Accra Mobile: Motor Transportation, Sensation, and New Media

ghana africa map ghana accra map

In mid-July I head back to Ghana to begin preliminary work on “Accra Mobile”.  Accra Mobile is a digital humanities project, which aims to create an interactive map of the trotro system in Accra, Ghana. “Accra Mobile” builds on a decade of historical and anthropological research on the culture of African automobility in Ghana. I have used this research, which includes archival work, oral interviews, participant observation, and the collection of cultural artifacts, to produce a number of scholarly works, including two journal articles, numerous conference papers, and the book manuscript Ghana on the Go. This work represents the first significant research on motor transport culture in Ghana and the first monograph on the history and culture of African automobility anywhere on the continent.  In many ways, “Accra Mobile” is an extension of this earlier work, bringing historical research into the public sphere and engaging directly with issues of contemporary interest and significance in Ghana and around the world. However, “Accra Mobile” will also allow me to explore the culture of Ghanaian streets—a culture in which I was deeply embedded throughout my research and which defines life in contemporary Ghana—in ways that were not possible in written texts and historical scholarship, bringing those streets to life through the images, sounds, and voices of Ghanaian drivers and passengers. The honking of horns, the signaling of drivers, the social behaviors of passengers, and the decoration of vehicles are all essential to understanding the life of the street.


The Life of the Street

Whether you drive in from the rural interior or fly in from abroad, one’s first experiences in Accra are defined by traffic. Traffic slows down as you drive into the city from the grassy plains or forested interior that surround Accra. Sitting among the immobile masses, you can purchase any number of products from hawkers plying goods in the middle of the street (from food products like peanuts, bananas, ice cream, soda, water, apples, oranges, “donuts’, etc. to household decoration like crucifixes and mirrors to essentials like toilet paper and everything in between [dog collars and chains, pirated DVDs, shoes, newspapers, etc etc]). If you’re not fortunate enough to have air conditioning, you also roll down your window to smell the odor of traffic (exhaust fumes), feel the heat radiating up from the pavement and the surrounding metal vehicles, and hear the honking of horns and the music blasting from nearby vehicles (or your own).

Likewise, when you exit the airport terminal, you are immediately accosted by dozens of drivers vying for your business, pulling your luggage, promising to deliver you to your intended location. If you are relatively privileged, you are probably riding in a private car or a taxi. You bargain with the taxi drivers for your fare, often frustrated that they charge at least double the regular price (as good entrepreneurs who estimate the value of quick transport for weary travellers) and doubtful that they know your location. However, as you drive through the streets, along the roadside and around your car, you also see large 15-passenger vans, packed with people, stopping to load and unload passengers at lay-byes.

lorry park

These vehicles—trotros—are named for their original three-penny fare (tro is 3 in Ga). Trotros emerged officially in the 1950s, in the years just after independence; however, their origins date back to the mid-1930s, when African lorry drivers carrying goods from the interior began stopping along the roadside to pick up passengers on their way into the city’s central market and ports. These early drivers threatened the security and authority of the British colonial state in the heart of colonial power (the capital, Accra). Colonial officials, who were eager to protect the profits of a state-run municipal bus service, labeled these vehicles “pirate passenger lorries”—an indication of their existence outside of the colonial state. However, these early lorries, and the trotros that formed out of the practices of “pirate” drivers also responded to the needs of Accra’s mobile passenger-public in ways that the municipal bus system could not. They provided more accessible transport for market women (female traders) and their customers, who were perhaps the most mobile urban residents. Trotros connected neighborhoods with major and minor markets, with routes following frequently trod patterns of movement. And they provided space to carry goods as well as passengers. And trotros followed a broader pattern of African-dominated, entrepreneurial commercial/public transport in the country, providing opportunities for young men to establish lives of respectability and worldliness outside of the pathways provided by Western education. By the late 1960s, the public preference for trotros, coupled with the decreasing state ability to maintain buses led the city government to dismantle the municipal bus system (echoing the lorry drivers’ domination of the colonial railway in rural cash-crop production regions a few decades earlier).

Today, trotros serve as the primary form of transportation across the sprawling metropolis of 4 million people. In Accra, trotros, which constitute 15% of road traffic, carry 85% of the city’s mobile residents. And the system, which originally existed only in Accra, has spread to other urban areas like Kumasi, Cape Coast, and Takoradi.

