Litro #162: Literary Highlife | The Ferrymen

There are memories and memories of being driven around, across the country, in various cities and towns and villages, coasting along the arterial tarmacadamed surfaces giving life to the modern settlement. I recall many years ago, on a trip from Sunyani to Nkoranza, the steel-grey road surface racing to meet us, the taxi driver and I sharing the thrill of taking the wide sweeping curves at a hundred kilometres an hour, sharing the exhilaration in the greens flashing by, the comforting purr of the engine. I recall the countless times I have turned up at some taxi station or other in the blazing tropical heat, where a number of saloon cars were parked, their fenders characteristically painted some shade of amber or yellow, the drivers waiting for passengers. A wooden board placed on one of the cars says, “Moving Car”, despite the fact that the car is stationary; indeed, once the taxi is filled with passengers and ready to go, the board is removed.

Taxicabs are everywhere in Ghana, and replete in the cities, the drivers play an indispensable role in Ghanaian society, and in our cities that have no regular transport services, this motley army of men connect communities, carry thousands on the daily commute, and then some. Taxis have saved marriages by rushing the groom to church when the hired wedding car broke down somewhere, have been the bearers of happiness and life by getting women in labour to hospitals on time, made it possible for drunken students to still get to the airport in time for the flight out of Accra. And many other things. And on a grimmer note they carry them too, the ill, the dying, the dead: converted into makeshift ambulances with the driver leaning on the horn as the cab weaves through the meaningless streets, convoluted and impractical, each turn a hurdle, each traffic lamp an impediment, as are the other cars, the traffic rules and in the back, an injured or sick person, drawing shallow breaths and groaning in pain, each bump a testament to the fact that it could always get worse, the victim could have been drawn from the suburbs where the roads are gullied dirt tracks, and now the taxi carries the patient to the hospital where a nonchalant nurse would say, “There are no beds available, try so-and-so hospital,” and the burden of the passenger becomes the burden of the driver too, and from hospital to hospital in fear and despair: “We cannot treat this here, please go to 37” … “There are no beds” … “Please go to N—” … “We only take cash” – and still speeding through the brutal city until the patient gives up and the wracking sobs of the woman in the back who struggled through the pain of the invalid tells the driver he now carries a corpse, and the next traffic light winking only says this wicked system is full of shit: we watch our neighbours die, and why did no one care that the wicked system had just made an innocent man die, just die, and in his taxi too.

They have seen things, weird and fantastic, sad and brutal, these men.

And who can tell the reasons for the things that they write on the taxis? What the story, what the creed, what the compelling force that has given us this rich tapestry, these statements adorning many a rear windshield, some poignant, some touching, others proverbial – a whole anthology of stories can be composed from each of these short, terse, compressed expressions: “Travel and See”, “No Pain No Gain”, “Ao! Wofa!”, “John 3:16”, “Masha Allah”, “In HIM is Life”, “Fear Woman”, “Still… Breastina”, “Da Son of Man”, “Who knows Tomolo”…

And how about the interior decorations? I have found few taxis that do not have the odd teddy bear or other stuffed toy animal dangling from the driving mirror, or in its place, a rosary or prayer beads; there are plastic giraffes, hippopotami, dogs stuck onto the dashboard; there is the ubiquitous poster of a football club; and of course, the air freshener in a cheap plastic container.

*

In my interaction with these men, I have come to appreciate the insight they provide into Ghanaian society. Locally, and nationwide, there is a multifaceted, yet unique, perspective offered by the taxi drivers, acting as the ferrymen of the living in our modern cities and towns. And they show this through the window they have thrown open on their own lives, and the lives of the passengers that they have carried, the windows that are open in the short jaunts made in hired taxis about town, and the longer trips between cities.

There are the garrulous, who tell all sorts of tales – and the things they have told me! The big, morose chap who picked me up from Ofankor to Dome, saying, “Flee at the sight of cunt (se wo ho etwe a, dwane)”, going on to explain how he had three children in the village, and how hard it was to look after his wife and family. “Times are hard,” he said. “Very hard. When we were in the village, I did not have anyone to advise me, how some people have even older brothers to advise them. I didn’t know.” And he went on to tell me a story, and I came away having met a man determined to make his family comfortable and working like an ass to do it, even though he would rather do other things with his life. He felt that he had been trapped, and was a slave. His advice is unforgettable. And on the same route on another day, the cantankerous, happy-go-lucky driver with protruding front teeth who laughed at everything, cheerfully announcing, “The world is now spoilt! When we were children (nkolaa translates to “children”, but he must have meant “younger”) – when we were children, when you see buttocks, herr! You can see that this is buttocks! When you are holding it! Buttocks! Right now the world is spoilt! Now they say that diseases, so you are even afraid. But when we were children! You can see that this is buttocks! When you are holding it, and we were afraid of nothing!”

