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14.03.2021 Feature Article

Remembering Childhood Experiences: Counting Cars and Trains

Remembering Childhood Experiences: Counting Cars and Trains
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I was born in Kumasi, Ghana, and spent my childhood there. I lived at Asafo, across the street from Asafohene’s Palace, and at Dadiesoaba, near the Kumasi Sports Stadium. This article covers my elementary school years in the 1960s.

Some will say that those were the good old days. Children did not need much to be happy. There were no computers and a few homes had television sets. Children with no television in their homes went to other homes to watch television programs, and felt very much at home. Forget cell phones or mobile phones and many of the electronic devices and gadgets that children of today think they cannot live without. They did not exist then, but life was still fun.

We used our imagination and relationships such as relatives and friends to keep ourselves occupied and happy. Two childhood fun activities that did not require ownership of things were counting cars and trains.

The family house where I lived at Asafo is about 100 feet from the Lake Road (Roman Hill to Ahinsan Road). It is the main street with heavy vehicular traffic. I crossed the street each day I went to school. I attended elementary school at A.M.E. Zion School, Asafo. The school is located less than ten minutes’ walk from my house. Children usually went to school on foot unaccompanied by adults. We felt safe walking alone to and from school. There was no fear of predators preying on children; the only major concern was the danger of being hit by a car when crossing the street. Fortunately, I did not hear that a car hit any child on the way to or from school. One could say that we were “streetwise” or “street-smart” that young, but the Lord was (and still is) our Chief Shepherd, and His abundant grace followed us.

The main street provided opportunities to watch many different types of cars and play games with them. Some of the common types of cars I recall in those days were Bedford, Opel, Peugeot, Toyota, and Datsun. The games were simple. For example, each person selected the type of car, such as Bedford, Opel, Peugeot, Toyota, Datsun etc. Then we stood by the side of the street counting the number of times each type of car passed by within a certain period of time, say one hour. The person whose type of car passed by the most won. Sometimes, we switched the type of cars after each game and played again.

The next game with cars was about the letters and numbers on the car registration or license plates. Car registration numbers were simpler. They were usually two letters at the beginning followed by numerical values. The most common prefixes were AN, AE and AT. Our interest lied in the prefixes only. One person selected AN, AE or AT etc. Then we started counting by the side of the street as the cars passed. The person whose selected prefix passed by the most won. Again, we switched and played again.

Counting cars turned mostly into a small business of counting how many cars one could watch on Sunday afternoons during football (soccer) matches or games at the Kumasi Sports Stadium. One advantage of staying near the stadium was that boys in my neighborhood could easily walk there early and watch the cars for those who parked in the open fields outside the stadium. You negotiated with the drivers that you would watch the cars for them, and you directed them to park closer together so that you can watch all together.

However, we wanted to watch the cars and at the same time watch part of the football matches without paying the gate fees. In those days, when it was about 15 minutes left to the end of the match, the stadium authorities opened the gates for children and adult freeloaders to enter the stadium and watch the match for free. The plan was to watch about 10 minutes of the match and then run back to the cars before the owners got to them so that they would pay us something for our security efforts. Any amount of compensation for an elementary school child in the informal transaction was just fine. Those were some of the games we played with cars.

We also had fun with trains, known in local Ghanaian parlance as “Keteke.” A.M.E. Zion School is located near railway tracks, and about two miles from the Kumasi Railway Station. You could see the passing trains from the classrooms and even better from the school park located near the railway tracks. This was more so before the road linking the Ahmadiyya School roundabout to Asafo Market was constructed and took a portion of the school park. Because of the school’s closeness to the train station, by the time the trains got near the school, the speed was relatively minimal - either they would be winding down towards the station or picking up speed from the station. The trains announced their arrivals or departures by blowing loud bell and whistle from far away in part to warn people to stay away from the railway tracks. It also gave children and other curiosity-seekers time to position themselves and watch the trains.

The trains were mostly powered by coal-burning steam locomotive engines that spewed huge amounts of smoke into the skies from the conspicuous cylinder-shaped upper deck. Unfortunately, pollution of the environment by the moving chimney was part of the amazement as we gazed into the skies wondering how long it would take for the smoke to disappear in the skies.

Another interesting thing about the steam locomotive was that a good portion of the engine’s operations and movements were visible from the outside, making it very exciting for children to watch. The sight of large metal wheels grinding fast on the rails, the synchronizing movements of the other metals along the sides of the engine, and the combined loud sound (turned into a rhythm) as the train pulled along, were interesting spectacle to behold. In short, the steam locomotive engines were a massive feat of engineering that inspired awe in children.

However, as children, we did not just admire the trains for their engineering technology, but we also wanted to count the number of coaches and wagons each train had. Unlike cars, the trains were very few and passed by in relatively long intervals. Therefore, our interest was not necessarily in the type and number of trains that passed by, but in the number of coaches and wagons the trains had. As a result, there was more collaboration than competition since we were all counting the same trains for their number of coaches and wagons.

Counting cars and trains provided a small measure of real life application to supplement the 1, 2, 3 and A, B, C we were learning in the classroom. It was not obvious then, but looking back, the numbers, counting, and attention to details may have helped to reduce the fear of arithmetic or mathematics, and reinforced the classroom learning experience in that subject.

They did something more. For example, earlier this week in Houston, Texas, I was approaching a railway crossing at the intersection of Fondren Road and Highway 90 Alt (also called South Main Street). As I drove closer, the railway crossing signal and the traffic light started flashing yellow, indicating that they would soon turn red and the crossing gate would be lowered to block entrance to cars. Many drivers were rushing to cross to avoid the long wait one endures when a train is passing. Not me. For me, it was a nice opportunity to temporarily relax in my car and relive for a moment my childhood experience of counting the number of coaches and wagons. It was a cargo or freight train. I counted 141 wagons, more than I recall ever counting in Ghana. In the hustle and bustle of the U.S., a little opportunity to relax helps to reduce stress.

Today, children in Ghana could not be bothered about counting cars and trains. There are no trains in Kumasi at this time anyway, and there are too many different types of cars with many combinations of letters and numbers on the license plates to make the game fun. Children have desktop and laptop computers, cell phones or mobile phones, other electronic gadgets, and social media for communication, entertainment, and education. All well and good, but are children in Ghana losing out on some of the simplicities of life such as having fun with ordinary basic things in their surroundings and being happy without personally owning anything?

My childhood experiences taught me that sometimes what one needs to be happy are not lots of things, but imagination and relationships. My interest in trains, cars, numbers, and counting could not influence me to become an engineer, a scientist or a transport owner, but they probably made me very comfortable with arithmetic or mathematics, a subject useful in everyday life, and challenging to many lawyers. And those were childhood experiences worth remembering.

Prayer is the key. May God grant us the grace to seek Him daily through our prayers.

Dr. Daniel Gyebi, Attorney-at-Law, Texas, U.S.A., and Founder, PrayerHouse Ministry, Kumasi, Ghana.

PrayerHouse Ministry is dedicated to providing a quiet facility for Christians to pray individually by themselves without any intermediary priest, pastor or any other person. This is a free service. No money is demanded or accepted. One facility is located at Kyerekrom / Fumesua, near Building and Road Research Institute Offices, one mile off the Kumasi-Accra Road and next to a house called Grace Castle. If you are interested, please contact Agnes at 054-7498653. Another is located at Kantinkyiren, at the junction of Kantinkyiren and Konkori, off the Kumasi-Obuasi Road, branching left at Trede junction. Contact Kwadwo at 020-8768461 / 0246-989413.

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