First, the dreaded news: fuel prices have gone up. That thought made each step towards Bridge a little more difficult than the last. Of course, the newspapers reported that fares would increase by the not-so-round figure of 18%. Past experiences told me that this was mere theory. It turned out to be exactly the case. In the trotro, a woman shouted from the back in thick Twi, “Mate, how much is it to Accra?” Being most commuters’ first trip since the bombshell was dropped, everyone seemed to hang on to the mate’s reply, hearts in their mouths. Conversation hushed. A dozen pairs of ears appeared to gravitate towards the mate’s general direction. It was like waiting for a declaration of independence.
With much less grace than any such pronouncement would require, the mate, shifting his chewing stick from one cheek to the other, turned flatly towards his waiting audience. Preceded by a fragment of chewed wood, he spewed out loudly and emotionlessly, “Seventy pesewas!” Without waiting for the gasps and popping eyeballs, he continued, “Yeesss, front!”
A young man in a shirt and tie in the middle row was irate. He flared up, poking his hands in all directions. He had no time for the small man. No, he was going all the way to the top. With poison in his tone he charged, “Driver, you say it’s how much?” The driver echoed in solidarity to his assistant’s proclamation. The man had had enough. “You can’t tell me that!” He went on to inform the driver that the government had already said how much the fares should go up by. I was scared this would escalate into a gutter fight coated in academic economics. Somehow, I felt the next response from the driver would be for him to buy his own car.
How wrong I was. After taking a lot of abuse from the economic analyst, who by now had calculated that the fares had gone up by nearly 30%, the driver cut the lecture short by asking the man to go and buy his own trotro and reduce his fares for passengers. The pained expression said it all. He eventually went on ranting, but that parting shot had dented whatever authority he possessed.
These scenes are not new. With almost every increase in petroleum prices, transport fares go up as well. The first few days are always the richest for transport operators, because by and large, though the full fare has been announced, the prices for shorter routes were left to the mate’s discretion. In one instance, I could see the mate actually dreaming up his own fare for a lady who got in at Emmanuel Eye Clinic going to Flagstaff House. After presenting his charges, she descended on him in rage and fury, calling all public transport operators cheats and armed robbers. It was comical. A pensioner began to lament loudly about how transport fares were higher now with crude oil at $94 than they were at $147. As he advanced his argument, silently demanding the attention of youth as wisdom spoke, I stifled a laugh, remembering being told rather unfairly by a friend that pensioners do nothing but read the Daily Graphic to point out typos.
I heard of a mate who virtually threw a passenger’s coins back at him, telling him he was five pesewas short. The passenger refused to pay, angrily claiming that he did not have any money left. As the insults got heavier, a Good Samaritan quickly bailed out the passenger before things got bloody.
However, it appears the reverse also happens for commuters who get in, then out, along the way. On one occasion after getting to the office, I calculated that I had paid less than before the fare increments. It was the same the next day. Perhaps, the mate got confused. I considered it sweet payback from the gang who had fleeced me for years.
In your own commute, what has happened after price hikes? Was it all calm? Did people sulk and complain to themselves? Or was a mate one careless statement away from being pounded to pulp? Maybe you could share.
Once at Ridge, I recalculated how much my transport budget would change. In a beat-up Nissan Urvan, I could see a man in the front seat being calmed down as he issued the mate a sound blasting. The only thing missing was smoke puffing out of his ears and nostrils. I wondered to myself how many such similar fights were taking place across the capital, but quickly strangled any pity that welled up within for the mates and drivers. After all, at the end of the day, they would be smiling all the way to the bank with their ill-gotten loot.