Death Wish Africa: Driving in Ghana

Bright Lights JacketOne of the most frightening moments of each day, and particularly of each weekend excursion is the time behind the wheel.  Several of the senior missionaries here marvel that the Area Office takes ordinary, peace-loving couples from the US, issue us cars and turn us loose on the roads here with no formal training on the peculiarities of driving in Ghana.

Fortunately, I recently came across an amazing book about an American entrepreneur who came to Africa, intent on building up the country through creative capitalism.  “Bright Lights, No City: An African Adventure on Bad Roads With a Brother and a Very Weird Business Plan” was written by Whit Alexander’s brother Max and is a great read for understanding the nuances of the Ghanaian psyche and first-hand insights of what everyday living is like in Ghana.  I am still reading the book, but just came across his descriptions on driving here mimic my own experiences with breath-taking precision.

The author has obviously driven on the same roads that we drive all the time here and his descriptions are frighteningly accurate. Very insightful, great read. I highly recommend the book.

“To the catalog of African miseries, add a modern plague: driving. It is possible to imagine a more dangerous contact sport than driving in Africa, but if so, it has managed to fly under the radar of even the most ratings-desperate television networks. Numbers are sketchy since even serious accidents often go unreported in the developing world, but Africa easily boasts the highest traffic mortality rate on the planet. A 2004 study by the World Health Organization found that of every hundred thousand Africans, 28.3 will die in car accidents, compared to just eleven in Europe. Children are particularly at risk, as pedestrians: in Ghana, about 20 percent of the nearly two thousand annual traffic deaths are children walking to and from school or playing in roads; most are boys, under age ten.

“Along the road between Cape Coast and Accra were several billboards that said OVERSPEEDING KILLS! This is presumably opposed to regular speeding, which is generally accepted. Beneath that loud warning was a grim tally of traffic deaths at that particular intersection. The first sign said: OVER 12 PERSONS DIED HERE. And the next one, a few miles down the road: OVER 70 PERSONS DIED HERE. You see these signs all over Ghana, always with an inexact body count that suggests the authorities simply got tired of tallying up the limbs and settled for a guesstimate. Reasons for the carnage include the previously mentioned penchant for mindless passing; spectacularly overloaded and unsafe vehicles (trucks piled two stories high with cargo, devoid of tire treads and listing like drunken sailors); scarce medical facilities with limited training in trauma care; low to zero enforcement of speed limits (the Ghana national police, uniformed in blue camouflage and shouldering Kalashnikov rifles, seem to exist all too frequently to shake down drivers for bribes at roadblocks); roads cratered with chassis-twisting potholes; deep, open concrete roadside sewers that leave no shoulder and no room for error (“pulling over” to avoid an accident could be more disastrous than the collision itself); for the same reason, no place for pedestrians except in the roadway; an obstacle course of countless rusting hulks of previous accidents that never get towed away, causing new accidents (the African traffic nightmare has been called “the hidden epidemic,” but in fact you can see the pathology along any ten-kilometer stretch of road); and, at night, a lack of streetlights or reflective roadway markings combined with the inescapable logic that the less often headlights are used, the longer they will last.”

“On its website for travel advisories, the U.S. State Department summarizes driving conditions in every country in the world. Here are some insights they provide for travelers to Ghana:

“The road from Accra to the central region tourist area of Cape Coast continues to be the site of many accidents. Travel in darkness, particularly outside the major cities, is extremely hazardous, due to poor street lighting and the unpredictable behavior of pedestrians, bicyclists and farm animals, particularly goats and sheep. Aggressive drivers, poorly maintained vehicles and overloaded vehicles pose serious threats to road safety. The safety standards of the small private buses that transit roads and highways are uncertain.”

“Very few Africans own cars—in Ghana about one in two hundred people. As a result, “nobody knows how to drive here,” says Whit, “especially the people who drive.” But that doesn’t mean a lack of cars. With very little infrastructure of public transportation—the few trains stopped running reliably years ago, intercity buses don’t cover the deep countryside where so many Ghanaians live, and even Accra (population two million) has no mass transit of any kind—getting around Ghana has devolved into a freewheeling circus of enterprising shared taxis and their downscale stepcousins, the battered private passenger minivans alluded to in the State Department brief, known as tro-tros . (The name derives from the Twi slang for the small coins once used to pay for passage.) The nomadic and wild-eyed drivers of these vehicles will take you from one end of the nation to another, and anywhere in between; you see them bouncing along dirt tracks dozens of kilometers from anywhere, groaning under rooftop baggage loads, their unbelted passengers practically spilling out the windows and the open sliding doors. Neither taxis nor tro-tros have meters; the fares are highly competitive and based on destination, which means profit is a factor of three inputs: extreme speed, maximum passenger load, and as little money wasted on maintenance as possible. Maybe you could add speed again.

“The result is chaos. Car accidents pose a far greater threat to visitors than any of the country’s myriad tropical diseases, flesh-eating parasites, and venom-spitting reptiles. Guidebooks and websites warn visitors not to even consider getting behind the wheel, even in broad daylight; driving at night is considered evidence of criminal insanity. Hertz of Ghana will not rent its vehicles without a hired driver, and local agencies are nearly as insistent. Of course this adds considerably to the expense of tourism—at least for those unwilling to ride cheek-to-shoulder with the perspiring masses in tro-tros as the driver must not only be paid but also fed and housed along the road. It’s oddly colonial, and disjointing in a modern tourist context. There is something Kipling-esque about the well-heeled German sightseeing couple nosing around the slave dungeons of Cape Coast Castle as their African driver waits in the blinding sun of the whitewashed courtyard, jangling keys and speaking Twi into his cell phone.”

“But we are not tourists, and our business in Ghana requires driving—lots of driving. So we drive. Everywhere. Sometimes even at night. Driving here is not fun, even if, like me, you love to drive. It is exhausting because African driving requires constant vigilance; take your eyes off the road for one second and you miss the darting child, the stubborn goat, the open sewer an inch from your tire, the oncoming tro-tro in your lane. Death waits around every curve and over every hill, and there is simply too much life happening in too little space. On the road in Ghana, mistakes are unforgiven, and physics can provide a harsh and messy lesson.”

Kindle even offers the following link that allows you to start reading the book for free:


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