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Roads and automobility on the African continent are commonly encountered with a rather ambivalent stance, both by Africans and Africanist scholars. This ambivalence emerges from what Adeline Masquelier describes as the ‘profoundly contradictory nature of roads as objects of both fascination and terror’ (2002: 381). In her widely received article on ‘road mythographies’ surrounding Niger's Route 1, Masquelier draws a vivid picture of the ‘contradictory aspects of the road as a space of both fear and desire’ (ibid.: 831). She highlights, in particular, how roadside residents perceive automotive travel as ‘a process fraught with risky and contradictory possibilities’ (ibid.: 832). A ‘pioneering study in the ethnography of roads’ (Campbell 2012: 498), Masquelier's account of people's profound ambivalence towards roads, mobility and transport in post-colonial Niger has been a source of inspiration for a range of scholars who have explored in a similar vein the intricate entanglement of people with (auto)mobility, space and modernity, both in Africa and elsewhere (see, for example, Khan 2006; Klaeger 2009; Dalakoglou 2010; Hart 2011). Five articles in this volume press ahead with the analytic theme of the ambivalence of roads. Through their historic analyses and ethnographic observations, the assembled case studies from Senegal, Ghana, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania give a strong sense of how the perils and possibilities of roads, roadsides, traffic and transport have been and continue to be embraced in the everyday lives of colonial and post-colonial subjects.
In this article, I focus on the place of road safety in Kenyan legislative history since independence in 1963 as a way of illustrating the analytic value of speed for the anthropology of the state. Road safety, a highly visible public concern in Kenya since the 1960s, offers us a way to rethink the temporal dangers and uncertainties of automotive travel under global capitalism, but also to go further in seeking out historical continuities in Kenya's post-colonial aspirations for safer and more efficient roads. This focus on road safety takes us from Africanization, in the 1960s and 1970s, to the regulatory reforms of the 1990s and 2000s in the guise of neo-liberalism. From the vociferous complaints and debates of Kenyan politicians about imported Peugeots being dangerous to drive on Kenya's rough and sparsely tarmacked roads in 1964, to the much publicized traffic crackdown of 2003, the so-called ‘Michuki Rules’, road safety is a field of study ideally suited to the analysis of infrastructural power and its transformations and continuities over a four-decade period. What is of analytic interest here is the new value of speed in an East African region that has aggressively embraced automobility as a vehicle for enhancing state sovereignty in a globalized economy.
During his term as President, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal sought to make tangible and proximal his ‘vision’ for the country's future through the construction and rehabilitation of vital arteries in the capital, Dakar. Drawing on extensive ethnographic research, this essay takes as its focus these ambitious road projects and their local interpretations and everyday effects. I argue that Dakar's infrastructural transformation made spectacularly visible not only distant and implausible futures but also a very particular vision of the present that rationalized, emphasized, and even celebrated the everyday hardships wrought by infrastructural change. Avowedly ahistorical and centred squarely on the individual, these discourses of hardship cast infrastructural change as a future-focused project brought about through ‘temporary’ inconveniences and disruptions endured for the sake of the nation. What emerges from this analysis is a more complex view of neo-liberal reform and urban change in contemporary Africa.
This article follows the careers of two African drivers in social environments that circumscribed their movement and access to technology. It begins with Vincent Njovu, whose memoir, The First Driver of Tanganyika, describes the driver's ability to navigate racial hierarchies of movement and technology, including the unlikely circumstances in which he fell in love with an ideal colonial machine. It then explores post-colonial cultures of gender and modernization by using the unpublished memoirs of Hawa Ramadhani, a woman who used automotive skills learned among nuns in the 1940s to become Tanzania's most respected driver. Paired together, the life histories of these drivers challenge historical narratives in which movement and technology (roads and motor vehicles, in particular) are used to discuss Africa's marginalization and decline. Instead, they show how transgressive practices of mobility can be used to challenge social and political orders and inspire new ways to think and act at uncertain historical junctures. Roads in these narratives are defined less by their danger than by their potential to turn unlikely individuals into heroes.
This contribution examines the truck stop on the desert track known as the Forty Days Road that connects the Sudanese capital with Darfur and the regions beyond. The truck stop is represented as the main roadside institution to regulate roadside sociality, channel the relationships between travelling and roadside folk, and generally mediate between residents and strangers. On the one hand, it serves as a gateway to small-town Sudan and the hinterland, providing the social infrastructure for the commercial flow of trucks, commodities and passengers as well as for the flow of news and fashions. On the other hand, by catering for the needs of passing truck drivers and other travellers, it operates as a safe haven. It provides shelter in the most comprehensive sense of the word and thus constitutes a protected place for recovering from the pains of travelling. At the same time, however, these roadside practices of brokerage and hospitality also serve the resident society of small-town Sudan as a means to keep the travelling strangers safely apart in a circumscribed domain and, thus, keep the influences from the road in quarantine.
The Accra–Kumasi road, one of Ghana's most important trunk roads, traverses numerous towns and settlements whose residents at times engage intimately with the road on their doorstep. In this article, I provide ethnographic insights into the ways in which roadside dwellers conceptualize – and spatialize – the road and its roadside through distinct repertoires of movement (performed and encountered), through localized storytelling and narratives, through self-reflection, and also through disruptive and vigilante actions. I describe the spatial practices that are at the core of the dwellers' ‘anthropological’ experience of the road and its roadside, a space that is continuously domesticated, appropriated and, thus, implicated in the mundane and everyday. The dwellers' everyday practices, as well as the exceptional performances oriented to the road, appear as closely intertwined both with the liveliness, socialities and opportunities the road affords, as well as with its dangers and potential for destruction and death. Thus the ‘ambivalent nature of road experiences’, in Masquelier's phrase – namely the experience of the road as a space of both perils and possibilities – is crucial to how roadside dwellers socially produce the Accra–Kumasi road.
To fight boredom, un(der)employed young men in Niger have joined fadas (youth clubs) where they listen to music, play card games and strike up new friendships – or nurture old ones. Membership in these organizations cuts across social divides, educational backgrounds and religious affiliations, affirming the spirit of egalitarianism and comradeship that drives these largely urban projects. At the fada, conversation routinely takes place around the making and sharing of tea, a ritual idle young men have come to value greatly as they struggle to fill their days with purpose and direction. Whereas elders largely condemn fadas as futile, self-indulgent, and occasionally criminal endeavours, samari (young men) defend their pastimes, claiming that they engage in meaningful activities. In this essay I explore the temporalities of teatime at the fada. Rather than focus on what is lost under conditions of crisis and privation, I consider instead what is produced, and in particular how value, exchange, and affect emerge in the context of daily routines at the fada. In the absence of other temporal markers punctuating daily life, the practice of preparing and consuming tea becomes a key happening, enabling samari to carve out meaningful temporalities and reconfigure their relation to the future.
This article explores how, in the village of Glendale in KwaZulu-Natal, residents and local government officials – including councillors and municipal technicians – ‘see’ the post-apartheid state. I show how residents of the village regard the government – despite extensive state intervention – as inadequate, complaining especially of their ‘invisible’ and ‘impersonal’ character. Indeed, for them, democracy has brought anything but ‘direct rule’. And yet, while chiefly rule is sometimes invoked as a favoured alternative, I argue that people's estrangement from democratic government is not the desire to return to ‘culture’ but rather an expression of structural difficulties central to South Africa's increasingly tenuous experiment with participatory democracy. I suggest that these difficulties are also not reducible to state failure or corruption but point towards contradictions in contemporary citizenship.