What to expect on buses in West Africa

Have you ever been tied up?

Seriously. Have you ever had your partner tie you, with rope, to a chair or just on the floor, and then suffer as they just watch you struggle and wriggle? After a while your limbs start to ache a little, but you can’t easily shift position much, or when you can, it just puts strain elsewhere on your body.

Riding in tro-tros or shared taxis in West Africa is a bit like that.
The shared taxis are probably the worst, oddly – normal everyday 5- or 8-seater cars, into which they squeeze 7-8 and 11 people respectively. The front passenger seat is obviously made for two people, and the three seats at the back can easily fit 4, possibly 5 if children are involved. You have a third row of seats at the very back – fantastic that’s another 4 more.

Share-Taxi in Benin.
Share-taxi in Benin, in the luggage-loading phase. This took half an hour, as you’d imagine.

Since this space is not designed for that many people, it’s quite an uncomfortable ride, and posture goes the way of the rubbish – out the window. You end up being squashed tightly on both sides, and additionally the lack of both legroom and enough flat space on the seat to sit down properly means that what should be a comfortable car journey turns into a ride where you live for the rest stops. That’s also not to mention the luggage piled up on the roof or in the boot, continually added to like some kind of old-fashioned children’s game, the weight of which causes the suspension to ride low and slows the vehicle down even more.

The tro-tros, minibuses, whatever you want to call them, benefit from having low expectations in the first place. You pay for what you get, so travelling half the height of Ghana for the equivalent of £6 means you’re not expecting luxury. Or comfy seats. Or a suspension worth talking about. Or air-conditioning. Or even somewhere to put luggage – mine’s added to my troubles by being invariably between my knees or on my lap.

Tro-tro in Ghana, under repair en-route. Hordes of people taking opportunity to rest in the shade.
Tro-tro in Ghana, under repair en-route. Hordes of people taking opportunity to rest in the shade.

A quick glance over the dashboard on all these vehicles reveals that the speedometer never works, the fuel gauge rarely works (which may explain why within the first five minutes of every tro-tro ride, there is a petrol-station stop), the internal light is invariably either broken completely or hanging by a thread, and the engine temperature indicator is in the red. The occasional but inevitable stops to pour water in the engine and hit some random mechanical part do nothing to allay any fears about getting to the end in one piece, nor do the interminable stops in the middle of nowhere to let passengers disembark, or because the driver needs a toilet break, or for a prayer stop, or because the driver’s mate needs some water, or just because we’re passing through a village and why not (Burkina Faso is particularly frustrating for this).

As to your travel companions; there is a stereotype that riding on African transport means sharing with chickens and bags of rice. In my experience, this only happens on the long-distance coaches, those long vehicles with maybe 50-plus seats and an aisle down the middle that feels like a kind of rural assault course. In tro-tros these all tend to be carried in the rear compartments, or on the roof. The inside tends to be for humans only – why waste valuable saleable, space?
And yes, in shared taxis, you can pay for more than one seat, partly to ensure you set off sooner and partly so you can enjoy a proper amount of space, but in a tro-tro, unless you’re in that valuable front seat, it’s barely worth the effort or cost.

Bus in Togo - the cross-border shuttle, complete with goat.
The bus in Kpalime, Togo, that took people across the border into Ghana. The goat did not join us.

Just as you know your partner will untie you, so you know the journey will end. And the relief and pleasure when it happens makes the whole trip worthwhile. You get out, stretch your legs, and think that it wasn’t so bad after all.

Until the next time.

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Public Transport in West Africa

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