A History of Infrastructure in East Africa
Emma Park Joins The New School’s History Faculty
This June, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta celebrated the opening of a sleek Chinese-built railway that connects the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. The line replaces obsolete rails constructed by the British in 1901, and its $3.2 billion price tag makes it the most expensive infrastructure project in Kenya’s 53-year postcolonial history.
For historian Emma Park, who joins The New School as an Assistant Professor of History this summer after completing her doctoral work at The University of Michigan, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) serves as the most recent example in a long history of infrastructural development projects; and it brings into full relief the complex relationship between technology and politics—or technopolitics—in Kenya. Park’s dissertation examines the history of such large-scale infrastructure projects in East Africa, and she brings to The New School an integrative and interdisciplinary perspective on the region. Working at the intersection of African Studies, the history of technology, and science and technology studies, Park will also complement the department’s strength in capitalism studies.
In a conversation about her research, Park suggested that President Kenyatta has used the new railroad as proof of his effective leadership in the run-up to Kenya’s general election. Kenyatta “hopes to mobilize the ‘successful’ completion of the project as demonstrable evidence that he is, in fact, doing the work of governing by provisioning for his constituents,” she said. Referring to the president’s directive to hasten the railroad’s completion so that its grand opening would precede national elections, Park added, “The politics of infrastructure in Kenya are quite complicated, but they’re not always subtle.”
To help understand the intricacies of infrastructure projects in East Africa—and to consider what they reveal about the interdependence of technology, state power, and capitalism—Park has written about three distinct moments in the last 120 years of Kenyan history. At the core of her dissertation sits this question: “Why has access to infrastructures emerged a key metric or frame by which people understand their relationship to the state?”
To understand the dynamics among capital, state formation, and the politics of belonging, she analyzes British road construction at the turn of the twentieth century, the development of radio networks after World War II, and the recent launch of digital communications and financial services by communications giant, Safaricom.
For Park, these three projects represent specific moments in the history of development as an idea. In the first case, she said that the British East Africa Company was given a mandate to “bring commerce and civilization” to Kenya. In the Post-War Period, the British aimed to advance social welfare by providing access to information. And in the most recent case—in what Park called a “bottom of the pyramid” approach—developers claim that telecommunications and financial services will accelerate and generalize prosperity across Kenya. But Park argues that the long-angle view of development enabled by an exploration of its infrastructures demonstrates these three have much in common, as designers imagined how contact with new technological networks would generate internal transformations in users.
Park uses these case studies to test what she calls the “durability” of several prevailing claims. “Africa has long been positioned—up to the present—as a place without technological expertise,” she said, citing one enduring misconception. Despite the contributions of Kenyan knowledge workers and experts to the development of major technological projects, the state (British and Kenyan alike) has found ways to reclassify and diminish their contributions. “Irrespective of how centrally important these figures were to making infrastructures work,” Park explained, “their labor was constantly devalued.” She further suggested that an understanding of the processes by which corporate and state enterprises have extracted under-compensated but value-generating work in the past clarifies extractive processes in the contemporary moment.
In other words, Park suggested, historical research can help to contextualize what many refer to as uniquely “neoliberal” development interventions. “One of the labors of the project is to say that the devaluation of the everyday expertise of African workers is not unique to a neoliberal vision of development,” she said, “Contemporary projects operating under the banner of value at the bottom of the pyramid are building on a long genealogy.”
Park is excited to integrate these research interests into her pedagogy at The New School, where she will begin by teaching a course on Modern African History this fall. Asked about why she is looking forward to teaching at The New School, Park said, “The University’s commitment to social justice and active participation in politics and political discussion—as well as its encouragement of research that has political purchase or can gain traction in these domains—was very appealing.” She added that she looks forward to contributing to joining a collaborative department that places an emphasis on capitalism studies and interdisciplinary scholarship. “To feel as though my commitment to work between these fields is supported is wonderful,” she said.