It was about a quarter to seven on a cool Tuesday morning in this Mercedes Benz Sprinter. I’ll never forget one passenger. He wore a well-worn Barcelona jersey of questionable genuineness. He was at the back, and being of average height he was hidden in the corner when he put his head down in deep sleep. He handed over his money – thirty pesewas – and promptly returned to his nap. “Shangri-La,” he mumbled, in a hurry to continue the dream he had on pause. Past desperate commuters at Shiashie we drove, through the Tetteh Quarshie interchange morning jam, away from the police waiting for some unlucky victim at Spanner Junction, while inching closer to Shangri-La. The gentleman never stirred, despite the mate’s shrill cries. “Shangri-La! Shangri-La! Airport first! Second! Away to Opeibea!”
I couldn’t resist turning to see if I’d missed Lionel Messi in the back getting out. He was still there. At the same time, the mate realized this. He wasn’t a day older than sixteen by my estimation, but the pursuit of money knows no age. He got to his feet and craned his neck above the heads blocking his view, squealing in Twi as we zipped past the bus-stop, “Massa, I thought you said Shangri-La”. The bad actor rubbed his eyes, looking around him in mock bewilderment. “Let’s go to 37,” he muttered as he quickly lowered his head again.
The mate didn’t feel like playing along. He demanded a top-up of fifteen pesewas. It was obvious the chap had no intention of paying. With the boldness of a lion, the young mate arose from his seat like a small town sheriff. “Massa, stop the car!” With a dangerous swerve to the right we squeezed into the bus-stop opposite the Airport Police Station, provoking a chorus of honking from behind. The mate marched this fellow out like a common criminal, and climbed back in with his chest out, like a champion at the Coliseum being showered with petals from adoring spectators. Sanity was restored. Away to Opeibea.
There’s always someone willing to beat the system. It’s not about not having any money, like Pastor Philip who I had to pay for. Perhaps there’s some satisfaction in pulling a fast one on a mate. A guy I knew used to make good savings everyday by paying for a stop far away from his eventual destination.
A friend told me that when she was in primary school, she had a special trick that worked to perfection. She would make a show of counting her coins, and in one shameless motion, drop the handful. She’d then carefully gather them from the floor. With a well-rehearsed look of frustration, she’d tell the mate that since the coins had splattered somewhere in his car, he should be gracious enough to pick them later. Needless to say, it would take nothing short of a miracle on the scale of Jesus pulling a coin from a fish’s mouth for anything to be found. How she was never caught is beyond me.
However, these tricks aren’t limited to children. One morning, a man joined our trotro at Emmanuel Eye Centre. I shared the front seat with him. “Yes, front,” the mate called out. The man was short by ten pesewas. “It’s not enough,” the mate retorted, anger in his tone. “That’s all I have,” this guy quickly shot back.
I imagined the mate’s eyes flare in rage and a gust of steam puff from his ears and nostrils. “If you don’t have money, get out!” It must’ve been a bad day at the office so early in the day. This man definitely wasn’t pleased with this reply. He had fought off a clawing gang of public school children to get in. No way was he giving up his seat for foolish pride, but he wouldn’t be beaten into submission by a mere mate. Whipping out a wad of cash from his pocket, he looked for a way out. My curiosity forced me to glance down. He neglected the GH¢1 and GH¢5 notes, and reached for a crisp GH¢20 note. I shook my head in amusement. Who would back down first?
The mate collected the money in triumph. He wasn’t anybody’s fool, especially not some cheapskate conman trying to trick him. Ashamed that his trick fell flat, my front seat partner instantly demanded his change. The mate had none. “You quickly took the money, but you want to steal my balance. You think …!” This guy gave us no peace. The mate eventually had to collect smaller denominations from the driver and finally gave him a whole bundle of change.
Big Note Charlies, sleepers and coin droppers. Just a few of the cunning tricksters who’d do anything to save a buck.