The beauty of teamwork is seen daily on any given commute. Driver asks mate to stick out his hand, mate shouts to the driver to make a risky dash for the fast-fading opportunity to cross an unsuspecting driver, mission accomplished. Cue some honking, and depending on the time of day and the part of Accra, insults of varying vulgarity.
How’s that for teamwork?
Nobody sets out to become just a mate. It’s never really the ultimate, just a painful stepping-stone to being a driver, and possibly an owner of a fleet of buses indiscriminately crisscrossing each other on the high streets. But being a mate is part of the training, and some, unfortunately, have suffered at the hands of the very men meant to guide them to becoming fully-qualified station drivers. It’s a rough ride, this matehood phase.
One cool morning, emerging from the worst of the infamous Tetteh Quarshie Interchange traffic, we kicked into a higher gear, making the ascent towards Shangri-La. A shrill voice split the air, “Mate, bus-stop!” There was no way he could’ve missed it. He did. There was uproar from the back as we zoomed past, with nowhere to stop till the Airport Police Station. By now, the mate was slowly brushing his sleepy face and looking around. The poor boy was obviously lost.
Utterly disgusted, with his chewing stick lying limp on his lower lip, the driver turned to look at his incompetent helper. I imagined smoke puffing out of his ears. The abuse which followed was expected, but not the intensity. It took some passengers to make the old man relax. He twitched his cap in frustration every few seconds when we parked for the lady to get down.
Once on our way, the driver insisted on broadcasting how this new mate of his was a lazy good-for-nothing. He would conveniently forget to sweep the car and often forgot to give commuters change. The mate’s face reminded me of stretched chewing gum.
By now, the enraged driver was weaving through traffic like a man possessed. Upon passing Opeibea House we tried to get back into the outer lane. Without looking the driver enquired of his mate whether it was safe. No response. He asked again. Nothing. I glanced over from the left. The mate’s head was bobbing like a lizard’s. This time, it was the passengers who descended on him with righteous wrath. How he intended to be successful in this business while going on like he carried his pet tsetse-fly to work every morning was beyond me.
It was the regular sleeping on the job that killed the driver, especially as the all-important rear-view mirror on the right was just a plastic decoration with no glass in it. He disdainfully blurted out in Twi, “That’s why you stopped school and came to be a mate. Do you have a future?”
I was saddened. It reminded me of a student from my National Service at Ntruboman Senior Secondary School. Kofi Alhassan was a truant. He was in school only a few weeks each term, and he did himself no favours by noticeably sitting in front. Most of the time when he was around, his expression was one of bewilderment. Either I was a bad teacher or Kofi was just reaping the rewards of his long-distance learning. I prefer to think it was the latter. A few months after I had finished my stint of service to Mother Ghana, I was driving my next-door neighbour around, when I heard someone shout, “Sir!” There was Kofi waving frantically from the mate’s window. My jaw dropped. Yes, school was in session.
Over the weekends, some drivers and mates change roles. A mate, after all, needs practice. Off we went, a quick prayer said, and heart in mouth till I escaped at Bridge. The original driver who was the mate on this trip, thick and burly as he was, seemed more frightened than me when the protégé ran a red light and cut in front of a car, all in one fluid death-defying motion.
But really, can you blame this Mate-Turned-Michael-Schumacher? Only a few years ago, I once heard a driver apologetically say to his mate as we broke every traffic rule in the book – and then some – that he had done a few things that he shouldn’t have, so the mate shouldn’t pick those bad habits up. The passengers could do no more than laugh in shock disbelief.
This driver, though, was furious. “Buulu! I’ll come and take my car if you’re going to go on like that,” I seemed to understand from the scant Ga I’ve picked up in my two decades living in Accra. That was just the beginning of a ridicule-filled ride home.
How’s that for teamwork?