Mon, 08 Nov 2004 Feature Article

An Englishman in Accra: No atheists in a Ghanaian taxi

An Englishman in Accra: No atheists in a Ghanaian taxi

*A regular column by Simon Dean, a British journalist working for Ghana Review International (GRI) in Accra and republished in the Gye Nyame Concord

They say that in the city of London, no matter where you stand, you're never more than twenty feet away from a rat.

In Accra, exactly the same can be said for taxis.

Having relied upon the aforementioned mode of transport to get around when I first moved here, I have experienced both the good and the bad, from dilapidated, fume filled Astras with creaking suspensions and windscreens so badly cracked you wonder how on Earth the driver can see where he's going, to the 'very' occasional well kept Mercedes, both charging the same amount.

Generally speaking, the taxis of Accra are a godsend to anyone visiting the city and offer both a ridiculously cheap (compared to the UK) and relatively comfortable way of getting from A to B.

Having said that, it's an Englishman's prerogative to moan whenever possible, and with that in mind, there are a number of things to watch out for.

It took me a good few weeks to realise the policy of charging an 'obroni tax' to anyone whose skin colour identifies them as a foreigner.

The rate of tax charged depends on the driver in question and the apparent wealth of the customer (wearing gold jewellery and an expensive watch will not incline your driver to lower your fare) but generally means that a C20, 000 journey will be charged at between C40, 000 and C60, 000.

For most western travellers the culture of haggling is one of the most novel aspects of life in West Africa, but for me, the novelty soon wears off when you're having to make several taxi journeys a day over an extended period of time, knowing damn well that you're going to be charged considerably more than your Ghanaian friends (just listen to the poor white guy complaining about racial discrimination – doesn't your heart bleed). Not that we have this problem with taxi fares back in London of course (there everyone is overcharged by a ridiculous amount whatever their skin colour - race doesn't even come into it).

Still, I suppose you can't blame them for trying - when all's said and done they're just trying to make a living like the rest of us, and when you look at the price of petrol here, it can't be all that much.

Now, having learned the basic facts of life as far as taxis are concerned, It's far easier to nip the problem in the bud by stating the price you are willing to pay from the start and walking away in protest if the driver doesn't acquiesce to your offer (don't worry if he drives off, there's guaranteed to be another taxi right behind him).

Just as the vehicles range hugely in terms of quality, so too do the drivers themselves, from well mannered friendly souls who seem to embody the best elements of the Ghanaian spirit, reminding you why you moved here in the first place, to grumpy, obnoxious oafs who spend the entire journey muttering under their breath about the traffic, usually in preparation for trying to charge you more than the agreed amount when you get to your destination.

The quality, or should I say the safety of the driving is also extremely varied; if you want to test your religious beliefs you could do worse than taking a journey in a Ghanaian taxi, believe me.

As a British citizen I'm entitled to drive under my UK licence for up to 12 months, so I have never taken a Ghanaian driving test – something I seem to have in common with many of the taxi drivers I've had - although I dread to think what such a test consists of.

Presumably if your arms are long enough to reach the horn and you can swear in at least one local dialect while shaking your fist, you've passed.

Of course I'm being unfair - amongst the horror stories (and there have been a few) I've also had some very competent drivers indeed, so it's not all bad, it's just that the near death experiences tend to stick in the mind more readily.

Anyway, having since bought a car of my own (I opted for an Opel Astra – how can a million Ghanaian taxi drivers be wrong) I've been able to leave the hassle of taking taxis behind me…and now face a whole new nightmare, that of navigating around Accra.

I'm told that you can buy a very good street map of Accra, but nobody seems to know exactly where I should go to get one.

Combined with the fact that road signs are a rare privilege and the lack of street lighting means that by night the entire city seems to look completely different to the one you spent the afternoon trying to commit to memory, learning to drive in the capital is a basic case of trial and error, with the emphasis on the latter.

Despite these challenges (which now include a recent fight with a tree stump – it won) I must admit that I've never enjoyed driving quite so much.

Unlike many countries in the west which seem to have lost their sense of fun when it comes to motor vehicles, there don't appear to be any troublesome laws or traffic regulations to worry about here.

There are traffic laws of course, but your fellow road users don't seem to be aware of them and the police men and women whose job it is to enforce them are too busy shaking down trotro drivers for bribes to give you any worries.

The mandatory use of the horn makes indicators superfluous to requirements and at times, traffic lights seem to serve no other practical purpose other than to act as a novel way of attracting mosquitoes.

I'm told there is a speed limit in the country, but I'm assuming from what I've seen that the laws of physics have prevented mankind from building cars capable of reaching it yet. In short, driving around Accra is like taking part in the Indy 500 – dangerous as Hell, but fantastic fun.

Coming from the UK - a country obsessed with safety to the point were it's virtually a crime to leave the home without a sufficient wrapping of government approved cotton wool - driving in Ghana is a perversely liberating experience (there does seem to be something about looking 'death' in the face that makes you appreciate life a little more). And it seems to me, that that is the most striking differences between the developed and the developing world – the fragility of life and the way that the people in the latter simply accept it.

In the UK, like many western countries, a litigious culture has developed in recent years where nobody seems to be responsible for their own actions or safety anymore - the idea that life carries certain innate risks is now obsolete.

In the not too distant past, if a person tripped over a pot-hole in London and broke their ankle, they would have considered it their own fault for not looking where they were going.

Not anymore Now you can ring up one of the numerous groups of solicitors who advertise on TV, who will sue the local council on your behalf with the boast of 'no win, no fee.' The local authorities it seems have a duty to make life totally safe, 100% of the time. There's the well worn story (not that that's going to stop me using it) of the woman in America who successfully sued her local McDonalds restaurant after she spilled a cup of their coffee and scalded herself, claiming their coffee was 'too' hot.

I can't help thinking that most Ghanaians must consider this sort of behaviour infuriatingly infantile when compared to the harsh reality of the lives many of them have to endure.

In the developing world people have no choice but to accept that life is full of risk – a fact made all too obvious by the terrible death rates on Ghana's roads, the relatively high infant mortality rate and low life expectancy - safety is just another luxury that we in the west have come to demand, and one that many here can't afford.

I must admit that perversely, that is one of the main attractions of life in Ghana; it certainly isn't safe, but it's a damn site more fun than living back home. Recently, the brother of a Ghanaian man I know was killed in a lorry accident on the main road from Accra to Kumasi.

He was only in his mid-thirties.

This seemed shocking to me, but it's not I'm told particularly un-common. Perhaps when it's one of my friends who's become another faceless statistic on a government chart following yet another crash on Ghana's roads, my zeal for driving in Accra might be somewhat diminished.