A gust of wind lashed my bare face early one morning as I made the short walk from the Accra Psychiatric Hospital bus stop to my office. Angry thunderclouds were quickly assembling high above my head. As usual, I had no umbrella. Don’t rain, I pleaded. Both shoulders were hunched closer to my body to minimize the bite of the cold air. My pace quickened. I crossed two beggars who didn’t seem to be in a hurry to find shelter from the looming downpour. Money has no time off, I reasoned. Then, one look behind me, and I could see brisk business going on. With the traffic lights not working, the area boys were once again lords of the roads. They were daring the storm to do its worst. With their nim tree branches raised over their heads they had the whole traffic situation under control.
Everyone from beat up taxis to luxury sedans obeys them. And they run the show with surgical precision. Of course, they welcome coins and notes of whatever variety for their services, and come rain or shine they’re there organizing things.
Commuters who use the New Times Corporation traffic lights must be a lot more familiar than I of the mainstay of that area. A while ago, those traffic lights had a mind of their own. More often than not, they never lit up all day. Here, a traffic controller ruled the roost. With his reflector jacket and what to me looked like old football socks over his hands he waved the cars by. It would seem like his changing costumes were an integral part of his whole act, together with his slow shuffling steps and meek apologetic look.
Once, I went to Korle-Bu in the middle of the day and was making my way back to the office. It was total anarchy at the intersection. Horns were blaring and people’s mothers were being insulted by irate trotro drivers. It was classic road rage.
From the middle of the snaking traffic he came with a jog, waving his hands at the offending taxi driver whose head was stuck out of his window, raining unprintable language on the driver of the ancient Peugeot that was carrying me. For a moment, I thought the barrel-chested taxi driver was about to dish out an old-fashioned beating to someone. He shut up, sulking and muttering to himself like a scolded child and quickly lined up behind us. What authority, I thought. Within seconds, he had the peace restored and returned to the real reason he was there. In rhythmic motion he touched his lips twice and dropped them, over and again. He looked humbly into windows as he sought his daily bread. In the mean time, the traffic situation quickly unraveled into confusion.
As our cramped Peugeot made its way over the rail tracks I figured out why he stationed himself at a traffic hotspot and while doing a great job, leave post, only to come and restore the peace again.
Then, disaster struck. The lights started working! Everyday. What would happen to our Traffic Coordinator? Show up for work, of course! Man must eat, after all. Lights or no lights, you’ll find him there day after day.
However, the worst culprit is the fellow at the Korle-Bu traffic lights between Zongo Junction and the mortuary.
When I lived in Lartebiokorshie, you couldn’t miss this guy. He would sweep the street at Barnor Junction and leave a heap of sand with a shovel in clear view. By mid-morning, his setup was complete, and the rest of the day would be dedicated to making a living. With time, business grew stale. Like every clever entrepreneur, he moved to greener pastures. Down the road he went, headed towards his present location, where he remains to this day. Despite the functioning lights he charges up and down the little hill towards Bishop Bowers Primary School asking for handouts, and spewing insults to the stone-hearted who refuse to part with loose change.
With these trouble spots scattered all over Accra, these guys take full advantage. One conspiracy theory has it that they are the very ones who sabotage the connections. In my mind’s eye, I can see a youth in a black hood, under the cover of pitch darkness, tiptoeing to an electrical box. One cut of a wire and the traffic lights go to sleep. At the break of day, he’s there to direct traffic and make some easy earnings. All in a day’s work.
I have no problem with drivers giving these impromptu traffic wardens donations at places like the tunnel linking East Legon to the Spintex Road. But where the lights are working, brothers, I think you need to find a new excuse to stick around.