"The world's most dangerous roads"

A SPIEGEL article on "Die gefährlichsten Straßen der Welt" with a series of breathtaking photographs.

Road Exhibitions IV

breadsellers2

Chasing cars, mocking mates: Movements, emotions and joviality among road hawkers in Accra

Parts of my thesis provide ethnographic insight into the life-world of hawkers on the Ofankor Road in northern Accra. On this busy arterial road, female and male hawkers in their teens and early twenties provide a range of products to travellers passing in the usually slow-moving city traffic. [more]

"The road to prosperity" (Guardian)

The impacts of new roads: "The construction of a super highway through northern Uganda will put Katine on the map and will boost trade. But some remain cautious about its impact on the community" - read The Guardian article

And a Guardian article on why to "Invest more in Africa's roads" with interesting readers comments

Spirit of road tripping (The Guardian)

From Route 66 to camel trekking in Jordan, the entries for the Guardian's March 2009 photo competition captured the spirit of road tripping beautifully.

sheonagh-ravensdale-4961

Anthroad in 'Top 100 Anthropology Blogs'

My blog has just been listed among the "Top 100 Anthropology Blogs" under the 'Fieldwork' category.

Christina Laun from OnlineUniversities.com writes:

"It doesn’t matter if you’re studying capuchins in South America or the social interactions in American college bars, there is a blogger out there who shares your interests. University students, academics, professors and those who just love anthropology have helped to create a great assortment of online discourse about the field. We’ve compiled a list of 100 that are definitely worth a read."

Road blocks and emotions

07-01-17-b

Suhum, the neighbouring market town where I have my second residence, was hot the other day. A corpse was found lying near the highway to Accra – the fifth discovery since last December. And after the District Commissioner’s declaring, on the radio just a day earlier, that there was nothing serious going on in Suhum, the inhabitants reacted with great anger. They went out into the streets to let the world know that, indeed, Suhum had a serious problem. Young men erected road blocks, set them on fire and thus were able to block the entire through traffic for over five hours. At some point the police intervened with tear gas, shot one rioter into his leg and freed the highway again.

07-01-17-a

People demonstrated in Suhum because, for some time now, they felt let down by local politicians and the police. Rumour has it that ritual murders are being committed but not properly investigated. No one has come out with a full proof yet, but people make all kinds of speculations: about suspects, the murders’ circumstances, cut-off body parts, rituals, and the responsible’s possible involvements. They also speculate about the white guy (maybe a BBC reporter?!) taking pictures of burning tires and the youth singing war songs. [more]

Religion & Spirituality on the road

[overview]

Socialising on the road

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Pothole ethnography: why they need to be repaired

Quite easy to tell, these pictures were taken during the rainy season. The trees are lush, the grass on the soft verge asks for serious weeding, and the potholes need to be repaired. Heavy rains - with the help of vehicles constantly bumping into the eroding asphalt - created this particular pothole in front of our house. I was sure, though, that Ofori was filling it with soil for the sake of the passing vehicles: they risk to have their tire or chassis damaged when hitting the whole. Wrong. Ofori is concerned about his own safety. This pothole is potentially fatal, he says, as a driver hitting it could easily lose control and swerve off - right onto the pavement where he spends lots of his free time socialising and watching the road. And who wants to get killed while chatting with friends anyway?

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Walking and chatting on the pavement

Road Exhibitions II

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Turn thesis into word cloud!



This word cloud is the visualized version of my Africa History Seminar presentation!

Chap. 2: Inhabiting the roadside: Practices, appropriations and commercialisation

  • Walking, watching, gossiping: quotidian roadside practices
  • Street jams, rituals and roadblocks: manipulating roads and traffic
  • Money from busy roads: hawkers, traders and other entrepreneurs
This chapter explores the tangible and creative ways in which the residents of roadside communities inhabit the AKR in everyday life. One focus is on the quotidian practices of using the roadside for walking, chatting, observing, etc. Another focus is on the commercial activities in which people engage, as well as on the specific entrepreneurial strategies that some employ to make more money from travellers and passersby. Finally, I deal with incidents during which residents actively appropriate the asphalt of the through road, such as by manipulating traffic through roadblocks in order to publicly stage a particular agenda. For the exploration of roadside inhabitations, I draw from encounters with residents, hawkers and traders in towns and on road sections located on the southern part of the AKR.

