Vehicle Registration, Ghana Style

One of the adventures we got into while my sister Beth was here was buying a car. It all began, around 10am one morning when YeahYeah, stopped by, actually by following my daughters home (and scaring them…why is this strange Lebanese man following us?!), to set up a meeting at 11am to buy the Hundai, but the deal has to be in dollars.

Now, my bank doesn’t deal in dollars, at least not in the amount this car was costing, they only deal in cedis. So we withdrew a bag full of cedis, and then it was off to the Foreign Exchange Bureau, to change them back into dollars. There is something about this thing that feels criminal. Maybe it’s Fox’s black athletic bag filled with cedis, or how conspicuous we felt with this athletic bag, walking down Oxford street and in to the ForEx Bureau; or maybe it was the product of an over-active imagination.

Buying a car takes a large athletic bad filled with cedis; but as we leave the FoxEx Bureau the money (in dollars), all fits in my pocket. I meet YeahYeah’s friend, Estaban, who is a chain smoker, and owner of the car we’re going to buy, and together we go to his house. As I hop in the car, I’m praying this goes well.

Then it was off to DMVL, Department of Motor Vehicle Licensing, where I had been once before to have the Patrol inspected, but this time we go to a different office, by passing reception, the hall monitor, and knocking twice behind door number 5, and entering.

Let me introduce The Cast:
BigMan– the DMV official with the big office, and multiple phones and controls the remote to the AirCon.
Esteban – the Lebanese man I am buying the car from
BigWoman – a low level official who serves BigMan
PictureGluer – guess what he does?

BigMan’s office is an average office, deeply air conditioned, which I really appreciated. Knock twice and entering, BigMan barely looks up. The room is filled with expectant people. He motions to us to take a seat and we wait as the room empties, then fills again with the same people, then empties. Soon we will be some of those moving, but for now we wait.

Then it was our turn. There wasn’t a queue that I could see, he just motioned Estaban over, but he didn’t have the right paperwork. So he called in BigWoman, a typical Ghanaian woman, the kind you could say “I admire your stature,” about, meaning she filled out her dress well, really too well for American standards, but here still the image of perfection. She takes our information and comes back with the created missing form. Esteban dashed her ¢100,000. This was the first of many that day and it seemed that in each step of the process if things slowed down, someone needed a dash to get things going again.

[Inspection Stickers]
BigWoman takes us out to the car, to pay for the inspection, and before leaving BigMan’s office, I see Estaban dash him a wad of bills, roughly ¢300,000 I learn later. Outside BigWoman oversees the headlight alignment “inspection” and another dash slips by, and the car passes. Now we’re back inside in BigMan’s office, waiting for a signature, and then its off to go see PictureGluer.

[Example of PictureGluer’s Work]
The job description of PictureGluer is, by all I can see, to cut passport size pictures to the right size and glue them to various documents. The room has three other desks, and many bookcases, all stacked horizontally 20 to 30 high with aging bound notebooks. I glace at one sitting on an empty desk dating from September 1999. PictureGluer’s desk is covered with papers that look just like mine, and each time he lays my form aside, I fear it getting lost. In fact I do loose sight of it for a few minutes, but then it mystically appears, and that’s when he glues both my picture and Estaban’s, right next to where it said Name and Address for the former and new owners. We slip PictureGluer ¢40,000. Then its back to BigMan, and we wait around, wait while he listens to the football commentary, from yesterday’s Ghana-Togo game. The process has stalled. We wait.

Estaban asks my line of work. He is in the jewelry business, and we talk about a particular well known Lebanese jewelry maker. Yes he knows him. When he learns I’m a pastor, things get interesting. He tells me this amazing near-death story from when he was shot in Lebanon. He speaks in whispers thought there is no one else in the office. Estaban notices that things have stalled and motions for me to dash BigMan something. We’ve talked about it outside, and I have the wad ‘o bills ready to get things going again. We thought we were waiting for something, a form, or signature, but the something turns out to be a dash. So I thank BigMan for helping us, and slip him ¢300,000. He accepts it with his left hand, a big no, no in Ghana.

The Left Hand
Culturally, the left had is the one they use, well instead of toilet paper, and the one you’re not supposed to use for anything relationally. Its use is an insult. We’ve been in Ghana long enough to learn not to wave with it, accepting something in it, or really use it at all. So here I am handing him this bribe with my right hand, and he accepts, with his left. I sit down, feeling offended. Sarah, our Fulbright daughter says that maybe he knew what he was doing was dirty, and so the left hand was the correct hand to receive it. All I know is that by the time I’m back in my seat, the process is moving again.