There are the angry, the terse, the drunken, the insulting – the evangelising, the political activists, the historians. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, some graduating from being tro-tro drivers’ mates, others part-timers who drove after close from a regular job, yet others were secondary school graduates, retired civil servants, and so on. It is a rich spectrum of society.

*

Now I present a small selection of some personal stories connected with these indispensables. A longer telling is in the works.

*

Curiosity Killed The Car

Years ago, when I lived in Adenta, I used to get home rather late, around 11 p.m. I was living with my mother in a house 800 m off the main Accra-Adenta road, and about 4 km from Madina Zongo junction. A walk home would at the very least take twenty minutes, and only once or twice had I tried the walk from Zongo junction, which took about an hour. There was a period during which I consistently would get off the tro-tro at Zongo junction, then get a taxi for the short trip home. It so happened that I landed the same driver for several trips. Twice, thrice – and then he must have become suspicious.

All the houses along the road where we lived were walled off, and ours was no exception. The metal gate would be locked from the inside when my mother went off to bed, perhaps at 8 or 9 p.m. Arriving outside at 10 or 11 p.m., I really felt I should not wake her up. My strategy was to climb over the wall. However, to do this in the sight of a taxi driver who had brought me home was a no-go, so I would wait outside until the taxi had driven off and disappeared around the bend. I suppose, after a few times of dropping off the young man who just stood there waiting, the driver decided to do some sleuthing. One night he dropped me off, and while I waited for him to leave, fiddling about with the clasp of my bag, he gave me a long, knowing look, and then turned the engine off. For emphasis, he got out of the car, closed the door, and leaned against it.

There was no way I was going to climb over the wall in his presence.

For what would be like a minute or so we just stood there, and then, reluctantly, I got my cell phone out and called my mother. She answered at the third ring, thankfully – I was afraid she might be in deep sleep and not hear the telephone. She came out and opened the gate. I apologised for waking her up, and as we walked in, I explained that the taxi driver had stopped outside and I had no choice but to call her.

As I closed the gate and shot the bolts I heard the car door slam shut and the engine whining as the ignition came on. But the engine did not fire up. Chk-chk-chk-chk-chk! Chk-chk-chk-chk-chk! No luck. Chk-chk-chk-chk-chk!

The taxi would not start up again. I opened the gate. The driver looked at me sheepishly.

“Is there a problem?” I asked. He did not answer, only got out, opened the bonnet, and fiddled about inside. He tried the engine again. It did not start.

“What will you do?” I asked him. “I will go to the junction,” he answered reluctantly.
I left him then, shutting the gate and going off to bed.
The next morning the taxi was no longer there. He must have got his friends to help him sort it out.
For a long time afterwards, perhaps, six months or more, I avoided taking a taxi from Zongo junction, because I was not quite willing to meet the driver again. What had he been thinking? That I was a thief, perhaps, and he was dropping me off for the night’s action? Or that I was some sort of ghost?

There are such stories in taxi lore.

*

Cedi Jato on the Motorway

The wizened old man came to the rescue, with a taxi as wizened and old as himself. An Opel Ascona it was, seemingly cast from iron, and when it came to a stop beside the dark road at 9 p.m. in one of the more remote corners of Tema Community 3, I was only relieved. I needed to get at least to Tetteh Quarshie roundabout, and from there I could connect to the house.

The old man seemed game for anything.

I got in beside him. We had a short discussion, trying to decide which route was quicker, and safer, too. I was not too keen on the motorway. The other option was to use the Spintex road. We wound up going by the motorway, which was the driver’s preference.

After an initial bout of silence lasting almost till the Tema roundabout, I asked him about how long he had been driving. He had been driving for almost as long as I had been alive, it turned out, and had started off driving a mammy truck. He got his license in the Acheampong years.

“It was very efficient,” he said, “not like now. I went, and was taken for the driving test. No bribe, nothing. I got my licence.” He shook his head, and I did too, recalling the inefficient morass and den of bribe-takers that the driver licensing office had become. It had been better before? The nation was sinking.

