Daladala, “African” Technologies, and the Political Culture of Modern Mobility

In October, I traveled with 4 students and Prof. Irv Reid to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  Our travels coincided with the contentious election in Tanzania.  Our course, and the African Democracy Project of which it was apart, explored the meaning, practice, and experience of democracy in contemporary Tanzania.  I approached the course as an opportunity to think through the political culture of another African country, which is often placed in conversation with Ghana.  On our first day–and in the meetings with Dr. Reid that preceded that first meeting–I emphasized that I was not a political scientist and that we would be viewing the experience and practice of democracy through the lens of history and ethnography.  In doing so, I sought to challenge student assumptions and expectations of Africa and democracy, which grew out of their American experience.  In the process, however, our conversations deepened my own emerging intellectual project, which seeks to critique fundamental categories of urban planning, development, and democratization through close studies of African practice and experience.  By suspending our assumptions about what these categories can and should mean, this project contributes to a long-standing conversation among Africanist academics whose experiences in the field informed a deep-rooted skepticism about the benefits of development, humanitarianism, volunteerism, and human rights.  But it also seeks to engage directly with practitioners, policy makers, and the general public beyond my classroom.  I’m not alone in this project of publicly-engaged scholarship, but this particular set of questions are part of an ongoing conversation with a number of young social and economic entrepreneurs in Ghana who are using new technologies to rethink the future of their country.

Fascinating as Ghana is, this project–like any project–must be able to speak beyond its own particular case study.  Tanzania, then, marked an interesting opportunity to think comparatively about how these questions manifest in local, national, and regional communities.  Some of the more general reflections from the course you can see detailed on the course website (www.neoliberalujamaa.wordpress.com).  Students took these ideas and ran with them, developing sophisticated and fascinating projects of their own, which explore what democracy and politics mean in practice and the consequences of those experiences for international/transnational/global conversations about the future of countries like Tanzania.  You can also view their excellent websites via the course website.

I was primarily present in Tanzania to help direct student research, but I also took the opportunity to pursue issues relevant to my own research.  The students and I traveled around the city center in bajaji, which is a form of electrified rickshaw popular in India and increasingly spreading throughout Africa.  And as the students headed off to a game park with Dr. Reid, I set out for a day in Dar es Salaam’s daladala system, guided by Patrick, a colleague’s friend.


Two weeks was insufficient time to get a more sophisticated sense of Tanzania generally or Dar es Salaam more specifically, of course.  And one day was clearly not enough to develop a full understanding of the daladala system and the politics of urban mobility in Dar es Salaam.  But, informed by the rich work of my colleague Josh Grace, as well as an emerging literature on African cultures and practices of automobility, I sought to explore the relative uniqueness and ordinariness of Tanzanian experience on the streets of Dar.  I was struck from the very beginning by its profound difference, a contrast similar to that Tanzanian scholar Alex Perullo noted when he visited Accra for the first time.  The city center was dominated by imposing skyscrapers and planned streets.  Western restaurants and furniture stores seemed to be everywhere.  The cosmopolitanism of Swahili culture produced diverse (and delicious!) local food options, fashion choices, and building design.  And yet, the streets were less congested and the frenetic energy of city life seemed calmed by the breezes off the Indian Ocean.

Some of those observations were extremely superficial:  Tanzanians seemed to joke constantly and were seemingly always smiling; women carried their babies on their side or at the front rather than at the back; men carried children; everyone played with and talked to children.  People seemed to actually buy things in the city’s shopping malls where there were more large Tanzanian businesses.  I attracted much less attention than I normally do in Accra, and I left Tanzania with no marriage proposals (perhaps also a symptom of my increasing age as much as anything, as they seem to have dwindled in Accra these days, too).  And yet, there was something that felt familiar in Dar:  the legacy of British colonial rule, the multiple and varied layers of a city with precolonial roots, the emphasis placed on trade and mobility among the city’s residents, the influence of South African and American capital, the obvious income inequality and uneven development, the SUVs marked with the symbols of donor organizations.

Patrick and I left my hotel in the city center and headed for the daladala station just down the street (“Posta”, which conveniently appeared to be one of the city’s most important daladala stations).  Like Accra’s trotros, daladala are no longer marked by the elaborate decorations of an earlier age.  Instead, the vehicles sport uniform markings that indicate routes in both word and color.  Young men call out the route to waiting passengers, collect fares, and negotiate stops, much like trotro mates.  Inside, however, the daladala and its driver and conductor conveyed an air of professionalism, suggested through the uniform of the conductor, the ticket stub presented upon payment, and, perhaps most shocking for any frequent trotro passengers, relatively spacious seats in good condition.  Patrick and I crisscrossed the city, visiting its outer-most boundaries.  Our disparate travel afforded us a glimpse into the significant diversity of daladala infrastructure and culture.  The “Posta” station itself was nothing more than a stop along the roadside.  Stations farther away from the city center often had dual identities:  as the dusty roadside stop and the modern transport hub.  On more than one occasion we alighted in one and walked around the corner and up the hill to find the other.  These physical differences seemed to indicate a differentiation in management and patronage, in addition to investment.  Unsanctioned and unregistered vehicles were much more likely to appear in the dusty roadside lorry parks than the modern bus stations.  Alongside them were bodaboda–motorcycle taxis that weave through traffic carrying bewilderingly large cargo (both people and goods).

