Ghana Life: Taxi and Trotro Mottoes

Visitors to Ghana during the second half of the twentieth century may have been surprised to find that road traffic was dominated by two categories of public transport vehicles: taxis with brightly painted yellow wings and trotros, old Bedford trucks with locally constructed wooden bodies of traditional and distinctive design. A common feature of both categories, however, was that the vehicles carried clearly painted mottoes or slogans, in English and vernaculars, reflecting the owner/driver’s hopes, fears or guiding principles. A study of these mottoes is a survey in microcosm of the philosophical and aspirational life of the community.

In the advertising stakes, trotros have the big advantage of incorporating large wooden headboards and tailboards on which their mottoes can be painted in large bright letters. Consequently, each trotro carries two mottoes, front and back. The two mottoes are usually quite different, but as they cannot both be viewed at the same time, no confusion results. Taxis, however, carry their mottoes on the back of the vehicle, usually on the vertical surface of the boot (trunk) lid. Often only one motto is presented but a second is sometimes painted on the rear window, presenting the observer with the opportunity to read both together. Needless to say, they are often conflicting and sometimes contradictory in a robust neo-Hegelian philosophical tradition.

Mottoes and slogans taken from the Bible are very popular. Often, only the name of the book and chapter and verse numbers are given, leaving the reader the task of looking up the reference. One of the most common that is fully expressed is, ‘Behold what God hath wrought!’ said to have been the first words transmitted by Samuel Morse in demonstrating his new invention of the electric telegraph, but usually rendered in the Twi vernacular as, ‘Hwe Nea Onyame aye.’

The two most popular themes are God and money, with devotees proclaiming in the vernacular that, ‘God is King,’ and ‘Money is King,’ in roughly equal numbers. However, many vehicles carry the one word, ‘Awurade,’ another popular name for God often used to express surprise or amazement. In many cases the amazement may be connected with the unexpected opportunity to earn a livelihood.

Many drivers use the mottoes on their trotros and taxis to express their gratitude for help in acquiring their vehicles, with expression like, ‘Good Father,’ or, ‘Good Uncle,’ or, ‘Boafo ye,’ it’s good to have a helper. Others proclaim ruefully how long it took them to reach this point with slogans like, ‘Boafo ye na,’ or ‘Helpers are scarce.’ Many others complain bitterly in English about life’s hardships with, ‘Poor man no chop,’ or, ‘No brother in the army,’ or ‘No time to die,’ taken as the title of Hannah Schreckenbach’s illustrated book of trotro slogans to which the reader is referred for a more comprehensive exploration of this theme.

As most professional drivers are male it is not surprising that another set of popular slogans expresses relationships with women. Often seen in English is, ‘Fear Woman,’ perhaps a reflection on past employment by one of the wealthy women traders who own fleets of public transport vehicles. Some drivers like to display the names of their wives or girlfriends with ‘Vida,’ being especially popular in Tema. ‘Awoa ye,’ or ‘It’s good to give birth,’ is often seen, as is the more direct, ‘Love pee.’

Finally, there is a category of popular mottoes of a more philosophical nature, some expressing the hope that things will get better. There is the agnostic motto, ‘Who knows?’ and another is, ‘No condition permanent,’ used by Ian Smillie as the title of his book about the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of Kumasi University. Another is the more verbose, ‘Let my enemies live long to see what I will become in the future,’ seemingly favoured especially by taxi drivers. Even more commonly seen is, ‘Nyame bekyere’ or, ‘God will provide,’ giving God the last word in His contest with the monetarists.