ACCRA, Ghana — Public displays of religious devotion on Ghana’s roadways make “God is my co-pilot” bumper stickers in the United States look like the work of heathens.
“Merciful God” adorns the rear windshield of the taxi taking you to the airport. “God is Great” is the message on the packed minibus taxi passing you at high speeds on narrow highways, making one wonder if the driver wants to prove his point.
Those are among the thousands of slogans — there’s a growing number of nonreligious expressions as well — that taxi drivers write on their rear windows, typically in bright yellow block lettering.
They are vivid reminders that Ghana, though secular politically, is a religious state.
Less obvious are the hidden stories of how drivers choose slogans. Some give thanks, others want revenge, while some just want extra help to stay safe on the road.
“Judgment Day” in yellow letters and red trim practically jumps off the rear window of Papa Ayi’s minibus taxi — called a “tro tro.” He’s awaiting passengers at the taxi park on the Ghana-Togo border, and the word “Humble” is pasted on the rear of the tro tro behind his.
“I have some problems with my friend — the way he treats me,” Ayi said, explaining that he was fired from a previous job as a driver.
His former employer sued him because of a disagreement over $250. Ayi said he’s an honest man and that he spent the man’s money on auto parts. It went to court. He lost. The court order requiring repayment is tucked into the sun visor above the steering wheel, a constant reminder of a bitter experience.
Hence, Judgment Day.
“All the things you do when you are alive, you will be judged,” he said. “If you do bad, nobody will help you.”
Religion and culture are inseparable in Ghana, a heavily Christian country with a Muslim minority. Some Christians also practice traditional religions. A survey project called Afrobarometer asked Ghanaians to choose either “divine intervention” or “creativity and discipline of Ghanaians” as the answer to why the country has achieved success. Seventy-two percent chose “divine intervention.”
Stores have religiously themed names, like Blessed Real Estate, Praise the Lord Provisions Store, or God is Love Saloon. Political speeches can be mistaken for Sunday sermons. Popular radio hosts tell callers “God bless you” before saying goodbye.
“Almost everything in Ghana is by the will of God,” said Jennifer Hart, an Indiana University researcher and Fulbright-Hays grant recipient. “You’ll say ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ they say ‘God willing.’ You ask them how they are, they say ‘By God’s grace.’”
Hart has interviewed hundreds of drivers for her Ph.D. dissertation on the social and cultural history of urban transportation in Ghana. One driver’s slogan “All in All” was inspired by the Christian phrase “Jesus is my all in all.” He told Hart that he’s from a broken home, had no job and was ill before being “saved” by a Pentecostal pastor. He said his health improved and he found a job driving a tro tro, and that his slogan is a daily reminder to stay on course.
Ghana has a rich symbolic culture, such as the varied patterns and meanings of the iconic kente cloth, but where the window slogans originated “is kind of a mystery,” Hart said.
Back in the 1970s there were far fewer cars, and the religious inscriptions were painted on wooden boards and secured to the tops of trucks. As Ghana developed post-independence, the proliferation of cars combined with the Pentecostal movement resulted in more public expressions of religion, Hart said.
And while other cultures highlight differences between Christianity and Islam, there are similarities in Ghana. Muslim drivers write their slogans in English, not Arabic, and purposefully select slogans that are inclusive, Hart said.
“This kind of contemporary reformist Islam, and Pentecostal Christianity in West Africa in particular — they have a lot of similarities,” she said. “The appeal to God and God’s role in structuring and shaping your everyday life and material life is very strong in both. These slogans from different religious groups really overlap.”
Edward Ofosu keeps it simple. A “God is Great” bumper sticker is on his front windshield of his 23-person Mercedes minibus.
“So many things that I’ve gone through, the greatness of God has taken me out of them,” he said after arriving at a taxi park in Accra. “In times of sicknesses, problems, I don’t go anywhere. I just consult my God.”
Ofosu, a vice chairman for the Ghana Private Road Transport Union, explained the reasons why a driver writes “Angels on Board” or “This Car is for Jesus.”
“Maybe the name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Angels’ written on it, they will scare the devil away,” he said.
There’s a fair share of slogans that have no religious basis, as well. A souped-up Opel taxi driven by a young man says “So What” on its rear window.
Moses Kotoka, a driver waiting for passengers at the Accra Mall, shows his devotion to Ghana’s other passion — soccer. He wrote “Junior Agogo” on his window two years ago. Agogo is a striker on Ghana’s national team.
“He’s fast with the football. He scores goals,” Kotoka said. “He’s a fit man, a tough guy.”
Hart, the American academic, says one of her favorite slogans is “The blessings of Jehovah, That’s what Maketh Rich.”
“To me,” she says, “it epitomizes the Ghanaian approach to religion. This idea that God will make you rich, that faith in God and God’s grace will make you wealthy, will make you prosperous.”