This chapter then looks at people’s road experiences and practices from a primarily stationary (‘road-residential’) perspective, whereas Part II and III of the thesis considers how the AKR is used, experienced and embodied in a mobile mode, namely by road travellers and commercial drivers.


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More details:
The second chapter of my PhD thesis is kind of a mini-ethnography of people living alongside the Accra-Kumasi road. In Kyebi, the roadside community in which I spent the first part of my fieldwork, I resided in a household located just a few steps away from the main road. Soon I got fascinated by the various ways in which inhabitants make use of 'their' road, talk about it and occasionally mis-appropriate it:

(1) As part of their quotidian routines, people walk, stand, sit and, through that means, socialize on the road. What I enjoyed most was my friends' roadside gossip when observing familiar pedestrians and travelers from beyond the local.

(2) The tangible presence of the road in people's life gives rise to narratives, discourses and imageries. There's much talk about dangerous strangers and spiritual forces at accident-prone road sections. Incredible road rumors are highly revealing too.

(3) Finally, the road being used, even manipulated, as platform for entertainment, as public arena for claiming religious and political authority , and for staging protest, fears and emotions.

[Overview Chapter 2]

Chap. 4: Passengering - Caring for the moving body

  • Heat, rust and tough speed: The sensory constraints of road journeys
  • Searching for safe rides? The limits of choosing a proper driver, vehicle and seat
  • Coping with challenges: overcoming disillusions, disputes and discomfort
In the second chapter on travelling, I develop the notion of ‘passengering’ by delving into how people travelling on public minibuses face the multiple constraints and challenges along the journey. I first depict the exigent bodily and sensory impacts that various features of a journey – such as vehicle condition, driver behaviour, the AKR’s environment, etc. – can have on passengers. Claiming that, in principle, individual travellers do care about the integrity of their life and body, I then describe passengers’ attempts to choose a driver, vehicle and seating position which they deem appropriate for their trip. However, since the search for a safe ride comprises various limitations, passengers are confined to simply cope with the journey’s challenges, and I illustrate various instances and practices in/through which they try to overcome disillusions, disputes and discomfort, but also drivers’ indiscipline

Chap. 3: ‘Go and come!’ The socio-cultural dimensions of travelling

  • Travelling to Accra: modalities, status and socio-economic backgrounds
  • Framing journeys: everyday practices, customs and encounters
  • The importance and significances of travelling
The first chapter on travelling takes into account the social, cultural and economic contexts in which common road travel in southern Ghana is embedded. I begin with depicting the motivations, modalities and financial means which people travelling by public transport (trotros, minibuses) consider before setting off for trips. This involves a look at the changes in travel habits which have occurred in recent years due to growing availability of mobile phones. I then explore how road trips are embedded in various quotidian, but also customary (ritual-like) practices that involve people in complex acts of communication at the outset and the end of their trips. What emerge in the course of trips, through interaction and communication, are a particular sociability and a sense of ‘mobile community’ among passengers. I finally look at the significance and importance of travelling in a society that views the physical appearance/presence of people, in some contexts, as highly meaningful and that regards travelling as linked to status, consumption and modernity.

[Overview Chapter 3]

Chap. 1: The Accra-Kumasi Road - Function and impact of flows and disruptions

  • Routes of power: politics, struggles for access, and allegations (Kyebi case)
  • The benefits of roads: commerce, communication and integration
  • The repercussions of roads: ‘death traps’, dangerous strangers and powers
In this opening chapter, I lay out the general functions, impacts and repercussions of the Accra-Kumasi road (AKR). First, I depict the various instances of road building, that is the (re)opening and closing of the AKR and sections of it at different moments in time. The flows as well as the disruptions of flows, triggered by the mentioned instances, have always been embedded in contexts of power, politics and struggles for access and connection. Using the recent developments in Kyebi as an example, I then explore how access to the AKR and to transregional traffic flow has been beneficial (at least to some extent) for the town’s commercial activities, national integration and communication. However, the drawbacks of the AKR are equally pressing as its heavy flow of traffic produces an alarming number of motor accidents. They perpetuate the popular metaphor of Ghanaian roads as ‘death traps’ and foster imageries of hazardous powers on the way. I therefore claim that, to people living with the road, the AKR incorporates ambiguous experiences of power, progress and dangers.

