When The Traffic Light Becomes A Robot – By Francis Doku

I TOLD the waitress I wanted English breakfast with fried eggs, whereupon she asked if I wanted the eggs fried as omelette or Nigerian style. Of course I didn’t know what the difference would be between the two and so I chose the latter in case there was something peculiar and different about the way they fry eggs in this country.

It turned out to be a bad choice as I almost lost my appetite when the young lady placed before me a soup bowl containing what she said was Nigerian style fried eggs. Indeed there was in the bowl what looked like fried eggs except it was surrounded by a “sea” of cooking oil and what seemed to be pieces of chopped tomatoes.

Now this sauce, which was what it looked to my Ghanaian eyes, appeared more to me like what we call egg stew back home in Ghana. I used the tip of the fork to scoop a little in to my mouth and I could swear I tasted pepper in the fried eggs I had ordered and that confirmed my suspicion of what it really was. At this point my appetite was completely gone for how on earth was I supposed to have my tea and bread with egg stew?

My colleague from Tanzania and I had decided to go to one of the shopping malls to do some shopping before going to O.R. Thambo airport and finally depart from Johannesburg to our various countries. I decided to approach one of the bell boys at the hotel to solicit directions to the closest shopping mall, Four Ways I think it was called.

“Take the road to the left you’ll meet a junction take right until to meet a robot…” I came in at this point “a what”? I asked since I didn’t know what a robot would be doing in the middle of the road, at least I had never seen such a thing where I come from. My Tanzanian colleague laughed and said the gentleman meant a traffic light. We got the direction and left.

I asked my friend why the bellboy didn’t just say traffic light and had to say robot. He then took the pains to explain to me that in South Africa the street slang for a traffic light is robot. It really was a mighty surprise to me that people would refer to a traffic light as such, but it then dawned on me that I had heard some people refer to it as such earlier on but I didn’t pay close attention to understand what it was they were referring to.

The above are but a few of things that tend to surprise me when I visit other countries – the fact that culture, language and behaviours are different from one country to another even on the continent of Africa would surprise many non-Africans, especially westerners, who have always held the erroneous view that this continent is made up of homogenous people, cultures and behaviours.

Being surprised is a common phenomenon for anybody who tends to travel from where they usually live to a different village, town, city, country or continent. Some very simple things tend to surprise a visitor to a new place so much.

My biggest surprise when I went to Benin for the first time was not the manner by which motor fuel, diesel or whatever oil it was, was sold in bottles all across the metropolis of Cotonou. Although for a chap who has lived all my life in Accra and know where to get fuel when I need it, and that is not by the roadside, it should have been surprising and yet what dwarfed this obvious “incongruity” for me was the sheer number of motorbikes, or “keke” as the locals call them, and how they out did vehicles on the roads.

To say that motorbikes are the most common means of transportation in the Beninois capital of Cotonou would be stating the obvious. People commute mostly by motorbikes than they do with any other form of transportation.

A first timer to this city does not have to but if he decides to he could stand by a traffic light (not a robot this time) to observe the ratio of cars or lorries to motorbikes with their yellow clad riders or “kekenos” when the red light comes on to understand my astonishment. The icing on the surprise cake for me was when I saw a whole family of five people on the same motorbike along with the kekeno. Mother, father and three young children painted the perfect picture.

Sometime this year I travelled to Warri in Nigeria to attend a marriage ceremony of a friend of mine. Indeed the entire journey from Lagos by road across five or so different states to the Delta State was full of surprises. It kind of gave me a different view of the Nigerian as it brought me closer to things that happen on a daily basis outside of the mainland of Lagos where I usually spend my time whenever I travel to Nigeria.

In spite of the many things I saw on my way to Warri and back to Lagos one of the most surprising for me was at the marriage it itself. The couple had said their wedding vows at the premises of the local government office before going to the house of the bride’s parents for the customary ceremony.

It was very surprising to me that such a thing could happen because where I come from that would be a very twisted manner by which a couple would go about marriage. In order to take a bride to the church or the courts to marry her you first have to go to her family home to perform the marriage rites, never ever the other way round. But that is Ghana, this is Nigeria.

I asked a couple of people, one of them being the best man, if that was how it was done all the time and I learnt that some people choose to do it this way and yet others also do it the way I know it to be done. But the mere fact that this was an alternative way of getting married in Nigeria was a major insight for me.

