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Rural landscape in Kenya, illustration.
Constructions on the development corridor called the LAPSSET in East Africa have not yet begun, yet it is already very present, says Johannes Theodor Aalders.
Photo: Daniel Muli

Walking 400 miles to study a paradox of roads


Many people along the development corridor LAPSSET in East Africa experience the infrastructural project as a barrier, rather than a project aiming to connect countries. In his doctoral thesis, Theo Aalders finds a complex relationship between visions of modernity and past injustices.

The Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) corridor is an infrastructural project currently being built in Kenya. The development corridor aims to connect South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the oil fields in Turkana with a new harbour in Lamu in Kenya, using roads, pipelines, and railway lines. The aim of the project is to foster transport linkage in the region, to promote regional socio-economic development, and to contribute to economic growth.

– These different types of roads can be experienced as connections, as a way to get from A to B, but they can also be experienced as barriers when waiting at the side of the road for the traffic light to turn green. Both at once, they are connections and barriers, at the same time to different people, says Theo Aalders. 

In his doctoral thesis “Ghostlines” Aalders takes on the paradox of roads in the context of the LAPSSET corridor.

– The ghostly aspects of the LAPSSET corridor lay in the fact that it can be understood as something “in-between”. The corridor is neither a connection nor a barrier – yet it is both at the same time. Furthermore, constructions of the corridor haven’t even begun in most areas. The development project is something to come in the future, but it is yet very present in the minds of the people who are and will be affected by it as it “haunts” the present.

Unconventional methodologies

To study the immaterial imaginations and visions of the LAPSSET future, Aalders had to use some unconventional methodologies to find concrete material to analyse.

– First, my donkey Muunganishi and I walked circa 400 kilometers along the planned route of the corridor in order to get in touch with people who live in the area. Second, I and three artists conducted workshops along the planned route of the corridor where people were invited to draw short comic stories about how they expected their lives to change once the LAPSSET is constructed.

Excerpt from a comic story about the LAPSSET corridor.
Excerpt from a comic story about the LAPSSET corridor.
Photo: Daniel Muli

Clashes between visions and past injustices

Analysing ethnographic material from the walk and the comic stories visualising the future, Aalders found that people who live in the area do not only passively await the LAPSSET corridor, but actively engage in the particular future that the corridor produces in the present. Own hopes, fears, dreams, and anticipations mix with the LAPSSET’s vision of modernity defined by seamless connections.

– Many pastoralists expect to encounter the corridor not as a connection, but as a disconnection. Similarly, for some of them, the LAPSSET does not mean a new, exciting future, but the repetition of past injustices and marginalisation. To them, it is no coincidence but the result of unjust politics that they will be excluded from this project yet again, while others will be able to zip by in expensive cars on smooth tarmac, says Aalders.

Aalders study shows that the future, as much as the road itself, is a political arena that is produced through infrastructural projects and opposed or changed by different visions of the future.

– These alternatives and marginalised visions of the future are often invisible, overwritten by the maps, plans, and illustrations produced in support of these infrastructures.

Text: Evelina Assarsson

Johannes Theodor Aalders walking along the planned route of the LAPSSET corridor.
Johannes Theodor Aalders walking along the planned route of the LAPSSET corridor.<br /> Photo: Used with permission from anonymous source.
Photo: Used with permission from anonymous source.
More information

Johannes Theodor Aalders successfully defended his thesis Ghostlines:  Movements, Anticipations, and Drawings of the LAPSSET Development Corridor in Kenya at the School of Global Studies on 9 November 2020.

Read Johannes Theodor Aalders' doctoral thesis (Gupea)