If you’re not Ghanaian, and want to drive in Ghana, you have to get your Ghanaian licence. A reliable supplier of Novocain (for the town traffic) and more traditional styles of nose candy (for the rural driving) is a good first tip.
Before attempting to get your licence, a good idea is that you (the new or non-resident driver) put a little bit of effort into understanding the road signs before you show up at the licencing office. If you don’t want to suffer the hassle of being passed around the beaurocracy, and recognise this sign…
…you should be a licenced driver in no time.
Like any other juristiction, road signs have clear and concise meanings? Sure they do. But the real question is – does anyone actually care? Interpretation of traffic signs is a bit more avant guard – a sugggestion of what everyone else might do so that you can use the information to work out innovative and sometimes dangerous ways to complete your journey. Driving here can be quite exciting! The exception is in traffic jams, where everyone simply gives up.
So as a community service to protect the good citizens of Ghana (who appear to ignore most of the signs but have the home ground advantage when driving here) from you (the new driver in a foreign country determined to do the right thing – which is exactly what no-one expects) I’ve put together a montage of important road signs. Have a look at the signs below. An interpretation of what they appear to mean (based on what I’ve seen, think or hope) follows.
1. Know your enemy. Taxis and tro-tros do a lot of dumb things. The ones that can drive too fast do it with reckless disregard for their passengers and everyone else. The ones that drive too slow do dumb things with disarming nonchalance. Probably 80% of the wrecked cars on the side of the road are taxis or tro-tros (or clapped out trucks). Most of the traffic jams are because tro tros double-, triple- and quadruple-park across the roads.
2. Bush meat vendors ahead. OK, this sign might have been a bit doctored. There is a thriving business in bush meat, and all the excitement can affect road conditions. There are 2 business models. The first is to stand on the side of the road and wave the product at passing cars hoping they stop. The second involve deboning the animal and spread-eagling and smoking it on a stick frame (which looks like an old wooden tennis racket) and then waving it at passing cars, hoping they stop.
4. Bend-down boutique zone. Wherever traffic slows down – toll booths, customs checkpoints, speed bumps, traffic lights, poor sections of road (so pretty much everywhere) there is a literal moving feast of vendors. They ply their trade from either the side of the road or the middle of it, only abandoning the traffic when vehicle speeds pick up. So not often. If the customers vehicle happens to be moving – they will chase, bargain and deliver the offered service with a basket balanced expertly on their head. I’ve only ever seen one person drop anything. I have a suspicion that even if one of these vendors was hit by traffic, they’d manage to keep their shop on their head. This sign might help ensure I never see if my suspicion is correct.
5. Throw crap anywhere. An unfortunate truth. There is no apparent social stigma about littering. Plastic detritus on the side of the road from passing vehicles is common. Try it some time while you’re here, its a bit of a guilty pleasure.
6. Pee. As far as I can tell, as long as you’re within a meter of the side of the road, you’re permitted to urinate anywhere you like. Rural or urban. Male or female. Facing into the oncoming traffic or away from it. Who cares – there’s a sign that says its OK.
7. Expect crazy passing. When 15 cars are stuck behind a truck crawling along at 25kph, frustration mounts. The way to combat this is to regard the situation as a rolling start. As the truck (lets call it the pace car) arrives at a straight section of road, everyone pulls out to pass with the intent of wedging out the vehicles in front. Its also alarmingly common to see a ‘strength in numbers’ approach when the pack of passing cars attempts to force solitary vehicles heading the other way off the road so the opportunity to pass the slow ‘pace car’ isn’t squandered for safety.
8. Dual carriageway lane ends unexpectedly. This sign would be handy because dual carriageway is not always complete (but looks complete) and the traffic from one lane jumps to one of the lanes on the other side of the road at a convenient spot – becoming duel carriageway. There are no flashing lights or ‘changed traffic conditions ahead’ signs (although there has been some recent advances on this!), so an ant-like, follow the guy in front methodology keeps things working (and it does work OK). I have endured two adventures at these junctions. First time I missed the jump point, and if it wasn’t for the madly waving and screaming pedestrians and the kids running off the road, I might have obliviously continued along the closed section. The second time, there was no-one to follow, but I changed lanes anyway with a nagging ill-ease that I’d got it wrong and was now attempting suicide. To confirm the road was shared, I found myself speeding up to see if I find someone else doing the same thing. But hey! It all turned out OK so why change it?
This sign would work all over the world, but for Ghana it is highly applicable to the roads. Sections of road that were good and now are completely destroyed by heavy traffic and an apparent lack of care. Sections of the road are inexplicably unfinished – bridges have launguished incomplete for a decade.
10. Taxi stopping HERE! In fact, this should be on the back of all taxis. If a taxi is about to stop somewhere – the driver simply hangs his arm out the window and points at the ground about a second before he hits the brakes. There is a good reason why most of the mangled cars discarded on the side of the road are taxis (or crapped out trucks with their engine, gear box or load spraed all over the road). The carelessness of taxi drivers is remarkable when compared to the rest of the driving community.
