In 2007, my husband and I were waiting for a trotro in Legon when a relatively large bus appeared. Its mate performed elaborate acrobatics off the side of the vehicle as it approached the junction. People were astonished by the acrobatics and murmured their approval of the mate’s showmanship. But the most animated conversation concerned the mate’s gender–this acrobatic mate was a woman!
Female mates are incredibly unusual in Accra. However, that appears to be changing. Based on his own anecdotal experience in May 2015, Allen Kweku Buah noted in a post on the website Modern Ghana that there seemed to be “a new wave of female mates in the trotro business.” Buah expressed concern that it “sends a bad signal to the outside world that black girls cannot rise to the challenge in this 21st century.” While his perspective might be relatively exceptional, the ambivalence about women in driving work is widely held. Passengers at our trotro stop in Legon had mixed reactions to their acrobatic female mate. Some clicked their tongues in disapproval and refused to board the vehicle. Others shook the mate’s hand as they boarded and complimented her obvious skill and professionalism, as well as her desire to push beyond gendered expectations that associate driving work with men and masculinity. Female drivers and trotro mates even figure prominently in popular film, most notably Bentil Robert’s film Maame Serwaa: Trotro Mate
And yet, the reasons that attract women to trotro work seem remarkably similar to their male colleagues. Young female mates like 21-year-old Perpetual Adwoa Konadu, whose life was detailed in an interview by Aba Asamoah in the Weekend Sun, see mate work as a way to cope with poverty and save money for additional schooling. Perpetual was originally sent to Koforidua to learn hairdressing by her father, who is a poor farmer in Tarkwa, Bogoso. And yet, Perpetual had other dreams. She left Koforidua for Accra, living temporarily with her older brother who was a trotro driver. What began as a way to help out the family became a sort of occupational passion. Rather than holding her back, her gender shapes “extra nice” interactions with passengers. Even as Konadu acknowledges the ways in which menstruation provides challenges in an occupation that has limited breaks and even less access to bathroom facilities, she provides no excuses. She is, she argues, “always good to go.” She wants to be an “independent woman,” she argues, eschewing boyfriends and accepted gender norms for hard work in pursuit of aspirations for higher education and her dreams to play professional football.
Konadu’s attitude toward her work as a mate echoes that of many young men working as mates today, and it resonates with historical narratives of driving work, which was seen as a economic refuge for young school-leavers who had dreams of a more respectable life but who lacked the means to attain it through conventional pathways like higher education or trade. In the 20th century, young men entered an apprenticeship as a driver’s mate in order to learn driving work. Their ultimate goal was to become a driver. Mates did not hold temporary positions, they were drivers-in-training whose work was serious and educational/vocational. Young men made enough money that they could save up to purchase their own vehicle soon after obtaining their license. They worked for themselves and identified themselves as a distinct occupational category of prestige and respectability well into the 1960s. In the 21st century, however, driving work is seen as an occupation of last resort and a means of survival for many in the city, who came to pursue big dreams but lacked the connections and the finances to make them happen. The fact that Konadu’s ambitions for her future lie outside of driving work may not be exceptional, then, among her peers.
At the same time, however, the reactions that I witnessed in 2007, the exceptionalist narratives surrounding Konadu and the comedic air of Maame Serwaa all suggest that much hasn’t changed in the gendering of driving work. I regularly asked drivers of all ages why there were not more women in the commercial driving sector. Some might acknowledge a prominent vehicle owner and driver in La in the 1970s (who became the president of the La Drivers’ Union for a time!). But most reacted immediately: “It’s not possible! Women cannot be drivers!” Why, I would ask? Women carry incredibly heavy loads all the time, and it does not seem like particularly physical work. But drivers insisted: driving requires your whole body. Your eyes much watch the road, your arms must be strong to hold the steering wheel, your legs must always be moving the clutch and the brake, and your brain must be ready to react immediately to difficult circumstances one faces on the road. After all, they argued, women could not be mates because mates had to carry heavy loads on and off of the vehicle. If they could not train as mates, they could not learn to be proper drivers. If I continued to protest, they would explain that women simply did not have the temperament to deal with passengers. Women “spoke by heart”, they argued. As the famous slogan, “Fear Women, Save Your Life”, suggests they had tempers and would insult someone at the slightest provocation. They could not be placed in positions that required regular interaction with passengers who often had competing interests and diverse personalities.
This ultimately still seems fairly arbitrary. Women often comprised a large proportion of the population of “head loaders” who carried goods from farms to markets or railway terminals before the advent of motor transportation. And yet, with motor transportation, women are consistently defined as passengers or clients through their work in market trading (both local and long-distance, retail and wholesale), powerful in their own right but operating in collaboration with male drivers who helped them carry their goods to market. Driving was and is men’s work–a fact highlighted in many slogans on the back of trotros.
As the values attached to driving work shift in the 21st century, these gendered controls seem to be lifting somewhat, as Konadu’s case suggests. There are a number of female drivers and mates throughout Accra. On the one hand, as Buah suggests, perhaps this simply reinforces gendered hierarchies in a way that does not benefit women. But, if women like Konadu continue to distinguish themselves through their work as mates, driving work might also become a new domain of women’s empowerment, much like the gendered transformation of market trading that followed the widespread embrace of cocoa farming in southern Ghana.