Visitors to Ghana will find that half the vehicles on city streets are taxis with distinctive bright yellow-orange wings. Even those who keep a careful count will find that their statistics support their first impression. According to the Building and Road Research Institute (BRRI) there were 121,000 vehicles registered in Ghana in 1993 of which registered taxis made up 28,000 or 23%. However, taxis spend much more time on the road than other types of vehicle and that is how they are able to dominate the traffic scene; and it is the ever-present community of taxi drivers that characterises life on the move on the streets of Ghana’s towns and cities.
Almost all Ghanaians display a happy countenance but taxi drivers excel in spreading cheerfulness. This would seem to be partly because the ownership of a vehicle, and/or the chance to gain a relatively easy living, provides a feeling of good fortune, and partly because a cheerful, friendly demeanour is good for business. Whatever the reason, taxi drivers are renowned for exhibiting a contagious joy of being alive.
The popular Ghanaian author, Cameron Dodoo, has written of taxi drivers who expressed their high spirits in the 1950s when the ubiquitous Morris Oxford was the vehicle of first choice. They would stop beside a friend by first driving past, then slipping the gears into reverse while still in forward motion so that the vehicle leapt back as though in apology. Even if more modern cars are too delicate to manifest such exuberance, the spirit that moves them has lost only a small part of that seminal joy of newly won freedom.
A large part of the taxi driver’s life is spent in greeting friends. Travelling with open windows, and with one arm outside, he is acutely aware of his surroundings and ready to wave and peep his horn at every familiar face. Being also on the look-out for potential fares, he responds in the same way on sight of every foreigner or person of apparent affluence who is seen walking at the roadside. It cannot be doubted that it is the motor horn that is the supreme expression of the driver’s joy, and no opportunity is lost to sound it, whether in greeting an acquaintance, soliciting a fare, expressing appreciation of a beautiful girl or venting frustration at a road block.
Many taxis wait for fares at ‘lorry parks’ established for trotros and buses and they often follow trotro routes to other terminal stations. However, unlike buses and most trotros, which stop only at regular points along the way, taxis will stop anywhere to set down or pick up additional passengers. They will even stop to let their passengers buy food, drinks and trinkets from wayside vendors. The aim is always to travel full: with all seats occupied. Anyone requiring the exclusive use of a taxi must first find an empty vehicle and then inform the driver that they wish to ‘charter’ it. Needless to say, the cost of chartering is much higher than the standard fare in shared occupancy.
Taxi drivers seldom buy more than one gallon of fuel at a time. This means that they are frequent callers at their preferred filling stations, extending their network of friends and hopefully improving their chances of getting fuel in times of scarcity. Living from hand to mouth, the taxi driver converts part of his earnings into fuel as the day progresses. Those passengers chartering a ride to a more distant destination are usually required to pay an advance and wait at a filling station for the fuel to be loaded. This is an immediate frustration for those in a hurry, but for those as relaxed as the driver it is a chance for a cheerful discussion of current affairs interspersed with complaints about the high cost of fuel.
The taxi drivers of Ghana ensure that their passengers remain in constant interaction with the population at large and this is not only because they travel with wide open windows. Unlike Europeans, Ghanaians look at people’s faces first and the vehicle they are riding in second. A friend or relative is never missed, whether walking or riding, and those riding want always to be seen. For the taxi driver it is better to ride with paying passengers than to ride alone as this multiplies the friendly exchanges. The shortest journey is an opportunity to activate a kaleidoscope of smiling faces and cheery waves. Yes! Life on the road is life itself, in all its richness and variety, thanks to the unflagging high spirits of the taxi drivers.