With African Motors, Joshua Grace makes a significant contribution to the history of automobility on the African continent.1 His monograph focuses on Tanzania from circa 1860 to 2010 and covers three main topics: the history of repair and work, gender and masculinity, and infrastructural constraints resulting from austerity and material absence. The book engages with the regional and Tanzanian historiography and takes the view of his African actors: from mechanics, workers in transport and government, passengers, road workers to Tanzania’s first president, Julius K. Nyerere. While African Motors is firmly rooted in East Africa, Grace skilfully integrates the theoretical strands from the fields of technology studies, new mobilities research, and infrastructure studies. Central to the analysis is the “machinic complex” of the car (pp. 8, 30), a concept developed by Mimi Sheller and John Urry that was often applied to the Global North. Grace thus notes that “some of the specific ‘technical and social interlinkages’ translate poorly to historical experience in East Africa” (p. 8).2 He uses automobility “as a historical method that encourages scholars to open the black box of car-based mobilities” (p. 8). In so doing, Grace demonstrates how a diverse set of historical actors remade technologies and shaped the sociotechnical interlinkages of (anti)colonial and post-independence automobility in meaningful and decisive ways. The photos of vehicles and spare parts throughout his book bear testimony to the human-car interactions. The monograph draws on a wide range of primary sources but it is probably Grace’s most important contribution that he treats the repair workshop as an alternative archive, built by Africans and containing “alternative epistemologies” (p. 28). Equally remarkable is how he relates key Kiswahili terms of automobility to a regional history of skill and knowledge.
In the introduction Grace explains his use of ‘African’ and ‘Africans’ by noting, firstly, that it is a term his historical actors are using for themselves. Secondly, he observes that none of Tanzania’s many ethnic identities was dominant. It is this relative equality together with the fact that almost all groups in Tanzania are Bantu-speakers which allows for an etymological analysis focused on Kiswahili. The first chapter focuses on spatial mobilities and transport infrastructure in colonial Tanganyika. Grace connects the emerging professions of a motor driver and mechanic with notions of masculinity and coming-of-age, demonstrating that while the ideas were dressed in new English vocabulary they were connected to much older histories of skill, knowledge, and well-being. In the second chapter he shows how mechanics, their garages and tools produced forms of automotive overhaul from the 1920s to the 1980s. Colonial officials insisted on formalised automotive training but its limitations and the racial pay meant that many Africans developed new ways of diagnosing and fixing vehicles outside of official garages. Rainy seasons provided learning curves for trainees as they brought motor vehicles of all makes into the garages, enabling them to acquire diverse knowledge in a short span of time. It is here that Grace argues convincingly that repair workshops can hold “technical authority” (p. 94),”things and people surrounding us in the garage demonstrated expertise, not the words said in an interview or found in books or certification documents” (ibid.). Yet, ideas of ‘Western’ education outlived independence and state officials continued to underappreciate the valuable technological skills passed on in training systems of alternative garages. The third and fourth chapters are set in the post-independence period from 1961 to the mid-1980s and deal with motor transport and its road and oil infrastructure. The third chapter explains how privately-owned vehicles called thumni-thumni, predecessors of the daladala, started servicing urban residents for whom public transport had become insufficient. While Tanzania’s first president Julius K. Nyerere and the state media labelled the private taxis ‘anti-socialist’, Grace’s interlocutors insist that it was a form of socialist self-help. Indeed, the ways in which these private taxis as operated departs starkly from the ways in which some politicians used ostentatious vehicles for themselves. The fourth chapter zooms in on Tanzania’s oil import, infrastructure and actors. Based on the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation’s fonds, Grace emphasises the initiative and problem-solving capacities of the parastatal. The sections opens with South Rhodesia cutting Zambia off from oil supplies in 1965. This “first oil crisis” (p. 185) resulted in the construction of novel infrastructure to attain material independence in the region. Important here are the “chronopolitics” (p. 221) of the postcolonial state: politicians and citizens knew there was little time to become self-reliant (p. 196). Grace shows how urban planners, workers in the oil parastatal and their counterparts in the state authorities worked hard for material independence amidst economic challenges: He thus refutes theories of African state failure and the simplistic narrative of Tanzania’s rise and decline after independence. At many instances, Grace shows beautifully that economic and political initiatives could have turned out in better ways, even if eventually they opened the way for the structural adjustment programs. Moreover, and this is the heart of the publication, Grace shows how Tanzania avoids a system based on the private car and mass car consumerism. In chapter five, Grace (re)turns to questions of motor vehicles and masculinity from the 1960s to the 1980s. He argues that motor drivers created ‘motorized domesticities’ in which mobility provided them with social security. By developing dependable networks as well as skills and knowledge they were able to “dwell safely in and on technologies known for social, physical, and spiritual risk” (p. 239). These achievements became increasingly questioned as concerns about road safety, smuggling of contraband, and the spread of HIV/Aids became discursively linked to drivers. Taken together, the three narratives branded automobility and the drivers’ masculinity as ‘ineffective’. Unfortunately, this stigma stuck and both development experts and planners today are keen on replacing rather than improving the daladala transport (p. 292). In his conclusions, Grace connects his monograph to the severe problems connected to mass car consumerism and pollution. He recognises the Tanzanian case as an example of how cars, roads and society became interlinked differently, generating a less destructive and unsustainable form of motor transport than elsewhere. The author thus leaves the reader with a bit of hope – the Tanzanian example demonstrates how automobility can be assembled differently.
It is a minor point of criticism that Grace stops short of analysing ‘race’ in colonial history in a slightly more complex way. It remains unclear what role transport and automotive professionals held whose families had migrated from the Asian continent to East Africa mostly from the mid-nineteenth century.3 Who were they and what was their position within the colonial and post-colonial automobile society? Did they have similar conceptions of masculinity and domesticity? This is an omission that could also be explained by the rigid word limit many authors need to adhere to. It is noticeable on every page that the author has a deep understanding of his subject that is based on committed long-term research and thought. Yet, despite the depth and density, Grace excels in presenting his findings and interventions in an elegant and accessible way. African Motors is thus a valuable read for anyone from undergraduate students, more advanced readers to experts in the history of Tanzania, technology, mobilities or infrastructure studies.
1 Key publications on automobility in African history: Kenda Mutongi, Matatu. A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi, Chicago 2017; Matteo Rizzo, Taken For A Ride. Grounding Neoliberalism, Precarious Labour, and Public Transport in an African Metropolis, Oxford 2017; Jennifer Hart, Ghana on the Go. African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation, Bloomington 2016.
2 Mimi Sheller / John Urry, The City and the Car, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24 (2000), pp. 737–757.
3 See for example: Katie Valliere Streit, South Asian Entrepreneurs in the Automotive Age. Negotiating a Place of Belonging in Colonial and Post-Colonial Tanzania, in: Journal of Eastern African Studies 13 (2019), pp. 525–545.