Wayside promise: Ghanaian roads as routes to brighter futures

By Jørgen Carling

Last-minute packing has its pros and cons. As I was leaving for a short trip to Ghana late last year, I grabbed the book closest at hand: Exploring Everyday Life by Billy Ehn, Orvar Löfgren, and Richard Wilk. I had bought it as preparation for our PhD course on ethnographic fieldwork methodology, and thought it would be good to read it while I was travelling.

I went to Ghana for two reasons: to explore fieldwork prospects in the city of Tema and to plan collaboration with the Centre for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana. I have spent a lot of time in West Africa, but this was my first trip to Ghana in a decade. I left without ambitions for doing proper fieldwork, yet Exploring Everyday Life inspired me to be attentive, analytical, and write from the very beginning.

In particular, I enjoyed the authors’ bricolage approach to ethnography, which is about seeing disparate parts of the fieldwork environment as interesting data. I also appreciated the connections the authors make between the materiality of everyday life and the bigger research themes of interest. These are qualities of ethnography that easily get lost in the larger, more structured collaborative projects that I have worked on during recent years.

In Ghana, I was intrigued by the physical structure of Tema, which I was introduced to by the Swedish-Ghanaian scholar Kajsa Hallberg Adu and subsequently explored on my own. The cityscape appears to combine Communist planning and American sprawl, draped in a typically African mix of decay and vitality. Tema is made up of numbered ‘communites’ that were originally intended to have self-contained characteristics akin to a Chinese danwei [A Chinese danwei is a work-based socio-spatial unit, intended to organise both professional and private aspects of everyday life, cf. Hill 2005]. This principle has collapsed in functional terms, but it has left a physical legacy of disjointed urban clusters framed by oversized arteries.

The urban form as such had no connection to my research interests—the place of migration in young people’s imaginaries of the future—but Tema’s thoroughfares were lined with intriguing components of fieldwork bricolage: large commercial billboards and plenty of signs and posters in between.

In fact, a striking feature of the physical landscape in urban Ghana is the signage—its volume, form and content. There’s a rich tradition of hand-painted signs on wooden boards, which still adorn some shops and stalls, but most signs and posters are now the product of low-cost industrial printing made possible by machinery brought from China. Unsurprisingly, much of the advertising promotes everyday products and services, like soap and phone credits. But what I became increasingly aware of, was how much of it promoted something bigger—some form of a pathway to a brighter future.

Photo by the author

What I first noticed, being a migration scholar, were the advertisements for the US Diversity Visa Lottery. This programme, now under intense scrutiny in the US, provides a migration opportunity for lucky winners who, for the most part, would have few other possibilities of legal entry. Ghanaian agents offer ‘entry assistance’ for a modest fee. The advertisements, brandishing the Statue of Liberty and American flags, tout the prospect of migration as a coveted opportunity. As one poster proclaimed, ‘Your chance to live & work in America is here again!’. Another appealed more directly to faith in personal luck: ‘It’s now your turn to live, study and work in the United States of America’.

The visa lottery posters caught my attention first, but they were vastly outnumbered by advertisements for education services—from kindergartens to university degree courses, exam preparation, and weekend classes. These services can also be read as vehicles for going somewhere. And some make the connection explicit: one information technology training institution, for instance, brands itself as ‘Your gateway to a great future’.

Another large category of posters advertises Christian events. Next to the promise of a great future through IT training was an equally mega-sized announcement of the ‘Raise the standards conference’, a week-long event that ended with a nine-hour prayerthon on the final day. Nearby was the signpost to the ‘Deeper life’ church. What united many of the Christian posters with the ads for the visa lottery and educational services was their directionality and purpose.

Photo by the author

The ‘Raise the standard conference’, like most of the other events that were advertised, had taken place some time ago. And the visa lottery’s annual deadline had passed by the time I left Ghana. The posters therefore acquired an additional function in the streetscape: when they no longer served to publicize specific events or services, they continued to promote the underlying values and hopes.

The posters therefore acquired an additional function in the streetscape: when they no longer served to publicize specific events or services, they continued to promote the underlying values and hopes

I was intrigued by the subtle commonality across the diversity of signage—the quest for onward and upward movement through a multiplicity of pathways. It resonated with my interest in young people’s imagined futures and pathways out of waithood, though in Ghana, the signage and its underlying promises were not confined to targeting youth.

This relationship between physical signage and personal projection extend to the last and most quintessentially Ghanaian type of advertisement: the obituary poster. The announcements and commemorations of deaths are rarely seen along major thoroughfares, but all the more frequently on homes, shops, cars, and other property related to the deceased or their family. Some posters are plainly headed ‘Transition’. Others portray the deceased under the heading ‘Home call’ or ‘Call to glory’. Death is not about closure; it is an onward journey.

As a geographer and migration researcher, I came to appreciate the intersection of three types of journey along the roads of Tema: first, the desired move to faraway destinations, evident in visa lottery posters and in many of my conversations; second, the greater journey onwards and upwards in life, in which emigration is merely one mode of travel; and third, the immediate movement through the city. And as an ethnographer, I was reminded of the power of curious attentiveness, even outside the context of long-term fieldwork.

About the author

Jørgen Carling is Research Professor in Migration and Transnationalism Studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Recent publications

‘Aspiration, desire and the drivers of migration.’ With Francis Collins, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(6):909-926, 2018.

‘Revisiting aspiration and ability in international migration.’ With Kerilyn Schewel, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(6):945-963, 2018.

How does migration arise?, International Organization for Migration, 2017.

‘West and Central Africa.’ in Migrant Smuggling Data and Research: a Global Review of the Emerging Evidence Base. International Organization for Migration, 25-53, 2016.

One response to “Wayside promise: Ghanaian roads as routes to brighter futures”

  1. Very nice blog you have hhere

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