Over the past few months Suzanne and I have made many trips to the airport to either meet people, or drop them off to catch a flight, and every experience has been different than the one we had, that is until Wednesday night. While we were waiting, Suzanne and I were discussing how bad the experience had been for us when we arrived at the airport.
You have to see this place, Kotoka International Airport. Its named after a beloved general who died in a failed counter-coup attempt in 1967, shortly before we were here the first time. I remember then the country being in a state of mourning, and wonder now what affect it has on a country to have famous places named after beloved heroes who were killed. Places like Danquah Circle, named after Dr. J.B. Danquah, one of the Big Six, Ghana’s freedom fighters. Dr. Danquah ran against Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the founding father of Ghana, in the county’s first election in 1960. Danquah lost, but not unlike our own election in 1960, it was a contested race. In the end Nkrumah was sworn in as Ghana’s first president, but power, or ambition took its toll, and by 1963s he had Dr. Danquah (along with most of the other big six) imprisoned. Dr. Danquah died of a heart attack in prison, and today his name is given to one of Accra’s main traffic circles. Danquah Circle. I wonder what affect this name has on people who know the history. Is it a reminder to them, a word of caution, a testament to the high price of freedom? Nkrumah has his own circle, and for that mater a motorway, but both are a traffic nightmares. I wonder if this is some standing testimony to Nkrumah, that landmarks associated with his name are troublesome, and corrupt.
But Kotoka International Airport is a well run place, and good introduction to Ghana, at least on the inside. It is a two story building, an up and down, the up is for departing flights; the down for arriving. Since no one is allowed in the airport without a ticket and passport, family and friends wait outside to welcome, behind the waist high temporary fence. Only now do we understand there are actually two groups, or rings of people waiting. One group is waiting for a specific person, they watch each face that exits, or hold up signs with names on them. Outside that group, is a second ring of people, and these are the “helpers.” The helpers want to “help” you with your luggage, in fact they insist on helping with your bags, and even if they are all nicely stacked on the free push carts, they will lay a hand on each bag, just to “help.”
Now Andrew is very clear with the collection of helpers, he even speaks Twi, and tells them he has just arrived, and has no cedis and will not pay them, and if they still choose to stay with him, he will not dash them. They do choose, and so the four Jernigans, the two Bucheles and about six helpers head toward the parking lot with two push carts of luggage.
Suzanne is having trouble fending them one particularly aggressive helper. We feel like bags will soon start walk off, an experience we remember well when we arrived with our 13 bags. Even the Embassy folks who met us, our three kids, and Suzanne and I could not keep back the helpers. “Steve,” she says, and I see what is happening, so I stop and plant myself like a screen, while she wheels past, and the men peal off the cart, only to be replaced by a new set. It is not fun, and the longer it goes on the less fun it gets.
I go to get the Patrol from short term parking, my last time driving it, and when meet them, we start loading luggage, along with the helpers. I keep watch while Andrew helps the helpers, and finally he just lets them do what they are going to do, about the time everything is loaded up, a TroTro arrives, and a bunch of people start getting out, heading for us. We had been there maybe all of five minutes.
One of them is carrying a spiky thing, like a large metal club and I still don’t get it. “Steve, I need the keys, NOW!” Andrew says. On the other side of the Patrol (where I can’t see), a team from the TroTro is assembles to “boot” the rear wheel. Andrew starts the Patrol up, pulls away fast. It is then I see this group for the first time.
It is Ghana police, maybe, or Airport Security, maybe. It wasn’t a TroTro, or maybe it was. All I know for sure is the “boot” was just a three inch steel pipe about 18” long with 2” pieces of rebar welded at right angles to it to create spikes. Attaching this “boot” to the wheel prevents movement without puncturing it, and to remove it, someone would have to dash the police, and I’m guessing that would be me, as I’m the guy with cedis.
That’s the bad thing about a cash economy where the largest denomination is worth about two dollars. You can’t carry $20 without it poking out of your pocket. A few weeks ago I paid the insurance on The Patrol for the year as a gift to the Jernigans, that and it would have expired before they returned. The insurance agency doesn’t accept checks, or take plastic, so my options were cash or cash. So when I walk in with this large bag of bills, nobody on the street is thinking I’m carrying around cartons of milk. They know it is cash, 800 bills. So much so the bank doesn’t even bother to break the shrink wrap on the brick of bills.
So these four police, or security, or entrepreneurs are standing on the otherside of where the Patrol was, holding the boot, and wondering what to do now. All eyes shift to us, the two obrunies. “How about our dash?” the luggage helpers ask. “How about my dash?” the parking lot attendant says. The boot guys, start walking toward us, and I give out a quick few dashes, and then we see a taxi trolling. He is in a no stopping zone, but it is a bump, so he slows down and we hop in. He ends up charging us twice what he should charge at night and four times what it would cost during the day, but hey we’re talking all of $4, and we’re getting away from a potentially dangerous, and dash-ous situation, and besides, I’ve paid more for a cup of coffee at Disneyland. So I’m just glad to be out of there.
Saying good-bye to the Patrol was easier than I thought it would be. Our kids went back to taking Taxis to school, and I’m riding my bike around town, and like always, Suzanne walks to work. The only difference is that now we have to think ahead, leave earlier, or call a taxi instead of just hopping in the Patrol and driving there. The Patrol changed our relationship with Accra. I feel like I know its streets better, know the shortcuts, the traffic patterns, and where things are in relationship to everything else. It opened it up to us, and for that am grateful. It takes a lot of trust to just hand over a car to someone you just met. Andrew and I had exchanged a few emails, and then when we arrived, we learned that they were moving to Liverpool for three months…would we like to borrow our car? WOW! I get the feeling that Ghana this happens a lot. People who serve here are just like that, and I hope that we become that way too.