He had “retired” a year or so earlier, but had gotten tired of staying home and doing nothing. In any case, he had not had a car to drive, and so the situation was out of his hands as well. Until luck shone on him:

“But then this man in our neighbourhood, he had parked this Ascona on his compound for long! There were two of them. But he no longer uses them, he now has other cars. So we were talking one day, and he said I can use one of the cars for work. So that is how I am driving today,” he said. He was a cheerful, talkative old man, sitting almost upright behind the steering wheel which he gripped in both hands, feeling for and stroking the gear shift before changing gears.

We were rolling comfortably on the motorway, Accra bound. The wind streamed into the car, and we had to raise our voices to be heard.

“I used to drive on the motorway, when it was new. At that time, people were speeding on it, there were so many accidents! So much blood was lost on this road.” His words struck a chill down my spine. Well, that hadn’t changed, I said, trying to counteract the odd fear I suddenly felt. We were doing a good pace, about 90 km/h, if the dimly lit and begrimed speedometer could be trusted. The driver agreed, but thought it was worse back then.

“I used to take my mummy truck to Atimpoku. Oh, I used to go very fast! Very fast! But you know, God always talks to people.” His tone became less animated, more respectful. “Do you know that?”

I did not say anything.

“One day, I was on the motorway. Oh, it was fast! Ninety miles an hour! All of a sudden, I felt a cool breeze! Very, very cool! And then a voice came to my ears, ‘Where are you going? Where are you going?’ My body became cold at once. I slowed down. Since then I never speed on this road. Too many people have died. Too much blood.”

We sped along in silence for a while, but then I wanted to hear the man talk. His high-pitched voice, his animated tone that seemed to make the words jump about in the car, they made the drive a priceless experience. By my calculation we had just a few minutes more to the end of the motorway. I asked him about politics.

“Acheampong,” he said. “Acheampong was the best ruler of the country. You see, at that time, things were simple for the people. He did well for the people. At that time there was a new currency note released, a one-cedi note. It was red coloured, and there was a drawing of a man on it, also red. A very fine drawing. We used to call it Cedi Jato. That’s what I used to pay for my driver’s license.” He smiled, and started talking about Rawlings.

But we were out of motorway. He put me down at the overpass at Shiashie. We parted in good cheer, and I told myself to look out for the driver anytime I was in Tema Community 3. In my mind, he was Cedi Jato.

*

Unexpected Consequences of The Actions of Red

From about 9 p.m., and definitely from 10 p.m., manned police barriers spring up across key roads in Accra. This has been the case for as far as I can remember. The general understanding is that this is a measure to prevent crime, especially to curb the incidence of armed robberies, which it never quite seems to do. In any case, cars are stopped at these movable metal barriers, and a police officer, brandishing a searchlight and usually with an AK-47 either slung across his chest or gripped tightly in one hand, would shine a flashlight into the car, often passing an odd greeting or asking, “Where are you coming from?” Sometimes a short, genial conversation ensues. Some of the richer statements I have heard include this priceless one, coming from a police officer who was just tired of it all: “Just bring the something and stop looking at me like that.”

More often the police at these roadblocks end up apprehending cars with irregular licence plates, especially new cars recently imported into the country bearing “DV” plates. These were good targets, as the drivers, in a bid to avoid entanglement with the legendary “Ghana Poliss”, were amenable to parting with some cedis. But most commonly, these barriers have wound up being an avenue for harassment and extortion of money from commercial vehicles, from taxi and tro-tro drivers.

Among the rich and varied range of the skin complexions present in the negro there is in Ghana a distinct variant, as of burnished copper. Men with such complexions are often nicknamed “Red”. It is not uncommon to find “Red” the carpenter, Uncle “Red”, and so on. But in this instance, “Red” was a police officer, whose rank remains unknown to me.

Along the stretch of road from St John’s, past the Dome railway crossing through Dome to the Atomic roundabout, Red was well known to all who did the night commute, known because he did not fail to extract his one cedi or more from commercial drivers. So notorious had he become during the period of which I write, and drivers so resigned to the fact, that they just handed over a one-cedi note and were waved past the barrier. I have heard them complain, grumble, burst out in flashes of anger, but in the end, fail to defeat the one who was robbing with the power of the state. Sometimes when a driver, honestly resisting this extortion, fell to arguing, I, seated in the back seat or perhaps the front, would repress a shudder – “These men are armed” – glancing at the ubiquitous AK-47 slung carelessly across the policeman’s chest. I would reflect on the fact that times were hard, stress levels were high, people were often drunk or stoned, and in any case, not everyone was reasonably sane at all times. I would try not to make the connection between an uncontrollable escalation and a shooting tragedy.