In tracing networks and pathways of movement, mapping attempts, but often fails, to capture this dynamism. The two-dimensional nature of conventional maps, which places emphasis on infrastructure rather than experience, makes it difficult for us to engage with the kinesthetic realities and cultures of the street, which shape the way that users move through space. My project seeks to rethink mapping. Particularly in cities like Accra where the conventional labels of a map are often replaced by other forms of navigational and spatial awareness, how might we map the way that people move? And how might we use a map to capture the dynamism and culture of the street? “Accra Mobile” seeks to produce a map of Accra’s public transit system, but it also seeks to go beyond the static map in order to capture the vibrancy and flexibility of mobility that is central to the system, using new mobile, mapping, and social media technologies to bring the map to life in a way that represents the experiences of users and facilitates new conversations about the role of motor transportation in the life of Accra residents. In other words, “Accra Mobile” suggests a humanistic approach to planning and development that uses technology, popular culture, and ethnographic research to bridge the seemingly intractable divide between academics and practitioners, drivers and passengers, citizens and regulators, development and practice. Given the current pace of redevelopment through Accra’s BRT System, this project is incredibly timely and important for a great diversity of Ghanaians. However, as Detroit considers its own BRT system, this project also suggests important comparisons outside of Ghana and raises important and timely questions about the role of infrastructure projects like the BRT in refiguring cultures of mobility globally.

Mapping Mobility?

Much has been made about the problematic colonial history of mapping in/of Africa. Early European and Arab traders drew speculative maps of the continent, detailing the inlets and ports of the coastal area (where they had most immediate contact) while leaving the inaccessible interior blank or, in some ways worse, imagining fantastical creatures and fictional kings that inspired later explorers who tried to locate these geographical features, wealth, and political power. As European powers sought to solidify their control over oceanic and interior trade routes, they expanded farther into the interior and declared spheres of influence and authority over vast swathes of territory based largely on access to resources.

berlinconference colonial_africa_1913

The ultimate realization of this process in the Berlin Conference of 1884/1885, effectively carved up the continent like “the magnificent African cake”, separating some populations and preexisting states and combining others who had been historical enemies—creating issues that colonial officials often exploited in order to prevent organized resistance and encourage dependence on the colonial state. Mapping also extended to more intimate spaces, as urban planners sought to remake African communities and create new urban spaces defined by colonial presence. Through mapping, colonial states sought to control the means by which space was transformed into place—with its attendant structures of power, authority, and control as well as culture and economy.

Scholars within and outside of the African continent have increasingly sought to rethink the significance of mapping for African social, political, economic, and cultural lives. For example, in a recent issue of the Chimurenga Chronic, philosopher Achille Mbembe declares that ‘the densification of all kinds of networks, both human and technological, will reshape the entire African spatial map.’ Mbembe’s language of “network” highlights the importance of mobility, interaction and exchange to this new spatial map.

alkebu-lan-1260 (Nikolaj Cyon)

These networks have been imagined in a number of different ways. Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon’s speculative map of an uncolonized Africa, for example, engages in counterfactual history to imagine a spatialization. Others have used new technologies to map mobility more literally.

Cities: matatu 2, routes

A collaborative project between the University of Nairobi, Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development, MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab, and Groupshot—Digital Matatus—argues that “technology is transforming the way that we relate to transit” and claims to “make transportation in the developing world more efficient, and open”. Using purpose-built mobile phone apps, Digital Matatus has collected and standardized transit data for Nairobi’s matatu system, using crowd-sourcing to produce standardized bus routes and a citywide transport map that have been released to the public. They now want to expand their tools and methodologies to a global scale.  Such a map is undoubtedly useful for those using Nairobi’s matatus. However, in trying to create a scalable methodology, the project coordinators acknowledge that they had to erase (or ignore) the vagaries and specificities of the matatu system. The result is a decontextualized map that looks much like a London tube map, disconnected from the experience of the street or the landmarks and practices that are so central to matatu mobility.

These experiments suggest new ways of thinking, even if they are limited in their own project aims.  In particular, they suggest the potential for a new approach to mapping, which is more sensitive to issues of context and which more fully convey the experience of movement and place in a way that confronts and breaks down assumptions and invites viewers/users.

