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Opinions of Saturday, 14 January 2012

Columnist: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta

Down Memory Lane Part 4 - Cars of Yesteryear and Transport in Ghana

By Kwesi Atta Sakyi

21st December 2011


Land transportation has not been that easy in the former Gold Coast as the roads then were dirt roads, very narrow and bumpy with many pot holes and they were not paved to overcome obstacles as they veered round spurs in circuitous fashion. My late father who was born somewhere in the 1890s used to tell me his experiences before the first car was introduced in Ghana a few years after the First World War in 1918. Before then, Cocoa, Palm kernels, Lime juice, among other produce from the then Gold Coast were exported in wooden barrels, which my father and colleagues made in an extinct profession called Coopery. Coopers made barrels, tubs, casks and other containers, using many instruments such as a big hammer, a pair of compasses, an anvil, metal bracelets or rings, among others. The idea was to make the barrels and fill them up with the export commodities, then cover them and roll them all the way over land from places such as Agona Nsaba, Agona Swedru, Abakrampa, Asebu and other hinterlands to the coastal ports such as Winneba and Cape Coast for export. There were no trucks, Lorries or cars. I presume transport in other areas was by head porterage, oxcarts and the like. Life was then very trying, tedious and demanding as people had to walk very long distances to the coastal ports to buy merchandise or bring their produce for export. For example, my father said from Agona Swedru to Winneba, he was usually in charge of a gang of porters who carried sacks of coins, ferried to go and pay other workers. He was the escort or guard. I presume then we had few highway men or that people then were much more disciplined. Paper money was not much in currency. Those were the days of the farthings, half pennies, pennies, three and sixpences, shillings and the like. In those days, the imports also came in barrels, mostly commodities like beef, pork, sugar, oil, alcohol, among others. Imagine rolling barrels of beef or pork from Accra to Kumasi!

Shoes of Yesteryear

Ghanaians refer to travelling on foot as going by AD 11, what the Englishman will refer to as going by Shank’s mare. There were some sandals which were made from old lorry tyres, which were locally referred to as Moses. The lorry and car tyre brands which were popular then were Michelin, Dunlop and Goodyear. The Moses Sandals were also locally called Kaya Baale. In Yorubaland, they refer to shoes in general as Bata, perhaps from the Bata Shoe Company. So, for example, if you are not wearing shoes, a Yoruba person will say,’bata kosii,’ meaning no shoes. The flip flop or Tropicals or bathroom sandals were locally called ‘tokota.’ Local people used to call shoes in general in Akan as ‘Koo Kyia’ or in Fante, ‘asopaatsee, derived from the Portuguese word for shoes. The popular shoe brands in the 50s and 60s were Lennards, Bata, Clarks and Achimota sandals. In the 70s, we had the hipster Beatles boots which were black boot-like shoes with high heels and sometimes it came with a zip. Guys usually donned on their mushroom-like afro hair, bell-bottomed pair of trousers with slim-fit shirts, with wide lapels, many buttons and the adornment was only complete with large sunglasses. Oh, that was a spectacle! Some wore huge leather or woollen bands on their right wrists, some depicting the Ghana coat of arms or the Rastafarian insignia. The ladies wore high level wooden clogs which they called ‘platform’ or woodies. In the late 60s, I was at teacher training college in Komenda, where we had the Komenda Sugar Factory which was ran by whites from former Czechoslovakia. They used Skoda Cars. There was a particular brand of male underwear or pants which was made from nylon and with multicolour stripes. It was very colourful, sexy and romantic for us the young male adults, and because it was in vogue and fanciful, we nicknamed it ‘Skoda’ pants. We used to go to college carrying our wooden ‘chop boxes and black metallic airtight boxes with red markings. In our trunks and chop boxes, we stuffed them with groceries such as gari, shito, tins of sardines and geisha or tinapa, Exeter brand cornered beef, key soap, sunlight cakes of soap, Omo and Surf detergents, Ovaltine, Pronto, Milo, Bournvita and Horlicks beverages. We had Sucre Rafine or St Louis brand of sugar, Peak and Ideal Milk, salted fish or Kako, among others. In those days, we used to use blue powder to give bluish tincture to our white clothes, especially our white drill suits which we adorned for our Sunday outreach services near Komenda, in places such as Kisi, Dominase, Abrobiano, Aboransa and Dutch Komenda. We also wore them for our Sunday evening service at our Assembly Hall on the Assai Hill, at the Warspite, and I was the chapel keeper for two years. In those days, we used to apply starch to our uniforms in order to make them look stiff, shiny and elegant. I remember the pretty green, maroon and cream uniform frocks of our ladies at Komenda College. They made our ladies appetizing indeed. We the men wore white shirts and navy blue shorts, prescribed for all male teachers in Ghana.

