Conclusion: Insights gained through the Symposium


The modernization of transport and its contradictions

Transport routes and the transformation of rural livelihoods

Building spaces of communication

Concepts of space on the move

Movements and communications in academic inquiry

Conclusion: Insights gained through the Symposium

The contributions and discussions held at the Symposium have fully corroborated the initial assumption that Angola and its Central African hinterland is a particularly fertile ground for insights on the role of transport routes and communication in African history. Engagement with each of the five areas of questions and debate led to significant conclusions. These can be summarized as follows:

1. Transport systems and transport routes in the region underwent a long-term process of change. This occurred at a slower pace from the 17th to the 19th century, mainly through the gradual establishment of a network of more or less fixed long-distance routes, large-scale caravan traffic, and intensified communication for both commercial and political purposes, including the development of concomitant economic and social institutions. From the late 19th century on, this process of change was accelerated considerably by technical innovations, notably the development of steamship navigation, railway and road construction, a variety of new means of land transport, and the deployment of electronic forms of communication. The modernization of transport and communication in Angola and its hinterland was, however, also a highly contradictory process, particularly due to the colonial context in which it occurred:

Firstly, as the process advanced, different routes, types and means of transport existed side by side in an uneasy relationship, which was marked not by competition alone but often enough by repression of indigenous systems, in practice and in perception, despite their continuing importance for the population. One example is the division of labour that was tantamount to a bifurcation between "road" and "path" networks, controlled by Europeans and Africans respectively. The actual functioning of modern technologies of transport and communication, however, relied on a sharing of technical and ecological knowledge in practice, despite claims of European dominance that were frequently underpinned by actual violence. The upshot was a considerable ambivalence in the African experience of new transport technologies. There is a notable distinction between resistance and avoidance in the local response of earlier periods and at times of war and the more adaptive attitude at other times.

Secondly, Angolan history also shows a number of cases in which new transport systems (such as animal power) or certain routes (notably border areas) were ultimately not as widely used as could have been expected considering their economic potential. The political constraints of colonial rule seem to have been at least as serious an obstacle to the development of transport as ecological conditions, lack of capital, and the dependence on the volatile world market demand.

2. The spread of transport and communication networks had a substantial impact on the areas through which they operated, affecting rural livelihoods profoundly. The increase of traffic along important caravan routes, for instance, produced enormous fluctuations of population and enabled a more rapid spread of pandemics. Areas off the main routes, in contrast, became more marginal than before, causing new population movements and struggles for attention. The establishment of new transport routes for caravans, railways or other vehicles often had quite ambivalent effects on regional and local histories, and was seen with very different eyes at different times: as a means of wealth or impoverishment, as avenues of repression or liberation, as tools of fragmentation or unification. The case of Angola clearly illustrates these ambivalences of modernization well before the 20th century.

3. Throughout the history of the region, transport and communication have shaped economic and social as well as political and cultural spaces and boundaries. Several aspects were particularly prominent in the Symposium. One was the significance attached to the circulation of various kinds of knowledge. Not only people and goods enjoyed wide circulation in West Central Africa and beyond, regardless of how important they may have been, but also memories and identities, information and rumour, and oral and written knowledge Another insight regards the relatedness between spaces of different kind and scale, especially between small-scale ("local") areas of communication, on the one hand, and the very wide-ranging spheres in which Angola has been involved for a long time, on the other: from the trans-African and trans-Atlantic to the national and the global. The relatedness between different spaces and scales of space can occasionally be described as sequential (when the importance of space shifted from one area to another) and sometimes as complementary or even mutually constitutive (when the history of the local cannot be understood without the dynamics of the global, and vice versa). It is part of the dialectic of transport and communication, however, that connections and relations were and still are frequently hierarchical in nature. They are intimately connected to the existence of boundaries and limitations, either as the cause or the consequence.

4. Transport and communication have not only shaped the space "out there", but are also embedded in the "mental geographies" of the actors themselves. Throughout their history, routes and connections rather than boundaries and territories have structured everyday concepts of space among many inhabitants of Central Africa. These perceptions have given particular momentum to clashes with the quest for territorial control among colonial powers and post-colonial governments. The routes and roads themselves were a prominent subject of dispute, both in practice and in the meanings attached to them. Even under conditions of extreme duress, cultural constructions play a significant role in structuring movement and communication in space.

5. Finally, it became clear that the history of transport and communication networks in (West Central) Africa must be seen in the context of world history, indeed as a constituent part of it. The increase and acceleration of transport, movements and communication that is generally called globalization and that began to affect this part of Africa at a very early point, materialized through the interlocking of a multitude of more or less local histories. These histories were shaped by attempts to seize new opportunities, avoid marginality and come to terms with unsettling changes and new contacts, drawing on the cultural heritage of the region and developing in the process.

The Symposium has also shown that the history of transport routes and communication in West Central Africa cannot be written without facing up to a number of fairly basic conceptual dilemmata: questions of object (the study of material mobilities vs. interpretations of cultural meanings); questions of power (hierarchical vs. horizontal relations); questions of scale (local vs. global); questions of synthesis (between multitude and unity); questions of discipline (historical vs. anthropological and others); and, last but not least, questions of truth. With regard to the latter, it must be admitted that in both academic inquiry and oral traditions, mythical narratives of connectedness and locality, of communication and boundaries play a considerable role. Such dichotomic narratives should be read as arguments of the different actors involved and not simply as (correct or incorrect) descriptions of fact; there is truth in them in both respects. The Symposium has also demonstrated that similar answers can be given to other methodological questions listed above. The history of mobility in West Central Africa needs the plurality of these approaches, not opposing but complementing each other, on the path to a greater understanding of its implications.


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Latest revision: 08.03.2004