Weiskopf on Brownell, 'Gone to Ground: A History of Environment and Infrastructure in Dar es Salaam'

Author: 
Emily Brownell
Reviewer: 
Julie Weiskopf

Emily Brownell. Gone to Ground: A History of Environment and Infrastructure in Dar es Salaam. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020. 279 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4611-3.

Reviewed by Julie Weiskopf (Gonzaga University) Published on H-Africa (November, 2020) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55235

Emily Brownell’s Gone to Ground is an invigorating analysis of Dar es Salaam’s urban and environmental history in a crucial period, the 1970s through the waning days of socialist rule in the 1980s. Rooted in urban environmental history, the book provides a complex portrait of Tanzania’s largest city during a time of great expansion. In the end, what emerges is an understanding of the city as fundamentally shaped by state officials, international development experts, and—perhaps most importantly—the city’s residents. Indeed, Brownell makes a compelling case for the ways that residents’ everyday acts of provisioning shaped the city’s infrastructure and environment. This reality also reveals how Dar’s urban history differs from other world cities’ environmental histories that are frequently marked by alienation from nature; instead, urban Tanzanians chose to meet their needs through increasing engagement with their environments.

The book draws on a variety of sources and offers ways forward for historians stymied by the paucity of archival sources available from the late 1960s onward. Brownell combs those archives for official records and then supplements them with oral interviews, newspapers, dissertations—many produced in Tanzania—and the growing volume of the “grey literature” of these decades: the manuals, policy papers, and studies produced by a variety of local and international experts.

Beyond the introduction and conclusion, the book consists of six substantive chapters. The first chapter examines Dar’s precarious position in the nation in the early 1970s, the result of both global concerns about urban problems and Tanzanian leaders’ skepticism over urban life in contrast to their embrace of rural living as a socialist ideal. The next five chapters take their cues topically rather than chronologically. Rich in detail, this choice creates an ever-expanding and deepening understanding of Dar es Salaam as a malleable entity. Chapter 2 (“Belongings”) traces how the interplay between state officials, global experts, and residents of the city and its periphery determined who could make claims to residence in the city. Here we see how the “informal” parts of Dar es Salaam were always necessary to the survival of the city core, forming the majority of the space by the mid-1970s. The next chapter (“Building”) focuses on the political and economic meanings imbued in building materials like cement and burnt bricks. Brownell delineates not only the technical challenges of creating a cement industry in a poor country but also how state officials pivoted to promoting burnt bricks as a patriotic alternative material—one that was simpler to supply and socially productive because of the communal labor that produced it. Chapter 4 (“Waiting”) is the most unusual chapter as it shifts to consider the temporalities of this time and place—an era in which leaders exhorted the nation to speed its development up while Dar’s residents consistently faced delays. Movement in the city slowed as people waited for buses, buses and other machinery waited for repairs, and the nation generally deferred material comforts. Although challenging for city dwellers, delays also created an opening for residents to shape the city in unique ways—providing services and trailblazing transport corridors. In the next chapter (“Wasting and Wanting”), Brownell notes the ways that increasingly difficult times in the country required Tanzanians to struggle for necessities, and in doing so unsettled the boundaries of rural and urban and waste and productivity. The chapter is populated by urban farmers, black marketers, specialized mlanguzi sellers, and stressed consumers. Finally, chapter 6 (“Fueling Crisis”) explores how charcoal use not only bound the city to its hinterland but also illustrates a critical choice that Tanzanian officials made in the early 1980s: to defy conservationists and the broader international order of economic development (including the IMF) and instead opt for a path forward using local resources or those of the global South.

As one of the first historians to focus significantly on the 1980s, Brownell creates new pathways forward for scholars of the independence period. She deftly acknowledges the challenge to avoid simplistic narratives of failure or crisis in analyzing these years by insisting on viewing “failure as a process, not as a diagnostic” (p. 184). This demands that scholars first delve into the complex causes of breakdown. A compelling example from this work is the interconnected challenges of managing the city’s infrastructure from its colonial origins—that effective public transportation did not merely concern roads, vehicles, and fuel but also drainage and sewerage systems. In the context of little available maintenance, it is no wonder “how perilously interdependent infrastructural ‘breakdown’ was for a new nation and how conscious of this reality both workers and the state were” (p. 109). Viewing failure as process also asks us to examine how Tanzanians of all stripes confronted failure both materially and conceptually. Breakdown created opportunity and dearth bred adaptation, and when Dar es Salaam’s residents engaged with these realities, they molded how the city functioned. Even as it illuminates the city’s history, Brownell’s work can also call forth new rural histories. The urban (and peri-urban) issues that the book details have their rural counterparts. The struggle over building materials, debate over labor’s legitimacy, and controls over residency are all familiar factors to Tanzanianists who focus on the countryside. 

One interesting insight derives from Brownell’s exploration of how Tanzanian leaders like President Julius Nyerere rethought their “assumptions of modernity” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a reconsideration that caused them to prioritize using the country’s resources when lessening imports was a dire necessity (p. 12). This need made Dar’s residents and those in its hinterland indispensable in meeting the city’s needs, even if their efforts were not always recognized as legitimate by the state. Within the various chapters, we see waste collectors reaching even the narrowest of alleys, mechanics in informal shops ready to service the city’s buses that hailed from five different countries, scrap-metal dealers supplying factories and individual manufacturers with raw materials, and charcoal makers providing the city’s cooking fuel. As Brownell notes, the self-reliance and innovation of these people were akin to the state’s socialist ideals, a form of urban ujamaa lived out by city dwellers who all too often were otherwise unable to fulfill the state’s ideology.

Brownell’s introduction notes that her approach to the city’s history is an unorthodox form of environmental history, and it is true that what holds these chapters together is less classic environmental history than a site-specific examination of the materiality of the city. So, does the book succeed fully as an urban environmental history? Perhaps not, or not always—but Brownell follows her sources into compelling new territory. In doing so, she both trains our attention to these vital issues and creates space for future scholars to write more typical urban environmental histories of Dar es Salaam. Students of the country can thank her on both those accounts.

Citation: Julie Weiskopf. Review of Brownell, Emily, Gone to Ground: A History of Environment and Infrastructure in Dar es Salaam. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55235

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.