In both their similarities and differences, trotros and daladala highlight the persistence of spatial and mobile histories and the limits of contemporary planning and development initiatives that too often fail to take into account the systems and needs of inhabitants in an effort to “modernize” and “develop” infrastructure.  Comprised of private buses, both systems emerged as an alternative to inadequate state-run bus services.  Trotros grew out of older traditions of “pirate passenger lorries”–cargo lorries (or “mammy trucks”) that carried goods and some passengers between rural production zones, regional markets, and urban ports.  Drivers, who off-loaded goods at peripheral markets, began picking up market women along the roadside and carrying them to the central market in order to maximize profits.  While drivers and passengers viewed these new services as a mutually-beneficial adaptation of the existing infrastructural of the municipal bus system, British colonial officials in the 1930s and 1940s condemned the actions of drivers as piracy.  The language of piracy, as I’ve argued elsewhere, highlights the degree to which these alternative systems challenged not only the logics of British infrastructural development, but also the profitability of government services and the power of the British colonial state.  Colonial officials sought to eliminate the threat of these pirate passenger lorries and assert the primacy of municipal bus services, which served as the Accra Town Council’s largest source of revenue and represented British efforts to reshape Accra into a modern, colonial capital.  That reshaping was a political and economic project, but it was also a spatial and cultural one.  The municipal bus service assumed a separation between cargo and passenger transport, public and private space, commercial and social mobility–distinctions that did not resonate with African spatial practices and placemaking.  The driver who ran the first official “trotro”–named after their three penny fare–in Accra in the years immediately after independence drew on this much longer history of transgressive periurban mobility and spatial politics in imagining and enacting alternative mobile systems.  While trotro drivers and passengers alike profited from the new system, drivers found themselves increasingly vulnerable as the municipal bus system collapsed and trotros became the sole source of public transport in the city.  Economic decline, which began in the 1960s and intensified with the oil shocks, droughts, and economic crisis of the late-1970s and 1980s, placed targets on the backs of drivers, who were seen as profiteers, enriching themselves while everyone else suffered.  Drivers, along with market women and other prominent entrepreneurial classes, were increasingly criminalized in the 1970s and 1980s as the government sought to deflect responsibility for the crisis, assert control over the country’s economy, and control access to limited foreign exchange and imported goods.  While the government was unable to fund a reasonable replacement to the trotro, trotro drivers suffered significant damage to their reputation, their resources, and their autonomy.  By the late 20th century, everyone seemed to complain about trotros–their condition, their speed, their safety, the conduct and appearance of their drivers and mates, etc.–complaints that continue in public venues like Trotro Diaries, which have now taken on digital form.

Daladala emerged at exactly the moment when trotros faced their greatest challenge.  If restricted resources and economic decline in Ghana framed trotro drivers as profiteers, Josh Grace argues that thumni-thumni (the precursor to the daladala) were seen as the solution to Tanzania’s mobility woes, expanding access to services in light of the socialist government’s inability or unwillingness to maintain public transit systems like UDA buses.  The public reaction to thumni-thumni (daladala) was quite the opposite of what Ghanaian trotro drivers experienced.  And yet, government rhetoric, which centered on the critique of private profit and capitalist exploitation, was remarkably similar.  Thumni-thumni remained illegal until the 1980s, and yet drivers exploited gaps and loopholes in existing transport/traffic laws to continue operating in Dar es Salaam.

The realities of contemporary traffic congestion, the limited access to imported goods, and the rising cost of vehicles and necessary inputs in both these countries shape the contours of a remarkably similar public conversation about urban mobility.  The passenger-public is increasingly frustrated by the danger, cost, and poor quality of privatized public transport like daladala and trotro, as well as the real challenges associated with traffic congestion.  Policy makers, urban planners, and development experts have responded to these challenges with new investment and development plans, rooted in a globalized model of Bus Rapid Transit.  The Ghanaian and Tanzanian governments have both taken out enormous loans to pay for BRT construction and infrastructure.  On the one hand, these systems raise concern because of the large amount of debt associated with the project and the low quality of the final product.  In Ghana, BRT amounts to little more than a dedicated middle lane, divided by a median but still accessible by private vehicles.  In Tanzania, this infrastructure is slightly more elaborate, including Chinese-constructed bus shelters that are periodically spaced along BRT routes.  Neither are currently running buses, which sit idle in government garages. The bus shelters in Dar es Salaam already showed signs of rust and damage.  People who do sit on the bus shelters seem to have nowhere to go.


BRT will fail to adequately address the traffic congestion problem that lies at the root of public critiques in Ghana and Tanzania.  Private car owners will not abandon their cars to ride the BRT.  Rather, the BRT seeks to further marginalize and disenfranchise daladala and trotro drivers.  In implementing a tacitly global model of the BRT, planners, development experts, and others fail to acknowledge the very real differences in local conditions and the existing alternative imaginaries, practices, and systems that point toward possible solutions with local roots.  In other words, they do not ask the right questions in research and feasibility studies.  Some of those possibilities can be found through talking to drivers themselves.  Even as the Tanzanian public complains about the condition and safety of daladala, those drivers seem to have at least part of what Ghanaian trotro drivers and passengers claim that they want:  better quality vehicles, better trained drivers, better quality lorry parks.  When passengers do complain, their complaints are not about the system itself–the patterns of movement, the location of routes–but rather than conditions of their mobility.  Addressing those issues seem to be central to solving the “transport problem”.  And yet, as the Ghanaian and Tanzanian examples highlight, those questions do not seem to be the ones that many practitioners and policy makers are asking.


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