In rural Northern Ghana if you have a vehicle you likely hold a powerful position or are successful. Using a personal driver is even more indicative of status. I was little prepared for what I would learn by having a truck and by “being a driver” during my first weeks in the field.
While preparing for fieldwork, I repaired a crew cab truck for a yearlong lease. Before traveling north from Accra, I devoted a day applying for a Ghanaian driver’s license. It was a bureaucratic process involving passport-sized photos, fees, and entering my name in multiple ledgers that once filled would be added to the dusty stacks piled here and there and never opened again. No one asked if I could drive. And technically, I needed no local license. But I wanted something to signal my legitimacy as a driver in Ghana.
It shocked many Ghanaians that I refused a chauffeur. Most visitors and wealthy residents hire one, typically for safety and convenience. Even rental cars include a designated driver. The roads are treacherous. The rules of the road and the language of drivers can be cryptic, comprising patterned high beam flashes followed by counterintuitive turn signaling and taunting encouragements to pass blindly.
“It would be much easier if you had a driver,” people claimed. “You wouldn’t get lost.” Implicit, however, were worries for my safety and fears I would create problems if something happened. Foreign drivers only complicate accidents, disrupt traffic patterns, and misread cues at the official and occasional fake police checkpoints.
I would reply to people’s concerns with a shrug, “It’s okay, I like to drive.” But I needed to be in control. I was also uncomfortable with the power imbalance present in what, from my perspective, amounted to using a servant. An enclosed vehicle, I thought, was distancing enough. But being a driver, I soon learned, provided abundant opportunities for proximity.
The practice of locals driving outsiders has a history. Asingiya, an elder I chatted with, told me how the first colonial officials ordered the people to build roads. “Using wood and their bare hands,” he said, “they forced the people to pound the roads so they would be strong.” Before cars, “we carried the administrators around like Ashanti chiefs.” On chairs supported by human porters. “We carried them this way not because they demanded it,” Asingiya continued, “We insisted it be that way! If the white man could travel on his own from place to place, he would get himself into trouble.” Little has changed.
I gave rides to people within days after settling in the north. Since I was unfamiliar with people’s expectations, and having not yet set adequate boundaries, I rarely said no if someone begged for a ride. Begging is how it appeared. People walking would stop when they heard me coming, face the road, bend at the knee, and then repeatedly drop the back of the right hand into their left palm while making eye contact. It was hard not to pick them up despite the pleas of those riding with me to leave them far behind.
Some people preferred to sit in the bed of the truck. Others scrambled for the front seat. While driving, I would often try out new words or expressions. Saying “I’m learning to speak Nankani” would give me an enthusiastic teacher, if only for a few moments.
Not everyone needed a ride. I picked up people that soon asked to stop only a few hundred feet later; we hadn’t finished our greetings before having to start the goodbyes. Mostly I took sick families to the hospital and helped the AfriKids NGO staff recover their broken-down motorbikes, transport supplies and the occasional goat, or make a beer run for a community meeting. People identified me as that “new white driver” for AfriKids. I felt useful. In the initial stages of fieldwork this feeling is reassuring if not seductive.
Driving helped me see things I might miss. For instance, many passengers had trouble entering and exiting the truck and opening and closing the door. For some, it was their first experience as a passenger in a small, private vehicle. A grandmother once crawled into the front passenger’s seat facing backward on her knees, then turned and sat perched at the edge of the seat. While trying to figure out where to put her feet, she acknowledged this was her first time in a car. Even young passengers would resort to frantic gestures, irritation with door handles, and other contests to gain freedom, resulting in me exiting and opening the door for my fellow traveler. To observers, I was without a doubt providing a high-end limousine service.
Most of us take for granted how to “be” a passenger. Our bodies just seem to know what to do. For those of us who grew up in automobiles, it is hard to imagine that sitting in a car is not “natural.” Riding in a vehicle is a learned and “embodied” disposition shaped by culture. Culture becomes more obvious when we face an unfamiliar setting or practice where we are at a loss for what to do. Culture provides us with a user’s guide for how to move, hold our body, and occupy cars.
