Public transport is a subject I have already given you a flavour of so the dereliction of its vehicles will come as no surprise but I feel obliged to cover some organisational issues with bus services. To most of us it would seem logical, when providing a regular coach service, to relate ticket sales to the quantity of seats on a coach and the departure times, but Cote d’Ivoire in particular has other ideas. Lets say the basic plan is to have a departure on the hour from 7am onwards, tickets will be sold to everyone, regardless of numbers for the 7am bus and at about 6 50am someone will decide to start loading the 3 tonnes of gear spread about the bus garage. Unlike in the UK, public transport is used as means for farmers to transport crops to the market, businesses to pick up and deliver goods and families to move house, so it is a physical impossibility to fit everything in the storage space, thus entailing filling up the aisles and strapping stuff to the roof, which of course has no roof rack. Quite how they convince the goats to remain still enough on a five hour journey on the roof I will never know. Once loaded, the passengers lucky enough to get on the 7am bus will leave at around 8 30am, whereupon they will start loading the second bus that has been sitting there empty for all this time and the process is repeated until maybe noon, by which time all the 7am customers should have departed. You may however discover that the bus isn’t actually going to the destination you bought the ticket for and half way through you can find yourself, as I did once, being transferred to the public transport version of the last cattle truck to Belsen, knees forced closer to my shoulders than the floor as we trundle along at 40kph, having had the additional pleasure of an extra hour hanging around while we were loaded up and people could have the obligatory argument. I assume this pre departure argument is an ancient tradition as it seems a vital part of the bush taxi system across Africa.
Public transport also provides a postal service, presumably because the state one is so bad. With buses this is actually a formal service, you take your letter or parcel to the office at the bus depot, pay the appropriate sum and the receiver picks it up at the other end. With mini buses and taxis it seems more informal but equally effective.
The time a journey may take is more determined by the state of the roads than the vehicle, except with some bush taxi services, these are ancient, box like, large mini buses that stop every five minutes to drop off or pick up people in order to maintain a constant level of overcrowding. One such journey that could be done in 3 hours by car took 7 hours, with the last hour requiring the remaining passengers, all 10 of us to be squeezed into one estate car, including luggage and a chicken, as it didn’t justify continuing with empty seats. It wasn’t the best day I have had as I had already waited 3 hours in the morning, loaded up with immodium to stave off the squits, for a coach that turned out to be full and then waited 2 hours for the mini bus to fill up enough to justify leaving.
Togo wins the knackered road prize, even the main North-South highway descended into off road strips, ideal for rally car racing. Then, the day after, came the road widely acknowledged to be the worst in the country, which merits an account in its entirety.
The taxi was up to the usual standard: missing door handles, sometimes requiring the driver to get out and administer the special door opening procedure for the occupants; cracked windscreen; everything that can do so, rattles. Surely it would have failed an MOT test years before. A lady has the pleasure of the handbrake seat, as I have paid for 2 places, to save waiting any longer to leave, which gets me the front seat to myself. Whether the handbrake position is better for men or women may be influenced by the degree of intimacy with the driver, with the gear stick between your legs, the driver’s right hand will be on close personal terms with your inner thighs by the end of the 3 hour journey. The road is a slalom course over the remains of tarmac, between potholes up to 50cm in depth, with peaks and troughs of far greater magnitude. At two points half the road is eaten away by a stream. The occasional short patch of relative flatness allows us to attain the dizzying speed of 50kph for a few moments. As the roads are also home to domesticated animals it was hardly surprising when we hit a chicken, the sounds of consternation quickly faded behind us as there seemed no inclination to stop. In the rear view mirror I caught sight of a dejected figure trudging to the middle of the road to claim his deceased, already tenderised bird.
The animals do have the advantage of saving local councils from having to maintain the verges and roadside vegetation, as the herds of wandering sheep, goats and cattle nibble it down to size. Even in cities you will see animals grazing on anything vaguely edible, they must have a homing instinct as there is never anyone shepherding them. It was almost a disappointment to discover that they had started resurfacing the road over the last few kilometres, to know that this artistic creation was going to vanish under gleaming fresh asphalt seemed like the end of an era. Although, given that president Gnassingbé of Togo is more interested in using limited government funds to keep himself in power, it may mean that in another part of the country, where they are disinclined to vote for him, another road will decay sufficiently to take its place. Incidentally he is a slight improvement on his father who tended to use the money to buy machine guns as a means of disposing of those portions of the population who couldn’t be persuaded to vote for him.