Cars of Yesteryear

Cars of French make included the Citreon, Renault and Peugeot. The Citreon is said to have a unique engine or combustion system. Then we had the Peugeot 404 or station wagon which was notoriously nicknamed ‘one-pound, one-pound’. It was a veritable racer as it chewed up the miles as the drivers were ace drivers. Many traffic police officers often gave up chasing offending drivers who often got away in their inimitable 404s. For the police, they often used Land Rovers and small American Jeeps, which were no match for the Peugeot racers. From Britain came vintage cars such as Vauxhall, Hennessey, Humber, Bentley, Morris Minor, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Leyland and Austin. Jaguar, Bentley, Hennessey, Rolls-Royce and Austin were the exclusive Sedans and Limousines from Britain which portended high class. My uncle, late Nana Ayirebi Acquah, of GET fame, sported a Humber. There was also the small car called Simca. In those days in the 50s and 60s, the very very expensive cars then and of now are Ferrari, Saab, Lincoln, Bugatti, Maybach, Lamborghini, Mercedes Benz and BMWs. It is said that the first cars were made in France, then Britain, Germany and the USA. From the USA came the Vintage Ford cars, to be followed by others such as Dodge, Buick, Ford Mustang, Cadillac, Chrysler, Chevrolet, Pontiac and others. From Germany came the Bettle or VW, the Opel Astra, Daimler Mercedes Benz. Opel Rekord and others. Other early cars included the Plymouth, Ultima, Infiniti, Triumph, Packard and Nissan Datsun. The Datsun was very popular in Ghana in the late 60s and throughout the 70s as taxis. There was one popular brand called Datsun 240Z Fairlady, and another, the Datsun 160J. From Britain came the reliable, ever faithful and ubiquitous Bedford trucks and Manamy Lorries which were the most popular passenger transport. The Bedfords were durable, easy to maintain and they gave less trouble in terms of not having frequent breakdowns. They could withstand very much the heavy wear and tear caused by the pot-holed dirt tracks and the few stretches of macadamized motorable highways. Then there were the Morris minor cars which were mostly red in colour, the type ridden by Mr. Bean (Roy Atkinson) in his popular video comedies. This was the darling of upbeat and avant garde, fashionable middle class ladies, the nouveau riche. We had Audis from Germany, Fiats and Alpha Romeos from Italy, and the Austins from Britain. There were numerous Morris mammy Lorries which Ghanaians nicknamed Awuna Patu (Owl from Volta Region) because of their noseless front shape. Others called it Ohwentar (flat nose), because of its hideaous and ugly look, most passengers would ignore it if they had a choice. Most of the mammy Lorries had wooden bodies with the chassis and drivers’ compartment being metal. The seats were ordinary planks fixed within holders and they had no back rest. Sometimes, you got packed tight together like sardines. In the 70s, I used to get on board on ‘Wato nkyen’ (Have you bought salt?) truck on my way to Sefwi Wiawso, from Kumasi whilst doing my national service after Legon.The Wato Nkyen trucks were metallic but most uncomfortable as they got fully packed with some passengers atop the carrier. What a journey through thick brushes, broken bridges ad untarred roads! There were times when juices from baskets of tomatoes atop the carrier kept dripping on my short as I was sitting close to the edge of the seats. Sometimes we travelled on high timber trailers carrying sawn wooden planks and we were ensconced a few feet behind the planks. You could imagine the stench, sweat and pandemonium at Kejetia Lorry Park, waiting for hours on end on a Wato Nkyen. It took hours before the driver appeared to weigh anchor and as it were, set sail.

I remember an Oxford Reader for Standard 2 in 1960-1961, in which one Sam Danso the lorry driver was making a trip from Accra to Winneba, carrying a lot of groceries and merchandise, and he was involved in an accident. Do you remember those small Fiat Uno cars which we called Alakapo because of their not- too- smart shape? In the early 60s, Osagyefor Dr Kwame Nkrumah was rumoured to have bought a Thunderbird (Nissan) for his girlfriend, one Ms Genevieve Marais, an exile from South Africa, a very dashing and beautiful lady, who was attached to the newly opened Ghana Broadcasting TV (GBC TV). It became big news in Ghana but it was a hush-hush business as it was a period of one-party rule and dictatorship. As such, you could not easily discuss such hot potatoes in public. Other cars which come to mind as fashionable and luxurious were the American big limousines such as Pontiac, Cadillac, Mustang, Chevrolet, Buick and Lincoln. They went by gracefully as if they were swans gliding on air or water. Their tail lights were dazzling and they went by bobbing up and down on the roads as if they had a lot of mattress springs under them. They were veritable guzzlers though. There were many Mercedes Benz buses for public transport and I used to board one called Ebenezer from Winneba to Komenda in the late 60s. We also had Sedans like Opel Rekord from Germany and USA, which was the car for the working class. Other working class cars were the Beetle (VW), the Datsun and the lower class Fords. There was one car called Zephyr, which means Western wind. In the late 60s, we had some Russian cars which had strange shapes with a high front and a low back. There was the Volga. We used to call it Ponko Abodam (Mad horse) or Kosorkobo (Top Heavy). I think there were Lada cars or something like that, but I have forgotten the actual name. We had Volvos from Sweden, Leyland and Albion trucks and trailers from Britain. Some of the inscriptions on the mammy trucks were aphorisms which read:-

