City Life and Automobility in Twentieth-Century Ghana

By Jennifer Hart, Wayne State University

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Accra lorry park, 2016. Photograph by the author.

On the eve of his country’s independence in the mid-1950s, Ghanaian journalist Moses Danquah claimed: “We are riding confidently on the crest of the wave to greater economic prosperity, to greater social and cultural achievements, and to eventual independence. We have reached this glorious stage largely through our progressive and efficient facilities for transportation—through our progressive, almost dramatic change from a static society to a mobile society.”[1] Nationalists like Danquah and Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah seized on the symbolism of mobility, declaring a new slogan for the new nation-state: “Forward Ever, Backward Never.” For Ghanaian nationalists, automobile technologies in particular embodied African creativity, resilience, and resistance to a form of British colonial rule that sought to limit African opportunities and control African economic development. However, automobiles and automobility were also symbols of the promise of a modernist future. That future vision was rooted in the dynamism of urban life, but new motor transport technologies ensured that even the most remote villages and farms were connected to the new Ghanaian culture of cosmopolitan automobility. In creating a “mobile society,” these nationalists claimed, Ghanaians were poised to seize their rightful place in a global community of prosperous nations.

To some degree, Danquah was right. In my new book, Ghana on the Go: African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation, I argue that automobile technologies redefined the possibilities and opportunities for Africans across the twentieth century. As early as the 1910s, African drivers in colonial Ghana seized on the possibilities afforded by imported motor transport technologies to further the social and economic agendas of a diverse array of local agents, including chiefs, farmers, traders, fishermen, and urban workers. Drivers built on the older mobility systems of trade routes and head carriers. Automobiles facilitated the movement of people and goods across the colony, giving rise to new forms of enterprise and a cosmopolitan culture that defined twentieth-century life. But debates about the use and regulation of automobile technologies also shaped the emergence of a vernacular politics in colonial and postcolonial Ghana. These debates were part of a global culture of automobility, which emerged and grew throughout the twentieth century. However, Ghanaian drivers and passengers who appropriated seemingly global motor transport technologies often did so in the context of profoundly local concerns. In arguing about speed limits, road conditions, and driver practice, drivers, passengers, and government officials participated in an ongoing conversation about the expectations of citizenship and the responsibilities of the state.

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“Old and New Mammy Truck,” photographer P.K. Anane, April 22, 1960 (Ministry of Information, Information Services Photographic Library, Ref. no. R/R/9720/5)

The most intense debates about automobility were rooted in city life. This is unsurprising given the political and economic organization of colonies like the Gold Coast. Cities were important nodes of trade, where networks of the cash crop production and markets for European imported goods met, drawing both Europeans and Africans to the opportunities and possibilities of the colonial cash economy. European colonial officials sought to control trade and other forms of economic exchange in urban areas in order to maximize the profits of the colony. These economic motivations influenced the development of social and political strategies that centralized colonial power in cities and sought to exclude Africans from the prosperity and cosmopolitanism of city life. In cities like Accra, which historian John Parker argues was a town with deeply established cultures of urban residence rooted in the state and society of indigenous Ga people long before the British declared Accra the capital of its Gold Coast Colony, African leaders resisted colonial attempts to reshape the spatial, cultural, and economic politics of city life.[2] While fights between elites over political representation, taxation, and land tenure figured more prominently in colonial archives, the more mundane politics of everyday life were often where city life was formed. Africans demanded access to roads, blurred the boundaries between goods and passenger transport, parked along roadsides, and traveled along illicit routes in Accra. In doing so, these African drivers and passengers certainly provided a powerful challenge to colonial power. But their actions also reshaped the city’s culture of mobility and economy.

British attempts to regulate African mobility were not unique to the Gold Coast. In the 1930s and 1940s, colonial officials in Ceylon, Palestine, India, Nigeria, South Africa, and elsewhere who were concerned about “road vs. rail competition” sought to restrict the movement of colonial subjects. Many of these strategies—governors to regulate speed, licensing requirements, road scheduling—circulated throughout the networks of empire as British officials sought to control the flow of goods and people in colonies. However, Gold Coast drivers and passengers proved particularly resistant to these legislative and regulatory strategies, often exploiting gaps in colonial law and policing to maximize their profits and respond to the demands of their passengers.

