Member of the Week: David Morton

David Morton

Assistant Professor of African History

University of British Columbia

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I recently published a book, Age of Concrete, a history of home construction, informal settlement, and decolonization in Mozambique’s capital city, Maputo, from the 1940s through the 1990s. The chapter that I most enjoyed writing was about the moment, less than a year after independence from Portugal, when the new regime decided to nationalize all rental units in the country’s city centers. Rent was considered “exploitation of man by man.” These were, in any case, predominately European districts, and many buildings had already been abandoned by their owners and tenants. 

Some activists in the capital’s informal districts, however—predominately African neighborhoods where most of the city lived—had their own interpretation of the new policy. They began “nationalizing” rental shacks and compounds in these neighborhoods. These units by and large hadn’t been abandoned, and their owners often weren’t much better off than their tenants. 

Officials quickly realized they had to accept this wider interpretation of the law. And so, over the course of a week in 1976, the state became the less-than-enthusiastic landlord to a good share of the informal landscape and thousands of Mozambicans were dispossessed of their most important assets. Even in revolutionary Mozambique, whose leaders were used to issuing orders from on high, policy wasn’t just being made by policymakers. 

That chapter got me thinking a lot about the kinds of decisions people were making during the first flush of independence—the very first days and months. This is my next project: how people began interpreting the colonial past and made their first attempts to address it. I’ve interviewed some government ministers (many of whom are still alive) about that moment. For them, independence was a time of discovery, about the nature of the state bureaucracy and also about life in the capital city—a city that many hadn’t seen for years or hadn’t known at all.

There are countless players in this story, and there is lots of interviewing to do when the pandemic abates. I’m particularly interested in the changes that happened in hospitals and in schools: the roles of doctors, nurses, and schoolteachers in transforming medical care and the classroom curriculum. It wasn’t obvious what transformation had to happen, and how it would happen. People were doing things on the fly, during a time of economic collapse, in one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries. They often felt like they were starting from scratch.    

What are you currently teaching? How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

In addition to my courses in African history, I recently started teaching a 100-level course called “Cities in History.” I’m sure many of us teach something similar. I just want to emphasize here how fun it is to teach this course thematically and without a linear chronology, shaking off any hint of a teleological, nomads-to-skyscrapers narrative. Mali’s Djenne Djenno, one of the famed “cities without citadels,” has really helped me here. 

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m reading Jonathan Cane’s Civilizing Grass (Wits University Press, 2019), which is about the history of lawns in the suburbs of white South Africa, and the ugliness hidden beneath the obsession with a well-kept yard. Also, readers may already be familiar with Jacob Dlamini’s memoir of South African township life, Native Nostalgia (Jacana, 2009). His new social history of Kruger Park, Safari Nation (Ohio University Press, 2020) is in the mail.

What advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?

If you can’t resist the appeal of buildings and architecture (I can’t) just remember that buildings and plans don’t speak for themselves. If you are working in any context after, say, 1940, there are usually architects, builders, planners, and, above all, residents you can interview, and should.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you think the study of urban spaces and architecture in an African setting can be read back against the traditions in Urban History that tend to focus more on European and American settings? What do these histories have to teach us about cities in what we sometimes call the “Global North”?

There is no one form of African urbanism, of course, but there are some glaring commonalities across much of the continent. The blurring of urban/rural distinctions is a big one, and something of a starting point for urban studies in Africa, one that urban historians might want to consider more seriously in other contexts. 

Another is the informality of housing and much of the economy, today and historically. In most African cities (and not only African cities) the majority of people live in neighborhoods understood as unplanned and on land lacking secure legal title. Houses and family compounds are usually built incrementally, over a lifetime and sometimes over several generations, rather than purchased ready-built like a car. To write an urban history foregrounding the work of professional architects and planners and the state would presume, probably mistakenly, that they were the determinative influences in people’s lives. Individual homebuilders and home dwellers ought to be the protagonists of the histories we write. They shouldn’t be employed as mere extras who populate the set, or useful embellishments for grander narratives we think we already know. They should frame the stories we tell.

The picture is different in northern contexts, but perhaps not as different as we might think. “Informality” simply means outside the gaze of government authorities. Glancing around the cities of the Global North, one has no trouble finding lives lived outside the gaze of government authorities, and let’s not presume that Corporate America has everything all sewn up. Why do we so often privilege the perspective of such so-called city-builders in our histories of the built environment? (Until recently, this was the case in African urban historiography, too, by the way.) Obviously, it’s because we’re interested in critiquing power, which is vitally important. But at some point an unwavering interest in the plans of colonial administrators, in the dreams of Robert Moses and contemporaries, and in the machinations of the real estate industry, looks like a fetishization of power.

Click on the play arrow, below, to listen to David Morton discuss using sources beyond the governmental archive–oral history and personal papers–to better understand the lives of those living in informal settlements, and talk about the aesthetic norms of these unique neighborhoods. Interview by Alec Dawson.

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