Few weeks ago, I found myself in a sprinter bus engaged in a high speed police pursuit from Mallam junction all the way to Legon, where I alighted alas. As events turned out, I had the opportunity if not privilege to conduct this interview with Abu (real name withheld for some reasons). Abu is the mate for this vehicle. He is the rather wild type and his driver is quite soft until necessary. The issue started when a police patrol team stopped the vehicle at Mallam junction because the driver didn’t have his seatbelt on. The commander with the team spoke to the driver and after what they both knew they spoke about, the driver slipped back into the vehicle to move. Just at Awoshie junction, one police officer who was with the patrol team who had stopped them earlier, just bounced out of a different vehicle and asked our driver to stop the vehicle and get the passengers a different one to take them to their destinations. Our driver explained that he had spoken to the commander and that is why he was free to go.
This new police officer wouldn’t take that as an excuse. He sat in the car with the other passengers and didn’t care to budge as the car took flight once again. He was thinking with his presence alone, some fear and panic would take hold of the driver and his mate for them to either give him “something” or park the car for him. At Kwashieman, the driver parked for majority of the passengers to alight. At that moment the police had gotten down and was engaged in some talks with one of the passengers. And that was just the moment the driver needed. He sped off almost instantaneously barely leaving the mate behind. The police seeing this shouted at him, threatening him amidst insults. We didn’t know what happened to him, as it seemed. The green light at the bus stop was just like a miracle. The driver sped off. Alighted a couple of passengers at Nyamekye and quickly moved on. At Abrantie bus stop, a taxi speedily parked near the side of the road as the police who was tormenting us came out and tried stopping our vehicle.
The driver saw him and put the engine into motion. It was like a 3D movie. Once again the traffic lights showed green and I was convinced the gods were in our favor. The driver sped off leaving the police and his hired taxi behind. Looking back from Tema station traffic which was red as at the time we got there, we noticed the taxi had passed the inner lane for commercial vehicles and the traffic there was massive. That was enough for the driver to totally escape. And the conversations started. The driver spoke, the mate spoke, but me being close to the mate, he was my target and I was able to seep out some information I needed from him. I even had to delve into his life story and he painstakingly gave me. (We spoke in Twi to ease up stuff. But I’ve transcribed to English for your reading pleasure. Non-Ghanaian readers who don’t understand some stuff should feel free to ask in the comments pane and I’ll be glad to interpret)
Perry Tintin: boss but why is this police harassing you this way?
Abu: this particular police, that is how he is. It’s his character. He doesn’t really care about the crime you have committed. It’s either he wants you to put something heavy into his pocket or he will seize your car itself or the keys to your car. Worse he will take your ID card and driver’s license.
Perry Tintin: from the way you’re speaking, it seems you really know him?
Abu: oh yeah, we know him very well. He usually trod this road we also use. He’s a pain in the ass. Very merciless. He doesn’t care about what his superiors even say. Once he makes up his mind to torment you, he will stop at nothing till he gets what he wants.
Perry Tintin: so is it just you he torments or he disturbs other drivers?
Abu: not just us. Most of our friends have been his victims. Even us, he once took bribe around Airport. Depending on the location he finds you in, he will take money equivalent to the status of the location. For example, at Airport he took 120gh. A friend of ours was caught around Ridge, he took 80gh and last time too another guy was caught around Kasoa, he took 50gh. Lapaz and Kwashieman usually go for 30gh. At times he doesn’t check for crimes committed. All he does is stop your car and ask you for “toll”. And since we drivers are almost always guilty we just pay up, even when we haven’t done anything wrong.
Perry Tintin: interesting. But have you tried reporting him to anyone?
Abu: we once reported him to the Kasoa police station. Another time too, to the Madina police station. We have reported to other police individuals too all but to no avail. This is Ghana, if one police officer exposes him, how will the others fend too? It seems they are all above the law.
Perry Tintin: at worse what will they do to you if you persist with this case?
Abu: a friend of ours persisted with the case like you are saying. In the end his car was seized for two weeks. We saw his car working along the Circle – 37 road. That was abnormal cos we know our friend uses the Kasoa-Lapaz road. We called and asked and he confidently said his car had been seized. So one day we saw the car again, even took pictures of it, the driver, the mate and the number plates. We showed them to our friend. He got angry and went to report to the police station in which his car had been seized. It took compensations to calm him down. Apparently when the police seize your car and you don’t pay immediately to get it out, they will give it to their “goro boys” and these boys will work with the car for a while to raise that amount of money they (the police) want. That money will be given to the police not you, until he is satisfied before he will call you to come pick your car. You might think he is pardoning you or something but he has done a good deal of sales income with your car without your knowing.
