Matt is the Senior Program Manager for Exponential Education. He manages a program in Krobo, about 30 miles outside of Kumasi. He travels frequently to visit all of Expo’s tutoring programs. This is his story about his journey to the Upper West to visit one of our Peace Corps programs. – Dara
Today I’m leaving for the Upper West region of Ghana. I’m going just about as far north as I can go before entering the next country, Burkina Faso. I’m taking this trip to observe our Peace Corps program. Expo has partnered with the Peace Corps so that means some of our program managers are Peace Corps volunteers. It fits nicely since the Peace Corps volunteers need to have a side project and that also means they help us fund the program, so we can expand and reach out to even more areas of Ghana that we wouldn’t be able to reach with out main Expo staff. This Volunteer, Jessica, has agreed to use our after school program as one of her village side projects. Her main mission is to teach Math and computer stuff at her small village. Since I’m the Senior Program Manager for Expo, it’s part of my job to check in with her by email and in person to make sure her program is successful. That means that twice this term I will have to make a 15 hour trip, but hey that means I get to travel and see more parts of Ghana, I’m quite okay with that.
Okay, back to my journey today. I wake up at 03:00 am, which is ridiculously early, even for me. I need to make sure I catch the first bus out to arrive at her village before it gets too late and preferably before the sun sets. By 03:30, I have my things together and leave for the bus station. At the main road, as expected, there aren’t many cars. After a few minutes a taxi pulls up and demands I pay him 10 Cedis for a trip that would normally be 80 Peswas. He soon realizes that I have no problem waiting and that he won’t find another passenger at this time, so he offers one Cedi and I take it.
From the next stop, I catch a Tro Tro to Kejetia, where I will find another Tro Tro to the bus station. I make it to Kejetia and start walking around to find my next Tro Tro to a place called Abripo Junction. Kejetia is the biggest market in Kumasi and some guidebooks I’ve read say it’s the biggest in West Africa. Walking through this market at 4 in the morning is quite an experience. There are absolutely no people walking through and only a few vendors are there setting up their areas. It’s really disorienting and I almost don’t know which direction to go to get to an area I regularly pass. I figure out that it’s actually much simpler than normal and that most of the maze that I have to pass through is created with the vendor’s stands and not with anything more concrete.
I find my next Tro Tro in Kejetia and I’m the fourth person to get on. I take a quick look around at the people and they have a look on their faces like they’ve been here for a while. I’m slightly worried about how long this is going to take and also appreciative at my insistency to leave so early. Luckily, after only about 10 minutes the car fills and we leave for Abripo Junction.
On the ride I ask the guy next to me to point out the metro station for me. He nods and tells me to follow him when we get out. The Tro Tro stops at a gas station and I sit patiently to wait for them to get fuel. Everyone stands up and I realize that this is the final stop and I suppose that the station is down the street a bit since I don’t see any big buses. We get out and the man leads me across the street. He asks me a bit about what I’m doing here and I think he appreciates why I’m here because he gets a bit of a determined jump in his step as we near the bus station indicated to me by the large orange metro buses. I tell him I want the car to Hamale, which is the furthest town North, or up and West, before reaching the Burkina border. The town where I’m going, called Nandom, is just south of Hamale. He walks me to the front desk and they point us to go back into the rest of the lot. I thought he would leave here, but he continues to take the lead and I continue to follow without saying much. We get bounced around by a few more people before we finally find the correct bus. I thank him a few times as he takes his leave.
I greet the woman behind the desk in Twi and she is so excited that she completely forgets about doing anything in English. Her excitement is also speeding her speech up, so I’m only getting about every fourth word. She tells me the bus won’t start to fill for a while and I should wait to the side. While waiting some people tell me that the bus to Hamale might not fill at all on a Sunday. After hearing some horror stories about buses taking all day to fill I get a bit spooked out of waiting for the Hamale bus. The bus currently filling will go to Wa, which is the capital of the Upper West region, just to the south of Nandom. I ask the woman and she tells me there are only a few more seats left before the bus leaves. I get a ticket and then go to the street to get something to eat before we leave. I find Koko and Kosi, or in English they are called porridge and bean bread, and then get back to the crowd waiting to board the bus.