One other surprising thing I observed at this marriage was the fact that the most important aspect of typical Nigerian traditional marriage, as they call the one which is held at the family home, is “spraying”. This is the phenomenon where guests and family alike virtually spray the bride and groom with notes of money. As the couple take the centre stage to dance every Dick, Tom and Harry in the crowd would come to throw whatever money they have on them.

I cannot explain any further how important this particular aspect of the occasion is at every marriage but to add that once that has been done all the guests begin to leave the ceremony to their various homes. I was told that people change money into smaller denominations and stand close to where such ceremonies would take place so they could change for those who have bigger denominations but want a lot of notes to spray. They do so at a discount, of course.

I was once driving a boss of mine, who was Austrian but lived and worked from Cape Town as the sub-regional CEO of the media agency, to the airport and he told me that one of the jokes among his circle of friends was “you know you are in Africa when you can do your grocery shopping on the street.” He told me that joke when a street hawker pushed an apple to his face and asked if he’d buy it.

He would not have been too wrong if he was talking about my country and other countries on the continent and not the generalisation it sounded to me because in the major cities in Ghana and to a greater extent Nigeria people virtually make their living on the street by hawking to pedestrians and commuters. You definitely could buy anything from grocery and toiletries to hardware on the streets of Accra.

So you could imagine my surprise when I went to a neighbouring West African country and got to realise that the former boss of mine was not totally correct in his assertion as it does not apply to all countries in Africa. I knew about the fact that it was not on every street in some southern African cities like Johannesburg where hawkers were allowed to trade along, but never sure about such decency in our own backyard of neighbouring countries.

I stayed in Senegal for one week and I took the opportunity to roam the entire city of Dakar just to satisfy my curiosity that these people are so decent that they do not stand in the middle of the street to sell. Indeed going towards the city centre close to the presidential palace there were a few people who hawked along the street but NEVER in the middle of the street as is common in my own country. It was a wonderful and relieving testimonial that decency was still an African character.

We do not have parks in the major cities in Ghana where people would go with their families or lovers to sit, chat, play or have a small picnic. Thus going to the park is not a normal pastime of the average Ghanaian; there is an almost 100 percent chance when someone tells you he or she is going to the park that it is to watch a football match or play football.

It was therefore a big surprise for me when I first went to Kenya and driving through the city of Nairobi during late afternoon I actually realised that they had parks where people would go to do some of the things referred to above. I saw people walking in droves hand in hand to the nearest park or some already there doing their own thing.

What I asked the other Ghanaians I was with was why we could not do something like that if these people who are also Africans could do it. Honestly, I was not expecting any good answer as it was a rhetorical question to let out my mortification.

Indeed within my own country I find certain things a bit strange when I travel from my base in Accra to other places. There was this time that I travelled to Kumasi (the second largest city) and decided to go to a “chop bar” (local restaurant) with Fred, a friend who lives in that city to eat.

After we had ordered and were waiting for the food to arrive I saw a man and a woman enter the restaurant. The woman was in a wedding gown, veil and all other adornment that brides are made off fully in place and the man was in a good wedding suit with brooch and tie to match. It was just the two of them, no bridal team.

Obviously I was gobsmacked by the sight and so I asked my friend what was happening. He was just laughing at me and explained that these were obviously a couple coming from the court where had they registered their marriage and decided to take a munch on their way home. “So why don’t they just go home change and come back?” I asked. My friend had no answer and thankfully I did not lose my appetite.

Recounting some of the many surprises I have seen in other countries or cities that I have travelled to on the African continent or within Ghana is not meant to create the impression that other people who also travel to my own country or city would not find certain things I would take for granted as strange.

I once had a visitor from the United States who could not believe that people could carry load on their head in Ghana. Even worse than that she could not bring herself to understand how a person carrying a load on the head could do so without holding it and yet it does not fall off. “Do they use witchcraft or something?” she asked. I just grinned at her.

It is only when you travel that you to meet new people and see new things that would give you a different view of things you know. If you live in the same place for a long time without travelling chances are you would be exposed only to the things you have been exposed to all that while but in travelling do we broaden our horizon and learn about people than we would by any other means.

So the next time you travel to a different town, city, country, continent, planet or universe and you see anything very unusual from what you know or have known all your life feel free to be surprised if you have to. After all the English have an expression for that feeling, culture shock. It is a shock that only travellers are allowed to go through.