Religion & Spirituality on the road


Socialising on the road

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?

Walking and chatting on the pavement

Road Exhibitions II


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.


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]

Experiencing the Accra-Kumasi Road (AKR):

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

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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
newspaper articles
other road projects
Road Exhibitions series
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