Sensory Ethnography and Place-Making

My interest is not merely in documenting mobile networks, but understanding peoples’ experiences of mobility–using ethnographic methodologies to understand the lives of mobile Ghanaians throughout the 20th century.  If the goal of the ethnographer is to understand others’ lives, we must have a theory and methodology that enables us to do that as fully as possible.  Scientists, ethnographers, social scientists, and others have increasingly acknowledged that the senses are intimately interconnected and are central to understand the full depth of human experience; experience, practice, and knowledge is multisensory, rendering the conventional focus on observing, listening and writing/reading insufficient.

This project is, thus, informed by 3 methodological and theoretical fields:

  • Sensory Ethnography: “A re-thinking of ethnographic methods with attention to sensory perception, experience, and categories (not simply research about the senses)” (Sarah Pink, 2010)
  • Emplacement: “As Feld puts it, ‘as place is sensed, senses are placed; as places make sense, senses make place.’ The dialectic of perception and place (and of both with meaning) is as intricate as it is profound, and it is never-ending. Given that we are never without perception, the existence of this dialectic means that we are never without emplaced experiences. It signifies as well that we are not only in places but of them.” (Casey in Feld and Basso, 19)
  • (Auto)Mobility: Automobility is a way of life, not just a means of moving from one place to another (Urry 2007: 115). It is, as John Urry argues, a “mobility-system”: “a powerful complex constituted through very many technical and social interlinkages with other institutions, industries and related occupations” (Urry 2007: 116). Automobility is a complete system, linking social and cultural practices of “work, family life, childhood, leisure and pleasure” (Urry 2007: 117) with the economic structures of capitalist production and consumption and the political realms of regulation and planning.

These theories and methodologies intersect in shaping a sensation and scholarship of “moving in place”.  As Clifford Geertz notes, “For it is still the case that no one lives in the world in general. Everybody, even the exiled, the drifting, the diasporic, or the perpetually moving, lives in some confined and limited stretch of it—’the world around here.’ The sense of interconnectedness imposed on us by the mass media, by rapid travel, and by long-distance communication obscures this more than a little. So does the featurelessness and interchangeability of so many of our public spaces, the standardization of so many of our products, and the routinization of so much of our daily existence. The banalities and distractions of the way we live now lead us, often enough, to lose sight of how much it matters just where we are and what it is like to be there. The ethnography of place is, if anything, more critical for those who are apt to imagine that all places are like than for those who, listening to forests or experiencing stones, know better.” (Geertz in Feld and Basso, 264)

A sensory approach to mapping and the history of mobility helps us address some of the limits of narrative.  People come with their own assumptions–movement is a visceral, embodied experience, which is hard to fully convey in verbal form.  Narrative does have the potential to highlight parallels, but it also obscures the distinctive and contextual or culturally-embedded qualities that constitute movement and help us understand the meanign of automobility.  In my book, Ghana on the Go, I explore the similarities and differences between cultures of automobility through comparative analysis and narrative.  In “Accra Mobile” I seek a more embodied, sensory, and experiential form of comparison, using the recording of sensation in order to invite a more engaged and informed comparison, which gives the readers (or audience) the tools with which they could participate in analysis themselves, and ultimately to contribute content to the final project.

In doing so, this project moves beyond a discussion of the methodologies of sensory ethnography to construct a means of presenting ethnography as sensorium, creating new possibilities for engaging with the public and encouraging creative and innovative forms of presentation.  To do this, in many ways, is not novel.  Rather, this project builds on a long history of digital scholarship. Theories of sensory ethnography have been engaged with the potential of 20th century technology (from the “electronic communications “ of the 1950s through the digital media of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab).

