Technology in Africa: A Review of Historiography and Recent Research

Historians Gabrielle Hecht and Keith Breckenridge discussed the current state of scholarship on technology in Africa in a May 2016 interview published in the January 2017 issue of the Radical History Review. Read here to see how Ghana on the Go fits into a larger scholarship on technology in Africa – here referenced by Hecht as part of a literature on repair, maintenance, and mobility. 

Hecht and Breckenridge highlight the connections between the history of capitalism and an emerging scholarship on the history of technology in Africa. Africanists, they point out, are using the history of technology as a lens to understand the structures, meanings, and experiences of capitalism throughout the continent. 

Technology connects African experiences to a global narrative and provides a way to think about how the continent is situated within global social and economic processes. But the history of technology also highlights the particularities of technological cultures and economies throughout the continent – how, for example, motor transport technology was made meaningful in different ways in Ghana, Kenya (see, for example, Kendra Mutongi’s forthcoming book, Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi), and Tanzania (see Joshua Grace’s work on daladala and early motor transport in colonial and post colonial Tanzania). 

These histories are inevitably situated within the social, cultural, and economic histories of technology users – they are histories of “technology in use.” Some of those histories involve tracing the way that seemingly global technologies like motor transportation were made locally meaningful. Others look at local forms of industrial production, like aluminum smelting or mining or pottery production. Africanists have also embraced broader understandings of technology, exploring histories of hunting, for example, which challenge our biases toward industrial technology and our assumptions about indigenous technological systems, knowledge, and practices.

Hecht and Breckenridge also helpfully discuss the way in which histories of technology are tied to conversations about development, labor, skill, and infrastructure – themes that are also woven throughout Ghana on the Go.  Many of the scholars operating at the intersection of anthropology and history explore these themes as manifestations of technopolitics. In the process, Africanists working in STS and the history of technology significantly complicate popular narratives about technology creativity, scarcity, insecurity, and precarity. Histories of technology in Africa challenge narratives the claim to be global and yet are often rooted in Western experiences that ignore the realities, lived experiences, and capacities of people in many other parts of the world, including most notably the African continent. Hecht and Breckenridge argue that those silences are part of an explicit politics of power, inscribed in economic systems and reproduced in intellectual discourses and narratives. As Hecht notes, there is nothing particularly African about “making do with discards and living among ruins”; “it’s just that Africa’s interactions with the world has made it particularly prone to being poisoned” (100).  We can all learn lessons from that as we seek to survive the Anthropocene. 

Read the interview to examine this insightful conversation further. Thanks to Hecht and Breckenridge (and the many Africanists working in the fields of STS and History of Technology) for their work!

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