It never ceases to amaze me each time I visit Ghana, how intimate an activity as driving can be. With each visit I notice how badly the roads are deteriorating and how much closer is the dance between vehicles, pedestrians and animals as they pirouette around potholes and around each other.
I wince, grimace and squirm on occasion as vehicles skirt literally three inches around pedestrians in a way that would be considered an extreme invasion of personal space at the least, but more likely ‘reckless endangerment’ in other cultures. I watch incredulously as people sashay nonchalantly, three abreast, in the middle of the street, their arms swinging widely, yet languidly, around their ample hips, as drivers operate around them, totally nonplussed. But probably most terrifying are the disabled mendicants, without the use of their lower limbs, who zip and zap between cars on skateboards-turned-wheelchairs with jaw-dropping speed and dexterity. It would be very easy for a driver to miss one of these people, who typically weave between cars below eye level. It is as much a miracle of The Most High as it is a testament of their dexterity that these ‘dodging dervishes’ stay barely half an inch away from being run over by vehicles.
With each year that goes by, the roads in some parts of the city have eroded from dual-carriage lanes to single-carriage lanes riddled with potholes of varying sizes and depths, to slivers of asphalt holding on for dear life. On some stretches, the paved road seems to have completely disappeared; leaving in its wake swaths of ubiquitous red dirt that frequently give rise to mini sandstorms. Ones driving lane is determined not by a centerline, not by a dividing island, but by staking a claim to the less pockmarked side of the street and an impudent refusal to cower in the face of oncoming traffic.
As a driver, the top three priorities are: avoiding potholes and lost portions of road, avoiding other vehicles and finally avoiding pedestrians – in that order. As a pedestrian, one needs only concern oneself with picking one’s way through a minor obstacle course – the cars will maneuver around the human traffic. Or not. As an animal…well, all the world’s your living room: fait comme chez toi, as the French would say.
Also fascinating is the incessant, almost orchestral blaring of horns, which, to all intents and purposes, could almost qualify as a codified language in its own right. It is easy to pick out the various distinct messages that go something like this: One short tone followed by one long tone: “Get out of my way”, one long tone would be: “Don’t even think about crossing me, bitch!”. Several staccato bursts means: “I’m in your immediate surroundings – no fast moves, buster!”. A continuous string of staccato one-eighth notes says: “Taxi, anyone?” Two short bursts then a long one would mean: “Whatthafuckyoudothatfor?” Sometimes the horn message is “I just like the way this sounds to me – gotta problem with it?” and the sound of that is only limited by the creativity of the driver, but it’s like porn – you’ll recognize it when you hear it.
Now, while driving (or being driven) here in the land of Africa’s friendliest people might seem like dancing on a tightrope in a straightjacket while balancing an egg on your head, the intimacy almost ensures a lower rate of fatalities because the speed rates are much slower. That said, it doesn’t abate the terror of feeling like a deer in headlights when the car you’re in is in the lane of oncoming traffic hurtling down with all vim and alacrity towards what seems like a perfect head-on collision with an 18-wheeler. And it doesn’t lessen the relief you feel when you gasp because you feel like you just missed your death by the skin of your teeth and nearly pissed your pants.
As the Ghanaians are good at saying, “don’t worry, by happy”, as you feel the steam coming out of your ears. Life’s good.