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Opinions of Thursday, 2 September 2010

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

Mommra yenko ooo – travelling in the new Ghana

Anytime I visit Ghana, I never fail to wonder at the enormous improvements in the transport sector – specifically the transportation of persons. My reference point is the early days of Rawlings’ so called “revolution”. Anyone old enough will remember it all. Inner city transport was hell. People left their jobs much earlier than usual to be able to get home. Trotro lines were long at all stations. Some people chose to walk and this could be quite a few kilometres. Time that could have been used in productive effort was spent just trying to get to work and come home again. Long distance travel sent you even deeper into hell. At the lorry stations, the bookmen used all kinds of tricks to squeeze money out of passengers. There was even a time they refused to carry you if you did not have a luggage they could also charge. You were forced to carry a luggage you did not need on your journey. And for all you knew, the vehicle you were trying to get on to was one of those used to carry cocoa or yam that had been converted into a human carrier and appropriately called “w’ato nkyene”. You were packed in like sardines and the journey was an ordeal you had to endure until you reached your destination – if you were lucky to reach at all.

How different the situation is today. How very different! There are now trotros to every part of Accra – a city that is expanding every which way. It is now the totros that have to wait a long time to get their passengers. At Asafo market in Kumasi, you may sit in an Accra-bound vehicle for hours before it gets filled up. The bookmen struggle for you trying to lure you with vehicles with 'double back tyres' or air-conditioned buses where there are no middle seats! Wao! Not even the good old days, when taxis carried you alone almost into your bedroom, were ever so good as today.

And once you get onto these buses, the experience is wonderful. You may be treated to made in Ghana films which many Ghanaians will tell you are, these days, as good, if not even better, than the Nigerian ones. There are also music videos – mostly Ghanaian gospel with each song sounding exactly like the one before and the one after. The dancing is also the same on all the videos. The gospel songs are mostly talking about the saving grace of Yesu mogya, asking us to give Him thanks, or calling on almighty Igwe to come down and bless us nyanfunyanfu. But what may annoy you are the sellers and preachers allowed on board. One seller and one preacher can take you through the entire journey from Kumasi to Accra. It is such a wonder that people give money to such preachers and even a greater wonder that they wait until they sit in a bus before they buy medicines that can cure all ailments.

Since the re-denomination exercise, trotros are now charging rates that can be paid in coins. You may even get some change back. But the value of the currency that gave the name “trotro” to these vehicles will never return. Even though the re-denomination exercise brought back the red one pesewa coin (like of old) and the colour of the one cedi note reminds us of the last Ghana pound before we went to cedis and pesewas in the 60s, those values will never come back. Ghanaians are never again going to call coins kapre, daamma, taku, sempowa, sempowa-miensa, sreko, peniga, kavege, tro-kple-kapre, katoge, kpenyoe, etc. So the trotro will still continue to be called that, but nobody is going to pay three pesewas for a ride. No, the re-denomination exercise has not brought back the 70s, much less the roaring 60s. But the exercise has meant European style wallets are now in use again and many Ghanaians now possess credit cards.

Many of the long distance buses in Ghana are from China with names like Yutong, Wuzhoulong, Sunglong, Zhongtong, Guamgdong, and others you have never heard of before. As for the Korean buses, we have known them since some time back. The Kias, Hyundais and the Daewoos are a class above the Chinese made buses. When many of the Chinese buses imported by government (following the trend of poor countries to go for price rather than quality) broke down by the summer of 2009 after just a few months usage, there was a hard time putting them back on road. Not even cannibalising some of the broken down ones to feed the others worked. There were no mechanics with knowledge of Chinese technology to work on the buses.

Driving is still a dangerous business in Ghana. Pedestrians are still crossing busy roads at any place they like and drivers still regard fast driving as the topmost quality of a good driver. Most of the car accidents that claim lives are avoidable. The roads are being improved but sometimes a better road only makes the Ghanaian driver even more daring. The Accra-Takoradi road is now all asphalt but it is still narrow and has too many bends. If we were a rich nation, that would be one of the roads that would be dual carriage all the way to the border with la Côte d’Ivoire. But we are too poor to afford that.

Unlike the Chinese buses, European made ones are very costly but people can afford the used ones, affectionately called “home used” to distinguish them from the Ghanaian second hands. Often, the writings are still on these vehicles (most likely in German or Dutch but also some other obscure European languages). No one bothers to remove them. But it seems Ghanaians are not writing many things on their vehicles anymore. Time was when Nana Ampadu immortalised these writings in a song dedicated to the drivers of Ghana. He divided the writings in two parts – those adorning new cars: I love my car; Cool and collected; Envy no man; Pe wodie; Skin Pain; Otan nni aduro; Jah Bless; Honest Labour; Girl Bi Nti; Akwei Allah; Ele Mawusi, Lolonyo; Kamfo Yehowa; Agyapa Ye, Ennapa Ye; God is King; and old vehicles: Woano p’asem; Efa woho ben?; Slow But Sure; Poor No Friend; Onyame Bekyere; Oboafo ye na; Ohia Ye Ya; Emmaa Mpe hia; Ankonam Boafo; Onyame Nnae; Adom Wo Wiem; Medie Beba; Ehuru a Ebe Dwo; Ebaa hi; Ebaa tsake; Ps 23; The Lord is my Shepherd, I Shall Never Want. But this art is fast disappearing in our country as hard-edged corporate practices are taking the place of such home grown wisdom. Now we have names like “VIP Transport” instead of the poetry and creativity of the individual vehicle owners.

My love has turned away from the writings on the vehicles to something else. In the old days, the driver’s mates (aplankes) shouted out the destinations. These days, all the major stations have public address systems. The recorded voices of the bookmen (and women too) calling out the destinations are played on a tape recorder all day long. Some of these are very interesting. Many have a certain poetic rhythm about them. My favourite is one heard at the station at Circle in Accra. Oh, how I wish I had the talents of the poet to do this guy justice. But he does himself more justice than I can ever hope to do him. Well above the welter of discordant sounds at the station, you can hear him, in his Ewe flavoured Twi, calling out the long distance destinations: Kumasi-Konongo-Juaso; Nkawkaw-Kyebi-Anyinam; Koforidua-Nankese-Akwadu; Ye wo ha yiaa o o. Asamankese-Adeiso-Kade; Mankessim-Dodowa-Atimpoku. Mommra yenko ooo, mommra yenko. Agbozume-AkatsiAbor-Sogakofe; akple, dadagbor, madi de nye monu. Dzodze-Keta, woya wodzo, woyi wogbor; Dabala Junction-Aflao-Border Town – tra la la la la la … kabakaba tor neva, miva midzo. Over and over and over again, non-stop from dawn till late into the night, he calls out to the wearied traveller.

As I sit in the comfort of my European home and remember the voices of the bookmen, and the hustle and bustle of the mobrowafuo at the stations, I am filled with a longing for Ghana, my home. Not the Ghana of Rawlings this, NPP that, NDC so and so, or whatever, but the Ghana that was my birthplace, my home that will forever remain my home...

Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)