Now its time to go back to see PictureGluer again, and Estaban leaves me to handle this all on my own while he goes out for a smoke. We’ve shifted from Vehicle Transfer to Ghana driver’s license, and this visit to PictureGluer is to attach my picture to the driver’s license application. Seeing me he says, “I’m feeling very tired today, it is late.” I wish I had dashed him more earlier. “Why don’t you come back Monday…” he says. I say “Ah” I say, the sort of surprised way Ghanaians say it when they are joking around. “Won’t you just look at my forms?” I say as I hand him two pictures and the form they need glued to. I wonder if maybe I could do it, I mean after all, how hard is it to trim pictures and glue them to a form. Under the form is another ¢40,000. Suddenly he acts more alert, as he is trimming the picture and gluing it to the form. This time, I have to sign in three places where the carbon paper would normally be, but isn’t. Maybe carbon paper is in his desk somewhere, or covered up by all the 20s he’s received.

PictureGluer takes me to the next office personally, and there I wait, and wait, and wait. We’ve been there since 11am, and its well past three, and I decide I can do this later. We go see BigMan once more, and he signs a bunch of forms, and oddly no money changes hands. I offer to drive Estaban back to his house, in my car, and he accepts. I still have not paid him. I’ve tried maybe three or four times, but he says no, I trust you. Fine, I think, but I’m not sure I trust myself to not lose it, and would just as soon have it in his hands.

I’m thinking we’ll just go in his house, I’ll hand him the money and the deal will be done and I can go help Grace get to the airport for her 10 day snowboarding trip, but no, he gathers bottles together and sends out for cokes. Twenty minutes later cokes and peanuts arrive and we’ve had a nice chat, but I’m ready to leave.

“Can I give you this now?” motioning to the envelope of bills I’ve been trying to give him all day.
“Ok, yes,” he says. He counts it and I’m relieved its all there. By now Grace is already on the way to the airport, and I won’t get to say good-bye, but when she comes back, I know we’ll pick her up in our new car.

I’ve spoken to a few people about what happened that day and mostly the reaction is that the dashing shortened a two week process into several hours. Getting a Ghana driver’s license used to take months, but I hear the process has also been shortened, especially if you let BigMan call you his wife (which I figure wouldn’t work for me).

Anyway, now we’re official. I have a temporary Ghanaian Driver’s License, and the car is in our name. Inside it, you’ll find the official stickers to prove its registered and insured, a small fire extinguisher, and emergency triangle (both potential police income generators if you’re stopped without them). Now all we’re waiting for is a new motor.

For days after the whole ordeal I still feel dirty, like I’d cheated the system, and hurt Ghana. Corruption is a huge problem in Ghana, and we hear from friends that its price is regularly built into the cost of doing business here, which is not unusual in developing countries, only in Ghana it ads some 60-80% to the cost. In the East, by comparison, they say it only adds 20-30%. It’s the first time in my life I’ve out and out bribed someone, and I don’t like how it makes me feel. All the while I thought of Suzanne, how she signed a document saying she would not pay bribes unless her life was in danger, but I didn’t sign such a document. I’m a pastor, and we’re supposed to know better. So I guess I’ve learned something about myself, and put in the same situation, I’m already excited to see just what it was.

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One thought on “Vehicle Registration, Ghana Style

  1. Hi, Steve, Suzanne and family,Instead of “bribe,” think of it as a “tip,” like we give to a waiter or waitress.I am really enjoying reading your Blog…learning a little about Ghana’s culture (?) and how you all are. Has Grace been sick a lot? Suz. said something about her latest illness. I had food poisoning from a Salmon salad. It was HORRIBLE.I know what Suz. means about the “old Steve.” David is not working for the Railroad for a while, even though he cannot retire for 3 1/2 years–the summer after Rachel grad. from HS. It took him a while to settle into not working, even though he has tons of things to do here. Helping his Dad at his farm is one of the chores he has now. But he is more like the “old David.”Has Grace found a good friend? Rachel finally has found one, but her best friend is still Grace. I can understand, because no one can measure up to Grace. And they have had several years of experiences. I don’t think Rachel knows yet that y’all will be in Ghana another year. She hasn’t told me about it.Keep writing and tell everyone “hi.”Kathy Phillips and family

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