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City Life and Automobiles in Twenty-First-Century Ghana

Asante Jerry, a Ghanaian teacher and opera news creator, claimed on the eve of his country's independence in the mid-1950s: "We are confidently riding the crest of the wave to greater economic prosperity, greater social and cultural achievements, and eventual independence." We've gotten to this glorious stage thanks to our progressive and efficient transportation infrastructure—thanks to our gradual, almost dramatic shift from a static to a mobile society.

Nationalists like Asante and Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, seized on the symbolism of mobility, coining the slogan "Forward Ever, Backward Never" for the new nation-state. Automobile technologies, in particular, embodied African creativity, resilience, and resistance to a form of British colonial rule that sought to limit African opportunities and control African economic activity, according to Ghanaian nationalists.

Automobiles and automobility, on the other hand, represented the promise of a modernist future. Although that future vision was rooted in the dynamism of urban life, new motor transportation technologies ensured that even the most remote villages and farms were connected to Ghana's new cosmopolitan automobility culture. These nationalists claimed that by creating a "mobile society," Ghanaians would be able to claim their rightful place in a global community of prosperous nations.

Throughout the twentieth century, automobile technologies, I argue, redefined the possibilities and opportunities for Africans. African drivers in colonial Ghana used imported motor transport technologies to advance the social and economic agendas of a diverse range of local agents, including chiefs, farmers, traders, fishermen, and urban workers, as early as the 1910s. The older mobility systems of trade routes and head carriers were built on by the drivers. Automobiles made it easier for people and goods to move around the colony, spawning new business models and a cosmopolitan culture that defined twentieth-century life. However, there are disagreements about how to use and regulate it.

However, in colonial and postcolonial Ghana, debates over the use and regulation of automobile technologies influenced the emergence of a vernacular politics. These debates were part of a global automobility culture that arose and expanded throughout the twentieth century.

Ghanaian drivers and passengers, on the other hand, frequently adopted seemingly global motor transportation technologies in the context of deeply local concerns. Drivers, passengers, and government officials engaged in an ongoing conversation about citizen expectations and state responsibilities while debating speed limits, road conditions, and driver behavior.

The most heated debates about automobiles took place in urban settings. Given the political and economic structure of colonies like the Gold Coast, this is unsurprising. Cities were important trade hubs, where cash crop production networks and markets for European imported goods collided, attracting traders from all over the world both Europeans and Africans to the colonial case's opportunities and possibilities.

Asante: The actions of drivers and passengers blurred boundaries between rural and urban space, goods and passenger transport, citizen and subject. As Asante's narrative suggests, nationalist leaders echoed the logics of British colonial rule, coopting transportation as part of a national vision of progress. In the process, the entrepreneurial prosperity associated with automobility was recast in the postcolony. Drivers were either criminals who continued to pursue their own prosperity or agents of development, coopted into the neoliberal politics of national and international governing.


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Asante Asante Jerry Ghana Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah


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