12 June 2010

Transportation in Togo

9 June 2010
It loomed in front of us, the gasoline truck, sprawled across the highway like a great beast, life pouring from its torn belly. The smallest spark would have cause a fire to blow the asphalt off the road. Horror filled me as I watched tiny children soaked in gasoline running home with jugs of the stuff on their heads; rushing back to fill another container. Men, women, taxi drivers, moto drivers, clothes soaked in gasoline, reached out to take their fill of the precious liquid seeping from the downed truck. The cab of the truck had fully separated from the cylinder; the driver looked unharmed but shaky as he paced on the side of the road, speaking into his cell phone. His apprentice driver was seated on the ground, head cradled in his hands, rocking slightly, still devastated by the shock of such an accident.

My stomach writhed and my heart thundered as we slowly passed between the gushing cylinder and the truck cab. One rock kicked off by our wheels, one piece of glass magnifying the equatorial sun, and we would all die… very painfully. My palpable fear was a strange counterpart to the sheer joy in the faces of the women rushing toward the truck with the big bowls usually used for collecting water. Shiny, happy people. Shiny with the slick shimmer of gasoline. The bright smiles on the kids’ faces made me shiver with visions of horror. But to this tiny, lucky village, this accident may prove to be their main source of income for the next six months. One liter of gasoline sells for 500-600FCFA. Each jug I saw carried away contains about 20 liters. One jug is enough money to travel from the ocean in Lome to the northern border with Burkina Faso. Is this the silver lining?

Automobile accidents are common here – we like to joke that when cars die in Europe, they’re sent to Ghana to rot; when they are finished in Ghana, they arrive in Togo. And the roads are bad, especially during and right after rainy season. An aspect that I’d never really picked up on until recently is the state of the tires. At Camp UNITE this year, we started a new “challenge” – a team-building physical/strategy game – that involves three tires per team. So we sent out one of the organizers to buy some used tires. He came back with 6 tires that were completely bare. Every single one was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Who had these things on their car long enough to end up in such a state?! I’ve started looking at tires more often now. I noticed that on trucks, if a tire is really worn down, they won’t stop using it – just put it somewhere in the middle, so I guess at least it’s not responsible for steering? Yikes.

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