1. A beautiful woman cannot stay with one man

2. Paddle your own canoe

3. Travel and see

4. When your mother dies, that is the end of your clan

5. If one tree faces the storm, it will break

6. Slow and steady wins the race

7. Consider your ways

8. Confidence

The defunct State Transport Corporation (STC) used to operate luxury coaches of the Setra brand. Later, they had Mercedes Benz, Volvo, Marco Polo, Leyland and other brands. The Omnibus Services in Accra used to operate city transit system, using Leyland and Albion buses. Later, they switched to Neoplan and Tata buses during the late 70s under Gen Acheampong and Rawlings. I remember in 1957/58, whilst growing up as a kid in Akim Tafo, we used to have a mammy lorry driver who used to ply between Tafo and Accra and he was called Papa Kwesi. We children on sighting him, would approach his Bedford truck and shout ‘Papa Kwesi ma me aben’ and he would go, ‘ paah, paah, paah!’ to our utter ecstasy and joy. E.K. Nyame made a highlife tune with the words ‘Kaa bi eba o, me ti paah na meni agyina. Papa Kwesi aba twa mu, meti paah na me ni agyina. Odo yewu beba, me ti paah na me ni agyina. Odo yewu aba twa mu, me te paah na me ni agyina.’

Later, another musician E.T Mensah, made the song, ‘If you marry taxi driver, I don’t care, if you marry taxi driver, I don’t care…..’ There was also a highlife called, ‘Been to, Jaguar…. All of them related to cars. Hmmmmm! The mammy truck/lorries had their horns outside on the upper right side of the driver’s seat. The driver would squeeze the enema – type plastic, and the sound made went like, ‘Kwahufo woy3 p3p33fo, Kwahufo woy3 p3p33fo, p3p33fo. Kwahufo woy3 p3p33fo, p3p33fo…..; meaning, the Kwahus are misers. Hmmm! No harm meant to them. It just sounded like that in its artistic interpretation so I am a messenger and not a tribalist.

Sea Transport

In the mid 60s, the outboard motor became the norm of our marauding fishermen of the Atlantic Ocean. With the motor, they were able to travel hundreds of nautical miles out to sea to fish. The Outboard motor brought many advantages and disadvantages. One major disadvantage was that many fishermen began storing large quantities of petrol in unsafe locations, which caused mayhem as lots of property and lives got gutted in tremendous, horrendous and terrible infernos and conflagrations. The brands of outboard motors in vogue then were Johnson, Evinrude, Mercury and Yamaha. Some fishermen even used their new found mobility to engage in smuggling activities in our territorial waters. There were many Black Star Line ships such as M.V Tano, S.S. Oti, S.S Prah, S.S Ankobra. Before then we had the S.S. Apapa.

Air Transport

The British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C) was the only airline plying between the Gold Coast and the outside world. They operated plane brands such as the jet propeller planes such as the Comets, Havillands, Lock heeds and Vickers (VC10s). Some of the planes were military and were converted for civilian use after the 2nd World War. We used to have a gliding school at Afienya, established by Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah, and it had the famous ace German instructor, Hannah Reich. The Ghana Airforce operated a fleet of turbo jet planes from their bases in Accra and Takoradi. Their planes used to be painted in orange and white colours, with the jet fighters in metalic ash colours. Nkrumah used to go to places within the country in his presidential helicopter.

Motorbikes and bicycles

Motorbikes and bicycles were used then as a means of transport and are still in much use in Northern and Upper Regions of Ghana. In the 60s and 70s, the Raleigh brand of bicycle was prominent. We also had the fuel efficient scooter or Vesper. There were the Truimphs, Nortons, Kawasakis, Hondas, Suzukis, BMWs, Tomos and Guzzis.

Mules, Oxcarts and Head Porterage

Mules, oxcarts and head porterage have since time immemorial been the basic means of transport in Ghana. Firewood, merchandise, baskets of fruits and other produce are still transported in various parts of Ghana by wheel barrows, four wheel human driven carts, as well as ox-drawn carts. Before cars and lorries were introduced in Ghana, relays of gangs of men were organized to carry on their heads, goods for transport over fairly short distances. That operated during the Anglo-Ashanti Wars.

By Kwesi Atta Sakyi