Perry Tintin: this is really interesting. Can I get personal with you, if you don’t mind? (Abu affirms after multiple persuasions. All this while we are still en route to Legon, a lot of the passengers have alighted leaving about four of us who have our final destination as Legon).
What made you become a mate in the first place?
Abu: (laughs at the question) but of course being a mate is also a job. I chose to do it because comparatively it’s better than most of the jobs I’ve tried doing. It pays well if you work hard and can mess you up if you don’t. either ways I love this job and that’s why I’m doing it.
Perry Tintin: pardon me for being intrusive but I’d like to know. Was it your childhood dream to become a mate? Did you plan for it? Do you mind summarizing your early life?
Abu: from the way you’ve been asking me questions from the start, you’ll surely be a journalist. But I’ll tell you provided you don’t take pictures of me nor record me. (we both laugh at that and I affirm that I won’t do any of those. He goes on)
From the start my family was very poor. Seven children to our parents. Our father was a mechanic in a small village in Kumasi. Mom was a charcoal seller. You can imagine, it wasn’t easy. Their predicaments didn’t deter them from having unprotected sex as many times as they wanted so they kept populating the small container we called home. It had a gathering of charcoal sacks in one corner and the other corner had all our small belongings as a family. We had to make do with the little space in the middle of the container. Life wasn’t easy at all. To make matters worse, my dad left us when I was six. I had four brothers by then and I was the eldest. Two of my siblings died of food poisoning after I had left them back in Kumasi. You can imagine. Not eating supper was as common as daylight. At times mom would borrow plantain and we will cook and share and eat, without any stew nor soup nor fish or whatever. What made it interesting was that we wouldn’t even need a bowl or plate for that kind of meal. We will just break and share like Jesus’ last supper. And mom will crack jokes and we will laugh and eat in peace and then fall asleep. That was how life was. I didn’t even get to go to school. the friends I used to play with around the neighborhood will once in a while forget their story books and I’ll take them and try reading. An adult will help me out once in a while. That was how I got to learn how to read and eventually write. Gaining interest in education, I will deliberately go and steal books and pencils and come hide them at our container home. At one instance I was caught. The aggravated woman held me by the collar and took me to my mom. When she got to where I called home, looking around, all she said to my mom was “your son got missing and I’ve brought him back”. I was confused, I looked into her eyes and I could see tears and confusion and regret. This woman became our backbone for the rest of the years I spent with my family. She would get us provisions, clothes, food, books, etc. God richly bless Maame Agege, that was her name, wherever she is, God bless her. (at this juncture Abu was almost in tears and I felt bad for triggering bad memories). Through this woman, I tasted Milo at age 12. It felt sweet. Really sweet.
(both laugh out loud there)
Perry Tintin: that’s quite a story you got. So did you start the mate business in Kumasi?
Abu: oh no. at one time, I met one of my father’s friends in town. And he asked me what class I was in. I couldn’t answer and he understood. He also asked what job I was doing and I couldn’t answer one more time. He once again understood since he knew my father so well. He took me to see my mom. They spoke at length in the container. When he was leaving he gave me ten thousand (now 1gh). I was so overjoyed. Later that night, my mom woke me up at dawn when all the other kids were asleep. I thought I had done something wrong and she was coming to flog me or that she was coming to request for the 1gh my uncle had given me. That was the norm so this new peaceful development was indeed new to me. She started talking. She said a lot and I knew my destiny was about to change. In summary, I was to leave the village the next day with my father’s friend who had come by recently. Mom advised me a lot. As it seemed I had no choice and was being prepared to be the family’s only breadwinner aside she, my mother. The next day the man came and took me to Accra. As we got to Accra my jaws gave way in bewilderment that my uncle had to use his hand to close my gaped mouth. He understood. He always did. He took me to his house and gave me food to eat. Showed me my small room outside their main house after in-depth lecturing on my new job. I was a mate henceforth, he said. He gave me some new clothes, some money, a watch and a radio. His last words were “be ready by 4am”. And that was how my life as a mate began.
Perry Tintin: wow. How’s the life of a mate like?