Chap. 6: Roadfaring - The skilled practices of manoeuvring and commercial driving

  • Potholes, Burkina trucks, darkness: The road’s multiple challenges
  • Roadfaring: skilled practices and knowledge on the road
  • Chasing, dodging, lapping: coping with competitors, catching passengers
The second chapter on commercial driving develops the notion of ‘roadfaring’. It is first defined as the skilled practices of manoeuvring vehicles on a road that affords a variety of challenges and constraints with respect to its surface/materiality, landscape features, other road users, etc. The practices and experiences that are required from drivers aim at, in brief, attention, communication and manoeuvres and can be regarded as mainly skilled, embodied and sensory. In a final move, I show how these roadfaring practices are equally applied in the context of entrepreneurial pressures and ambitions (explored in Ch. 5) that drivers face on the road. This is the case when drivers engage in profit-oriented chasing, rushing, dodging, overtaking and lapping – all destined towards coping with competitors and catching passengers.

[Overview Chapter 6]

Chap. 5: Business on wonky wheels - The chances and challenges of being a commercial driver

  • Careless drivers: Reputation, accusations and counter-reactions
  • Station relations: The pressures and prospects of networks and connections
  • Striving for successful driving
The first chapter on commercial driving explores the chances and challenges of working in the transport business. Focusing on minibus drivers plying between Accra and provincial towns located on the AKR, I first deal with the professional drivers’ negative public reputation (‘careless, uneducated, greedy’) while also looking at how drivers justify some of the behaviour for which they are criticised. This leads on to an assessment of drivers’ pressuring work conditions and of the mostly conflictual relationships in which they are caught with their driver colleagues and ‘masters’ (car owners, employers). Finally, I explore the multiple various entrepreneurial strategies that drivers employ in order to cope with the pressures and to strive for more successful driving. The latter requires careful negotiation of driving plans, routes and different modes of loading passengers.

[Overview Chapter 5]

The 'Airport' myth

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The sharp bend at Potroase, one of the 'black spots' on the Accra-Kumasi road

When people talk about Potroase, many jokingly refer to the village as ‘Airport’. Initially, I thought that the nickname was given because of the names’ funny similarity. However, each time I mentioned ‘Airport’ myself or inquired about the nature of this nickname, I was told exactly the same story:
A stranger, some say it was a white man, once travelled from Accra to Kumasi in the night. Upon reaching Potroase, he realized that he had run out of fuel and decided to get some. That night, the village appeared to the traveller like a big city with lots of animation, many lights and even a filling station. Hence the name ‘Airport’, some narrators suggest. But the story goes on. After buying fuel, the man continued his journey only to realize later that he had forgotten to get his change. He decided to collect it on his way back. When he stopped in Potroase again, in another night, he was surprised that there was neither a filling station nor lights. The place had turned back to what it usually is, namely a little dull village somewhere in the middle of the main road.All my friends in Kyebi were persuaded that the ‘Airport’ story was just a myth disseminated by the older generations. Still, some confessed that they always feel a bit afraid when reaching the Potroase spot on a trip to or from Accra. [continue]

Roadside gossip

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The road with its pedestrians and passing vehicles is perfect entertainment. Roadside dwellers enjoy observing and critically commenting on the road's activities. There's the drunk neighbor in search of more akpeteshi; hardworking farmers carrying foodstuffs; families rushing to church; a secret couple in the pitch dark; show-offs with their new cars; crazily speeding buses from Kumasi; an overloaded cargo truck that will never make it all the way to Mali.

