When I rolled into Tamale after 12 hours on the road, my thoughts were focused on important priorities: should I bring vodka or wine for my hosts? I pulled into Quality First to make my purchase, cutting through the pedestrian and bike zone into the parking area, per normal Tamale traffic conventions.
Immediately, a police officer converged on me and pulled my keys from the ignition, yelling at me for driving in the bike lane. He then ran off to grab keys from two other motos--like I said, I was following Tamale traffic conventions.
Most official traffic laws are never enforced in Tamale. Residents are left to develop their own traffic code that allows everyone to move around efficiently and mostly safely. However, every few months the police pick a rule to enforce. Wearing helmets is a common one. All of a sudden, riders who haven't worn a helmet for a year will find themselves dragged into side streets, paying one or two cedis to a police officer to avoid going to the police station and getting cited for riding helmetless.
The enforcement is not to actually get people to follow the rule-- it's an opportunity for the police to supplement their income. That's why enforcement is sporadic, and the rules enforced constantly changing: if people actually started following them, the money-making opportunity would be gone. (I actually love it when they do the helmet law, as all the survey staff suddenly comply with our mandatory helmet rule.)
Three police officers rounded up three of us bike-lane offenders, to take us "to the station". Of course, they actually took us to a back alley. Two of the officers seemed like good-natured guys who would be happy for a quick cedi. One of them pushed my bike to the alley; his struggle to handle the extra weight and higher center of gravity caused by my bags detracted from any intimidating aire he might have had. The third officer had fake Oakley sunglasses on, despite the fading sun, and was clearly on a power trip. I decided I wasn't playing.
"You were driving in the bike lane. We are taking you to the station", they told me.
"Sorry," I said, "I didn't know." Of course I knew. Everyone knows; nobody follows it. But it's just what you say. It's what I say next that deviates from the normal script.
"You are right. I did it wrong. So let's go to the station. You bring the moto." We all know that if I go to the station, they get nothing, except maybe some extra paperwork. Plus, somewhere up the chain, someone is going to think it's ridiculous that they brought a white girl to the station for driving 10 feet in a bike lane to get to a parking spot. I admit I am a bit curious about what the fall out might be if I spend a night in jail for this. Also, the officer pushing my moto looks like he might faint. The station's not that close.
The third officer confers with officer Oakley in Dagbani.
"We want to give you consideration," he says. "Where are you coming from?"
"Kwame Danso," I reply casually. It's actually an impressive answer; very few Ghanaians would ride so far in a day. Except maybe highway robbers.
"Okay. We want to give you consideration because you are coming from Kwame Danso." I'm pretty sure I could have gotten consideration for coming from Hands of Love drinking spot.
I leave more cynical, but with all of my cedis still on my person.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.