Accra Street Sensorium

Accra Mobile uses digital technology to place sensuous scholarship in conversation with history. While we cannot have the same kinds of video and audio recordings of historical Accra streets, we can use photographs and description to draw parallels between the past and what we might be able to find in the present. Doing so encourages the viewer to exercise their historical imagination. All history does this, of course (asks people to exercise their historical imagination by drawing on experiences in the present). But particularly in the Africanist context, so few people have direct experience on the continent, which leads to assumptions and stereotypes guiding imagination. Sensuous scholarship gives us an opportunity to better inform imaginative work and the work of historical empathy. Sensuous scholarship of the road also highlights the similarities and differences between Ghanaian automobility and the automobility of the West. Some of those similarities might be obvious—the presence of large numbers of private cars on the road, for example. But stopping there results in a very superficial sense of Ghanaian automobility that does not reflect the experience of the city’s majority, who rely on the trotro system to get around. By experiencing more directly what it’s like to rely on the trotro system and thinking about the ways in which trotros organize space (as well as how their structure responds to the demands and interests and movements of city residents), however, we can also highlight differences. This is not an insignificant project. In fact, the difference between Ghanaian automobility and American automobility is the foundational question that serves as a jumping off point for a broader set of questions or investigations, which students or others can use the map and its resources to explore and answer, situating events and interactions within the space and movement of the city. This project reflects an attempt to both a) collect research materials, b) analyze those materials, and c) present materials to an audience within and beyond academia using digital technologies. As such it is part of an emerging digital humanities scholarship that seeks to move beyond merely using technology to present materials, but is also thinking differently about the way that those materials can be used, the research is done and the potential to engage the public in the act of ongoing research that extends far beyond the point of initial fieldwork.

accra picture 2 Accra picture 3 accra picture 4 accra picture 5 accra traffic sign

Project Outline

“Accra Mobile” includes a free, publicly-accessible, interactive website and mobile app that provides three different levels of public engagement. First, the website will utilize GPS-mapping technology to provide a map of the city’s major public transport routes, including bus stops and lorry parks, where different routes converge. The map and associated mobile app will allow Accra residents to more effectively negotiate a complicated public transportation system, which serves some 85% of the city’s population. Residents use routes and bus stops to navigate the city both through their use of transportation and as physical markers and means of mapping or marking space in the city in the near total absence of street signs. In the absence of any usable public map, this website will provide an important practical tool to an increasingly mobile Ghanaian public.

Second, the website will utilize data collected through historical and ethnographic research to present spatially-embedded educational and cultural materials. The markers for major lorry parks on the map will also provide a portal for users to access the life histories of drivers, passengers, traders, and others who frequent lorry parks via historical and contemporary photographs of driving culture, maps of the lorry parks themselves, as well as audio and visual evidence of cultural life in the lorry park and on the road, including recordings of itinerant preachers, traders, and drivers’ assistants calling and signaling routes. Ultimately, this will also include historical and contemporary itineraries, which identify spaces and events of historical and cultural significance that users can trace throughout the city. On one level, these materials provide helpful cultural and historical background for visitors in Accra or for those who wish to learn more about life in the city but who are otherwise unable to visit. In doing so, my work contributes to a much larger project to increase global awareness and knowledge about the realities of African life and overturn stereotypes about the continent. But it also provides educational resources for primary, secondary, and university students, who can use interviews, photographs, and other documentation to inform research projects and other forms of study in the U.S., Ghana, and around the world. Such materials are particularly important in primary and secondary schools, where students often receive little exposure to the history and culture of Africa. Lastly, this project will include a social media or crowd-sourcing component, utilizing existing technologies like Twitter to solicit materials that document the everyday realities of Accra’s motor transport system. This will allow the Ghanaian public to directly contribute to the website and help shape the narrative presented. However, in using social media, I also seek to facilitate conversations between drivers and passengers about the state of contemporary motor transportation. These conversations are intended to address the inherent tensions and frequent conflicts between drivers and passengers. But they also can serve as a medium through which persistent problems like accidents and road safety can be productively discussed. Such conversations are essential in light of contemporary efforts to reform the public transport sector in Ghana. Development programs, like Accra’s Bus Rapid Transit system, have attempted to address these problems without significant consultation and input from drivers. As a result, the programs, which are often directed by elite government officials and development experts, fail to account for driver practices or the ways in which passengers use motor transportation in the city. This website will provide an important venue through which these interests and practices can be articulated by the very drivers and passengers who most frequently utilize the services.

The broader project, thus, consists of three discrete but interrelated parts:

A) Data collection – The first part of the project requires the collection of data. Fieldwork conducted for my book serves as the starting point for data collection. Partnering with students at Wayne State and the University of Ghana as well as GIS specialist Carolyn Loh who is a professor at Wayne State, and digital humanities specialists working in the Wayne State Libraries, I will use digital technologies to 1) map the trotro routes, identifying bus stops and major lorry parks; 2) collect video of a diversity of experiences on the road—within the trotro, in the lorry park, on the street; 3) conduct video-taped oral history interviews with drivers and passengers; and 4) document the vehicular signage, religion, trade, signals, and sounds that comprise the culture of the street.