One evening, at around 10 p.m., I arrived at the Atomic roundabout and proceeded to hire a taxi to take me to Taifa junction, from where I could get another taxi home to Ofankor. There were a number of cabs parked by the edge of the road, and I ended up choosing a Kia hatchback – a rather popular model for taxis then. The driver seemed a bit uptight, judging from the responses he gave to his colleagues at the taxi station as he revved up the engine for the journey. It was a short trip – typically would take ten or fifteen minutes, even with stoppage at the police barriers considered.

I dropped my exhausted frame into the front seat and leaned back as we set off, looking forward to a restful sleep. In less than a minute we came up to the first police barrier. As we waited in the queue the driver kept grumbling. He was in a bad mood. It was not Red who looked in at my window – the policeman was standing at the right side of the road – it was a lanky, swarthy fellow with a scowl on his face.

“Driver!” he said.

“I just started work,” the driver said.

“Are your papers in order?”

“They are.”

There was a pause.

“Your taxi light is off.”

“Oh, I did not know.”

“I said, your taxi light is off!”

I could feel the tension, and this made me uneasy. I wondered whether the driver would humour the policeman and play the game, get out of the taxi, take a look at the dead taxi lamp on the roof, apologise, and part with a cedi or two. But a glance at the driver told me this would not be the case. No, not tonight. He had had enough, obviously. And I could sympathise with him. Night after night after night, while he slaved away and his income was picked at by policemen, swooping in like hawks. Anyone would get weary, angry. Especially if other things were not going well in his life.

The driver’s jawline was firm in the dim glow of the cabin light as he turned his gaze away from the policeman, who straightened up, cleared his throat, and shouted, “Park!”

The driver put the car in gear and sped off. My heart jumped.

There have been, over the years, cases of police shootings, reported with sad regularity. In Taifa a few years earlier a group of men in a taxi had been mistakenly killed by gunfire from a police patrol team. As we pulled away from the police barrier with shouting in the air behind us I half expected bullets to come flying, and bent forward, my head towards the dashboard. I said nothing to the driver, who, sensing he had crossed a red line, pushed the accelerator down and we went flying, bumping crazily on the patched road.

A minute or so later, in the grim silence of the cab, the driver told me that we were being followed.

“They are the ones,” he said, and there was a note of tiredness and desperation in his voice.

“What will you do?” I asked.

In retrospect, I think I behaved rather poorly that night, acting like a spectator remote from the action, who was in no way able to alter the course of events. But I could have. Acting as a mediator, I could have dropped in a word and pled with the policeman for clemency. I could have asked, even now, for the driver to stop, and face the police before things became worse. But I did not, following the part of my brain that wanted to see how things would pan out, if left to evolve naturally.

“I know what to do.”

The Kia surged forward, taking the curve at speed, and branching to the right at the junction just before the railway crossing. We sped into the Taifa suburb, weaving into by-lanes and randomly turning at junctions – here right, here left. It soon became clear that the police had been shaken off. The driver sighed. His breath came in heavy spurts. I looked around and found my bearings. A ten- to fifteen-minute walk would put me at Taifa junction. I asked the driver to let me off. He declined, explaining that he would have to go by Taifa junction anyway, and he could drop me off closer there. It was a clear, sultry night. I looked out at the few stars that could be seen, grudgingly luminous against the myriad of city lights and surviving the pall of atmospheric dust.

The police had obviously figured out which road the taxi would most probably use to exit Taifa. And they were waiting.

As we rounded a bend, my heart sank at the sight of a car parked to the side of the road, lights dimmed. But the headlamps sprang to life at the sight of my taxi. The game was over.

There was another police barrier close to Taifa junction, just a hundred metres from where we were, and we were taken there. It was a well-manned barrier, having the military as well as the police. A dull green Toyota truck with military plates was parked beside the road in front of the barrier. A few soldiers stood in the darkness a little way off the road, their hands menacingly laid across the triggers of their G3 rifles.

A small group of security personnel gathered around us as we got out of the Kia.

“You told me we were chasing armed robbers!” This outraged voice came from a lanky man, pushing into the group of policemen and soldiers. It was another driver, whose taxi had been commandeered for the chase. One of the policemen put a hand to his shoulder, and the taxi driver shrugged it off, shouting that his car was worse for wear after speeding on the poor roads with three armed policemen in the car. One tire had blown out, and the shaft was broken. “You told me you were chasing armed robbers!” The driver was obviously even in greater despair because he had led the police to arrest a colleague, and all for nothing too.

