One of the more eye-opening aspects of life in Tamale has been my daily encounters with the city’s public transportation network. For starters, let me say that the railway, established under colonial rule, completes a rough triangle, from Accra north to Kumasi and west along the coast to Takoradi, with the third side linking those two cities. It comes nowhere near the Northern region, and all transport north of Kumasi depends upon the road network (with the notable exception of the boats which move up and down lake Volta to the East, and the two aeroplanes a day which fly into Tamale Airport Aerodrome.
Most private citizens rely on bike and motorbikes to get around, and (as with many places in the developing world), the loads which can be carried on such vehicles are at times mind bending – from a family of five to a large amount of heavy building materials, livestock, and the odd fridge – the bikes are ubiquitous and versatile. They are also a challenge to cars and pedestrians alike. Tamale has few pavements, though it does have one unique factor. Several of the more major roads have cycle lanes. This ought to make like easier, but the lanes are shared by pedestrians, bicycles and motorbikes, adding an interesting dimension to ones travel.
For those of us without the luxury of a motorbike (indeed our insurance would not cover it even if we had access), there are a few options. First, and cheapest, are the Yellow Yellows (you might know them as Tuk Tuks or Auto-Rickshaws). These are basically motorbike bodies, converted to have three wheels, and fitted out with seating for six (the driver, a front passenger either side of him, their legs sticking out to the sides, and three passengers behind). They are also very dangerous. They have little that would count for a roll cage, open sides, and more people than should really fit them. Suffice to say our insurance would balk at them as much as at motorbikes. Likewise, it would not cover riding in one of the small flatbed trucks, which are much like a Yellow Yellow, but can cram maybe ten people. These do brighten up the road somewhat, though, as they seem to carry mostly Ghanaian women in their vibrant, multi-coloured dresses.
That basically leaves us with the taxis. Now, I say taxi and you probably picture either a London black cab, or a yellow New York taxi. These are generous images, of which I must disabuse you. You see, in Ghana, any car can become a taxi, all it takes is painting a couple of the bodywork panels yellow, and voilà, you have a taxi. As far as I can tell, there is little additional screening of the car done (though some drivers are licensed).
Of course, there is a little more to it than that. Ghanaian taxi drivers have taken the phrase ‘a good little runner’ and pushed it beyond the limits of what is reasonable, sensible or even sane. Certain makes seem to be preferred for that reason – Opel, Fiat, Kia and the like. However, a stronger distinguishing feature than the make is a ubiquitous state of disrepair. It is rare to get into a taxi which doesn’t look like it has been involved in a destruction derby. Cracked windscreens and missing wing-mirrors are routine, and I am no longer surprised when my ride is hot-wired or given a push to get it going.
In some ways, it is not surprising that the cars are so well used. They have a lot to deal with. First of all, they are faced with chaotic roads. The main taxi rank is a maze, before you even add in Motorcyclists (some of whom will be driving down the wrong side of the road), Yellow Yellows and pedestrians crossing. I sincerely doubt I could negotiate a car around Tamale and if I make it through twelve weeks here without seeing an accident, I will be amazed. (The worst I have seen so far is a wing-mirror being knocked off in a collision with an (apparently unharmed) pedestrian in the main taxi rank, while on another occasion the radio started smoking.)
Then of course there are the roads, which vary substantially, from the well maintained, multi-carriageway trunk routes, such as the Bolgatanga road, down to side streets which are barely defined dirt tracks. These put suspension through the rigger with some of the largest speed bumps I have ever seen – speed bumps so mountainous that drivers will come to an almost complete halt before attempting to summit them, and still risk grounding their cars. Others seem to be simply a line of pot holes which drivers will attempt to slalom around.
More confusing than the external damage is the internal. I haven’t yet worked out why so many of the cars lack internal door handles or window mechanisms (this is not a major problem, since windows are kept open). More of a problem is the similar lack of seat-belts.
Of course, it is no surprise that a car, which is a large investment, is thoroughly used here, but nonetheless, one can’t help but feel that any decision to use a taxi a decision to take your life into your own hands.
For all that, taking a taxi has become routine, mundane even, because (over short distances), taxis occupy both the traditional door to door, high fare market, and the cheaper, set route market occupied by buses elsewhere. Every morning, to go to work, I will walk to the nearby taxi stand – Kalpohini last stop – where I meet Cecil. With two of us going to the same place, it is easier to fill a taxi, which won’t leave without at least three passengers, often four (sometimes as many as six). A drive in to town, which takes around ten minutes, will set you back 1.2 Ghana Cedis (about 20 pence). And of course you get to experience the cool breeze through the open window, and explore the driver’s music taste (on one particularly surreal occasion, I ended up singing along to “Saturday Night” by the 90’s dance musician Whigfield).
From there, its a short walk to the stop which takes us from town to the roundabout outside the new sports stadium. And I mean the roundabout, Taxi drivers have an unnerving habit of stopping in the middle or roads or junctions, between the two lines of traffic. But for the princely price of 1 Cedi, it is hard to raise any real objection…