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Vehicles of Sociality: The Role of Transportation in Verbal Play, Spatial Negotiation, and Exchange in Nima Social Life

June 12, 2017


Taking a ride in a tro-tro is one of many small pleasures in Accra. I usually take the back seat and squeeze in by the lefthand side to catch the breeze from the open window. These mini buses, also known as “share taxis” typically seat about 20 passengers and follow a relatively fixed route, filling and letting off passengers along the way. Each ride typically only costs a few Cedis, but the low cost in comparison to a taxi ride often means a longer commute due to the multiple stops. However, there is nothing like a ride in one of these, because once on board, social life takes on a concentrated and magnified form. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that the tro-tro is far more than just a mode of transit from point A to point B.


The average ride begins by making your way to one of many very subtly designated stops across the city. Dozens of tro-tros pass by each minute, all heading to various parts of the city. Tro-tros are always run by two men, one driver and one caller/fare collector. The driver runs up and down the agreed upon routes, while the caller rides with his head and sometimes torso out the window of the van calling out the destination of the vehicle. The cries of the tro-tro callers are a true form of verbal art. One gets to know to listen not only for the name of the neighborhood, but also for the distinct cadence and verbal ingenuity that come with each destination’s name. Some of the shorter names are repeated in rapid triplicate, such as “Nima, Nima, Nima!” or “Accra, Accra, Accra!” Others involve some creative play with the phonetics and prosody, such as the neighborhood Maamobi’s call which sounds something like, “Ma:a:mobi, Maamobi, Maamobi, Maa-Oh!”




Tro-tros traveling longer distances with multiple stops use the names of all major neighborhoods the vehicle will pass through. The tro-tro that runs to Madina, also continues north toward Adenta and then Doduwa. The callers make sure to name each and repeat, sometimes adding a little flair by repeating other parts of the utterance for effect, such as “Madina, Adenta, Doduwa, Doduwa, Doduwa!” Finally, the most cryptic, but also the most intriguing are the tro-tros heading toward the Kwame Nkrumah traffic circle. This call took me the longest to figure out because the call is “Circ-, circ-, circ-, circle!” but in a thick Ghanaian accent and an accompanying iconic gesture of what looks like a wobbling flat hand, moving in a vague circle motion. This is usually done by the caller, and sometimes the driver, with his head and arm out the window performing the gesture. Despite the extensive number and questionable regulation of this transit system, every caller seems to be on the same page as far as how to call out the destinations. There seems to be a socially agreed upon norm in verbal advertisement, which allows for passengers to more easily hear and flag down their desired ride.


The realization and interpretation of the calls seem to undergo a process akin to what Blommaert (2010) identifies as the transformation from an otherwise linguistic cue to a semiotic cue. While his examples of this refer to the emblematic use of linguistic material by non-native speakers, such as the use of Japanese Kanji characters as appropriated decorative emblems by American English speakers, it seems as though a similar sort of emblematization occurs in the situation of the tro-tro calls as well. As Blommaert (2010) explains, “important was not its linguistic function as a denotational sign, but the emblematic function it had in signaling a complex of associative meanings” (p. 29). In other words, when one listens for the tro-tro call, the emblematic (paralinguistic and multimodal) cues are just as important as the purely linguistic cues. In fact, from a distance, it is easier to listen for these cues over the linguistic information to know which tro-tro to board.


Eye contact and a simple head nod can often flag a speeding tro-tro and once on board, an entire world of sociality and communication is revealed. Immense traffic congestion is a constant here in Accra and vehicles, people, and animals are constantly vying for space. Especially on narrow roads branching off the highway, the intense competition for space is magnified. During the average day at Nima Market, massive delivery trucks, carrying crates of water bottles and sodas as well as sacks of grain and beans, attempt to squeeze through these small paths, dwarfing the small buildings and roadside stands on either side of the street. These trucks throw a wrench in the works, leaving even less space for everyone else in an already packed channel of traffic. Because of this, people are in constant communication with each other to avoid accidents.


