This blog is written in tribute to every trotro (Ghanaian mini bus) I rode during my eight-month stay in Ghana.
I know some people see them as rickety, rusty and dangerous forms of transport. But for me – a diasporan accustomed to the English bus system – trotros gave me unique insight into Ghanaian culture.
They helped me navigate Accra’s ordered yet chaotic roads and improved my mental arithmetic.
Yes, it is true that a couple of my nice dresses got jammed and torn as I tried to descend from them. And I am the first to admit that I pondered getting a tetanus jab once or twice after drawing blood from the rusty vehicles. And YES I can still smell that acrid, sulphurous boiled egg aroma mixed with ‘scent e no, a gye bebia’ (stale sweat). But believe me, I gained a whole lot more than I lost.
I came to live in Accra in 2008 before the new Achimota bus station was built. I was immediately baffled at how people managed to get from A to B, let alone Z. Having started a voluntary charity job, I needed to get to Abelenkpe from the old Peace FM radio station. But where were the bus numbers? Why weren’t the bus destinations featured on them? Hell… where WERE the bus stops?
Without traffic, it was a 10-minute journey from my house to work, and about 30 minutes by foot. And initially, I walked it – not wanting to have to pay the taxi driver’s informal premium for outsiders … and also because I suck at bartering.
But many trial runs later, courtesy of my then boyfriend and patient friends, I soon understood the ways of the Nkranfuo (those living in Accra). I learnt that buses DID have destinations and designated stops – I was just looking in the wrong place.
Mates – the equivalent of UK bus conductors – would lean out of their trotro windows, twirling their finger in a circle as they approach would-be passengers to denote Kwame Nkrumah Circle. A finger pointing ahead referring to Accra Central and one directed to the floor is used when coming from central Accra.
So it is not uncommon to hear mates shouting …Circle…circ…circ….Accra… Accra….ccra….ccra…. – all a far cry from the nonchalance that greets me most days when I attempt to catch a London bus.
In Ghana, mates will vie for your custom – even waiting as you stroll to catch his ride! So when you have such visual and aural stimulation – who needs a plain old static sign?
And while I was initially convinced that designated bus stops did not exist in Accra, I soon realised that bus stops are a more fluid concept. They are market-driven and dictated according to a person’s status and their ability to negotiate.
So if you can convince the mate and driver to drop you somewhere off his beaten track or he takes pity on you because you are elderly, you’re sorted. Communities are always on the move and natural migration means trotros must move to where the people live.
So an area near Madina where a friend of mine lives is known as Aben Wo Ha the same name as a popular song by Highlife musician DL (Daddy Lumba). And even though the old Peace FM radio station by Mile Seven has moved, the old bus stop name is still recognised.
The sense of community on these buses really sets them apart from what I am used to. In the UK, greeting your fellow bus passenger is considered odd but in Ghana, it is customary. Babies are thrust upon mates (who never deny them) while mothers gather their many bags. Mates strategically deposit young children on seats and grandparents are shown enviable respect as they board these vehicles. Mates EVEN will act as middle men, picking up whatever fast food is going for peckish passengers on the journey.
If you were one of the lucky few to get the trotro front seat, you are in effect travelling first class. There is no threat of getting a finger caught in the rusty innards of the bus or having to constantly get up for someone to pass. Of course, the flip side is the backless gangway seats that fold, forcing the occupant to be vigilant of those behind him/her in case people behind wanted to get off.
This community spirit goes even further with passengers assisting the mate by passing on bus fare change to other on the bus; and people debating a topic on the radio. And I’ll never forget that feeling of unity when a mass singsong erupted the day Michael Jackson died and all Ghanaian radio stations played his songs on loop – where else would that happen but on the trotro?
Lastly, as one that is less than agile when it comes to mental arithmetic, sitting at the back of the bus was a lesson in itself. Mates would often single someone out (me) and in perfect Twi (for my imperfect ears) would assign me with the task of collecting the right amount of money for him, whilst also meting out the change to my seated neighbours. A heady task when you are disabled linguistically and mathematically. But I can say that in no time at all, I even impressed myself.
The beauty of trotro culture is that it is always evolving, reflecting the life blood of Ghanaian society. They are a platform for so much. They offer a cheap and culturally rich route to learning about how to get around a city. Preachers hop on board to spread the word, entrepreneurs perch on seats selling their wares and even the vehicle itself acts as a conduit for publicising religious messages.
A fitting tribute when you know that the trusty trotro takes its name from the word in Ghana’s Ga language “tro,” which refers to the three-pence fee it used to cost in colonial times to travel on the bus. How things have changed!
All hail the Trotro!
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong
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