Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Kultur-, Sozial- und Bildungswissenschaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften

Transport in Africa

*2019 @ IAAW – HU Berlin
Research group

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(Copyright: Photographic credits: HU Berlin - RG Transport in Africa  – CC-BY-SA )

Projektleitung: Dr.Marie Huber 

                         Dr.Peter Lambertz

Seen as the socio-technical organisation of mobility, transport is a crucial expression of social, economic and political life. Our research group engages with transport and mobility in Africa with a particular interest in the historical role of infrastructures for the mobility of goods and people. The everyday life of transport infrastructures generates connectivity on a variety of spatial and temporal scales, which is key to the participation in social, economic and political life. In Africa’s varying political, environmental, demographic and urbanizing settings, the social and technological interactions that account for the movement of goods and people play a decisive role in the shaping of local economies, people’s relationship with their physical environment and their often translocal social lives.

What unites us as researchers is a historically sensitive attention to transportation-related matters in Africa, as pertaining to both past and present societies. We are interested in the trajectories and entangled paths of materials, energies, technologies, knowledge and skills, promises and failures, which account for the (im-)mobility of goods and people in Africa. From intended, in-build techno-deterministic affordances of transportation devices to the socio-cultural unpredictabilities that unfold as socio-technical assemblages are put to use by local actors, we are interested in transportation infrastructures as sites of determining forces and creative agency alike. Thus, by tuning in with the academic resurgence of materiality, technology and material culture as key domains for historical and anthropological enquiry, we aim to contribute to the global history of transportation from the African perspective.

Our group gathers projects on various modes of transportation: by land, by air, on water, either propelled by combustion engines or by muscle-based techniques of the body. Our interests include the planning and programming, but also the de facto construction, operation, maintenance, and interaction of technologies, materials, bodies, skills, and people, with their respective temporal and spatial horizons. This ranges from portage in suburbs and rural areas to intercontinental air travel, from hopeful technocrats in far-away offices to the oily everyday lives of road mechanics.

Our interests can be summarised by five thematic strings:

  • INFRASTRUCTURE: As sets of relations between technologies, people and space, transport networks constitute infrastructures that perform connectivity on multiple scales. These shape, and are being shaped by, local, national, and regional infrastructural entanglements. We are as much interested in how roads, stations, (air)ports and waterways emerge through international agreements, larger economic concerns and techno-political planning, as in the everyday interaction local actors have and cultivate with them.
  • Our interest in MATERIALS AND RESOURCES foregrounds the textures and temporalities of the material ingredients, the resources, energies and the environmental factors involved in transportation technologies.
  • MAINTENANCE refers, in the wider sense, to the multiple kinds of knowledge, skills and practices surrounding transportation, whose development and social organisation account for the functionality, reliability and longevity of transportation systems, as well as for the lack and breakdown thereof. Tuning, adapting, repairing, and replacing vehicles, just like the maintenance (and its lack) of roads, airstrips or quays, is dependent on various local practical articulations including the political economy of spare parts and their circulation.
  • RISK AND (IN-)SECURITY being inevitable features of transport infrastructures, the prevention and management of fear often involves political, technological, but also ritual and performative interventions.
  • Transport infrastructures are also sites of the performance, negotiation and contestation of social and political norms. RACE, CLASS, GENDER AND AGE inform our intersectional analyses of how transport infrastructures (re)produce social hierarchies and norms, and how the mobility of some often results in the immobility of others. Our attention is directed to the power relations, social norms, and economic forces underlying unequal and uneven mobility.

Marie Huber and Peter Lambertz
(in collaboration with Baz Lecoq, Alina Oswald, Norman Aselmeyer, Daniel Tödt, William Lyon and Robert Heintze)