Occasionally my truck would become a bus. AfriKids organized a monthly meeting to engage the local “concoction men”—the ritual experts with the power to banish malicious spirits. Elijah, an AfriKids social worker, respects these “old boys,” but not without ambivalence and fear. “You have to watch out,” he said. “They are very powerful men.” Years later, one admitted to causing my malaria and typhoid infections because he wanted to “test” me and, he added, I also angered a shrine.
After the meeting, when the celebratory beverages were finished, many of the old boys who had traveled far needed a ride home. Like the start of a bad joke, as the sun set that afternoon, and without warning, I unwittingly squeezed into the truck with four concoction men and, by chance, a diviner named Adongo passing by. They all insisted on riding inside. And the eldest claimed the front seat.
Normally, as I drive along the main road away from the village, children wave and run alongside. Adults nod and acknowledge me. On this trip, however, with the four concoction men and a diviner, people on the roadside were different. Rather than the usual greetings, all I received were vacant stares or quick glances away, confused expressions, and motionless hands. The kids, who usually waved and yelled “white man” as they ran, were silent. This time, those needing a ride who before had no qualms with cramming themselves into a full truck or climbing into the back, stood still. No one wanted a thing to do with us. I noted this. Sharing a car with four concoction men and a diviner could be risky.
I doubt that the concoction men and the diviner noticed the reactions of those we passed. My occupants were in good spirits, due to the deep calabash bowls brimming with sorghum beer and the bottle of gin consumed at the meeting’s conclusion. They carried on about the events of the day, enjoying their ride home.
Since my language skills were negligible, as we approached the narrow pathways leading to family compounds nestled between the farmland, Adongo, sitting behind me, resorted to jabbing me through the back of my seat and yelling “Aaron!” to show when to stop. Upon which, to avoid the certain struggle, I would jump out, and with the skill of a professional, open the passenger’s door to ensure a smooth exit and bid him farewell.
It was soon after my second stop when Adongo became more animated than usual. I knew he did not live nearby, and the other passengers lived further down the road. Did he want out? Did I do something wrong? Was he sick? I stopped the truck and climbed out to open his door.
“Awo!” No, he said as I opened it. He turned to point at the elderly concoction man in the front seat and cried a phrase that included only two words I recognized, but couldn’t place: “Ena… something, something… durre.” I tried to remember what durre was.
Adongo jumped out of the truck when he saw my confused look, repeated himself loudly, and danced from foot to foot while motioning downward across the front of his trousers with both hands, from his waist toward his knees. The old concoction man, expressionless, sat staring forward.
“Durre,” I parroted back, as if its meaning would become clear upon uttering it aloud. “I think it’s a verb.”
“Aaron! Yes.” He replied as he continued to dance in front of me.
I knew I learned this word soon after I arrived. It was important. At a loss for what to do, I copied his gestures, joining in a dance that appeared like an aberrant fusion of hip-hop and hippie jam bands. Then, just as I was in the middle of our ridiculous moves while repeating durre, to the amusement of people now gathering in a distant field, my jig gained meaning.
“Durre… durre. Yes! I know the word,” I exclaimed. “Oh shit!” I said aloud as the downward motion of my hands passed from my groin and down the inside my thighs. It all came together. “Ena durre.” He urinates. I turned to Adongo, now ecstatic I understood his charade, and said in English: “The old man has to piss and he can’t get out.”
He laughed, repeating in broken English while dancing around, “Oh shit! Get out, get out, get out!
I ran to the other side of the truck, opened the door, and helped the silent concoction man exit while declaring to him in Nankani that, “Yes, you urinate!” He smiled and shuffled to the roadside. Pleased with myself, I sauntered back to the driver’s door while practicing the phrase and, for the amusement of the two remaining men, performing our hybrid boogie a few more times. Good dance moves are prized.
When finished, I helped the elder into the truck and we, now just two concoction men, a diviner, and a driver, continued down the rutted road to Kandiga. The old boys carried on discussing events, still oblivious to the concerned faces on the roadside. I drove with a naïve grin and my thoughts conjugating durre, a word I would not forget, all the while expecting the next jab in my back and what it would bring.
I’m working on a collection of essays and experimenting with different forms of writing. Readability and narrative will be privileged over theory and abstraction. In other words, the book consists of mostly the good parts. Read more here.
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