Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Journey to the North: Notes on Transportation in Ghana

As I’m writing, Szoa and I sitting in a makeshift bus station in Kumasi impatiently waiting for our journey to Wa to visit IHI’s Project Fives Alive’s project sites in the upper west of Ghana to begin. I cannot wait to get to the north to spend some time with the Project Fives Alive team and to recommence my search for mangoes (perhaps I love mangoes too much). I’ve already waited about two and a half hours and have just learned that we have about an hour left before the bus begins to board. This “organic” process of transportation is very frustrating since I hate idle time. Could I have taken another mode of transportation to avoid this three hour wait in a dusty station?

Generally, getting around in Ghana is fairly easy and inexpensive, but riddled with delays. Here are some considerations that must be factored in before embarking on a trip:

  • Ghana Time:
  • If a Ghanaian tells you that they will meet you somewhere at a specific time, expect at the very least a 15 minute delay. Like Asian time and Hispanic time, nothing ever runs on time.
  • Distance:
  • It takes on average about 20 hours to travel from the northern border of Ghana (Paga) back to southern border (Accra).
  • Quality of Roads:
  • Even though a town may be geographically close, if the roads have not been paved, your travel time will increase significantly. As I was planning my trip to Wa, I had the option of taking a flight into Tamale from Accra followed by a bus from Tamale to Wa. This seemed like the fastest route since Wa is in the next district west of Tamale. However, since the roads between Tamale and Wa have not yet been paved, the travel time between Tamale and Wa would take about the same time as a bus directly from Kumasi to Wa.
  • City Congestion:
  • If y’all thought New York City was congested, just come to Ghana and you will be surprised. Because public transportation systems don’t quite exist, the roads are “choked” with lots and lots of cars. Drivers are very aggressive here and will squeeze into any space available. A five minute journey could be a thirty minute ordeal during rush hours--usually it is much faster to walk in these cases.
  • Type of Transportation:
  • The smaller the vehicle, the faster it travels. A large bus generally will take much longer than a taxi. The age of the vehicle is also important factor in its speed. The older the car, the slower it will drive.
  • Who’s driving?:
  • The traffic rules in Ghana are very loose. Speed limits and traffic lights are merely suggestions. So, if the roads are clear, a fast driver will speed his way down the road until the road becomes congested. 90% of the cars in Ghana are manual, stick shift cars. This added control makes it relatively easy for the drivers to abruptly stop the car if needed.
Given these factors, I decided to take a large and established (though apparently not reliable) bus to Wa from Kumasi. Here are some other transportation options that I could have taken:

  • Drop-In Taxi:
  • Drop-in taxis work exactly like taxi’s in the US. You stand on the side of the street to flag a cab down, or walk to a cabstand. Though, before opening the cab door, you must negotiate and agree on a cab fare. Since cab fares are always inflated for obroni, be sure to verify the price with locals. Travel within Kumsai should never cost any more than 4-5 Cedi.
  • Shared Taxi:
  • There are some taxis that simply drive up and down some of the main city roads or highly frequented routes. If there are empty seats available in the cab, you can share a cab with strangers and pay a greatly reduced fair to arrive close to your final destination. A drop-in price of 4 Cedi reduces to 60 peswas in a shared taxi.
  • Tro-Tro:
  • Tro-tros are old refurbished vans that travel almost all over Ghana at a very low cost. Each tro-tro can hold about 15 or so people legally. A porter assists the driver by calling out the final locations that the tro-tro will travel between. He also collects the tro-tro fare and alerts the driver when to stop to drop-off passengers and pick up new passengers. While some drivers will try to squeeze as many people into one van as possible, there are random police checkpoints along the roads that will fine drivers for overcrowding. Tro-tros only leave when the tro-tro is full, so that is an important delay that you have to take into account when planning trips. Tro-tros are probably the riskiest form of transportation in Ghana given how old the vans are and how recklessly the drivers drive. But, if you are on a budget, they are a very affordable option.
  • MetroMass Buses:
  • These buses are government owned buses that connect most of the major cities and townships all across Ghana. Because these buses are government owned, the price is highly subsidized. Fortunately, unlike the tro-tros, these buses kind of run on a schedule. They have a certain number of routes a day and will leave within two hours of their reported departure time. If you are not traveling a long distance or don’t mind the lack of air conditioning, this is another very affordable and more reliable option. Usually, advance tickets are not needed.
  • STC Buses:
  • These buses are a step up from MetroMass. They are newer and are a little more reliable. But, they have less routes than MetroMass. You normally do have to purchase tickets in advance or arrive very early and hope that there are spaces left.
  • Motorbike:
  • In the north, the land is much flatter and as a result, one of the major forms of transportation is the bicycle or motorbike. However, motorbikes are not available for “rent.” To take advantage of the motorbikes, you will need to know someone who owns one for a ride.
  • Hitch-hiking:
  • Ironically, in a foreign country where everyone is a stranger, hitch-hiking is a very viable option for obroni in Ghana. Twice, I have been lucky enough to meet generous strangers who offer to drop me off at a city on their way to their final destination. They ask for absolutely nothing in return and simply tell me that this is the Ghanaian way. As a caveat, this is not to say that everyone offering rides is a safe option. As my dad has ended every conversation I’ve had with him since I’ve been in Ghana: be smart and be safe.
The bus to Wa has finally completed boarding. It’s now five hours after the original departure time. Let’s just hope that these six hours to Wa are safe and as they say in Ghana, snappy, too!

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