11. Open drains. There is a lot of rain in Ghana. There is a lot of garbage in Ghana. One blocks the other, and some pretty interesting cocktails brew in the trapped water. The drains are huge, usually open, and run along the immediate edge of the ashphalt (or where it was). I’m confident that with minimal training, blind people could drive just using their sense of smell….. this might explain some of the taxi drivers!?
12. If you use this water, expect to go to hospital. A bit of public health signage. This sign would go well with the previous one. Sure its an interpretation and I’m sure I’ve never seen it as a road sign. But the message is beware!
13. Spot ahead. A spot is a café. They are everywhere and have some pretty weird (and often religious) names. I passed the ‘Obola Spot’ two days ago – strangely chosing not to stop. Why the sign? ‘X’ marks the spot! How droll.
The next few are focused on helping new drivers understand law enforcement on the roads. What I might call police soliciting a bribe (cultural heathen that I am), is in West Africa called a Dash. The police must do courses on dash-taking when they’re training. The cruel irony is that they don’t stop unsafe drivers, unsafe cars, speeding vehicles, overloaded vehicles, or grossly poluting vehicles. They stop vehicles that look like they contain wads of small denomination notes – mainly tro-tros from what I see.
16. Police road block ahead. Whether its christmas, easter, ramadan, the officers birthday, your birthday or a complete strangers birhtday, there is always a good reason to sponsor traffic police. You’re really stuck if you’ve actually done something wrong. After crossing a solid white line I had one guy, giddy with excitement, tell me “Go and get your wallet and think about what you’ve done”. And all the while cars go past at 150kph, or with bits falling off them or belching thick black smoke or doing really stupid things that need to be stopped.
17. Reccommended fine. It can’t possibly be related to a speed limit as no-one pays any attention (unless its mph) and the police definitely don’t enforce it as a speed limit. Perhaps its a time trial – how many seconds you’ve got to reach the next similar sign.
18. Have wallet ready. This would save a lot of time at road blocks, streamline the process a bit, reduce conjestion. Achieve a few KPIs for the boys in blue. There are a lot minor infringements that can be solved with your wallet.
20. Envelopes appreciated. Spot fines are a grubby business. Probably one of the worst kept dirty little secrets in the country. A crisp envelope goes a long way to adding some respectability to the process.
Ghana can be a frustrating place to drive. There can be severe psychological damage done to visitors who think its unreasonable that a 160km drive takes 3.5 hours. The following signs are to assist drivers who are strating to unravel, or have run out of cigarettes, to get through their travels unscathed.
22. Uphill struggle. Any trip, long or short, can become a chore. If you’re a starry-eyed ‘glass half full’ type, call it a journey or adventure or a road-trip. Whatever helps. Fact is driving anywhere can be soul destoying – it’s why people have drivers (and because 90% of the streets here don’t have names or street signs).
23. Trip will take longer than expected. The strange part is the only people who seem to get really wound up about massive travel times are the foreigners (easy to pick because they’re boggle-eyed, screaming and spraying spit and curses all over the inside of the windscreen or at the driver who is 2 hours late) . Everyone else seems to take it in their stride which is kind of admirable and frustrating at the same time.
26. The end of the tunnel is not approaching. Its not a glimmer of hope. Instead, a much better brand of frustration is rushing towards you. I have seen this sign in real life, where the Accra-Kumasi train line crosses the road. I don’t think a train has run on the track in 20 years, but the sign is ready for the second coming of the steam age.
27. Walking is faster. Accra and Kumasi take note. It’s no wonder that most of the opportunistic trade in Ghana is conducted through a car window. The sheer throughput of potential customers at crawling pace is a marketers dream.
28. Build a bridge (and get over it). A bit of roadside councilling for those getting a bit needy about the traffic. Ironically, the worst section of road is where no-one has built (or at least finished building) a bridge and the traffic detours around the imposing, incomplete four lane folly through mud (or dust), people, traffic jams and potholes.
Now, there is always the chance my interpretations are incorrect. The Ghana Highway Authority has the last word with a section on street signs. The real road signs and markings are found here. For the civil engineers building roads in Ghana there is even a section on how to build speed humps that leave the suspension and sump in the vehicle.
I’m sure there are alternate interpretations to what these signs mean, but I think I’m pretty close to correct…
NB. The only serious advice in this whole post: To drive on a foreign licence in Ghana your country licence needs to be supported by an international drivers licence (IDL) as per the 1946 international agreement. You cannot drive for 3-6 months before converting your licence (a common practice elsewhere). The offence will potentially attract court time and a fine, and can potentially void insurance. This advice is courtesy of bitter experience suffered by a friend.