Ghana on the Go: African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation

Ghana on the Go: African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation

Ghana on the Go: African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation

Ghana on the Go: African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation

Synopsis

As early as the 1910s, African drivers in colonial Ghana understood the possibilities that using imported motor transport could further the social and economic agendas of a diverse array of local agents, including chiefs, farmers, traders, fishermen, and urban workers. Jennifer Hart's powerful narrative of auto-mobility shows how drivers built on old trade routes to increase the speed and scale of motorized travel. Hart reveals that new forms of labor migration, economic enterprise, cultural production, and social practice were defined by autonomy and mobility and thus shaped the practices and values that formed the foundations of Ghanaian society today. Focusing on the everyday lives of individuals who participated in this century of social, cultural, and technological change, Hart comes to a more sensitive understanding of the ways in which these individuals made new technology meaningful to their local communities and associated it with their future aspirations.

Excerpt

In 1902, the first motor vehicle arrived in the Gold Coast. the fragile and finicky vehicle, a paraffin-fueled and steam-driven French Gardner-Serpollet car that cost £543, was intended for Governor Matthew Nathan. the car was a symbol of luxury and Western modernity in the West African colony, but Nathan’s vehicle was also an experiment. British Secretary of State for the Colonies Joseph Chamberlain had suggested two years earlier that “it might be advisable to employ a motor car as an experiment on the roads near Accra and Cape Coast.” British colonial officials like Chamberlain believed that motor vehicles would revolutionize imperial governance across the continent and encouraged their incorporation as tools of governance, enabling colonial officials to move more easily throughout their colonies. As a military engineer, Nathan was eager to take up Chamberlain’s suggestions. However, the poor conditions of Gold Coast roads limited the degree to which he could use the car. For the next six years, it sat unused before it was finally thrown into the sea in a massive cleanup of Accra in 1908.

In that same year—1908—the first Ford Model T rolled off of the assembly line at the Piquette Plant in Detroit, Michigan. That these events occurred in the same year was no coincidence. the first decade of the twentieth century marked the beginning of profound changes in the technology of motor transportation, which reshaped the politics of mobility in communities around the world and heralded a new age of automobility. Produced using the technology of assembly line mass production and interchangeable parts, the “Model T” was hailed as the world’s first affordable automobile, opening motor transportation and vehicle ownership to new portions of the population and democratizing automobility. the influence of Ford’s innovation was global in scope, as motor transport technologies spread across the Atlantic and through the networks of trade and empire.

As they spread, the technologies of motor transportation influenced the development of new forms of sociability, cultural practice, and economic exchange. Africans were certainly not exempt from these processes of global transformation. As the Governor’s car slid beneath the waves off the coast of Accra, it represented the end of an era. the fragility of Nathan’s car marked it as a luxury object and a status symbol, impractical given the limited infrastructure of the West African colony and inaccessible to all but the wealthiest African and European residents. a new age of democratized automobility was emerging in its wake, “creating possibilities and setting in motion forces that cannot quite be contained.” As early as the 1910s, African drivers in colonial Ghana seized . . .

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