“You are going to pay for all the damage!” a policeman barked.

All this while my driver had been reduced to a pathetic figure, head hanging, unable to say a word. I, throat dry, made an effort to pay the fare. It was an awkward moment, an interregnum, as everyone paused, and the driver took the money, looking sad and desperate. And then no one paid any further attention to me. One of the young soldiers, well-built, sleeves rolled up, suddenly slapped my taxi driver with such force that the man, with a shriek, fell to his knees. Other people started gathering – drivers who were now held up because they were not being let through the barrier, pedestrians and some of the roadside hawkers formed a circle of hushed citizens around the inner circle of the arm of state power. So I walked away, glancing back to see the soldier kick the driver to the ground, and kick him again and again.

I felt sick.

I did not know what to do. I thought of calling someone in authority, or the media, or of writing about the incident and publishing it. I thought about my pretty friend who had just entered the security services. I took another taxi and went home. The conflict raged within.

I behaved poorly that night, creeping home like a mouse, cowed by the irregular power of the state.

*

The Little House in The Corner

And we end with another tale from the “Adenta Years”, as I sometimes call the time I lived in Adenta with my mother.

It was trip made many times, with different taxis, each trip a story, each story a universe to be explored. Driving in from Madina New Road this time, once again late at night – it was approaching midnight. The driver had been agitated throughout the trip, but was otherwise respectful and business-like: we did not even haggle over the price. I told him where I was going, he gave me a price, I asked for a reduction, he refused, and I got in. It was a well-maintained Toyota, clean inside as well as out, with a grassy smell from the air freshener. The driver obviously spent time to make sure his passengers were comfortable. The taxi was unlike many other taxis in which I had ridden, dirty, old contraptions that jerked and shuddered and seemed in danger of falling apart but bearing the cryptic legend printed in white paint on the inside of the door: “CLOSE GENTLE”. Strange for this time of night, the driver did not have the car radio on. Judging from the state of the car, it was unlikely that this was because of a malfunction. My experience has been that drivers on the night shift keep the radio on. It is lonely business, driving about at night, looking for passengers.

The driver, who was wearing a neatly pressed polo shirt, drove at an unhurried pace, but the muscles in his jaw bunched and relaxed as he clenched his teeth, the fingers of his right hand beat a tattoo on the steering wheel, and once in a while adjusted again the driving mirror. His agitation seemed somehow connected with the fact that his cell phone, stored in the gear well, kept ringing. At intervals of two or three minutes, the childish ringtone would pervade the car, and would ring and ring and ring. A number of times he picked up the device, glanced at the number, and dropped it, obviously irritated.

“She keeps calling,” he told me. “Yet she knows that I am at work, she knows that I am driving. I don’t understand.”

At one point he answered the phone, and exasperated, said tersely, “Yes?”
He listened for about a minute, his frown deepening. When he spoke again his voice showed that he was at the very edge of the limit to his patience. “I told you, I am working. I am working! I will call you later.” Then, with an air of finality, he tossed the phone into the gear well. And turning to me, he asked, pensive: “Love too, ebe force?” Declining the bait to engage in an explosive topic of discussion, I chuckled, and shook my head.

The phone did not ring again for the rest of the trip, which took about ten minutes. Slowly, he calmed down, and the traces of a smile played on his lips, appearing, vanishing. We branched off the main road onto the untarred road that led home. He drove at a more sedate pace, obviously to reduce the dust raised. As we approached my neighbourhood, he said, almost in an undertone, “I know this area oo…” No longer keeping his eyes on the road, he allowed his gaze to roam freely, once in a while nodding. “Yes,” he said after some time. “I know this area.” His eyes lit up with excitement.

“Have you stayed here before?” I asked. He shook his head, but it seemed that he was lost in thought, and was not fully aware of my question.

“You see that house in the corner?”

When my eyes lit on the nondescript house in the distance, he said, and it was almost a sigh:

“Yes. I fuck for there before.”

Martin Egblewogbe

About Martin Egblewogbe

Martin Egblewogbe is the author of Mr Happy and The Hammer of God & Other Stories (Ayebia, 2012). He co- edited the poetry anthologies Look where you have gone to sit (Woeli, 2010) and According To Sources (Woeli, 2015), and he is co-founder and director of the Writers Project of Ghana, a literary organisation.

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