Tro Tro: Transportation for the People by the People
The tro tro, a dilapidated minivan, gutted and refurbished, is the pin-up vehicle of Ghana’s transport system. They are everywhere, taking over the streets, intercity, intra-city and probably even intra-country. Nissan, Mazda, Volkswagen, Mercedes – every make and every model, all of which have graced the streets of Ghana since colonial rule. Upon my arrival in Ghana, I was immediately mesmerized by this unique and efficient transport system and I was eager to understand not only how it functions, but also the people behind it.
I have to admit, that at first I was a little bit intimidated. These vehicles, packed with people, limbs hanging out the windows and a man barely hanging on to the door shouting out the final destination, this was very different then the Canadian public transport scene. Colored in stickers and slogans of all themes, the most common being “Thank God” or “Trust in God, Always” – I couldn’t help but wonder if this was meant as an ominous warning as to whether your barely running tro tro or tipsy driver will get you to your destination in one piece!
In getting to know the tro tro system I quickly learned that you don’t have to go looking for adventure when riding the vehicles. I have had roller coaster rides plenty, finding myself in tro tros that have run out of gas while careening down a hill or having drivers decide to go in reverse against heavy traffic. Probably my most memorable tro tro ride was when I boarded an ancient flat nosed Volkswagen with the engine located in an elevated case beside the driver. Thinking I was lucky to get the front seat, I found myself very much unlucky and sitting directly on top of the deafening V12 motor with nothing but a thin cloth separating me from the scorching metal! It didn’t help that the driver took the road quite aggressively, making me think that I was for sure doomed. With a blistering behind, I was very thankful when the ride was finally over.
When I got over my small fear (and minor wounds) I learned to appreciate the tro tro for much more than comic relief. In a place where publicly funded transport doesn’t exist, the functionality of the tro tro system is rather amazing – a transportation system created by the people for the people.
In addition to transportation, in a poverty stricken country, rife with unemployment tro tros provide a livelihood for many Ghanaians. According to the UNDP, urban unemployment is estimated at 20% and poses as one of Ghana’s biggest problems. Ghana faces rapid urbanization, but within the urban centers the employment opportunities are not growing fast enough to accommodate the increasing population. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, poverty in urban centers, particularly the capital Accra is growing at an escalating rate, and it estimates that in Accra, 40% of households are food insecure
Martin Mensah, a tro tro driver explained to me while on route that he had been doing this job for five years. Previously he worked for a company which made and installed household tiles, but after not being paid for seven months, the company went bankrupt. Such stories are not uncommon in urban Ghana. Martin, then went on to lament how little he gets paid, sometimes as little as 300 000 cedi a month, while the vehicle owner cashes in an average of 100 000 cedi a day!
Tro tros are typically privately owned. However, the owner often has little to do with the day-to-day running of the vehicle. Some owners have multiple vehicles and can be considered somewhat of an unofficial tro tro company. The owner will then hire a driver or several drivers who are required to have a tro tro driving permit; apparently this is strictly regulated. It is then up to the driver to find tro tro mates (a person that sits in the back to collect money and call out the destination) and chose how they will be paid.
For tro tro mates, it seems to be even more difficult. Ishmael, a mate that works at the station near my home, explained that he does not work every day, only when he can because there are many people like him who want to do this easy job. He says he does this work in an effort to save money for school. At the age of 20, he finished junior secondary school (equivalent to junior high in Canada), but can’t afford the school fees to continue on to senior secondary. However, the money he makes from being a tro tro mate is too small – he is lucky if he gets 15 000 cedi at the end of a day.
In Accra, it seems that unemployment is ubiquitous. Even with post secondary education, for many it is impossible to find a job and as a result will turn to options such as selling produce on the street, driving taxis or driving tro tros.
This problem is multifaceted however, and can only be dealt with by taking an integrated approach addressed by all sectors. With this in mind, I hope that the multifunctional platform program that I am working on can be one piece of the puzzle. Although the MFP is meant to address rural energy poverty issues, it is also indirectly a program in minimizing rural-urban migration. By providing income generating options through energy services, minimizing the labor burden for women and allowing more children to attend school, there is hope that the MFP will create an incentive for people to remain in their rural communities and live a life that they value.
This morning as I was rushing to get to work I ran into Ishmael again. Smiling as always and eager to get me into his vehicle, he was laughing while commenting on my new confidence with the tro tro system and my ability to ask for the stop in Twi. This time I got to ride in the front, relieved that I had the luxury of a cushioned seat. As I waited in the car I watched through the cracked window the city wake up, people flooding the streets and starting their day, many making their way to the tro tro station. When we finally took off, I turned to look behind me to see the rusted car filled with adults going to work and children going to school. This gave me hope and I couldn’t help but wonder whether things maybe are getting better for people in Accra – perhaps soon Ishmael too will also be riding the tro tro on his way to school.