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11.06.2005 General News

Pocket men


IF you need a map of Accra, you should put a taxi driver in your pocket. Finding one's bearings in Accra is not simple, especially for a foreigner. Looking for a map? Even if it was simple, it's not worth it. The best maps of Accra are the taxi drivers. Their rule is fundamental for the understanding of the city. They are like some glue that keeps the city together, and makes it understandable.

But sometimes, this glue doesn't work and a taxi driver, even if he is a living map, gets lost. Or better, he can't find the right direction. He would take you round and round for so long, especially if the customer doesn't know the destination. And this is the issue. A client needs a taxi to go somewhere, and the driver needs the client to reach the destination. It's an eccentric relationship. So a passenger can become a driver and vice versa. When the client is a foreigner, the prices run faster than the taxi. More so, because foreigners don't know the city and can't help the drivers in getting to their destination. So time goes away, and for the driver time has a big value. But sometimes, however the customer knows the destination, the prices grow anyway…

The taxi driver's word holds sway.

Moreover, darkness doesn't help. Being able to recognise the destination, even in the night, is very important. Especially if you are running late. The survival kit for a taxi's client in Accra is made of:

1. A phone to call someone, better if Ghanaian, who can give the right direction to the driver

2. Good English and communication skills

3. Good memory

4. A lot of patience

What is it that you don't need? A city map. You also don't have to be in haste. In Accra, nobody knows the streets by their names, but everybody can tell you where a certain building or shop is located. And the more you know the city, the more curious details your “mental map” grabs. So you wouldn't know only the main places, like the Post Office or the Bank of Ghana, but you could know “that little washing base” beside “the small brown gate”, behind “the flower shop” beyond “the bald policeman” near “Mrs Gloria's House”.

It could happen that a person you stopped to ask for directions would get in the taxi with you as well. This is the fifth point you must note as a tourist: Never be more than 3 tourists in a taxi, because it would be better to leave a seat free for the possible guide.

This would be a good idea to find either one's bearings in Accra, or new friendships. Michael Jumpah (pictured) has been a taxi driver since 1972. Every year, about five clients become his friends and if you multiply this by 33 which is how long he has been practicing his profession, which gives you 165, then he has not done badly at all.

If you speak with a taxi driver, he could tell you that he likes his work and that the earnings are good, even if the petrol price has gone up so much, (¢30,000 cedis for a gallon). The taxi driver has a very long day. It begins from between 6-7am and ends at about 8pm, and there is only a limited time to have lunch. Every day, a taxi picks up a lot of people (about 20 a day). Most of them are Ghanaians, but he could pick up one “obroni” (about once in a week). At the end of the day, his job is pretty interesting because he can meet a lot of people and know the city better than anybody else.

How to become a taxi driver?

Take a car and go.

The only way to find your way in Accra is to get lost. In a couple of months (but someone says in 3 weeks) you can bring anyone anywhere. To drive a tro-tro may be easier because the route is always the same, and also it would be more profitable. But a genuine Ghanaian taxi driver loves his car, his customers and perhaps the adventurous possibility to get lost, better with a beautiful lady as client.

As a matter of fact, in Accra, there aren't “female taxi drivers” yet. Women, let's think about it. It wouldn't be a bad idea.

Writer is on attachment from Teaching and Projects Abroad, an NGO