Sunday, November 20, 2005

White Privilege and Mammy Lorries

Mammy Lorry Cartoon, David Scrimshaw, 1985

The Major Paper Word Count hasn't gone up because all the energy so far today has gone into "Law and Feminism".

Here's an excerpt:

Before I went to teach in Africa, I was told that I would have to work hard to not put myself in a social context where I only hung out with expatriates. And that because of the culture in Ghana and because I would have a certain amount of money, I'd find myself not choosing to live the way Ghanaians lived.

No, no, I said to myself, I will have Ghanaian friends, I will live the way Ghanaians live. I will ride in the back of the mammy lorries.

Mammy lorries were on the way out in the mid-80s, but were still a common passenger vehicle for one to three hour distances. They were mainly Bedford trucks with flatbeds, shipped to Africa from Europe. In Africa, a wooden cabin would be built on the back. For passengers, planks were placed across the cargo compartment. In a standard sized truck eight adults could squeeze across if none were obese. With six rows, the rear cab could hold 48 people and their possessions. The one and a half hour ride between my school and Accra could be excruciating. The lack of back support meant lower back and shoulder pain. The unpadded plank meant a sore bum. I never had a chicken ride on my shoulder, but I more than once had them sitting on my feet.

If you were in the back of a mammy lorry, the best arrangement possible was to be on the front plank, so you could lean against the panel behind the driver's compartment, and wedged in between some solidly built market women because they would add extra support.

If you were really lucky, you'd ride up front with the driver.

But how to be so lucky? One way was to be a pretty woman and flirt a bit with the driver. Not available to me unless I was travelling with my "wife" or "sister" (Her status would depend on how flirtatious she wanted to get with the driver, usually she'd be my "wife"). It might be that an appropriate "dash" or bribe would get you up there, but I never learned if that was acceptable nor how to pull it off if it was. Another way to be lucky and get the offer to sit up front was to be white.

It didn't happen all the time, but often enough, the driver's mate would call me out of the back, "Oboruni, come, come, sit here," and I'd be up front with the driver. I talked about this with other volunteers. We'd all arrived with the idea that we'd never take advantage of our privilege, but after a few trips in the back of a mammy lorry, we'd only turn down a ride up front if we were travelling with Ghanaian friends. Otherwise we'd be up there right away. And we'd feel a bit aggrieved if we weren't invited up front. "Where's that Ghanaian courtesy to strangers we hear so much about."

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