Once everyone gets on the bus, we start to leave the city. There are two men who stayed at the front of the bus and are still standing by the door. Either the armed robbers got us very early, or these men are here to bless the bus ride. It’s quite common for some religious man to get on a bus as it’s leaving and pray for everyone to make it to the destination safely. Then that’s followed by them selling some magic medicine or just asking for donations. One of the men begins to talk, all in Twi, and everyone on the bus joins hands. We all close our eyes and listen to the prayer and them all finish with a strong amen. I really didn’t understand anything he said except for the two Twi words I know for God, but everyone listening and joining hands gave me a good feeling about this ride. Then, he begins to talk about safety on the bus like an airline stewardess would do. I can’t understand everything he’s saying, but his actions are so over the top I can guess the topic of discussion. He acts out spitting out of the window and it coming back and hitting someone behind them a few rows, closing the windows and having out coughing and sneezing circulate through the bus, and some other entertaining events. He then talks about common ailments and their easy cure with everyday items. I’m really surprised that he’s making the cures seem so simple and easy to obtain. I start noticing that he has a common answer to the ailments listed later on. He mentions problems in a few different areas of the body and all of the solutions involve aloe vera. I didn’t know that was very common in Ghana, but it seems like everything can grow here so it wouldn’t surprise me. Finally, he pulls out a suitcase and starts to hold up packages of the magic medicine I expected the whole time. This guy is really good though, starting with everyday tips to gain the trust of his audience. He mentions the products price in Accra, then Kumasi, gives a lower price than both, and then he chants something in Twi a few times as if we’re about to start some tribal dance or something and then he screams out a price half as low as the last one and then starts running down the aisle as if everyone just went wild and is trying to get the product before they’re all gone. I have to say this guy really has a great sales pitch down and if I were ever going to buy some of this Ghana magic bus medicine, it would be from this guy. Don’t worry I saved my money and just enjoyed the show and laughed at the crazy guy running down the aisles. I seriously feel like I’m on a game show because one of the passengers in the front seat even holds up a product close to his face and with a huge smile tells everyone on the bus that the product really works. After a few more products he finishes and gets down a few towns North, or up and west, of Kumasi. I was starting to fall asleep as the bus was waiting to leave the station, but now after he left I’m wide awake as if I had actually gotten up at a decent time.
As I normally do on these long bus rides, I stare out the window and people watch as I note the changing scenery. The hours are flying by and right when my legs start to hurt, we stop for a food break. I’m not to hungry after the Koko and Kosi, but I get some ice kenkay and bread to hold me over until I get to Nandom. Back on the road I really start to notice the differences as we start to get much further North, I mean up and west. Consistently, the vegetation is getting more spread out and I’m noticing less of the edible crops and fruits, like palm tree, plaintin/banana, coconut, and other lush greenery. I’m also noticing more and more of the traditional mud houses instead of the more modern looking brick buildings. It’s also becoming less common for the outside of the buildings to be painted. Instead, they just leave the decomposing mud wall to be in its natural state. The metal roofs of the buildings are also being replaced by what looks like palm fronds or the big broad leaves of the palm tree. After some time, but nowhere near the end of the trip, my stomach starts to feel a bit queasy.
I close my eyes and try to just relax and see if the feeling will pass. The feeling only gets worse and I get a bit worried because my row doesn’t line up with any windows. I look around and plan my escape if the signs of impending vomit come knocking. The only two windows within reason are at the very front of the bus, a few rows ahead of me. One is over the stairs that lead down to the ground and I would have to jump over the descending stairs and cling to the window in mid air, not going to happen. The other, only realistic option is right next to a policeman who we picked up at the last stop. That option doesn’t sound much better considering the corruption with the police in Ghana. I set my determination to make it off the bus with the contents of my stomach staying where they are. With the nausea and frequent stops to let people off, the rest of the ride seems to go quickly.
After some more driving and no embarrassing vomit story, we arrive in Wa. Off the bus I buy some Cipro from the nearest chemical seller. That’s the local name for pharmacy here. Chemical seller sounds much more like I’m going to be cleaning my pool. After I tell him what I want he pulls out the aluminum and plastic package that is normally inside of a box, with the very important directions and content information. Slightly hesitant I ask him how to take the medicine. Then, I find out he only wants 2 Ceids and I just take the medicine and vow only to take it if I have a stomach emergency. I check the back of the package and it says that it’s manufactured by a big medicine company in Ghana, so I’m feeling much more comfortable about taking it if it comes time. I ask the man behind the desk where I should go to get the Tro Tro to Nandom and he points to a group of people all dressed in the same uniform and says they are also going to Nandom. I ask them for directions, but one of the women just tells me to come with them in their taxi. A few minutes later we arrive at a Tro Tro station and they insist to pay for my portion of the ride.
