Accepted paper:

The roads not taken: African agency and the limits of colonial infrastructure development


Andreas Greiner (ETH Zurich)

Paper short abstract:

The paper discusses the limits of colonial infrastructure development in East Africa. With a focus on the agency of caravan porters, it argues that colonial space was a contested field in which infrastructural arrangements were not solely defined by colonial rule but negotiated with African actors.

Paper long abstract:

When the German Empire established its colony German East Africa (1885-1918) in what is today Tanzania, colonial rule suffered from a lack of reliable infrastructure. The sole means of transport were human porters, travelling on long-distance trade routes, which were most often mere footpaths. After 1900, the colonial administration sought to overcome this pre-colonial road system by investing heavily in a new network of paved roads. However, before long many of these new roads had fallen into disrepair. Taking this failure of imperial infrastructure as a starting point, the paper discusses the spatial practices of the colonial state in East Africa and its limits. The paper focusses on those expected to use the roads: caravan porters. Colonial space was a contested field in which infrastructure schemes planned from colonial office desks collided with established patterns of caravan mobility and local common sense. As the analysis will reveal, the agency of porters prevented colonial authorities from implementing durable infrastructures on the spot. Because porters refused to use the colonial roads, the latter soon were covered by thick thorn bush and rendered useless. The paper proposes an alternative approach to the question how imperial infrastructure was developed. It suggests to analyse infrastructural development at ground level, arguing that this perspective enables us to explore the logics that shaped the trajectories of infrastructures on the scene. In doing so, it highlights that infrastructure was not solely defined by colonial rule but negotiated with African actors who appear as “veto-players”.

panel His18
Paving roads over well-trodden paths? The (dis-)use of everyday infrastructure from pre- to post-colonial Africa, 1800s to present