Ghana Life: Driving in the Dark


In the early 1980s, a British High Commissioner to Ghana was travelling by night back to Accra from the Volta Region, when his car ran into an unmarked pile of gravel being used for road repair. The High Commissioner received severe leg injuries and his wife’s injuries were fatal. A few years earlier a similar fate had befallen a British engineer employed at a brewery in Kumasi who ran into the back of a timber truck parked on an unlit road. Driving in Ghana by day was hazardous, driving by night was dangerous enough to deter many private drivers from venturing beyond the limited confines of the city lights.

A driver who is familiar with road conditions in Europe or North America may have difficulty imagining conditions at night on African roads, because many of the aids he takes for granted are absent. In the 1970s and 1980s in Ghana, most roads had no markings to delineate the edges and only a few trunk roads had a broken white line to mark their centre. All rural roads and many urban roads had no overhead lighting, road signs were few and far between, often obscured by foliage and easily missed. Potholes lurked in the shadows and pedestrians and cyclists without any lights or reflective clothing were almost invisible in the glare of on-coming headlights. Cars with only one headlight were common and sometimes mistaken for a motorcycle with disastrous results.

Potholes may hide at night but they do not go away. The most dangerous were those that break up the edge of the road into a great jagged saw-tooth. Instead of a sweeping white line shining in the headlight beam to clearly define the edge of the carriageway ahead, there was a black void in which lurked V-shaped craters waiting to throw the unwary driver off the road. In instinctively edging farther away from these terrors of the verge, the driver was drawn ever closer to the dazzling stream of advancing headlights which at any moment might snake into his path in a desperate circumnavigation of its own potholes.

While in the 1980s many vehicles navigated at night with few and failing lights, other motorists seemed to be intent on demonstrating the power of their headlamps. Not only headlamps were dazzling. Taxis and trotros often created a similar impact with additional high-power brake lights. These appeared to be intended to produce a visual simulation of a horn blast, and might be considered redundant in competition with the constant cacophony of the audible kind. Life on the road at night may often be short of light but never short of sound.

In Ghana the popular style of music was the ‘highlife.’ By night, as well as by day, the taxis trailed streams of highlife music, spilling through open windows from their tape-decks and setting children dancing in waves along the city streets. At night the contributions of the taxis blended into an all-pervading highlife scene of which their yellow wings and lighted roof signs became a potent symbol. For the driver who planned to travel far, it was better to yield to the temptation to tarry with the taxis in the bright lights of the city and postpone departure until the first light of dawn. Driving through the night could easily lead to the permanent attainment of a high life of a different kind.

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