Trotro (Ghana)

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Trotro 🇬🇭
Location: Ghana
Ghana map.png
Definition: Converted vehicles used as public transport
Keywords:
Ghanatransportationshare taximinibusvehicleinformal entrepreneurshipmasculinityreligious slogans
Author: Jennifer Hart
Affiliation: Wayne State University, Michigan
Website: Ghana on the Go

By Jennifer Hart, Wayne State University, Michigan

An estimated 85% of the city of Accra – the capital of the West African country of Ghana – moves around in a network of entrepreneurial motor transportation known as the trotro (Okoye, Sands and Debra 2010: 12). The word “trotro” evokes images of a broken-down 15-passenger van, stripped of its once-plush interior, outfitted with locally-produced seats of metal frames and plywood bottoms and covered with fake leather. This transformation maximizes the number of passengers on any given ride. Mechanics and repairmen in Accra control a process through which vehicles are “tropicalized” and “baptized into the system” (Verrips and Meyer 2001). Along with market trading, trotro drivers are quintessential examples of the “informal sector” or “informal economy” in Accra, and the history of the trotro sector highlights the structural conditions through which informal economies grow and thrive. The omnipresence of trotros embodies the challenges to contemporary analysis of informality and to development policies that seek to reform the informal economy (Hart 1973).
Trotro on the road in Accra. Source: Jennifer Hart. © Jennifer Hart.

Trotros emerged in the 1960s out of a broader motor transportation sector through which African owner-operators dominated the transport of goods and passengers (see also boda-boda in Uganda). Motor vehicles were first introduced in Ghana, then the British colony of the Gold Coast, in the early part of the 20th century. Cocoa farmers, in particular, saw motor vehicles as a good investment, which allowed them to transport their produce directly to the coast. In purchasing vehicles and transporting their produce, the economic choices of these farmers became a political act. Farmers used their economic power to resist colonial attempts to control the African movement and the flow of profits through the railway.

Throughout much of the 20th century, Ghanaians used access to vehicles and roads to make powerful arguments about their rights as citizens who deserved investment from the state. In the absence of that investment from both colonial and independent governments, drivers and passengers made motor transportation their own. Drivers valued owning their own vehicle and would work long hours to save up money. Vehicles were purchased through importers who shipped new metal engines and chassis from Europe and the United States. New vehicle owners would take their assembled vehicles to carpenters, who added a wooden body, and painters, who decorated the vehicle in their classic blue color scheme with vibrant decoration and slogans across the rear. These vehicles were popularly known as mammy trucks (alternatively mammy wagons or mammy lorries), emphasizing the close connection between motor technology and the passengers who used it most frequently – market women engaged in regional and long-distance trade. Drivers who controlled these valued pieces of technology were respected for their skill in managing risk, for their relative prosperity, and for their cosmopolitan ways. Regarded as modern men, they were able to achieve elevated status while bypassing the realms of western education. The culture and practices of drivers integrated the city and countryside in a sphere of movement of goods, ideas, and people.

Before the spread of these wooden trucks, the wealthiest urban passengers drove private cars or hired taxis. The city’s most mobile residents, traveling to and from the market to trade, rode the municipal bus system, approved for circulation by the Accra Town Council in 1927. The British-style buses were designed for passenger transport solely, but people travelling to and from the market were often also carrying goods. These did not fit easily into the tight quarters of the municipal bus. Market women and drivers saw an opportunity: the mammy lorries transported passengers around the city and offloaded goods at local markets simultaneously. The city of La was both a gateway for goods entering the city from the agricultural areas to the east and a center for driver training. Drivers moving between La and Accra with partially empty trucks started picking up market women standing along the roadside with their goods. British colonial officials labeled these vehicles “pirate passenger lorries” suggesting that these vehicles not only cut into the revenue of the municipal bus system, but also undermined colonial authority and order in the capital city. For market women and other passengers these lorries provided a better way to get around and allowed them to connect neighborhoods with major markets throughout the city (Hart forthcoming). The British tried to eliminate the ‘pirate passenger lorries’ through regulation and restrictions, but they failed to completely stamp out the practice.

Trotro on the road in Accra. Source: Jennifer Hart. © Jennifer Hart.

The emergence of trotros in the late 1950s – first operated by the Ga driver Anane – is an extension of the activities of the colonial-era passenger lorries. Continuing to carry a mixed load of goods and passengers, trotro drivers used shorter versions of wooden trucks. Unlike their ‘pirate’ predecessors, post-independence leaders recognized trotros as lawful forms of public transport that could operate alongside municipal buses. Trotros operated along the same routes as municipal buses, often charging higher but set fares for travel anywhere within the municipal boundaries of Accra. The term ‘trotro’ itself is drawn from the three pence fare - the word tro in Ga language means ‘three’. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the municipal bus system began a steady decline, hampered by the cost of maintaining the system and the competition from trotros (Hart 2013). By the 1970s and 1980s, the public transport system was dominated almost entirely by trotros and lorries.

