For the past two Sundays and last Friday we took to the roads outside Ghana, visiting various congregations and doing financial reviews with church leaders. The first Sunday, we went to the Michel Camp Ward, about 40 minutes west of Accra on Highway N1, Ghana’s main east-west road along the coastal region and last weekend we took N1 west about 90 minutes to Winneba and then over an hour north to various rural towns.
Highway N1 is not to be confused with a modern US freeway. For one thing, there are occasional toll booths (forget toll tag lanes, this is generally a cash-only society). More importantly, Highway N1 is not a limited access road in any sense of the word. You have to be careful of people wandering across the road, broken-down cars and street vendors lining the roadsides and occasionally blocking the traffic lanes. There are precious few overpasses; several major intersections are simply big roundabouts that can take over two hours to negotiate at rush hour.
Road construction just adds another layer of excitement to the rodeo. Instead of taking the time and expense to build temporary roads off to the side to accommodate traffic during construction, they generally just turn everyone loose on the gravel or dirt shoulders for the interim. Michelle was driving one night when we went through an area where they are building ramps between N1 and Ring Road, Accra’s beltway. That turned into a hair-raising twenty minute unlit three-ring circus, a mad scramble of cars crisscrossing every which way, with no marked lanes, no lights, no signals and no traffic control personnel to disrupt the madness.
We typically navigate using Google Maps on a phone or tablet, which covers you nicely most of the time with one driving and one navigating, particularly since most of the roads simply are not labeled. There was a couple of times last Sunday, however, when the Google geo-mappers let us down hard. Oh, and Apple’s maps over here are generally much worse.
Last Sunday morning, Google recommended we take a shortcut from what I knew was a generally well-travelled road. That shortcut took us through the nastiest neighborhood I had seen in a long time and down a one-way street in the wrong direction. Sure enough, a local policeman happened to be there to flag us down to tell us we were in a lot of trouble. He started talking with me, but quickly decided he would rather talk to Michelle, so he went around the car and told me to be quiet. That was actually good, because Michelle is much better than me at pouring on the charm, explaining that we are new volunteer missionaries, just trying to bring a better life to the people of Ghana, which plays very well here. He countered with the standard storyline that were are still in a lot of trouble and since he is on foot, he will need to get in our car and so he can direct us to the police station to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. In reality, once they are in your car, they have a very strong bargaining position to extract a healthy bribe to get them out and let you go in peace. Michelle played it really cool and explained that it is not our car and we are not allowed to let anyone into it, but she would be happy to call our local coordinator for him to chat with. About then, he decided we were probably more trouble than we were worth, and told us to turn around and be on our way.
I expected that the housing and cars would thin out as we left Accra, but we drove through mile after mile of endless congestion with roadside vendors darting into traffic, construction delays and, once that finally cleared out, a non-stop series of speed bumps designed to strongly encourage you not to exceed the posted speed limit (it varies from 50 – 80 km/hour). I had to keep reminding myself we were on a major interstate highway.
Once we made it to Winneba, as we navigated the huge roundabout to head north, it was rather difficult to ignore a large gentleman walking along in a roadside crowd of people, unencumbered by a single stitch of clothing. He must be a local landmark, because, describing the trip to friends the next day, they all asked if the naked man was still wandering along the Winneba roundabout.
From Winneba, we headed out into what I will charitably call “off the beaten path” territory. We actually wandered up a pockmarked little road about 30 minutes to Swedru, a congested, impoverished little town, threaded by a narrow single-lane paved road, lined with goats, vendors and pedestrians, and featuring strategically located, cavernous potholes. Just as I was coming around a pothole back into the traffic lane, I spotted a car careening down the hill toward us, so I veered our car back behind a parked car and we watched as the oncoming car finally slammed on his brakes, skidded along the dusty pavement and slammed straight into the back of a parked truck directly across from us, gashing the front of his car all the way to the windshield. Arnold, a local auditor traveling with us calmly said, “Nice move, now keep going, we need to get out of here.”
So we left Swedru and had driven for about thirty minutes when Google Maps announced it was time to stop, the road ended here. Not so fast, Google. We continued for another twenty minutes along a red, severely rutted dirt road through towering, luxurious vegetation until we finally arrived in Odoben, a remote town and home to a very nice, solidly built LDS Chapel that is seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I asked to two young missionaries from Utah if their parents had any real understanding of the remote, primitive area where they were working and they just laughed.
By the time we finished reviewing with the ward and branch leaders located there, it was getting toward dusk so I happily turned the keys over to Arnold, the local auditor for most of the trip home. Best decision of the day. Arnold drives like a bat out of hell, but he knows how to navigate backroads like no one’s business. And on the three places where the police had set up blockades (sheer lunacy – you come around a bend and there is a manned barricade in the middle of the road) for whatever reason (primarily extortion, Arnold assured me), they just wave on a native in a white shirt and tie.
All that said, Ghanaian drivers are extremely cordial, unrushed and considerate. It is actually a delight when you start to recognize the rhythm of the road, and understand your place weaving in and out of traffic lanes and around obstacles, potholes and pedestrians. I have never seen anything even approaching road rage here; the drivers all seem to recognize that we are in this together and if we will just be patient, take turns giving and taking, albeit with only fractions of an inch margin in most instances, we will all make it through another day and rejoin the dance tomorrow.