The first time I heard the word Uber was in a Drake song. The exact lyric escapes me but if your guess was something along the lines of Drake talking about sending a girl he had a one night stand with home in an uber then you are spot on. After that song, I heard the word uber in a number of American movies and shows. Fast forward to a couple of years later and Uber cars are dotted all over Accra’s streets. Despite their growing presence, largely in the relatively miniscule form of either a Kia Picanto or Mattis, Uber cars are not as ubiquitous as the yellow striped taxis, talk less of Trotros.
In an increasingly saturated market, Trotros affirm the Akan adage of panyin de panyin¸ to wit, an elder remains an elder (this is as accurate a translation as my JHS Akuapem Twi could afford me). They are literally everywhere you go in Accra and way cheaper than Taxis and Uber so the always in a hurry but too broke to spend more Accra resident tends to opt for them. Using a Trotro is almost a rite of passage for the average Ghanaian. Yes we will one day ensconce our bums in cozy air conditioned salon cars but for now, we make do with the tattered seats and rickety chassis of Trotro.
But even in the discomfort of a Trotro, you can get a Eureka or apple falling on the head of Newtown moment. And in this stuffy Madina bound trotro from Kwame Nkrumah Circle, the thought occurred to me: Trotros are the most accurate microcosm of Ghanaian life!
I have a long list of trotro stories that shows how well intentioned the average Ghanaian is on a regular day. So in the first anecdote, There’s a mother with a toddler in the trotro I was in. Baby starts crying out of fatigue. Everyone turns around, some ask the mother if the baby is sick, another offers to sing the baby a lullaby to sleep. One lady starts fanning the baby while the man sitting next to the mother buys water for the baby’s mother. This other lady keeps peering to see what the mother is doing to comfort the baby.
The second anecdote starts with an older man who was scrolling down his iPad when he came across the heartbreaking story of a pastor who lost his family in a fire. After sharing the story with me, we engaged in a chat which continued after I told the mate I was alighting at “Legon First”. Old man went on about how things have taken a bad turn in tertiary education. Apparently, university education used to be free, each student had a dorm room to himself and there was a monthly stipend too. Long story short, this old man offered me ten cedis “for chop money” when I was about to alight (and no, I did not take the money)!
I could also share with you stories of times when someone did not have enough money to cover his fare so the driver gave him a pass or another passenger paid for him. Or times when a mate (conductor) buys water for a thirsty passenger who does not have enough change on him. The list is long but the conclusion is clear, even in the midst of perennial economic hardships, Ghanaians can be some of the nicest persons out there. The average Ghanaian tends to be empathetic to the plight of the person next to him.
The tattered seats and occasional body odor from the mate are not always the worst things in a trotro. The absence of privacy is. Trotros literally bring to bear, the absence of the concept of private space in Ghanaian society. Car owners intentionally place the seat in the 207 Mercedes Benz in a manner that ensures that every little breadth of space is commercially utilized. But away from the optimal utilization of space by the car owners, passengers themselves care less about the next person’s space. Even in cases where the trotro is not full, someone would still find their way next to you, with shoulders and side bums rubbing. There is also the peering over shoulders to read the text messages of a fellow passenger.
Of all the intrusion into private spaces, the screaming voices of bus preachers is arguably the most intrusive. Regardless of the hour of the day, a random preacher can pop up and starting evoking the spirit of God into the bus and chastising the sinners on the bus. You dare not listen or keep your headphones on unless you want to all the shades of the preacher directed at your patently godless and hedonistic self.
In a highly religiously conscious society, chances are that there are some people on each Trotro bus who do want to listen to a sermon at 6 in the morning. But that is not true for everyone. Sometimes you just want to catch a nap before you take on the day’s workload. But nah, Trotro preacher could care less. Like places of worship in our communities, Trotro preachers could care less about your sleep. From the azan booming through the speakers of the local mosque to the tongues and praises from the charismatic church, our religious practices seem to be manifested without any regard of the next person’s need for quietude.
When resources are scarce, when access to a space is constricted and limited, it gets bloody sometimes. Maybe not literally, but chances of a scuffle arising out of a competition for a seat on a trotro is pretty high. During rush hour, when the average man has closed from work and drags himself wearily to the Airport First bus stop, he finds dozens of others trying to get home like he is. So to get that one seat in a Trotro, he has to fight. He has to push others to the side and hunk on to the last remaining seat.
In those moments, all the niceties of what it means to be Ghanaian evaporates. No one cares about the mother with a baby tucked at her back or the old man with his walking cane. It is everyone for himself. The latent brute in man is awakened. That brutish man is just as Ghanaian as can be.