Joshua Grace. African Motors: Technology, Gender, and the History of Development. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. xiii + 416 pp. $30.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1171-2.
Reviewed by Kyle Harmse (Stanford University)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (June, 2022)
Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
African Ingenuity, Agency, Autonomy, and Automobility in Twentieth-Century Tanzania
African Motors opens with a detailed appreciation of one contemporary African vehicle in particular. Purpose-built by a Tanzanian named Frank Taylor out of an eclectic collection of American, European, and Asian parts, the motor in question is a championship-winning rally car that aptly serves as an example of great technical skill, ingenuity, and technological agency. It is far from the only instance of such technical efficacy in Tanzania and is, as Joshua Grace forcefully illustrates throughout this excellent history, a potent example of the reality that Africans were—and are— far from the inhabitants of a technological backwater. Contrary to almost all colonial-era discourses on African technological simplicity, Grace argues that instead Africans thoroughly embraced the artifacts and infrastructures of the automobile in the twentieth century, reconfiguring devices and machines made in the global North to suit uniquely African practices, conditions, and attitudes. Grace’s work thus joins a growing literature by scholars like Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Luise White, and Robyn D’Avignon and further drives home their collective point: Africans have always been shrewd users of technology, capable of adoption, mastery, generative creation, remix, and reconfiguration.
African Motors’ first chapter opens on a brief prehistory of Tanganyikan mobility before the car, before delving into the development of petrol-powered automobility there during German and British colonial rule. Grace here draws heavily on traditional archival research and aptly demonstrates how European technopolitical schemes often proved fragile when translated to African conditions. Vast expenditures on African labor were subsequently required to supplement colonial infrastructural projects, which were themselves often deliberately undercooked. As a consequence, much of the British colonial endeavor was vitally reliant on African technological intermediaries that seldom got the credit they deserved. Motors then shifts gear to focus on to the postcolonial period, and here Grace’s fieldwork as a Tanzanian garage apprentice and his fluent appreciation for Kiswahili linguistic metaphors translates into a deft understanding of Tanzanian technological imaginaries. In shifting the focus of his analysis to the literal street level, Grace handily illustrates the emergence and development of an entire sector of informal street knowledge located in the “quiet garage” (gereji bubu). Grace argues convincingly that street mechanics in this space illustrate the “effective gender” by letting the technical merits of their craft do the talking for them, often by making parts and cars last by creative means in a climate of relative material scarcity.
Grace locates this thriftiness in a larger drive toward development that became exemplified by the Ujamaa socialist program of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) government of the 1970s. As Motors handily illustrates, cars, buses, roads, and social mobility—both literally and figuratively—were high on the agenda for TANU’s “oily Ujamaa.” Motors, to Grace’s credit, provides a balanced and nuanced take on the Nyerere government’s Ujamaa project and romanticizes neither the government’s authoritarianism nor corruption. At the same time, Motors also highlights the massive structural challenges brought about by the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 and the clever bureaucratic maneuvering required to keep the Tanzania’s petroleum-powered vasculature alive. Tanzania weathered that crisis, but, as Grace notes, the state and many others like it continue to face relatively immutable challenges of economic modernization in an era of ever-complex energy politics and climate change.
Grace’s strong focus on gender, development, and the socialist politics of late twentieth-century Tanzania does sometimes hinder the potential of the book to answer structural and political questions about Tanzania through a technological lens. Grace’s opening chapter, for example, notes alternative modes of east African mobility in the precolonial period. This leaves the reader with questions about boats, trains, planes, and donkeys, as well as the most fundamental type of mobility in Africa of all: travel by foot. Trains in particular were vital in the colonial history of then-Tanganyika, as were well-established caravan routes that interlinked the deep African hinterland and the coast. Motors could certainly benefit from a more developed connective tissue between its opening chapter and the bulk of Grace’s argument. This could show what made the car as a technology uniquely suited to Tanzanian conditions, and how it, as a technology, affected the story of regional integration and state formation on a larger scale before the postcolonial period.
These minor critiques aside, African Motors stands as an excellent contribution to both the history of science and African history fields. In the latter in particular it reads well in combination with works by James Brennan, James Scott, and Isaria Kinambo. Motors handily illustrates the effects that the automobile has had on both Tanzanian states and societies, as well as the technological agency Tanzanians have sought to work through the car in turn.
. Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014); Luise White, “‘Heading for the Gun’: Skills and Sophistication in an African Guerrilla War,” in Comparative Studies in Society and History 51, no. 2 (2009): 236-59; Robyn D’Avignon, “Primitive Techniques: From ‘Customary’ to ‘Artisanal’ Mining in French West Africa,” Journal of African History 59, no. 2 (2018): 179-97.
. James Brennan, Taifa: Making Nation and Race in Urban Tanzania (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012); James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); Isaria Kimambo, Custodians of the Land: Ecology and Culture in the History of Tanzania (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1996).
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Kyle Harmse. Review of Grace, Joshua, African Motors: Technology, Gender, and the History of Development.
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