The Taxi Classroom
I grabbed a taxi on Sunday to go to the Mass at the Catholic Cathedral in a part of Kumasi called “Roman Hill.” I chose a driver in the middle of a teeming crowd of taxis at a place called Tech Junction. I am not exactly sure how I made the choice, except for the fact that I avoided the drivers that were pushing their services on the “Obruni.” This is the word for “westerner,” though most often it means “white man.” It is a word that, in many cases, carries no extra cultural/racial baggage with it. It identifies me as a white man from outside Ghana and little else. Last year, a tall African American student that attended our program was also called “Obruni.” Femi’s African heritage was evident not only in the color of his skin, but also the Adrinka symbols that were tattooed on his legs. He too, was seen as a westerner. It must be said that “Obruni” means different things to different people. My colleagues here at the university use the term for me because, I am truly a white man! Others might assume additional meanings depending on their perspective… not unlike the diverse use of racial identifications in the US. To some, both in Ghana and the US, race assumes many things…some true, some false.
My driver spoke some English, but said little. He got me there. I was grateful. He insisted on waiting for me to drive me back to Tech Junction. I attended the service and proceeded on to the gift shop to buy a copy of the Old and New Testaments in the local language called “Twi.” Since, I will be coming back to this country for many years, I need to get my Twi chops together.
This language (pronounced like something close to “tree” in American English) is the most widely spoken indigenous language of Ghana. It is part of the language group called “Akan” that includes the Fante that live along the coast. A Bible is great language learning tool, because the text is familiar. So, when I read… “Mfitiasee no, na Asem no wo ho, na Asem no ne Onuankopon na weo ho…” I know that I am reading… “In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…” This is the opening of the Gospel of John. It helps put grammar and vocabulary into a familiar context.
After Mass and the bookstore visit, my driver got me back to Tech Junction, again with little conversation.
On campus, there is a taxi stand near the commercial area. The commercial area has a couple of banks, a bookstore, a pharmacy, and a handful of small food shops. These taxi drivers are different. Every time I get a taxi from that area, I can depend upon a good ride, lots of conversation and a compulsory Twi lesson. Consistently, the drivers from campus will first express their gratitude that I use a little bit of Twi and then they proceed to teach me a couple more phrases in the 5 minutes it takes to get from one side of campus to the other. There is no choice. The lesson is an obligation of the ride. If I refused, they would still accept my 3 Ghana cedis of payment, but I would be seen as an obruni who doesn’t care much about their country. Here, there is pretty good chance that I will see these drivers again. A five minute drive is often one installment in a long-term business relationship.
Aside from the business relationship, five minutes in a cab is five minutes of my life. My American DNA has programmed an internal clock that measures each daily experience according to the time it takes to complete it. A Sunday sermon should last about 8-10 minutes. Beyond that point, something inside me makes me fidgit and look at the clock in the back of the church. If the Mass goes beyond 48 minutes back home, I get anxious that my time with God will likely interfere with my next meeting or recreational activity. If my meal doesn’t show up within the designated 7-8 minute response time of most American restaurants, I feel like I have chosen poorly for that night’s meal out. If my Gmail inbox takes longer than 2.5 seconds to reload, I start to assume that my civil rights have been somehow violated.
Here, the Mass regularly goes about 2 hours. Restaurant food will arrive anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour later. Internet is slow when the tropical sun shines. It is gone when the tropical rain falls. To quote the Wizard of Oz, “we are not in Kansas anymore!” My internal clock doesn’t matter here. Other things matter.
Five minutes in a cab is important. It is not just a means to get to my next thing, though I often can’t get my agenda out of my head. Mr. Asare, the taxi driver today, thought that this obruni needed to learn some new phrases, and regardless of what my internal concerns, he was right. Though I was lost in a myriad of budget worries, bus rides, hotel reservations, and international wire transfers, Mr. Asare had 5 minutes with me, and he wanted me to leave with something new. He couldn’t read my mind. He didn’t know that I have been really missing home, and the hassles of international money transfers were pushing my patience to the limit. Most importantly…he didn’t need to know all that. All he needed to know was where I was going (“Mereko guesthouse,” I am going to the guesthouse”). He needed to know that I would pay (“Ghana sidi mmiensa” 3 Ghana cedis) and that, as an obruni, I cared enough to set my agenda aside for 5 minutes and learn something new about his country.
It was a good five minutes. I said, “Meda ase Pa” which means “thank you very much.” He taught me a new farewell phrase, “Yenni aseda. Nante yiye” which translates to “It is a pleasure. Goodbye.”