On the next Tro Tro, I board and start to look for my seat. There are only a few people, but it seems like there is much more luggage spread around saving people’s seats. I ask for some of the window seats only to find they are all taken. I just sit down in the middle of the second to last row and hope that my stomach will continue to stay settled. A young woman comes to take her bag saving her window seat next to me. She asks if I want the seat and I tell her she should take it. After all, she is dressed very nicely and I’m already a sweaty mess, so a little more sweat can’t hurt. Right then, I remember my dormant nausea and regret that decision immediately. I think the woman’s beauty and perfectly clean suit made me forget completely about the dormant nausea.
We take off on the road that leads north to Nandom. Before we are out of Wa, the car starts to fill up with smoke like something is on fire. Everyone around me starts to investigate before we find plumes of smoke coming through the sideboard of the car next to the woman who I gave the window seat. I’d say I lucked out of that one, but I don’t think it will be much better sitting right next to that spot either. The smoke then begins to get thicker and I think everyone simultaneously came to the conclusion that something is on fire inside the car. The woman next to me, out of instinct, starts to escape and climb over me to the sliding door. One hand is on the seat in back of me, one on the seat in front of me, and her knee is about to connect with my kidney to make sure I will be an easy obstacle. The people in the back are yelling to the driver, but he’s not paying any attention to anyone. The smoke isn’t getting any worse, but not really any better either. Everyone starts to relax out of emergency mode and start to create solutions to the smoke. Most of the people around me take out their handkerchiefs and tie it around their mouth like a bandit from the Wild West. Then the woman next to me takes her bag and pushes it up against the sideboard of the car. It makes the smoke a little less and our speed is picking up, so the wind is helping. As we go much faster the dust from outside the Tro Tro is blowing in the car and making it hard to sit in there and keep my eyes open. The people close their windows to protect them selves. Then when the driver has to slow down again because of the bad road, the smoke starts again and the windows have to be open again, allowing the smoke to leave and the dust to enter again. After about 45 minutes of driving everyone becomes used to the new situation and we have all moved on and are thankful that nothing is actually on fire. I’m a little less thankful since I forgot my bank robbing attire at home.
About an hour or so into the ride, one of the passengers asks to get out of the car, in the middle of no where. After dropping her off, the driver is struggling to get the car into gear and instead he’s just grinding the gears and making an awful sound. The two people in front of me can’t control themselves and burst out laughing and commenting about the man’s lack of car knowledge. Everything on the Tro Tro is being done in English, so I’m able to keep up. There are so many different languages and dialects up here, so since English is the only communication in common, it is often heard when taking cars in the cities. Not before long, the car stalls and shuts off. He goes to start the car again, but the engine won’t turn over. Great! As if this ride could get any worse. First, the car was on fire, then it gets pelted by dust, and now it’s broken down in the middle of nowhere. The driver throws up his hands and angrily gets out of the car. At this point I’m just laughing to myself wondering how I’m going to make it out of this place. The people in front of me are laughing to much more than themselves and I’m slightly worried that their pushing the driver’s patience too far. He is after all, in complete control of our safety. Before I could even realize what is happening all the men from inside the car, like a highly trained bobsled team, jump out and start to push the car. I’m way too slow to help, so I just stay in the car and join the cheer squad with the rest of the women still in the car. Let’s just say I’m trying to break gender barriers! The car starts again and everyone gets back into the car.
Now the road is getting much worse and it feels more like I’m riding on a jackhammer rather than a car. My body is feeling really itchy because of the vibrations. The car is shaking so much that the big sliding door begins to come open. One of the men from the back jumps in the seat usually reserved for the mate and firmly closes the door. Not after long, the door begins to shake open again. This time he leaves the door for a bit before some of the women complain to him. The driver turns around and hands the man an old dirty rag. He takes the rag and ties it around the edge of the window attaching the sliding door to the fixed part of the car. I can’t imagine if anything goes bad that a dirty old rag will keep the big sliding door of a Tro Tro open. Now I’m finding it harder to keep my laughter to myself.
Finally, after a few more hours, we arrive in Nandom. It’s about 17:30, meaning it took about 14 hours to get here from when I left the house in Oduom. I’m glad I’m only going to be doing this trip a few times for the term. I call Jessica and she tells me to wait where I am for her friend to come get me. Not after long, her friend is there with his moto and I get on for a ride that literally only went a few buildings down the street. We introduce ourselves and then he shows me over to the guesthouse where I’ll be staying for these few nights while I’m here in Nandom. I drop my stuff off and head down the street to get Fufu. After the big meal and nearly the whole day of traveling I get back to my room and without much effort I’m out like a light.
Follow Matt’s adventures at http://matthotmer.wordpress.com/