 270 people died on the roads in Accra and 2000 were injured. With the lack of footpaths and safe road crossings it’s tough being a pedestrian too. About 800 were knocked down in 2015 in the capital.
But while its the thousands and thousands of private cars and taxis that generally clog the roads, there is also another pretty inventive way people get around, and that is via a tro-tro. Tro-tros are super cheap and very convenient privately owned vans and mini-buses that zip all over the city along fixed routes picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. There are taxis that offer the same service, just a little more expensive.
Tro-tros are the kind of vans large families would use in New Zealand, or a Ford used for deliveries or trade jobs – here they are completely re-purposed. They are decked out with rows of seats you have to cram into.
And I really mean cram, often you will have someone’s goods at your feet, and your knees are pushed up against the seat in front. I’ve travelled with a goat at my feet once, terrified and bleating away. I’ve sat next to a woman with a bowl of live crabs on her lap, on her way to sell them at a market, and I’ve also been in a van with someone holding a few chickens under each arm.
These vans also travel all over Ghana, from villages to cities, and in doing so, will be absurdly loaded down with people’s goods and luggage, to the point that they have almost doubled in size because of this.
You’d be lying if you said you were comfortable – sometimes there is no back to the bench seats, and you hold on to the seat in front whenever the van lurches around a corner.
Each tro-tro has its driver, who on any given day will likely have a handful of near misses, and judging by the dents and scraps on these vans, run ins too. There’s also the ‘driver’s mate’ who hustles to get people into the van, get their money and tell the driver when passengers want to get down, usually by banging on the roof.
The mate will yell out the window the direction the van is going in to potential passengers waiting on the side of the road – or there are different hand gestures to indicate stations or directions. When it stops to let out passengers the mate will frantically call out for more to take their place, it’s a fast-paced and pretty efficient system.
Generally, the vehicles themselves would never pass any kind of road worthy test in New Zealand, sometimes you can see the road passing below you as the floor has rusted out in parts, and there’s no seat-belts in these things.
But, they are great for getting from A to B if you don’t have a car, or money to charter a taxi. If more people used them here in Accra, instead of their own vehicles then those infuriating traffic jams would ease up.
And, why stop here?
Usually developing nations look to the West for inspiration on their own development, but in this case, I think the reverse is worth a shot.
This is a mode of transport that could fix many transport, pollution and fuel issues through the world. Imagine shared taxi vans constantly running from Richmond to Nelson, or South Auckland to Central Auckland, but with the added bonus of sticking to road rules, adding in seat-belts and a proper floor and perhaps without the live animals and excessive luggage.