Abu: the life of a mate is filled with mixed emotions at different times of the day. You wake up very early to clean the car and inspect its faculties and make sure you are ready for the road. If you fail to do these and there is an accident, not only will passengers die, you can die as well. So if you value your own life, it will motivate you to do these things. Mates are disciplined. It is not easy sleeping as late as 11pm only to wake at 3 or 4 and make sure you are ready for the road by 5 or 6. The discipline also has to do with constantly making sure you don’t smell or your mouth doesn’t smell either. We find ways and means to get double or triple showers daily, with the right dose of roll-on or gum to help. The life of a mate also requires strength. Pulling the doors open for passengers isn’t an easy task. The metal is heavy. At times it breaks off its hinge and you almost always have to singlehandedly fix it. Mates are multigifted. We are the car washers, we are the same mechanics when there is a fault. We are the same newscasters; we explain news on the radio. We are even interpreters. We have to interpret movies for passengers. All these amidst other skills we are yet to find out. If you’re weak as a mate too, you better become strong or you won’t go far. At times too strength is necessary in times of fights
(we both laugh hysterically)
oh yeah, at times you might even be at fault but your ego mustn’t be lowered in public, not by anyone at all. So while you are at fault you should make up for it with victory in a fight. You can’t sit idly by and let someone beat up your master. You should fight for him even if he is responsible for a mistake or crime or whatever.
Perry Tintin: what’s the relationship between mates and passengers like?
Abu: Hmmmmm, as for that one! Some passengers are good and respectful. I’ve had tips many many times. For that, some passengers respect mates. When they want to speak, they use please buy me this, call this for me, thank you, etc. but some others don’t respect us at all. Especially some youth of today and other white color job workers. They think their salaries can buy us so they care less about what you think. Wherever this interview is going, let me use this opportunity to tell people that in this life we didn’t choose certain things. If I had my way, I wouldn’t be a mate. I’m a victim of circumstances. And it could have happened to just anyone. So the next time you see a mate, see him as a human being not just a mate. For all you know some of us are richer than you can imagine.
(I cut in)
Perry Tintin: really? About the rich part, tell me more.
Abu: oh yeah, I know a mate friend who owns a big shop at Tudu. They retail and wholesale clothes. You can imagine how much he is making from there alone, before coupled as a mate. I per say can make as much money as 200gh a day as just profit. Multiply that by a week and then by a month. I’m very rich o bro. (we both laugh at that comic relief statement)
Perry Tintin: Abu, being rich, are you married?
(we both laugh)
Abu: I’m not married o my brother. I have this nice girl at Circle. She deals in clothes. We are dating currently and planning to get married soon.
Perry Tintin: that’s niiiice. Ei Abu that!! (we both laugh)
That brings to mind the assertion that mates are sexually promiscuous. How true is that?
Abu: to be honest, it is true. It’s just that in this life of a mate, you evidently won’t get some of these nice university girls to date or marry. So looking at our level, it is mostly these sellers and hawkers that we get to satisfy our libido with. And as it seems we are all in the same soup. We are all “gnashing” (we both laugh) at times the girls pursue us and claim ownership over us. Many at times you hear that these ladies fought seriously and that you are the reason why they fought. It’s funny but it’s just part of this life we live. We decide to have sex anytime we feel like. The decision to have protected sex lies on the both of you. Cos we know the hardships we face and wouldn’t like anything to come in the picture unprepared. Hope you get me?
Perry Tintin: I do Abu, I do. Are you a Christian?
Abu: (scoffs) as for that one de33. I won’t say I’m a Christian. But I play my part. (I chip in)
Perry Tintin: what part?
Abu: erhmmm, some of these pastors don’t give us a reason to attend church. Usually when we don’t have the acceptable clothes to attend church, you go and Christians look at you like some superhero who just landed on earth. Makes me feel bad. You try contributing in Twi cos you don’t really understand the English you’ll get some people laugh at you. At times you are directed to sit at specific places away from the ordinary “churchy” people. As for some of the Christians I almost always shake my head. They will board your vehicle early Sunday mornings and even lambaste you at the very least provocation. It’s a pity though. What we use to compensate our religious conscience is the fact that we allow men of God preach freely in our vehicles when they ask to. And most at times, we don’t take their fares in the name of our offering to God. Basically that summarizes that. I won’t say I’m that kind of Christian but that’s what I genuinely do.
Perry Tintin: this is shocking! Thanks for the vote of confidence in me Abu. Anyway I’ll be alighting at the Legon bus stop alright? Thanks so much for this privilege. I wish I could thank you in a way you will like but it’s rather unfortunate I didn’t come prepared. (we both laugh)
I slip my card into his hands as I alight with the hopes that he will call me but to date, Abu hasn’t and that’s fine. He is scared of some things and I understand very well.
*images used in this article are not directly linked. they may be reflections of themes used in the article but are not legally entitled to the writer*