I pass a 3rd intense advertisement for a competitive British university as the 300th smartly dressed university student passes me. Quickly. Speed walking must be a popular sport around here. The iPod headphones dance and flow in contrast to the black overcoats, helping that advertisement come off the wall and walk right past me. I’m overwhelmed. Overstimulated. Swarmed with faces of Ghanaian friends and strangers, smiling with hope and frowning with frustration – telling the same story of “no money for school fees”. At every level of education really, but university/college in particular. It’s firmly out of reach for so many smart people with so much potential. And it’s so blatantly within the palm of my own hand if I just want to wrap my fingers around it…
Today I’m gliding peacefully out of England’s massive capital city, London, towards the southern coast of England. It will take almost 2 hours if you include my subway ride too. To travel 85 km. Having checked the automatically updating board to get the correct train (It’s only 2 mins away), people step on board as the doors glide open for them, and within the seconds the train is back to full speed, riding a single track to its end destination. It’s strangely similar to my own experience applying to university and getting the student loans and scholarships I needed to fly through without even much debt even to speak of…
On Friday I was leaving Doboro, a very small town 40 km outside of Ghana’s massive capital city, Accra. I was on the roadside by 7am, and my stomach tightened to see the crowd of 30 Ghanaians who were already there. Spread across the highway strategically to position for any potential passing bus. The tro-tros cut across 3 lanes of traffic as the “mate” sticks his head out of the sliding door window shouting the name of the destination. Most of the tros were full or almost full, so each one that stopped created a mini wrestling match as people shove each other to get inside. The fray is compounded by women and small children weaving through traffic with giant bowls of food or water on their head. Running alongside the tro as it pulls away to risk their lives for a 3 cent transaction – and sometimes the driver accelerates too quickly, and the payment doesn’t make it back.
I’m drinking up the leg room as I slowly sip my freshly squeezed orange juice from a vending machine. Something about the transaction is less alive – sure I can see my own reflection in the freshly polished glass, and the mechanical rotating arm will guarantee me the juice I wanted. But I mourn the death of that small spark, the eye contact I make with the pure water seller who’s 3 lanes over. That glance turned gunshot that sends her off to the races, hurdling cars and competitors to sell me a plastic bag of water – and the smoothness of right-hand-only transfer of money and product leaves us both a little happier.
The train I’m on today has left with only half the seats filled. Imagine! The quietness is good for this blog post, but means I’m quickly slipping back into that bubble of public transport in the West – where I expect the trains on time, the heating or AC working and the other passengers to be passive. Where I spend more energy than I’d like to admit looking at anything but another person – eye contact is different here.
The colours are changing on the trees now. We’re well clear of London, and a little further from Accra and Tamale now. Maybe there’s an elastic band around my waist, because the further I get, the more I’m pulled to remember.
I leisurely stroll into the tro park in Bolga in the Upper East Region of Ghana on Monday morning, heading towards the Tamale loading area. After a weekend of sleep, rest, malaria recovery, and amazing conversations with that one person who can bring me back to life, I’m dreading this moment. When I eye up the tro-tro and learn how many of the 35 seats have filled, so I can exercise my expert subtraction skills (5 people on, means 30 seats to fill). This is followed by my more shaky estimation and multiplication techniques: if we average one passenger arriving every 3 minutes, that’s 90 minutes to wait…
I don’t like the look on the ticket-sellers face as he pressures me to purchase my ticket before I can explore other options… He’s angry. I step away to look for some breakfast, and something magical happens. A taxi pulls up beside the tro and calls the ticket-seller over. 1 minute later he’s advertising slightly more expensive tickets for a more comfortable ride in the taxi, and there are only 4 seats to fill. 10 minutes later my hair is being blown straight back by the wind as the taxi dodges pot holes and picks up speed. I sit beside a fascinating middle-aged Ghanaian woman named Doris. She’s negotiating a meeting time on the phone, and a plastic folder of certificates sits on her lap – I feel totally comfortable glancing through them as she looks for one in particular, and it’s only natural to ask about the PMTCT course – Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission (of HIV/AIDS). An inspiring conversation ensues about her profession as midwife in a rural hospital, captured well by her line:
“This job is about life. It is an honour – to be given that chance to save two lives at once. I can only try my best, every single day.”
Back in Accra on Friday, and something is wrong here. It’s been 40 minutes on the side of the road by the shiny fancy mall where my meeting recently finished, and not a single tro-tro back to the central station has even passed. I’ve made friends with an older man beside me whose ear is infinitely sharper than mine when it comes to hearing the tro-tro mate yelling (read: mumbling) the destination of the bus. We started this wait by talking about the need to exercise patience, but I’m fresh out at this point. I signal a taxi to go about 10 blocks to a much more central hub. I invite my new friend and another old woman to join me and take the free ride to a better loading spot, and immediately they both light up like Christmas trees – “God Bless You.”
It proves to be an effective strategy for finding the tro-tro I need: less than 10 minutes later me and Aziiba (I know now his name and the huge length of his journey home – at least 3 hours) are jammed into a sweaty tro that’s creeping and crawling it’s way through traffic. I’m sitting on the row behind him and can see him holding a few coins in his hand waiting for the mate to ask him to pay.
As I try and shift my body to get my hand into my own pocket, the mate taps Aziiba on the shoulder, while yelling “FRONT”. Aziiba spins around with a glint in his eye. “Circle” is the first word out of his mouth, indicating our final destination. As he reaches his hand to pay the fare he can’t help but smile as he adds “for Two!”. Aziiba then turns immediately back around to face forward. As if he’s a bit out of his comfort zone paying the bus fare for a stranger, but still confident that he’d made the right move.
The English clouds are getting dark, and my only sweater isn’t nearly enough to keep myself warm in this strange, bright, cold and organized environment. But the fire’s in the hearth of my heart, and I draw more happiness than could be rationally expected from the memory of watching that old man’s body language in the front seat of a tro-tro.
There is something so real about Ghanaians that teaches me a new dimension of what it means to be human each and every day that I let it. Stepping out of that context feels like it’s opening me up to go back to being a student and learning life’s lessons… like a recent grad who has just hit the groove of 9-5 in the office and is yearning to be back in university again. It’s easy to romanticize the glory days, but the potential to experience that awe at the mystery of life is like an airplane lifejacket – it’s right under your seat. Just get out of your chair and look from a different angle.
It’s time to take a different approach to the office, not just daydream about the sleep-ins and flexible days of being a care-free student. It’s a chance to dissolve this self-constructed barrier between Westerners and Africans that I reinforce with each comparison – to chat with strangers even if half of them are going to give me the evil eye. To listen, to pay attention and value the parts of Western culture that make me want to get straight back on the plane.
Train’s arrived, already. That was fast. Feels good to travel, inside and out.