B) Website design and data entry – The second part of this project requires the help of digital specialists. I will work with the staff of Michigan State University’s MATRIX Center for Digital Humanities to develop the “back end” of the project, creating the basic infrastructure for the first incarnations of the project, as well as creating opportunities for future growth through social media connectivity. Director Dean Rehberger, Director of Digital History Projects Peter Alegi, and Director of Library and Archives Projects Catherine Foley have already pledged technical support for the project and are working with me to pursue the necessary funding to support its completion, including a web designer and other digital specialists.

C) Student engagement – The third and final part of this project represents a long-term engagement with student learning. Undergraduate and graduate students in my upper-level courses like “African Cities” and “Everyday Africa” will be able to use the website and other primary sources to research and map historical and cultural itineraries in Accra, using the map to think about events and practices through the lens of mobility and space. These itineraries will ultimately be loaded onto the website as yet another level of public engagement. With the support of the University and external granting agencies, I hope to build on this commitment to undergraduate research, taking students to Accra and allowing them to conduct research and collect materials in the field as part of a summer-study abroad incarnation of “African Cities”.

Ethnographic History and Global Automobility

In other words, Accra Mobile bridges the fields of digital humanities and ethnographic history.  As Levi-Strauss argued, “Both history and ethnography are concerned with societies other than the one in which we live. Whether this otherness is due to remoteness in time or to remoteness in space, or even to cultural heterogeneity, is of secondary importance compared to the basic similarity of perspective. In both cases, we are dealing with systems of representations, which differ for each member of the group, and which, on the whole, differ from the representations of the investigator. The best ethnographic study will never make the reader a native. All that the historian or ethnographer can do, and all that we can expect of them, is to enlarge specific experience to the dimensions of a more general one” (Claude Levi-Strauss, 1963a: 16-17, quoted in Comaroffs, Ethnography and the Historical Imagination, 7).  Technology helps us get closer to this goal.  We still may not be able to achieve the impossible, but we can get a little bit closer.

At the same time, Accra Mobile contributes to an emerging conversation about the meaning of global automobility.  By decentering the West and thinking about the meaning of technology in the context of globalization or global trade, the ethnographic history of trotros highlights the importance of both the global and the local.  Using digital technologies, we can present these contrasts and contradictions to the viewer directly adn invite them to construct their own arguments and analyses with evidence.

This is only the beginning, of course–the methodological and theoretical underpinnings of a project that will take many years of data collection and coding (and LOTS of funding) to complete.  But we’re on the way.  I’m looking forward to meeting with people like Yaw Odoom of the great “Trotro Diaries” project, as well as students at Ashesie University, who are working on mapping trotro routes for various purposes.  If you know of anyone who might be interested in the project, if you have any information about potential funding for this project, or if you are aware of any resources that might be useful, I greatly appreciate and welcome all suggestions.  We all engage with the idea of mapping and mobility for different purposes, but the intersections are obvious and I hope that out of that we can develop some great partnerships and potential for future collaboration.

5 thoughts on “Accra Mobile: Motor Transportation, Sensation, and New Media

  1. This is a very good scholarly attempt to present the ‘transport sytem’in ghana. The comfort for me is that the writer approaches the study from the angle of ethnography and this makes an important underpinning for what we daily observe as a ‘system’.
    From an urban planning point of view, I describe Accra’s ‘transport system’as all that is left from a non-responsive technocrat community whose leadership is discreetly designed to perpetuate the dependence of the majority informal community on it.
    This can easily take us back to conventional developement theories but the bane of my statement is that there are little choices people can make concerning how they move. Unionised Trotro operators understand this very well and are exploiting the business opportunity.
    Limited east-west network orbits were inherited from colonial periods and still continue to define our settlements. Planners can still not assign discrete functionality to our corridors and have also allowed the approach of ‘regularizing’ illegal developments to become precedence to non-enforcement of physical planning laws.
    What we see as mobility today in my opinion is problematic. Every industry group in Ghana has become very powerful; and so the only hope out of these is to appeal to the conscience of its players to allow regulation to play a little bit of role.

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