Charline Kopf

Reconfiguring connectivity: Railway infrastructure, remoteness, and security on the West African frontier

My ESR project focuses on the past and future reconfigurations of a nearly abandoned colonial railway which intersects with a new border post in a town on the Malian-Senegalese border. The aim is to understand how the railway and border infrastructures as well as their attendant imaginaries of connectivity and remoteness have shaped the mobility and local perception of space and identity, and defined geopolitical territory in West African borderlands in the 20th and 21st centuries. Drawing on multi-sited fieldwork conducted in Dakar, Bamako and a border town, I will investigate how tales of disconnection and enforced border controls coexist alongside the town’s history as vital trading place for people on both sides of the border and as crucial transport hub for the Senegalese and Malian economies. While after its privatisation by the World Bank, the Dakar-Niger train, which before was referred to as ‘umbilical cord’, has largely been discontinued with devastating consequences for traders, migrants and inhabitants of the small settlements dotted along its tracks, several regional and international actors, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and a Chinese company, have expressed interest in resuscitating it. The railway tracks, temporally and spatially cutting across local, national and transnational spaces bringing past and future together, will lead the way to two interlinking aspects which the project contributes to. In the first instance, this study aims to examine the development of the current situation in relation to earlier moments of connectivity in the 20th century. Involved in shaping the production of its own literature, and political and cartographic knowledge, railway bureaucracy offers a key entry point to study the rationales underlying the governing of transnational mobility in colonial and postcolonial sub-Saharan states as well as the economic and political reterritorialisation at play. The second part studies the railway’s contemporary effects on the local population and security situation. In engaging with literature on the materiality of infrastructure and ruins, the study proposes to combine the colonial and postcolonial states’ governing of mobility with how the deployment of transport infrastructure has shaped local conceptions of territorial and national belonging, state-space and security in that region.