James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

In Transit: A Guide to Kwame Nkrumah Circle

In Transit: A Guide to Kwame Nkrumah Circle

If you find yourself in Accra, there is a high chance that you will end up at Kwame Nkrumah Circle. Locals just call it “Circle,” and it’s a major transit point for travellers navigating not just Accra, but the entire country.

You’ll know you’re there when you catch site of the towering, three-tier highway that creates countless underpasses and tunnels for pedestrians. At rush hour, they cause bottlenecks in foot traffic as people rush to their preferred transport among vendors offering clothes, shoes, and electronics laid out on tables and sidewalks, not to mention those carrying goods on their heads, doing business in the crowd.

This busy intersection was once just a tiny roundabout that connected the four corners of Accra, but now the sprawling hub, named after Ghana’s first president and a founding father of pan-Africanism, represents the growth and rapid development of the nation.

Nkrumah Circle is one of six traffic interchanges throughout Accra named after the founding fathers of Ghana, or The Big Six, as they are as they are commonly known. But a huge statue of Dr. Nkrumah in an elaborate water-fountain park links Ghana’s visionary leader to the perpetually busy and hectic transport centre in the middle of the capital.

Transport Options

The trotro (pronounced trō trō).
If you’ve been in the city for any amount of time, you’ve seen them. The ubiquitous minivans with young men shouting the names of stops from the side window, banging the exterior to make the driver halt when he makes eye contact with a waiting passenger on the side of the road.
Trotros are old cargo transport vans, Frankensteined into consumer buses by adding locally made seats.

To get one at Circle, you have to find it parked, sometimes with a sign bearing the name of your route sitting on the roof of the van. If it’s already in motion, listen for the name of your stop being called from an open door or window. If it’s parked, you’ll have to wait for it to fill up before it moves.   

These sturdy buses weave through the city to form a web of routes that connect Accra. As such, they are the most accessible mode of transportation and take up a majority of the space at Circle. There are over four different trotro stations in and around Circle, each focusing on a specific corner of the city. The trotro is the undisputed king of the Ghanaian public transport system and about 90 percent of the thousands of people who pass through circle every day arrive on one and leave on another.

But trotros compete with taxis, okadas, and Metro Mass Transit busses for passengers and space in Nkrumah Circle.

The okada (pronounced ōh- KAH-dah)
Traffic in Accra is intense. The antidote? Motor bikes, known as okada, that zip through the city’s streets as cars crawl through traffic. As okadas have become more popular over the past few years, lines of motorbikes parked close to and in front of trotros and taxis constantly vie for space and passengers at Circle. They’re slightly more expensive than a trotro, but cheaper than a taxi, and are now the fastest way to get around the city.

The use of motorbikes for  public transportation was imported from Nigeria where their use is much more streamlined. Despite it’s practically, okadas are illegal in Accra. But authorities tend to turn a blind eye. Getting an okada at Circle is just as easy as getting a taxi or trotro. They are abundant with affordable fares, depending on how far you go. 

Metro Mass Transit buses
The government owned and operated Metro Mass Transit buses are another option for travelers at Circle. The bright orange buses, sometimes referred to as Kuffour buses after the president who introduced them in 2006, operate like trotros but are heavily subsidized and are free for school children and the elderly.

The government recently introduced the Aayalolo bus system, a fleet of buses that run on one particular route on a dedicated bus lane. The Aayalolo buses were designed to challenge the uncomfortable and slightly pricier trotros by being safe and comfortable.  These buses have air conditioning and USB ports to charge phones. Despite the comfort, most people still prefer the trotro because Aayalolo buses, still in the prototype phase, only operate on one route.

Privately operated buses
The reason Circle is the major transport hub across the country, and not just in Accra, is because of the dozens of commercial bus terminals located there. These privately operated buses, all headquartered at Circle, ferry people and goods beyond Ghana, to Nigeria,Mali and elsewhere in West Africa.

The VIP brand is the most popular. They have a strong safety record, adjustable seats, air conditioning, and onboard entertainment , so the ride is comfortable enough.

Navigating the Circle

Grab a snack
Street food at Circle typically comprises spicy snacks such as khebabs and open grilled mutton, pork and tilapia to other indigenous Ghanaian dishes like Waakye, Kenkey and Jollof rice sold by small vendors, mainly to services that transport staff and visitors in transit. These meals are quite affordable and easy to come by as there are many vendors in stalls and kiosks spread across the space. However, the snack preferred snack option for most visitors is a refreshing coconut to rehydrate after trekking through the hot Accra sun. Indeed, Circle is not a place you’d associate with great tasting meals in Accra and you’d be better off trying street food from other places like Osu or Labadi.

Watch your belongings
Tip Toe Lane is a very narrow and crowded street where cell phones, laptops, and their repairmen are based. Most of them are over eager, shouting for new customers and haggling. Be careful you don’t get duped. People here are are notorious for snatching cell phones or tricking you into swapping yours for a bar of soap, smartly packaged as a real phone.

But Tip Toe lane is a good place to find any tech product you desire. Just be sure to go there with someone familiar with how business works here.

Take a moment for beauty
When it comes to Circle, people are usually too busy hustling for their next ride to pay attention to its unusual beauty.

As a native Ghanaian, I’ve had a chance to take in how the strong lines of the three tier overpass create a blissful web of hard lines and shadows that illuminate and darken certain spots of the grey asphalt road and pavement.

This industrial image is then made vibrant by the rainbow-colored umbrellas used by vendors who line the walkways, and streaks of color from the trotros, buses, and taxis that cruise by.

The Kwame Nkrumah Water Park Fountain at the interchange is a great place to sit and relax when the noise and tension of the buzzing city become overwhelming. At night, the elaborate system of water fountains below the imposing, forward-facing statue of Dr. Nkrumah is illuminated by a breathtaking light display, making the space cheerful and celebratory.

Whether you speed past on the top-most tier of the overhead bridge taking in the splashes of color from a bird’s eye view of the city or stand waiting at rush hour for a trotro, Circle is unforgettable. You’ll be proud you survived, and awed by the seamless chaos and organization of it all.

The rates for these cross-country consumer busses are quite reasonable and are standard across all the operators. Ticketing is straightforward. But keep in mind: the busses only depart when full.

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