- Introduction to Special Issue:Bus Stations in Africa
Bus stations are among the most prominent sites of everyday social and economic activity in Africa. The lorry park, motor park, garage, gare routière, parkazy, or terminal rodoviário—to cite but a few of the names used in Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone contexts, respectively—is an essential hub in the organization of mobility. The role that bus stations play in everyday life stems from the primacy of collective road transport in providing motorized mobility. Other means of motorized transport are largely restricted, either in capacity and functionality, as with railway travel, or in access and affordability, as with air travel and private motorcars. For most people in Africa, motorized transport is a matter of getting a ride on shared—and often crowded—minibuses, taxis, microvans, lorries, trucks, and motorbikes. In turn, most inner-city, interregional, and international travel is organized in bus stations, where travel communities are formed and channeled into their journeys by the various roadside communities of the station.
In their role as spaces that organize mobility and exchange over distance, bus stations are integral to the workings of transport infrastructures at large. If we follow Brian Larkin's (2013, 329) trenchant definition and conceive infrastructure as "matter that enables the movement of other matter," then bus stations are among the most tangible reifications of movement-enabling matter in Africa. Movement is imperative at bus stations, and conceptual metaphors like "mobility," "flow," and "circulation" are made flesh and put into practice there (Lombard and Steck 2004a; Stasik 2017a). Stations serve as feeders of movement, as they facilitate the traffic of people and goods; in turn, they are fed by movement, because the activities and relationships of travel and roadside communities keep them running.
By choreographing the transport of people and freight, Africa's bus stations take on a quintessential economic role: they support and sustain trade, commerce, and exchange, and thus the wider economies they are embedded in, and they provide many people with a livelihood. The economic importance of bus stations is perhaps matched only by African marketplaces, to which they are often intimately related, not least in terms of geographical proximity, and with which they share many complementary services and [End Page vii] functions (Grieco, Apt, and Turner 1996; Ntewusu 2012). Besides their often-close ties through wholesaling, the complementarity of markets and stations reproduces larger structures of gendered occupational divides, with markets being associated with female, and stations with male, economic pursuits and roles (Thiel and Stasik 2016).
Similar to what Paul Bohannan and George Dalton (1968) emphasize in the introduction to Markets in Africa, bus stations in Africa have many purposes beyond the economic. They are gateways between urban and rural areas; they are sites of political contestation and popular mobilization; they serve as nodal points for the circulation of value, knowledge, meaning, and ideology; and they provide large numbers of people with a place to hear news, meet friends, and find shelter. In short, like marketplaces, they are loaded with social, economic, political, and cultural significance.
In view of the manifold functions and significances of bus stations in Africa, it is striking to note that they have only rarely been studied as subjects of research in their own right. In fact, nearly all the studies that relate to African bus stations appear to have emerged as subsidiary products of research on other subjects, often on marketplaces. The pioneering work of Polly Hill is a case in point. After setting out to research the distribution of specific market commodities in Ghana, she became absorbed by the intricacies of transport systems and, in passing, produced what constitutes some of the most detailed and most engaging descriptions of the social organization of bus stations to date (Hill 1984). Other classic examples include the in-depth account of Nigerian motorparks by Adrian Peace (1988), whose elaboration of socioeconomic relations within the parks was merely a point of departure for his analysis of the political economy of patronage systems in urban Nigeria, and Paul Stoller's (1989, 69-83) deep reading of social interactions in a bush taxi station in Niger...