Lindsey B. Green-Simms, Postcolonial Automobility: car culture in West Africa.
In Postcolonial Automobility, Lindsey Green-Simms wades into the growing literature on motor transportation and road culture in Africa. Motivated in part by the 'mobility turn' in social science literature, this growing body of scholarship is raising important questions about African economic history, informality, entrepreneurialism, infrastructure and technological modernity. Postcolonial Automobility seeks to shed new light on the enduring tensions of automobility the promise of autonomy and mobility for users, which exists simultaneously as a fantasy and a frustration--through an examination of cultural texts.
Green-Simms argues that cultural texts such as novels, plays, poems, videos and films do more than represent cars or reflect their meaning within the cultures and societies of West Africa. Rather, these cultural texts 'provide a canvas on which the complexities of what Daniel Miller calls the "intimate relationship between cars and people" play out' (p. 8). By tracing the symbolic and existential significance of the automobile in West African cultural texts, Green-Simms seeks to illuminate the overlapping and often contradictory meanings and functions of automobiles in the lived experiences of the everyday.
Those contradictions are, on one level, uniquely West African, shaped by the particular histories and cultures of the region. As Green-Simms notes, automobiles have a long history in West Africa, and Africans in the region embraced the potential of the technology early in the twentieth century. Entrepreneurial Africans across the region used motor transport technology to create new infrastructures of economic and social possibility for themselves and their passengers in the first half of the twentieth century. However, the emancipatory symbolism of the automobile, which promised both autonomy and mobility for its users, was complicated and constrained within the context of European colonial rule. Cars figured large in European imaginations of industrialists including Citroen, who saw the technology as a vital tool in the exploration and colonization of the continent. As GreenSimms notes, these contradictions extended into the postcolony. For leaders of newly independent African nations, cars symbolized the modernist promise and development potential of a new age. And yet for many Africans, automobility remained illusive. Today, car ownership is defined more often by immobility, danger and uncertainty than it is by freedom and agency, constrained by inadequate infrastructure and unequal access to advanced technologies.
The broader themes that characterize experiences of African automobility are, however, also quintessential^ global. In the West, automobility is often cast as the ultimate incarnation of modernity--a technological object that frees the modern, mobile subject to pursue the liberal ideal of autonomy. And yet, Green- Simms argues, even in America and Western Europe, the automobile and its driver are never completely autonomous. They are constrained by their dependency on producers, regulators, policymakers, police and oil companies, as well as the limits of infrastructure and the availability and accessibility of technology. In West Africa, where 'modernity is just as often a status one hopes to achieve as it is a given state' (pp. 13-14), these contradictions are magnified in both a symbolic and an experiential sense, but they are not unique. As a 'misplaced idea' (p. 14), West African automobility has the power to shed light on the latent contradictions in the concept of automobility itself.
In particular, Green-Simms argues that African automobility highlights the profound unevenness of globalization--an unevenness that is at the heart of modernity and automobility as global phenomena. She traces these themes through five chapters, organized around genre, geography and sub-theme. Moving through these chapters, Green-Simms explores the cultural affinities and economic networks that connect practices of automobility throughout the region. In the first chapter, she traces a broad history of both statist, infrastructural automobility and the entrepreneurial automobility of Africans through much of the first half of the twentieth century. In the second chapter, she contrasts this narrative of self-stylization and progress with a more ambivalent history of danger and the perils of driving, most notably through an analysis of Wole Soyinka's 1965 play The Road. However, particularly in Chapters 3 (on francophone African cinema) and 4 (Nigerian video film), she is also careful to acknowledge the significant variations in popular culture and technological practice in the region's anglophone and francophone zones--variations that shape both the aesthetic forms and the lived experience of automobility. Similarly, Chapter 5 explores the gendered nature of automobility, using Ama Ata Aidoo's novel Changes: a love story and Ousmane Sembene's film Faat Kine to articulate a woman-centred version of automobility that is less about upward mobility than maintenance or survival within otherwise oppressive or difficult social and economic systems.
Green-Simms' analysis is far from simple, but that complexity is necessary. Cars, as she notes, are productive sites of inquiry precisely because they are paradoxes that challenge the oversimplified narratives about the continent and its place within global modernity. She embraces that complexity with theoretical rigour and analytical clarity. As such, Postcolonial Automobility makes an important contribution to our understanding of automobility in Africa, but it also deserves a much wider reading within and beyond African studies.
Wayne State University
Jennifer. hart4@wayne. edu