Road Exhibitions III

roadsidevendors

Short and powerful: bus preachers

07-06-01-2
Reaching out for souls, oh, and for the 'lorry fare'


... will Pastor Ofosu auftreten, wenn er in vollen Bussen predigt. Er fährt regelmäßig von Suhum nach Accra, um in den Überlandbussen und trotros zu evangelisieren. Ich traf ihn schon zuletzt auf der Fahrt nach Accra. Später interviewte ich ihn zu Hause. Heute war ich mit ihm auf Tour. Er freut sich riesig, dass ich mich so für ihn interessiere. Für mich ist er ein wahrer Glücksgriff: ich kann filmen, fotografieren, nachfragen. Noch ist mir unklar, ob er verstanden hat, dass mich seine Botschaft weniger interessiert als der automobile Rahmen seiner Mission.

Road Exhibitions I

07-05-02-2

Arranging things nicely and displaying them strategically. That’s the motto of roadside sellers who want their goods to fall into the hands of bypassing passengers. Depending on commodity and location, a further necessary strategy is to offer items in a skilful way so that potential customers’ attention is attracted. This takes place for instance at bus stations where making bodily efforts is really necessary. Here the travel snacks are not only to be announced in a loud voice but also need to be rushed to the vehicle windows.

In my project I do not only deal with drivers and passengers but also with those who encounter the travellers on the roadside with their goods. And who exhibit the latter in a tasteful way – quite often in front of a threatening stage with its racing and ruthless road users.

Nighttime travel

07-03-13_2

Traveling in the night with Ashigame, a 50-years-old driver from Suhum. He is a bit older than most of his driver colleagues, and that’s why he has many regular customers. He likes working with market women whom he picks up in Accra in the evening, together with their goods, and drops them off in the villages on the way to Suhum. The ladies know each other by name (the driver as well) and happily converse during this evening journey in various languages. During that trip I sat far in the back, next to some sweaty women, their baskets and sacks. On the last bench - the one higher than all others in this type of Benz bus - sat a young and seemingly exhausted woman. She soon dozed off and would almost have fallen out of the open window if her friend had not given her some slaps on her laps. – I was able to take this shot on the road when the driver’s mate turned on the light inside in order to collect the fare.

The presidential convoy

07-04-07
His Excellency, the President of the Republic of Ghana, traveling on 'my' road!

It seems that all things which are of utmost importance in Ghana are moved in convoys over the country’s roads. Take for instance the large bundles of Cedi notes of the Bank of Ghana, or important chiefs, government or regional ministers and the coffins of big men who all get escorted. Including the President himself. You really can’t miss these convoys when they pass by as they are announced from far with the screaming sirens, horns and warning lights of powerful vehicles which make up the speeding entourage.

I found it quite impressive how the President of Ghana is escorted. The advance guard is formed by police motorbikes, also referred to as dispatch riders, which zigzag across the road and bring the oncoming traffic to a halt. They are followed by black and heavy SUVs, including the armoured government vehicles - all with sirens, high beams and warning flashers. The President’s vehicle doesn’t have any number plate but displays the coat of arms on its front and the national flag on the side. The exact same model – however with covered insignia – speeds along with the fleet, in case the President should have to change the vehicle. Finally, an ambulance is usually sent along, too, as crashes within (or because of) the presidential convoy have occurred in the past. Just like the other day in Accra...

Speeding?

07-02-06-31
Police checkpoint on the open road

The other day I drove to Accra with Madam’s car. When approaching the police checkpoint after Asuboi I got a bit nervous. I had forgotten to take along my driver’s licence. But Madam, dozing on the front passenger seat, just said: Relax. Yet we were flagged down. A policeman who waved with his radar gun triumphantly shouted through Madam’s open window: Sorry, Madam, we catch you ooh, 'Oburoni' [the white man] likes speeding, eh? And Madam replied with indignation: But that’s not possible! I told him to slow down, and we know well that you always stand at this spot.