Individual owner-operators often ran the vehicles like a small business. When the cost of maintaining the vehicle or buying petrol increased, so did the fares. When the Ghanaian economy began to struggle in the late 1960s, drivers continued to thrive as men of relative wealth - so much so that women famously aspired to form romantic relationships with drivers because of the stability of their work. The economic crisis worsened throughout the 1970s and 1980s (ibid.). Due to the declining value of cocoa, Ghana lost access to enough foreign currency to import goods. Spare parts, tires, and petrol were in increasingly short supply. Yet through the economic turmoil – oil shocks in 1979, petrol shortages in 1982-1983, famine in the early 1980s – trotro drivers continued to flourish. The most successful drivers employed ingenious strategies to keep their vehicles going. When their tires went flat, they would fill them with rocks in order to continue driving. Improvised spare parts became common. And, when drivers could get petrol, they would take passengers at much higher fares. From the perspective of a small business owner, this just seemed like good business practice. From the perspective of passengers, who relied on these vehicles as part of a public transport service, drivers seemed to be profiting from their suffering. The Acheampong (1972-1978) and Rawlings regimes (1979, 1981-2001) labeled drivers (and market women) as profiteers, cheats, and scoundrels due to their economic prowess in a period of general distress (ibid.).

For many, trotros are associated with dilapidation, poverty, dirt, and criminality. Passengers complain about the smell of the driver’s assistant (or ‘mate’), the state of the vehicle, the rudeness of their fellow passengers, and the danger of the road. Government officials lambast trotro drivers over high fares; newspapers are full of stories of accidents. But the association of trotros and their drivers with crime, poverty, and danger is relatively new.

The liberalization of import levies means that vehicles are more available but in worse condition than ever before. Young men, unable to find jobs in the formal sector often come to the trotro sector to secure a portion of their income. Even pensioners are using their retirement to drive trotros as a supplement to small public pensions in an increasingly expensive Accra. The flood of drivers into the system since the 1990s created a record high competition, thus decreasing the profit margins of vehicle owners and limiting the capital available for owners to reinvest in their vehicles (Hart 2016: 149-188; Quayson 2014: 199).

Risky driving is central to the social and cultural identity of a trotro driver. On the back of the vehicle are slogans, cut out of sheets of reflective sticker and applied to a rear window or door. These slogans, mostly religious, constitute a sort of folk philosophy – evoking both the values and practices of daily life and the wider existential concerns of drivers and their passengers (Quayson 2014: 129-158; Hart 2016: 20). Phrases like ’My God is Able‘, ’Nyame Adom‘ (By the Grace of God), ’Nyame Bekyere‘ (The Lord Will Provide), ’Only God‘, ’God’s Grace‘, ’By His Grace‘, ’Blessings‘, and many others highlight the importance of a particular vision of religion in contemporary Ghana, which associates faith and piety with material reward. When asked about the meaning of their slogans, individual drivers offer profoundly personal interpretations of the ambivalent sentiment – faith either gave them a vehicle to drive, brought a good fortune and took them out of poverty, or protected them from accidents and helped them stay clear of things that didn’t happen. Other slogans like ’Jealous’, ’Trust No Man’, ‘Fear Women’, ’All Eyes on Me’, ’Consider Your Ways’, ’Such is Life’, ’You Lie Bad’, ’Who Is Free’, and ’No Mercy for Trotro Drivers’ are reminders about the uncertainty of life and the difficulty of survival.

References

Hart, J. 2013. “’One Man, No Chop: Licit Wealth, Good Citizens, and the Criminalization of Drivers in Postcolonial Ghana”, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 46 (3) (2013): 373-396

Hart, J. 2016. Ghana on the Go: African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation. Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Hart, J. Forthcoming. “Of Pirate Drivers and Honking Horns: Mobility, Authority, and Urban Planning in Late-Colonial Accra”, Technology & Culture

Hart, K. 1973. “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana”, The Journal of Modern African Studies 11(1): 61-89

Okoye, V., Sands, J. and Debrah, C. A. 2010. The Accra Pilot Bus-Rapid Transit Project: Transport-Land Use Research Study. Millenium Cities Initiative, Columbia University; Accra Metropolitan Assembly

Quayson, A. 2014. Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014: 129-158

Verrips, J. and Meyer, B. 2001 “Kwaku’s Car: The Struggles and Stories of a Ghanaian Long-Distance Taxi Driver. In Miller, D. (ed.) Car Cultures. Oxford: Berg, 153-184