Friday, January 09, 2009

Lessons from a taxi ride

After my visit to Togo as part of, I crossed from Lome back in to Ghana at the border town of Aflao on January 7th. The officials were watching the swearing in of the new Ghana vice-president while they stamped my passport. I'm not sure they even looked at me :-).

I walked on into Aflao, and as a white man was immediately approached and offered a ride into Accra, about 3 hours away. For 50,000 CFE (Togolese currency, worth about $100), I could ride alone in luxury in a small (by US standards) Toyoto SUV. I declined and accepted the next offer to share a ride with 3 other passengers (and a driver) in Toyota Corolla. Price: 9 Ghana cedis (about $7.50) for a seat in back. Save a bunch of money, and get a real experience of the country, similar to Obama writing in "The Audacity of Hope" about the difference between flying across the country in a private jet versus driving.

During the ride we alternately drove 80MPH on the open road, then slowly (because of speed bumps and all our weight) through small roadside towns and villages, windows rolled down for some breeze in the 90F / 90% humidity weather. In the towns, we saw small crowds at shop fronts, gathered around TV sets (which we could hear but not see), watching more of the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration, including the acceptance speech by new president Atta-Mills. Dr Atta-Mills is in the NDC party, which won over the incumbent NPP party which had ruled for 8 years (having ousted the NDC party it had held office for 8 years).

There was palpable relief at this resolution of the election. Background: The first round of the election had occurred on December 7th. No candidate had taken a majority of the votes cast, and so a run-off election was held on December 28th. The election was very close, and one region withheld its results, drawing attention to itself, and keeping the election results unresolved until Saturday, Jan 3rd. I was in Sierra Leone at that time (as part of Village Hope), with a Jan 4 flight to Ghana scheduled. There was quite a sense of tension, and rumors that the border to Togo (which I needed to cross) was closed. The tension was confirmed by my connection, James MacCarthy (pictured, center, at Chez Afrique in Accra, with friend James Kiessi, wife Stella and son Jose Rafael), who said there was much concern about a possible civil war due to a strong regional / tribal identification between the two parties. James did not believe that the elections had been "free and fair", even though the incumbent stepped down from power (unlike, say, Zimbabwe). Even though James had supported the losing candidate, he was very pleased with the ultimate outcome. Very interesting. I don't often hear that combination in the US!

Back to the taxi ride... We had to stop at several police checkpoints while the driver hopped out and opened the trunk to show the police we were not carrying drugs or other contraband (not sure what). About halfway through the 3 hour ride, we arrived at a Customs checkpoint. This was different. As the car came to a stop, there was some conversation in the front seat that I didn't quite follow. A Customs officer approached the passenger side, and said something about looking at passports. It seemed he glanced at something from the woman in the seat in front of me, as I dug out my passport. He looked over my passport very carefully (brand new for this trip, so nothing much to look at), then waved us on. Only after we were back up on the highway did I learn that the woman in front had handed some money to the Customs officer (which he pocketed), despite the driver telling her to wait. She had been confused... Wasn't that they normal process, that you give the man some money? The savvy driver explained: although the Customs agents typically take a little money, it's actually illegal for them to do so, and the driver did not believe he would push for it in the presence of a white man. Since the agent said nothing to the other black passengers, the driver was probably right that the woman could have saved her money.

A bit later in this taxi ride, while passing through some rather scruffy villages along the road, I used my US-based international phone to send an email to a friend. The phone worked fine for both voice and data in Ghana, as Verizon had said it would (I must say that I am dreading the next bill). It did not work in Togo; although cell phones are ubiquitous there (at least in town, if not in villages), Verizon apparently does not have a partner there, though they did have a partner in Sierra Leone.

So, in this taxi ride I witnessed the peaceful transition of power along side some lingering signs of corruption. Used my mobile data connection for a casual note while passing local farmers walking along the side of the road with baskets of bananas and other wares balanced on their heads. What did I learn? Like many of life's more important lessons, I can't capture these lessons in simple terms. And maybe that's the main lesson. The nations I visited in West Africa are undergoing complex transformations. They are poor, but are also advancing rapidly. They have some human rights issues, but are also capable of progress in governance. They have some histories of recent violence, but other than the threats of pickpockets in towns and snakes in villages, I never felt in danger.

West Africa, keep up your good work. At this rate, you'll be part of the mainstream and on the bumpy path toward prosperity.

More thoughts on this trip are in this Appropedia blog post.

Many thanks to James MacCarthy and James Kiessi for their help while I was Ghana! Neither of you knew anything about me before last Saturday, but you adjusted your lives to chaperone me. Your help was invaluable!


Anonymous Chriswaterguy said...

"They are poor, but are also advancing rapidly." Glad to hear this - the real worry is when countries stagnate or go backwards.

Of course, probably the biggest factor in this is avoiding war and repressive authoritarian regimes. How we can support peace is a hard question - I'm tempted to speculate, but it would be better to read or listen to something by someone who knows more than me. Ideas?

6:55 AM  
Blogger david reber said...

thanks for the report. I throughly enjoyed it.

12:04 PM  

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