Well, in the meantime another policeman, quite curious, had come to my window. Insecure as I felt I asked him whether I had really gone too fast. He said no and decided to ask me about my driver’s license. What to do!? I acted a bit confused and leaned over to Madam who had just been asked by her policeman to get down from the vehicle. But she also ignored him. All the sudden my policeman switched to another topic: So, what do you have for me for my lunch break? [more]

„They like bribes too much“

07-02-06I waited for five hours with Edwin at the CMB bus station (central Accra) until it was his turn for loading. In addition to the 21 passengers his Benz bus had to swallow a huge amount of commercial goods. Incredible how they managed to stow it all away. For taking people’s baggage Edwin could collect 85.000 Cedis extra. But 5.000 had to be left behind at the police checkpoint behind Accra. Preventing the policeman from stopping our vehicle and from discovering that we are overloaded, he was given a bribe: When approaching, the mate quickly slipped a note into the policeman’s hand. “Fast!”, a woman sitting behind the driver commented with some appreciation. Avoiding an inspection means avoiding a penalty – but means above all getting home earlier. The latter suits all travellers, in particular when travelling in the evening, in the dark.

Actually Edwin dislikes giving bribes, especially when he knows that his vehicle and papers are alright. Even in this case some of his driver colleagues pay at police checkpoints. For a quicker continuation of their journey. But ... [more]

Long-distance mouse

07-01-23-Burkinatruck

These three young men from Burkina Faso are waving at their rescuers. They helped this tipped-over truck to get back on its wheels – with the assistance of a simple tractor and a long steel cable which had to be stretched over the Accra-Kumasi road. Too bad I was about 20 seconds late for a nice shot of this uplifting moment.

Everything about this truck was somehow oversized, as the exhausted though proud driver and his mates narrated. Their cargo trip had started in Ouagadougou three months earlier. It took them so long because their truck first suffered from a transmission trouble, followed by engine troubles, then dangerously loosening freight and finally broken tires. For the former, the three men had to wait in a northern Ghanaian village for several weeks until a mechanic finally arrived from their home country. [more]

Cargo cult

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This articulated lorry – people here simply call it articulator – had been loaded with tons of vegetable oil before leaving Tema Harbour, near Accra. On its way to Niger, after driving only just 60km on the Accra-Kumasi road, the lorry lost its trailer. Searching for the cause, the driver showed me one joint which had gotten spoiled, allegedly due to the bad roads and their potholes. Not a single word about overloading.

People see such a tipped-over cargo truck as a material blessing, and they make kind of a cult out of the incident. Roadside residents who come rushing to the accident scene are keen on the landed load such as cement bags, boxes full of tomatoes, yams, timber or iron rods. Or they tap petrol from a stranded tanker if it hasn’t gone up in flames yet. In those villages which are clearly divided by the highway, the inhabitants are said to compete for which side is supposed to get a hold of the fallen load. Sometimes the police of military rushes to the accident spot in order to avoid looting. Of course the owners have to pay for their assistance. In the case of the vegetable oil, the driver and his conductor had to wait for two days and nights at the roadside until a replacement truck reached the scene.

The young men from the neighbouring village were happy about the landed goods. Not because they were given some of the yellow canisters, but because they were paid in cash for their help in reloading them onto the truck which was parked downhill for easier loading.

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Experiencing the Accra-Kumasi Road (AKR):

An ethnographic project on roads, commercial driving and everyday travel in Ghana [more]

Recent Updates

Chap. 2: Inhabiting the...
Walking, watching, gossiping: quotidian roadside...
kwame - 2014-01-07 10:56
"The world's most dangerous...
A SPIEGEL article on "Die gefährlichsten Straßen...
kwame - 2011-07-10 16:52
Road Exhibitions IV
Chasing cars, mocking mates: Movements, emotions...
kwame - 2011-01-18 09:14
[cont.]
Through the open vehicle windows, they mainly sell...
kwame - 2011-01-18 09:12
Gabriel Klaeger Amoyaw
Das ist mein 'Sohn' in Ghana. Sein leiblicher Vater...
kwame - 2010-12-16 09:38

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Ch1: Accra-Kumasi Road
Ch2: Inhabiting the roadside
Ch3: Road travelling
Ch4: Passenger's body
Ch5: Commercial driving
Ch6: Roadfaring skills
ChX: Religion on the road
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other road projects
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