Distraction Free Reading

Driving in the Postcolony: Jennifer Hart on Automobiles and Infrastructure in Ghana

Editor’s note: In Ghana on the Go, Jennifer Hart tells the history of how being a driver in Ghana became a contested vocation. Today on Platypus, she talks with Ilana Gershon about her work on infrastructure and profession. They talk through how driving emerged as a profession in the context of British colonial efforts to strategically introduce transportation technology, and about how this history has shaped the current precarious and often stigmatized nature of the job.  Ultimately, Hart argues that the history of Ghanaian roads and motor cars is also a history of how integral human labor and labor conditions are to the development of infrastructures generally.

Ilana Gershon: What is striking and possibly unexpected about your book is that to tell the history of Ghanaian drivers is also to tell the history of infrastructure.  Indeed, you make a very compelling case for how studies of infrastructure need to become far more conscious of labor history once we accept that humans are integral parts of evolving infrastructure.   If you were going to explain the arc of your book as a history of human infrastructure, what are one or two of the changes in Ghanaian drivers’ lives over the course of the twentieth century that you would want readers to know about?

Jennifer Hart: We often write and talk about the culture of automobility as globally homogenous – an implicit byproduct of the technology of the motor vehicle. It becomes a sort of narrative trope. Paul Edwards called roads the “invisible, unremarked basis of modernity.” But the history of Ghanaian drivers highlights that this technological and infrastructural story was profoundly shaped by the people who use that technology and infrastructure. In the Gold Coast, early vehicles were imported by European administrators and import companies and used as symbols of political domination and control. Cocoa farmers, who used their profits to invest in motor vehicles and employed them to transport cocoa between rural farms and coastal ports in the 1930s and 1940s, created the foundation for a new culture of motor transportation in the colonial Gold Coast. African entrepreneurs, who purchased and operated motor vehicles, controlled this new form of automobility, using the technology to transport goods and people throughout the colony.  That autonomy and control over technology positioned drivers as respectable members of modern society, providing a public service for private profit. The growth of cocoa farming enabled Africans to purchase and deploy motor transportation to expand the economic, social, and cultural possibilities for a wide array of Ghanaians in the colonial and early postcolonial period.  

The collapse of cocoa prices in the mid-1960s, in many ways, reshaped the significance of driving work in the postcolony.  Drivers continued to operate in much the same way throughout the period of political and economic stability of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  The Ghanaian public, however, interpreted their actions and their profits differently.  The passenger-public relied on the services of drivers.  Drivers profited from their passengers at a moment when many Ghanaians were struggling to feed themselves. Government leaders, media, and the general public recast drivers as public enemies, profiteers, and criminals throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  For drivers who had received their licenses in the 1930s and 1940s, this was a dramatic shift from which they have never recovered.  As one popular highlife song proclaimed, all women in the 1950s and 1960s wanted to marry drivers because of their ability to accumulate wealth and provide for their families.  By the end of the 20th century driving was widely seen as an occupation of last resort for people who had no other way of ensuring their survival.

IG: Roads and drivers may have come to Ghana during the British colonial regime, but they flourished very much against the wishes of the British colonial government.  The British preferred railroads.  You make the compelling point that the British colonial officers were introducing these forms of transportation as though Africa was not already filled with complex trade routes, but the reception of these modes of travel entirely depended on how Africans were already embedded in complex exchange relationships. Given this, could you talk a bit about why railroads and drivers were pitted against each other in the colonial imagination and what role Ghanaian drivers saw themselves as playing in this moment?

JH: Europeans in the Gold Coast were aware of the complex trade and transport routes that connected coastal ports and rural production areas. Portuguese, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, German, and British forces built forts along the Gold Coast, working directly with African long-distance traders to obtain gold, ivory, and slaves as early as the 15th century. The Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean trades brought African goods to European markets much earlier than that. British officials who built railways in the Gold Coast at the end of the 19th century were well aware that they were not creating trade and transport routes. British administrators built railways to control trade, redirecting the flow of goods from long-standing African networks to railway outposts, where African producers sold their goods at lower prices to the representatives of European export companies, who then loaded them onto trains for transport directly to coastal ports. Railways in Great Britain were controlled by the private sector, but colonial railways were built and operated by the British colonial government. If British colonial officials were able to control the flow of goods throughout the colony, they could more effectively collect taxes on African trade. But, more importantly, they could also exert greater control over African producers, whose economic power and autonomy provided an important challenge to the goals of “new imperialism.”  

