Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What’s in the Phrase? The Tales of Ghana’s Trotro Drivers

They are mostly wobbly, crowded and little fun to ride. But every first-time visitor to Ghana and even Ghanaians look amazed at the taxi minibuses called trotros for their often thought-provoking inscriptions. So what’s the philosophy behind these phrases? Stephen Kwabena Effah explores the meanings.

Call it a necessary evil or devil tree – but it is, and in fact continues to be, Ghana’s most well-known, loved and hated carrier of more than 60 per cent of the country’s 25 million populations daily: Christened trotro, these taxi minibuses of all shapes and types are essential for many Ghanaians to commute in and around Ghana cities. 
Yeeees… Accra… Accra… Accra…Kaneshie… Roundabout… Circle…! is a popular refrain from trotro driver’s mate (conductor ) that greets everyone to the various streets of Accra. The tone, style and energy of these yells mesmerise people lining up at the streets.
And then there are the inscriptions: Each trotro carries an inspiring or thought-provoking phrase on its front, rear or sides. They present a way of the drivers and owners to exercise their guaranteed constitutional right to freedom of speech .

However, the philosophies behind most of these inscriptions remain obscure – they can only be deciphered by either the drivers or owners of these trotros.

Tourists read them but do not understand them, not even when they are inscribed in English. In a country where the usage of local proverbs in conversations are key, most of the phrases are taken from either an old proverb, a modern saying, a Christian or Islamic prayer, the Bible or Quran, a sport or a political event.
These inscriptions are mostly written in Ghana’s dominant Akan language, Twi, with few written in standard or pidgin form of English, which is widely spoken among Ghanaian youth in the cities.
But what do they mean? Intrinsically, they provide social commentary on current affairs, as well as reflect the author’s prevailing engagement, political events, personal observations and relations with family members or neighbours.

Historical and Sociological Insight
The art of inscribing phrases on commercial vehicles in Ghana dates back to the Gold Coast era; a period that professional drivers found it en vogue to inscribe catchy secular phrases to serve as a form of identification by travellers who use their vehicles.

Dominic Kofi Agyeman, a retired professor of sociologist of the University of Cape Coast, has an example from his own experience to explain the phenomenon of the inscriptions:

“One reason I remember when I was a child was that some people who were professional drivers want to wish they could have their own vehicle, but they didn’t have the resources to buy the vehicle. So, somebody would buy the vehicle for them and the immediate thing they want to do is to show appreciation for the person who bought the vehicle so they would inscribe something like ‘Thank You Uncle’”, says Prof. Agyeman.

To him, peer pressure is partly a reason why the phenomenon spread. “If you are a driver, can you afford not to write something on your car? If you don’t they will laugh at you.”

“To me, it all boils down to the sort of cultural background the drivers come from namely the propensity to show that they are grateful to people who have helped them.”

After carefully doing driving for years some drivers were able to buy their own cars and thus wrote things like: “I thank God” or “Now I’m My Own Boss”. Professor Agyeman adds that “at the moment, it has become more or less a competition because the inscriptions also serve as a way for people to remember the vehicle they travelled on, so they will look for catchy phrases.”

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