Histories of Transportation and Mobility in Africa
- Jennifer HartJennifer HartDepartment of History, Wayne State University
The history of transportation is part of a much broader history of mobility on the African continent. Transport history highlights the technologies, infrastructures, and networks that facilitated the circulation and exchange of people, goods, and ideas within local communities, across regions, and within systems of long-distance and global trade. While scholars have often associated transportation with the mechanized technologies of the industrial age, the history of mobility and transportation in Africa embraces a much broader definition of technology, encompassing animal, human, and mechanical transportation dating back to at least the 1st century ce. These long technological and transport histories informed the ways in which Africans shaped the industrial transport cultures and practices of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Technologies and infrastructures made mobility possible, but the values and practices of African communities made mobility meaningful, connecting individuals and communities in networks of cultural and economic exchange at local, regional, continental, and global scales. For some, mobility and transportation provided crucial economic opportunities as wage laborers and entrepreneurs. For others, mobility was defined by conditions of servitude. For most, however, mobility and transportation was much more personal, connected to daily habits of work, travel, and trade. As they moved, Africans articulated new understandings of work, created economies of value, and defined individual and collective identities—actions that gave technology and infrastructure meaning as part of a broader mobility-system. This mobility-system—or rather the multiple mobility-systems—that developed and transformed throughout the history of the continent connected global trading systems and local agricultural practice, railroads and carrier paths, motor vehicles and markets.