When motor vehicles first arrived in the Gold Coast in the first decade of the 20th century, British officials cast them as prestige objects – symbols of British power in the colony. African producers and traders, however, saw them as valuable alternatives to the mechanized transport of the railway. African cocoa farmers used motor vehicles to bypass colonial railways, transporting their goods directly to the coast for sale. Motor vehicles were important because they allowed producers to maximize their profits and control the movement of their goods. However, motor transport networks also drew on older trade and transport networks and practices. Vehicles connected farms and smaller villages with both regional and coastal markets, allowing farmers and traders to travel with their goods and engage in various scales of trade.  

Beginning in the mid-1930s, colonial officials expressed increasing concern over what they termed “road vs. rail competition.” Not only did the British seek to limit road construction, but they also actively destroyed existing roads (or allowed them to deteriorate to dangerous levels), implemented a system of road scheduling that banned road use during particular hours, and placed speed governors on vehicles registered in the colony. Africans resisted these various attempts to regulate motor transport use.Vehicle owners sabotaged speed governors and traveled at night to get around road scheduling regulations.  Communities repaired roads and paid for road construction in the absence of colonial investment. For some, these were economic calculations, designed to maximize profits or incorporate communities into the broader colonial economy. For others, these actions were statements of protest about the effectiveness of colonial governance.  

While railway workers were explicitly organized into unions that represented an early form of anticolonial resistance, drivers – though unionized – rarely took on political action as an occupational group. Instead, their actions reflected the needs and concerns of their passengers – issues that often were at odds with colonial intentions.  

IG: Telling the history of drivers is not only a history of infrastructure, it is also a history of how a job becomes a profession.   Could you discuss how the concept of being “professional” was mobilized for different ends by the drivers, the creators of driving schools, and the government?

JH: I often talk about drivers’ histories as occupational histories. Driving was much more than a job – it was an occupation. Many young men talked about driving work as something like a vocation.  Driving, they argued, was “in their heart.” Even when their parents insisted that they pursue other forms of work, they were unable to resist the allure of the road. This was work that defined their lives. They were not casual drivers – the people that Ghanaians often refer to as “myself drivers” (that is, “I drive myself”).  They were professionals. For most men, that evoked this vocational attitude.  But it also conveyed a sense of expertise and skill. They not only knew how to operate the vehicle, but they also knew the rules of the road and the basics of maintenance and repair. Beyond that technological knowledge, however, drivers also learned how to conduct themselves, maintaining their composure when encountering challenging situations on the road or in interacting with passengers.

Like many other forms of entrepreneurial work in 20th century Ghana, drivers were trained in their profession as mates or apprentices. Upon paying a fee, a young man’s family would apprentice him to a master driver for training. At a basic level, that training involved the mechanics of operating a vehicle. Drivers vividly recalled being taken up to a hill in a vehicle by their master, who placed a piece of chalk behind the tire and instructed them to move forward without disturbing the chalk. But apprentices only engaged in these kinds of exercises right before they were to take their driving test to obtain a license. Young men often spent years in apprenticeships before they were allowed to go for testing. The rest of this time was spent in observation, as young men learned to embody the habitus of driving work.

Many older drivers I interviewed insisted that this intensive, long-term training was essential to establishing and maintaining the standards of the occupation. Licensing tests were mere formalities. Young men who completed apprenticeships had already been thoroughly professionalized before they even approached the licensing officer. In the eyes of passengers and fellow drivers, this form of professionalism meant a lot.  Passengers could trust them with their lives and livelihoods. Fellow drivers knew that they would act with integrity on and off the road. That kind of professionalism translated into respectability and status for many young men. Their status was magnified by their ability to accumulate wealth and care for families.  Status was signaled by their sharp uniforms and cosmopolitan manners.

For the British colonial state, however, this form of professionalism mattered much less. The British government refused to negotiate with any workers that were not represented by a registered labor union. Drivers, who regularly petitioned the government over motor traffic regulations, petrol prices, police intimidation, road maintenance, licensing practices, and any number of other issues, began organizing themselves into unions quite early. Drivers’ unions constituted half of the first batch of labor unions (2 out of 4) to officially register with the colonial government in the 1930s. In doing so, they made a claim to a different form of professionalization, asserting their presence within the formal structures of British colonial capitalism.  

