I’m working on a new collection of essays and experimenting with different forms of writing. This post is from my book in progress tentatively titled, “The White Man is My Driver: Fieldnotes on Identity and Belonging.” Readability and narrative will be privileged over theory and abstraction. In other words, the book consists of mostly the good parts. [1900 words]
In rural Northern Ghana, if you have a car or truck you likely occupy a powerful position or are doing well financially. Employing a personal driver is even more indicative of status. I was little prepared for what I would learn by having a vehicle and by “being a driver” during my first weeks in the field.
While preparing for fieldwork, I arranged to repair a crew cab truck in exchange for a yearlong lease. Before traveling north from Accra, I spent a day applying for a Ghanaian driver’s license. It was a bureaucratic process involving passport-sized photos, fees, and having my name officially entered into multiple ledgers that once filled would be added to the dusty stacks piled everywhere, in no noticeable order, never to be opened again. No one asked if I could actually drive. And technically, I didn’t need a local driver’s license. Nonetheless, I did want something to signal my legitimacy as a driver in Ghana.
Many Ghanaians were surprised that I refused a driver. Most visitors or residents from overseas hire a driver, typically for safety and convenience. Even rental cars include a designated driver. The roads are dangerous. The rules of the road and the language of drivers can be cryptic, consisting of 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 concerns for my safety and fears that I would cause 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.” The truth was that I wanted to be in control. I was also uncomfortable with the power imbalance present in what, from my perspective, amounted to having a servant. An enclosed vehicle, I thought, was distancing enough. But being a driver, I soon learned, provided abundant opportunities for proximity.
The idea that locals drive outsiders has a history. Asingiya, an elder I frequently chatted with, told me how the first colonial administrators ordered the people to construct 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.” That is, 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 was allowed to travel on his own from place to place, he would undoubtedly get himself into trouble.” Perhaps little has changed.
I started giving rides to people within days after arriving in the north. Being unfamiliar with people’s expectations, and having not yet established adequate boundaries, I rarely said no if someone begged for a ride. Begging is indeed how it appeared. People walking alongside the road would stop when they heard me approaching, face the road, bend deeply at the knee, and then repeatedly drop the back of the right hand into their left palm while establishing eye contact. It was hard not to pick people up despite the pleas of those already riding with me to leave them in the dust.
Some people preferred to sit in the bed of the truck. Others raced for the front seat. While driving, I would often have the opportunity to try out new words or expressions. Remarking, “I’m learning to speak Nankani” would result in my gaining an enthusiastic teacher, if only for a few brief moments.
Not everyone needed a ride. I occasionally picked up people that asked to stop only a few hundred feet down the road; we hardly finished our greetings before having to start in with 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 began to identify me as that “new white driver” for AfriKids. I felt useful. During the early stages of fieldwork this feeling is reassuring if not seductive.
Driving helped me see things that I might ordinarily miss. For instance, many passengers had difficulty entering and exiting the truck and opening and closing the door. For some people, 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 awkwardly turned and sat perched on the edge of the seat. While trying to determine where to put her feet, she confessed that this was her first time in a car. Even young passengers would resort to frantic gestures, frustration with door handles, and other struggles to gain freedom, resulting in me promptly exiting and opening the door for my fellow traveler. To observers, I was without a doubt providing a first-rate 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 actually a learned and an “embodied” disposition shaped by culture. Culture often does not become obvious until 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.
At times, 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, deeply respects these “old boys,” but not without a degree of ambivalence and fear. “You have to really look out,” he said. “They are very powerful men.” Indeed, years later, one admitted to causing my malaria and typhoid infections because he wanted to “test” me, and, he casually added, I also unknowingly angered one of his shrines.
At the end of the meeting, after the celebratory beverages were finished, many of the old boys who had traveled far needed a ride home. Like the beginning of a bad joke, as the sun was setting that afternoon, and without warning, I unwittingly found myself squeezing into the truck with four concoction men and, by chance, a diviner named Adongo who was passing by. They all insisted on riding inside. And the eldest claimed rights to the front seat.
Normally, as I drive along the main road away from the village, children wave and briefly run alongside. Adults nod and acknowledge my passing. On this trip, however, with the four concoction men and a diviner, people on the roadside acted differently. Rather than the usual greetings, all I received were vacant stares or quick glances away, confused expressions, and motionless hands. The children, who normally 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 made a mental note of 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, partly due to the deep calabash bowls brimming with sorghum beer and the bottle of gin consumed at the meeting’s conclusion. They carried on enthusiastically 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 indicate 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 desperately to remember what durre was.
Adongo jumped out of the truck when he saw my confused look, repeated himself loudly, and began dancing from foot to foot while franticly motioning downward across the front of his trousers with both hands, from his waist toward his knees. The old concoction man sat staring forward stoically.
“Durre,” I parroted back to him, 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 that 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 dance while incessantly repeating durre, to the amusement of people now gathering in a distant field, my jig acquired 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 of my thighs. It all came together. “Ena durre.” He urinates. I quickly turned to Adongo, now ecstatic that 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 strangely silent concoction man exit while repeatedly declaring to him in Nankani that, “Yes, you urinate!” He smiled politely and shuffled to the side of the road. Pleased with myself, I sauntered back to the other side of the truck 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.
I helped the elder back 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 silently with a naïve grin and my thoughts conjugating durre, a word I would not forget, all the while anticipating the next jab in my back and what it would bring.
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