Life in Ghana: the world of taxi drivers
Visitors to Ghana will find that half of the vehicles on the city’s streets are taxis with distinctive bright orange-yellow wings. Even those who keep a careful count will find that their statistics back up their first impression. According to the Building and Highway Research Institute (BRRI), there were 121,000 registered vehicles in Ghana in 1993, of which registered taxis constituted 28,000 or 23%. However, taxis spend much more time on the road than other types of vehicles and this is how they can dominate the traffic scene; and it is the ever-present community of taxi drivers that characterizes life on the move on the streets of Ghana’s towns and cities.
Almost all Ghanaians have a happy countenance, but taxi drivers stand out for conveying joy. This appears to be partly because vehicle ownership and/or the ability to make a living relatively easily provides a sense of good fortune, and partly because a cheerful and friendly attitude is good for business. Whatever the reason, taxi drivers are famous for exhibiting an infectious joy at being alive.
Popular Ghanaian author Cameron Dodoo has written about taxi drivers expressing great enthusiasm in the 1950s, when the ubiquitous Morris Oxford was the vehicle of first choice. They would pull up next to a friend by first driving past him and then putting the vehicle into reverse while he was still moving forward so that the vehicle backed up as if apologizing. Even if the most modern cars are too delicate to manifest such exuberance, the spirit that drives them has lost only a small part of that seminal joy of newfound freedom.
Much of the taxi driver’s life is spent greeting friends. Traveling with the windows down and one arm out, he is acutely aware of his surroundings and is ready to wave and honk at every familiar face. Also keeping an eye out for possible fees, he responds in the same way at the sight of every foreigner or person of apparent purchasing power he sees walking on the side of the road. There can be no doubt that the engine horn is the ultimate expression of a driver’s joy, and no opportunity is lost to sound it, whether it’s greeting an acquaintance, requesting a ticket, expressing appreciation for a beautiful girl, or letting off steam. frustration at a road block
Many taxis wait for the fare at established ‘truck lots’ for trotros and buses, and often follow trotro routes to other terminal stations. However, unlike buses and most trotters, which stop only at regular points along the way, taxis will stop anywhere to drop off or pick up additional passengers. They will even stop for their passengers to buy food, drinks and trinkets from street vendors. The goal is to always travel full: with all seats occupied. Anyone requiring exclusive use of a taxi must first find an empty vehicle and then inform the driver that they wish to ‘rent’ it. It goes without saying that the cost of chartering is much higher than the standard rate in shared occupancy.
Taxi drivers rarely buy more than a gallon of fuel at a time. This means that they frequently call their preferred gas stations, which expands their network of friends and hopefully improves their chances of obtaining fuel in times of scarcity. Living paycheck to paycheck, the taxi driver converts part of his earnings into fuel as the day progresses. Passengers chartering a ride to a more distant destination are generally required to pay an advance and wait at a gas station for fuel to be refueled. This is immediate frustration for those in a hurry, but for those as relaxed as the driver it’s an opportunity for a light-hearted discussion of current affairs interspersed with complaints about high fuel costs.
Ghanaian taxi drivers make sure that their passengers remain in constant interaction with the general population and this is not just because they travel with their windows wide open. Unlike Europeans, Ghanaians look first at people’s faces and then at the vehicle they are traveling in. A friend or family member is never lost, whether walking or riding, and those who ride always want to be seen. For the taxi driver it is better to travel with paying passengers than to travel alone as this multiplies friendly exchanges. The shortest ride is an opportunity to activate a kaleidoscope of smiling faces and joyous waves. Yes! Life on the road is life itself, in all its richness and variety, thanks to the tireless good humor of the taxi drivers.