In the postcolony, drivers’ unions have taken on increasingly important roles in regulating driver practice and managing lorry parks as the central government has decentralized some of its previous authority in the context of structural adjustment reforms. Drivers’ unions continue to represent drivers’ interests in court, negotiate disputes among drivers and passengers, and generally maintain basic standards for driver behavior. Young men (and increasingly some women!) still train as mates or apprentices. But many people no longer see driving work as a path to respectability, status, and wealth. Instead, it’s often seen as an occupation of last resort, which enables people to subsist or supplement meager incomes. Some of that is a result of some of the processes I described above. But it’s also a product of the way that driving schools worked to reframe the skills and expertise necessary for driving work. These schools declare that anyone can be a driver – a sentiment that many drivers protest – and provide training in the basic mechanics of a vehicle and the rules of the road in preparation for the driving test. A certificate and a license, they argue, is the symbol of expertise and knowledge. These sentiments were echoed by government officials like Nkrumah’s Minister for Transportation, Krobo Edusei, who frequently spoke in dismissively gendered terms about driving work as something that his wife could do. For drivers, however, these schools ignore the important professional lessons and social skills conveyed through apprenticeship. Driving schools – or good driving schools – might train decent “myself” drivers. But those drivers were not professional. Older drivers argued that even the drivers of taxis and trotros (mini-buses) were not truly “professional drivers,” despite their commercial motor transport work.   

IG: In the early years, Ghanaian drivers were highly valued as entrepreneurs, as following a path towards success that departed from more well-established trajectories.  Under neoliberal logics that greatly value entrepreneurs, how are drivers perceived these days?  Are they still seen as entrepreneurs, and if so, has what it means to be an entrepreneur changed for drivers?

JH: If driving represented an alternative path to success, it’s not so alternative any more. Motor transportation represents an enormous portion of the Ghanaian economy today, absorbing much of the unskilled (male) labor in urban and periurban areas. The seemingly endless numbers of young men entering the motor transport sector likely reflects the rapid rate of urbanization in Ghana.  But drivers also now spend hours every day waiting for their turn to drive. The supply seems to have outpaced demand.  As a result, the path to accumulation for drivers today seems much more difficult than it did even at the height of the economic crisis of the 1980s, when shortages of petrol and spare parts made it difficult to keep vehicles on the road.  Even then, drivers said, they made money. Drivers today face a very different reality. Most drivers continue to work for what they call their “daily bread” – they do not receive strict wages but instead must give a portion of their daily take to a vehicle owner. And yet, they are less entrepreneurial in the true sense of the word. Drivers today are much less likely to own their own vehicles. Even used vehicles are prohibitively expensive, and the very limited profits that drivers might accumulate in a given week are frequently diverted to cover the daily, weekly, and quarterly costs of health care, school fees, housing, and various forms of social and family obligation. In other words, while driving work has always been precarious, drivers’ lives today are more clearly defined by precarity.  

This kind of precarity is also reflected at the level of government policy, infrastructural development, and urban planning. Trotro (or mini-bus) drivers find themselves the particular target of government attention and public outrage. Government officials have responded to growing public unrest over traffic congestion in cities like Accra and Kumasi by proposing new forms of public transit like that would once again seek to centralize control of motor transport and limit drivers’ access to the road. Many of these proposed changes, like Bus Rapid Transit, reflect the priorities of global funders more than they do the realities on the ground. Echoing the failures of railways and bus services in colonial Ghana, these postcolonial infrastructures are not paying attention to the systems and cultures of mobility that define urban life in contemporary Ghana. Trotro routes and services, generally, are effective.  They have grown in response to passenger demand. Spending millions of dollars to create a system that inhibits the work of drivers who represent 15% of road users but carry 85% of mobile citizens without addressing the other 85% of road users who drive private cars seems to miss the point. But also, importantly, these strategies divert attention away from real solutions that could improve the work of drivers and the experience of passengers for a much lower cost. In other words, the history of drivers in 20th century Ghana is not just about the past.  It speaks directly to the kinds of development and planning politics that are reshaping cities like Accra today.