Late one night, a work colleague dropped me off at the Accra Mall, from where I’d have to negotiate the last leg of my commute back home. I’d done it many times. Since the journey is too short to get any meaningful sleep I do everything possible not to, or risk missing my stop at Bridge. On this occasion, however, I had more reason to stay awake: the green colonial-era machine in which I had entrusted my life had no headlights!
That would beg the question, why not get down and take another one? Truth be told, I’d decided long ago that getting a straight trotro from Circle made more sense. If my lift isn’t all the way to East Legon, it’s not worth it. Anyone who’s had to stand at the Shiashie station can attest to how difficult it can be to get a trotro bound for America House after 8pm. So I waited. And waited. And waited.
Of all things, there was laughter in there. On hindsight, how we were all joking with our lives on the line is beyond me. I couldn’t see two feet in front of us. The driver was stuttering the lamest excuses. To ensure we didn’t run into the police when not a single headlight was working, we veered off the main road onto carefully selected alternative routes, thumping into every single pothole in the rough back roads. My guess was that it was because we couldn’t see them. Thank God for the lights from the cars in front of us and the buildings lining the paths and roads, which provided some relief. But for them, we’d have been driving blind and on the driver’s questionable instinct.
Funny as it was, this was merely a scaled-down version Accra driving. Half the time, streetlights don’t work. In the daytime, there they are in all their majesty, giving the impression of a contemporary city, yet when the sun goes down, they are imposing lifeless statues, a monument to modernity.
For me, it actually looks strange when they work. We once had a visitor from America spend a few days in our house. He commented on how surprised he was that we were even able to drive at night. Woe betides you if you have to contend with a driver from the opposite end driving towards you unconcerned with both high beams at full intensity.
Still, as the case would be, a good few trotros have very dim lights, as if the absence of light from above isn’t bad enough. One evening, my careless driver was switching lanes at the slightest opportunity. On the zebra crossing opposite the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, we almost knocked down a young man. He could only jump out of the way in time. I looked back to see him shaking his fist at us and mouthing words I’m glad I didn’t hear. The driver, for his part, all but swore on his grandmother’s grave that he never saw the chap.
Driving so fast when the streetlights dead was reckless, but I had see the driver’s point as well. This fellow had no business crossing such a dark major road all dressed in black. He blended beautifully with the night, but then, anyone who travels through Shiashie at night should be used to the village dwellers crisscrossing the road bare-chested and in dark clothes. Every day, the nonexistence of streetlights could give us reason to start preparing for a funeral. And a long jail term. But then, in a city where zebra crossings are treated like no more than designs on the road, what do you expect?
Then there are the cars that drive with only one headlight working. I’ve noticed many a taxi or trotro can go one-eyed for days. As do many private cars. I remember soon after I got my driver’s license, I drove out without a care in the world that one light had burnt out. So there I was, gunning down the road with all the foolishness of youth. In slow-moving traffic, I heard an approaching driver say to his wife in Twi, “Ei, it’s a car oo.” I laughed. On many occasions I too have thought a motorcycle was approaching, only to see that it was one of these single-light cars.
Our roads are dark, and though we’ve learnt to make do with the scant few we have that work, more are always welcome. Yet, why is it that as soon as new ones are installed some guy has to put the issue of streetlights back into the news by knocking one down? A few years ago, some solar-powered streetlights were installed at Legon. Less than a week later, one was sent crashing down to earth.
We still yearn for illumination.