When traffic is down to one lane (and I use the word lane very loosely), drivers begin to talk amongst themselves out of open windows to plot how they will get their vehicles through the maze of obstacles. Some might shout to oncoming traffic to pause to let them squeeze by, while others will call attention to the fact that they need to turn around in the middle of the road and make a request for extra space to perform a full maneuver. Space is consistently negotiated in this way, in which drivers yell to each other from their respective vehicles to request a left turn into traffic, or fit into an extremely small space between other vehicles and road side stands. Turn signals are more or less substituted for verbal communication in these situations. I once saw a cab driver make what seemed like an impossibly tight left turn into traffic and reach out to touch the bumper of an oncoming tro-tro as if to say, “Move back just a touch so I can turn here.” The tro-tro driver obliged as soon as he could and backed up to let the taxis pass.


A ride in Accra:


Drivers also communicate extensively between open windows for the purposes of socialization and greeting. If a driver sees a friend coming in a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction, he will be sure to wave and check in as they pass. People standing at the roadside or working at the sidewalk in Nima Market will also shout to drivers to say hello and share the occasional joke, met with smiles and laughter. Traffic often moves so slowly through these roads that there is ample time to check in with friends and family passing by in taxis and tro-tros. The flip side of this accessible communication is the availability for public critique of one’s driving. Occasionally, drivers will be reprimanded from pedestrians at the roadside as well as by other drivers. While conflict is often relatively rare, the occasional shout of dissent will occur if a truck unknowingly bumps into a parked moped or pushes into a roadside market stand. Shouts of “Oh!” and “Eh!” can be heard from merchants and pedestrians when a driver is being careless.


In addition to this extension of socialization through vehicles, commerce functions similarly. People continue to buy and sell from these vehicles, and one can often purchase a wide range of items from sellers milling about in the street including bags of water, phone cards, and snacks. One can accomplish quite a bit on these rides and run errands while on the way to one’s destination, picking up breakfast on the way to work or laundry detergent on the way home. Commerce interacts seamlessly within this system, enabling buyers and sellers to exchange due to the slow moving traffic. However, even in quickly moving vehicles, I have witnessed the well-practiced water bag hand-off in which the buyer has their 20 pesewa coin waiting out the window, while a woman balancing a gigantic metal basin on her head runs to pick up the coin and place a water bag speedily into the open hand of the departing passenger.


Here it seems as though people are inseparably a part of their vehicles and that those vehicles serve a critical function in the ways in which people socialize, advertise, and engage in commerce. Residents of Accra have adapted transportation to suit their needs and have crafted a model for transit that challenges the notion of the basic functionality of city travel. In Accra, vehicles are vessels for creativity, sociality, and exchange. 


* In order to better convey the experiences described above, I have included a recording I made one morning on a tro-tro heading toward Madina. Listen:


I was inspired to do this by the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, who created the sound scape installation “Market Symphony” now at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington DC.

It captures the auditory world of Lagos, Nigeria and when I first experienced the installation, I was immediately transported back to my first time in Ghana, walking through Madina Market. The vibrancy and complex levels of social interaction are expertly captured by this method and I thought a tro-tro ride would be the perfect way to replicate this. For an added visual level of engagement, I’ve included a separate video recording of a tro-tro ride down Ring Road in Accra. In the sound recording, listen for a few key elements while at the tro-tro stop. First, a caller from another passing tro-tro calls out to someone at the roadside, while the caller of our tro-tro, walking around on the sidewalk to advertise, calls out “Madina! Adenta! Doduwa!” to potential approaching passengers. Cars and mopeds honk and whizz by, adding to the chorus. Quietly in the distance, one can hear (what I call) the kissing noises of vendors and other tro-tro callers, which act as auditory cues to get the attention of interested buyers. Then, the caller of our van pounds on the side of the vehicle to signal to the driver to wait for a few passengers who are walking toward the tro. The voices of passersby and music from the van fill in the gaps and once the tro-tro fills, we depart for Madina.





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