Professor book reviews: "Africa's Freedom Railway" by Jamie Monson

By Daniel Kerwin

Professor Jamie Monson, a specialist in African history, has been doing research in Tanzania since the early 1990s. For her recently published book, Monson had to extend her research halfway across the globe to China.Her book, titled “Africa’s Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania,” explores an important railway project that was completed from 1970 to 1975 between Tanzania and Zambia assisted by a team of Chinese railroad workers. Monson was in Tanzania in 1998 on an investigative visit when the research topic came to her.

“I was actually riding on the railway thinking about writing a book, and all of a sudden I just realized this railway itself is the most transformative thing in this region, so I decided to write a book that would look at the railway from the perspective of the communities through which the railway travels,” Monson said.

The book was published in late February after more than a decade of research. Monson travelled to China on multiple occasions for research, her first trip in 2003 and then later trips in 2007 and every year since. Her research ranged from compiling oral histories to analyzing satellite images of changes in the terrain as a result of the railroad; an entire chapter of the book is dedicated to the environmental changes as a result of the railway.

“As usual in history it’s always exciting to take up a topic that goes somewhat against the grain of what popular media accounts might say,” Monson said.

Monson spent the past 18 years at Carleton College before coming to Macalester in the fall. She feels her focus in her book matches up well with the academic nature at Macalester.

“In many ways this book represents some of the things that attracted me to Macalester, the focus on not just being a specialist in one part of the world, but as our students do, really trying to integrate more transnational understanding of history and of issue in the world,” Monson said. “Another thing that I think is a part of the Macalester academic culture is hoping that our work may have relevance in contemporary issues, or rather than contemporary issues need to be grounded in historical understanding that what I have to offer can be useful, that it will help people.”

Monson will be leaving next week to conduct further research throughout the course of the summer, visiting both China and Tanzania. She received a collaborative research grant from the Fellowship from National Endowment for the Humanities and hopes to publish a collaborative anthology on this next stage of research as soon as possible.

“The contemporary stuff becomes dated so quickly, so it’s really important to get material published as soon as we can,” Monson said. “We’re hoping to use this as a basis for looking at more contemporary projects too… there’ll at least be another book coming.”

“Africa’s Freedom Railway” is available from the Indiana University Press and Amazon.com.