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Women climb through the open sides of a tro-tro in Accra. Feature Stories on Transportation in Ghana, photographer George Alhassan, June 2, 1966 (Ministry of Information, Information Services Photographic Library, Ref. No. R/R/7179/10)

Motor transportation facilitated the movement of passengers, goods, and ideas between rural and urban areas, inspiring new forms of cosmopolitanism and engendering new debates about the meaning of respectability, masculinity, and modernity in the context of widespread social, cultural, economic, and political change. Unlike Western consumers and factory workers, who associated motor transport technologies and cultures of automobility with the individual autonomy and industrial prosperity of private car ownership, African drivers in twentieth-century Ghana used these new technologies to create comprehensive passenger transport systems that facilitated the prosperity and mobility of a wide range of entrepreneurs, from cocoa farmers to urban wage laborers. Motor transportation had its roots in the early investments and movements of cocoa farmers in the southern Gold Coast, who used motor vehicles to bypass colonial railways and control the movement and sale of their produce. However, automobility quickly became associated with the cosmopolitanism of city life. African drivers invested in their own vehicles as individual owner-operators, based in urban areas but moving frequently between city and countryside to facilitate the movement of goods and passengers throughout the colony. Men and women alike used motor transport technologies to pursue work in urban areas, moving away from family and elders and creating their own communities and networks of support and kinship. Men sought alternative forms of prosperity outside of the control of elders, working for wages, purchasing land and planting cocoa, purchasing vehicles and starting commercial motor transport businesses. Women moved into markets, taking advantage of the more efficient transport provided by the automobile to engage more directly in long-distance and wholesale trade while still maintaining their family and household responsibilities.

The actions of drivers and passengers blurred boundaries between rural and urban space, goods and passenger transport, citizen and subject. While some of these issues were uniquely colonial problems—manifestations of the tension between British governance and African political and economic strategies—the struggle to regulate the road and the control the movement of goods and passengers changed little at independence. As Danquah’s narrative suggests, nationalist leaders echoed the logics of British colonial rule, coopting transportation as part of a national vision of progress. Drivers and passengers in postcolonial Ghana struggled just as much as their colonial forbears to secure access to infrastructure, freedom of movement, standards of practices, forms of regulation, and the cost of work. Nationalist appropriation of motor transportation as a part of an economy of self-help, authoritarian crackdowns on the profitability of motor transport work, and contemporary debates about fuel costs and fares suggest that, while technopolitics may have been less overt, it still remained tied to a persistent faith in the rhetoric and policies of modernization and development. Even as those policies and ideals frayed in the face of the realities of everyday life in the postcolony, postcolonial leaders continued to use their control over infrastructure and trade in an attempt to reshape the meaning and practice of auto/mobile life in Ghana. In twentieth-century Ghana, the political independence and economic modernization of the 1950s and 1960s was only the beginning. Viewed through the lens of nationalist politics and postcolonial economic decline, the same issues of risk and profit, shortage and prosperity remained even as they took on new significance. In the process, the entrepreneurial prosperity associated with automobility was recast in the postcolony. Drivers were either criminals who continued to pursue their own prosperity or agents of development, coopted into the neoliberal politics of national and international governing bodies.

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“A View of Accra Lorry Station,” photographer E.S. Boateng, May 29, 1973 (Ministry of Information, Information Services Photographic Library, Ref. no. PS/1365/11)

While Western narratives often cast the automobile as “the sovereign good of alienated life and the essential product of the capitalist market,”[3] African drivers and passengers used automobile technologies to challenge the structures of colonial capitalism and reassert control over the economic life of the colony. Particularly in cities like Accra, automobility created new possibilities for African residents, who used technology to craft a unique vision of city life that was rooted in the activities of mobile entrepreneurs who connected urban and rural residents in a periurban sphere of exchange. African mobile histories (or the histories of mobile lives) force us to reevaluate assumed boundaries and progressive narratives. The power of African drivers transcended the assumed divides between colonial and postcolonial, tradition and modernity that are central to Danquah’s narrative. The mobility of African drivers and passengers transgressed the boundaries between urban and rural, city and village. And in doing so, it created a uniquely Ghanaian form of automobility.

[1] Moses Danquah, “Transportation”, Daily Graphic, 11/24/55

[2] John Parker, Making the Town: Ga State and Society in Early Colonial Accra

[3] Guy Debord, quoted in Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture, (Boston: The MIT Press), 1996: 26

Jennifer Hart is an Assistant Professor of African History at Wayne State University. She directs a digital humanities project, Accra Wala, in partnership with the MATRIX Center for Digital Humanities and Ashesi University. She blogs at www.ghanaonthego.com and tweets at @detroittoaccra and @accramobile.

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One Response to City Life and Automobility in Twentieth-Century Ghana

  1. Pingback: City Life and Automobility in Twentieth Century Ghana: A guest post on Global Urban History blog – Ghana on the Go

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