By Naduah Wheeler
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
Transportation is one of my favorite parts of traveling. Mundane forms of transportation for locals in other countries seem new and unusual to me and forms of American transportation I would expect most places aren’t always there, like metered taxis, recognizable subways, or a comprehensible (to me) bus system. Even after mototaxis, tuk tuks, trams, sleeper trains, pedicabs, and even elephants, nothing has compared to the bus ride from Accra to Bimbilla where the Humanist Service Corps calls home.
Our journey from Accra to the north was a massive transition geographically and mentally. It was the beginning of the real journey, the real work, the beginning of the next year of our lives. It began with a six hour wait at a bus station.
“Ghana time” is pretty common. Things don’t ever start on time. Things start when they start. Eventually, the bus arrived and the hour long process of loading it began. Just among the team we had a 30 inch TV, two large trash bins (which are really “water containment” bins to store water), about 20 suitcases and backpacks, a cat in a small laundry basket, a stuffed sea lion, and of course, us: the five silimingas (non-Ghanaians) plus our two local volunteers from Accra.
Once the tetris game of loading objects was complete we began sardining people into the bus. While the Ghanaian bus was not the worst bus I’ve been on in my travels, it was definitely on the smaller side. The worst bus was a “sleeper” bus in Laos that managed to get sideswiped at around 1am, but that’s a different story. The size of this bus did not stop our determined crew who set up buckets down the aisle for more passengers to sit on. Not only did these buckets add more seats, but they also helped add a fun, obstacle course feel to boarding the bus that required balancing and jumping over the various objects in the aisle.
After we were (more or less) comfortably in our seats, the real journey began: eight to twelve snuggly hours of bumpy roads leading to an uncertain ending. Bimbilla has a 4pm curfew and, because of the six hour bus delay we left around 5pm, making it unclear if we would make it to the barrier before the curfew lifted at 6am. If we arrived before the curfew lifted, we were looking forward to an even longer night sleeping on the bus outside the town because we wouldn’t be let past the barrier.
Once we left Accra, the excitement really began. In the States, long ride buses often come equipped with onboard bathrooms, which are usually pretty gross and difficult to use, but effective. Ghanaian buses don’t have the same luxury, which means instead the bus makes fairly frequent “potty stops” where you get off the bus and suddenly become very familiar with the 40 or so strangers on the bus with you. You all pee/poo in the same general area, right off the side of the road. You might think people want privacy, but apparently that’s not as much of a concern here since everyone gathers less than eight feet from the side of the road to do their business. Since most long distance travel in Ghana is on buses, these stops have lost their absurdity and become simply a boring necessity when traveling for the Ghanaians. Oddly, this was also one of the few situations in which our foreignness did not draw any extra attention. Perhaps because our fellow passengers had gotten over the novelty of the silimingas on the bus, they were tired, or because we had no other option but to pee in the bush, no one seemed to take extra notice of us while we tried to pee as quickly and covertly as possible.
Unexpectedly, more startling than the potty stops, were the food stops. In Ghana it’s very common for food (and general product) sellers to be women who walk around with their products in a basket or bowl or box on their head. You purchase from her on the street or from whatever vehicle you are in and she continues walking on her way. When you’re in a city, these women are pretty common and simply a part of the city life. When on a bus, however, it is a wildly different experience. Since these buses are huge sources of income for the sellers, when the bus stops at least 10-15 women immediately scramble to grab their various wares,place them on their head, and rush at the bus. At the same time, the inside of the bus is just as excited. Immediately anyone looking to purchase stands up to get closer to the windows or tossing money to their travel companions in other places on the bus, knowing there is a limited amount of time to buy food and anything else they may need to hold them until the next snack break. I sat amidst the chaos, observing more than participating, listening to people shout to each other and down to the sellers about what they were selling and the cost in at least four different languages.
During another bus ride we took to Tamale one seller tried (and failed) to throw chicken at the window as the bus was driving away. She didn’t have time to calmly hand it up to the person who’d bought it, meaning the seller lost a piece of chicken and the buyer lost a cedi. The most absurd moment on the way to Bimbilla though, was likely when we witnessed the chaos of a snack stop while on a ferry crossing Lake Volta in pitch blackness. The darkness masked that we were moving for quite some time, meaning we were about halfway across the lake before we realized that not only was our entire bus on a ferry but all the sellers crowding and yelling at the sides of the bus were traveling with us across the lake.
Closer to Bimbilla, I was awoken by another stop, not for snacks or a bathroom break, but because we were trying to make a delivery. The guy who was supposed to pick up the delivery wasn’t at the bus stop (because it was then 2am and six hours behind schedule). The bus driver eventually left the bus to go find the receiver in the village. In his absence, our fellow passengers got antsy and anxious and began shouting. They got off the bus, waiting for the bus driver to return with the man who was supposed to be at the bus stop. When he did, the passengers surrounded him and shouted at him. While it never devolved into physical fighting, emotions were definitely high.
After everyone calmed down and got back on the bus, the rest of the journey remained fairly uneventful (at least to my knowledge) until we finally arrived in Bimbilla around 8am. The bus driver had intentionally slowed the journey to avoid a rather uncomfortable night of sleep outside the barrier. The HSC team and I were the last to get off the bus and were immediately surrounded as we got off. Like everywhere else we’ve been, our paler skin was a source of amusement and spectacle as we unloaded our numerous suitcases from the bus to begin the process of settling into our new home. Bimbilla is a town that doesn’t get too many foreigners. Its isolation means that some of the children here have never seen people with skin like ours, even in movies, making us something new and therefore fascinating. Our luggage in particular was of interest as an indication that we aren’t just visiting. We’re staying.