Caitlin Collis

  • Fellowship year:2020-2021
  • University: University of Pennsylvania
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Africa
  • Dissertation Title: The Rhetoric and Reality of Road Construction in Ethiopia, 1855-1941
  • My dissertation traces the history of modern Ethiopian roads – their planning, construction, and impact – from the era of the ‘early modernizers’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the end of the short-lived Italian Occupation in 1941. I examine how visionary road-building projects factored into the schemes of emperors Tewodros II, Menelik II, and Haile Selassie to consolidate and modernize Ethiopia, and how the realization of an ambitious new road network in the Horn became central to the imperial imaginings of Fascist Italy in the 1930s. My research considers the public narratives devised at the state level to promote the value of this infrastructure, the social and spatial transformations that accompanied road construction, and the discrepancies between the “official” rhetoric and the everyday experience of road workers, roadside residents, and the intended beneficiaries of these state projects. Where Menelik and his successor, Haile Selassie, used narratives of infrastructure development to try and convince the international community that Ethiopia satisfied the conditions of a ‘civilized’ nation, the Italians characterized road construction in their new East African empire as a distinctly Italian (or Roman) endeavor, using visual and written propaganda to assert the superiority of Italian civilization and the material benefits of the Italian colonial enterprise.

    My aim in this project is to use the imaginaries and realities of road construction over time to explore how people came into contact with – and came to see themselves in relation to – various forms of local, national, and imperial authority. To that end, I examine systems of labor mobilization, the transformation of roadside urban environments, and the kinds of encounters that occurred on the roads between the authorities (Ethiopian and Italian) and their citizens/subjects. In doing so, my dissertation engages with recent anthropological literature on the ethnography of the road, and with works in political geography on space,
    citizenship and the expansion of scale, asking how the meanings and material effects of road construction may have evolved over the course of a century and in response to various forms of state control.