Friday, June 15, 2007

Citizen's arrest

Traffic jams are dispiriting enough back home, especially in bigger cities. In Ghana, there are added problems, like suffocating heat and diesel exhaust; there are also few traffic lights, and the ones that do exist are often not working because of power outages.

Ghanaians have come up with a novel solution to the problem, though: self-appointed citizen traffic cops!

I was traveling in a tro-tro late one afternoon when it got caught in a traffic jam caused by two streams of cars trying to merge onto one road. There was no right-of-way and no lights to manage the flow.

A guy on crutches and in tattered clothes had taken it upon himself to direct the traffic. He stood there at the intersection of the two roads and held up his crutch as a signal for one lane of cars to stop so the cars in the other lane could merge onto the main road. After a few minutes he would halt the other lane of traffic, and continue to alternate in this fashion.

He wasn’t doing this out of the goodness of his heart, of course. He was a poor man without a job trying to make a buck however he could. Many of the people in the cars, appreciative of his efforts, would hand him money as they passed onto the main road. (Many jobless people Ghana make money in creative ways like this. You will often see young men filling potholes on the highways. Many of them will halt traffic and ask for payment)

Not all people play by these makeshift rules of the road, though. On this day, our tro-tro driver grew impatient waiting for our turn to merge onto the main road. He left our lane and drove down the middle of the road; at the intersection he raced ahead of the oncoming cars and onto the main road. Our self-appointed traffic cop was furious! He waved a crutch in the air, and actually banged the side of the tro-tro with it as it passed by.

But he didn’t stop there. At a major intersection a half a mile up the road, an army officer was directing traffic because the lights had gone out in a power outage. The man began hobbling up the road on his crutches to tell the officer that the tro-tro driver had defied his attempts to maintain order at the intersection we had just passed through.

Of course, we found ourselves in another traffic jam right away, so the man on crutches was making his away to the next intersection faster than we were! We were all paying closing attention to the “foot race” between the tro-tro and the man. Who would reach the army officer first?

Man beat machine.

When the tro-tro arrived the man was raving at the army officer and waving a crutch in the direction of the tro-tro. After a minute or two of listening to the man’s complaints the officer approached our tro-tro driver. I was expecting the driver to pay a bribe to get himself out of the situation, but the officer merely said a few words to him and ambled back into the middle of the road to resume directing traffic. We passed through the intersection and went on our way.

I was a little disappointed with the outcome; a citizen’s arrest was in order, I thought. The government does not have – or will not spend – the money to install more lights or hire more traffic cops. This man was more than happy to fill the void in government services, much like the guys who fill potholes for cash on the country’s highways.

- Mark


Anonymous said...

Glad ro have you back Mark! Thought you forgot about your faithful readers.



Jack said...

This story is reminiscent of many others when the ordinary guy goes to a government official asking for some help to correct a wrong.
I'd guess that because the fellow had crutches and was not all that important in the eyes of the "official" he was given less respect than he deserves.

Sounds a bit like home at times doesn't it?


Anonymous said...

Great to have you back Mark. I remember experiencing suffocating diesel fumes in the heat and traffic of New York City. I was fortunate (maybe not) to be in a NYC taxi though...I also remember being mesmerized by all the traffic lights when I was walking across the streets.
Glad your back blogging...
Love, Jen

Janet & Mark in Ghana said...

I was suffering from writer's block, or rather "blogger's" block. Glad to know I was missed!

Anonymous said...

Janet and Mark,
Glad to have you back too.
It is hard to beleive the man on crutches didn't get more respect.Especially as he was doing this as a job. Unfortunatelythe officer didn't recognize this.
Love, Mummy and Daddy