This aim of this special section is to announce the launch of a new portfolio of articles on African mobilities. The Africa portfolio seeks to open up a new analytical landscape at the crossroads of mobility, transport, and communication studies. It will be dedicated to reading, thinking, writing, and making from Africa, as part of a larger conversation that looks at the world from the South. This portfolio will be eccentric, risk-taking, ambitious, and original, expressing a dedication to theory while being at once deeply grounded in empirical research.
The portfolio prioritizes the “voices” emanating out of Africa, as reflected in mobilities. Its aspiration is to promote a scholarship that takes Africa seriously, not merely as fodder for imported theoretical constructs, as has been the case historically, but as generative of modes of thought and practices that have theoretical bearing in their own right. Furthermore, one of the chief concerns of the portfolio will be to ensure that “engaging” scholarship from outside of Africa does not come at the expense of locally generated modes of thought.
Moving beyond “Mobility in Africa”
The portfolio’s approach to African mobilities has three key objectives. First, it seeks to highlight the inadequacy of enthusing in Africa simply as a venue where the itineraries of things and people from outside take place. It takes seriously the mobilities emerging out of Africa itself, and even where mobilities of “outsiders moving in and around Africa” are discussed, the portfolio will go as far as it can to elicit the often-silenced voices of African people or things. Simply tracing the outsider’s footprints in Africa is not enough. We need to know: Why was that outsider’s footprint made where, when, and the way it was?
Second, African mobilities is a way to signal the mobilities of Africans and things “African” in the world. It recognizes that from antiquity through the Trans-Indian and Trans-Atlantic Ocean trades in humans as slaves, all the way to the contemporary moment of heightened migration and diaspora, Africans and things African have been travellers in the world for a while. Not just mute travellers: the African mobilities portfolio is an invitation to inquire into the footprints of Africa beyond the continent. It is an inquiry into “Africa in itineration,” involving not only elements moving about in Africa but also people and things out of Africa traveling globally. The question also becomes twofold. First, what is the African element inserted into the world through such mobilities? Second, what has been the impact of these mobilities upon the traveling African and things out of Africa? In other words, African mobilities become constitutive of the world outside them and vice versa.
Third, African mobilities is a theoretical standpoint. It serves as a critique of Western notions of mobility that have been universalized, built on nostalgia about what one, following Western ethnocentric assumptions, readily concludes are the technological and scientific wonders. The portfolio prefers an alternative route: to rethink the vocabulary of mobility from deep African genealogies, with certain periods of interactions with the outside world as moments in much longer African trajectories. We will therefore be less likely to accept articles that seek to simply theoretically treat Africa as an extension of European, American, or Chinese mobilities and concepts. The element of interaction between African elements and the outside will be critical to any essay submitted to this portfolio.
Our eclectic approach means we deliberately choose not to specify or privilege any type of mobility. Rather, we seek to go rogue on the concept of mobility so that anything that exhibits movement and is describable, is open to interrogation and discussion. Our only insistence is that the narrative must be accessible to a wider audience and provide a new and interesting way of thinking and writing about mobility—whether the subject is beetles or Bentleys, air masses or ancestral spirits, ideas or artifacts, volcanoes or trees, darkness or sound, and so on.
Our totally open viewpoint on mobility presupposes a high degree of interdisciplinarity. We encourage scholars from the humanities, arts, and social sciences and collaborations with those falling outside them. African mobilities is a warm invitation to break down disciplinary boundaries and experiment with methods that allow for an Africa-centered perspective, as explained in the following section.
Mobility: The Need for an Africa-focused Perspective
The articles included in this first special section were originally presented at an international workshop titled Technology and Mobility in Africa: Exploring a New Analytical Field, which we organized at the University of Leuven on 17–18 October 2013. The general aim of this workshop was to examine Africa’s contributions to the global discussion on the relationship between mobility and technology in society. The specific goals were twofold. One was to confront received historical, anthropological, and sociological definitions that cast technology variously as products of engineering designed and deployed as tools or instruments with material and other forms of agency.1 We were interested in what technology might mean in lieu of the laboratory, engineers, or applied science, or what happens to products of these when they move beyond their birthplaces to places like Africa, and are in the hands of Africans. What is technology at that point and according to whom? The second goal was to question the idea of mobility as human movement, circulation of ideas, commodities, bodies, and money, and social growth or decline, which we considered human-, techno-, market-, and Western-centric.2 We were interested in what mobility might mean from Africa beyond the usual suspects.
By promoting an Africa-centered perspective during our workshop, we wanted to radically displace the academic gaze and the voice usually rendered audible in research. Starting from the observation that, by now, the imperialistic connotations of technology transfer have been amply discussed and proven, we believed that what was lacking, despite the various exciting and illuminating historical and ethnographic studies already published,3 were theoretical reflections, drawing from research that puts “locals” at the center of the inquiry. We did not just mean as victims, “users,” or “tinkerers,” but also as initiators, makers, and thinkers who imbue self-made and incoming tools with their own meaning, purposes, and value systems. Revoking the stereotype of Africans as passive consumers of technology was only one part of our program. We also wanted to disrobe concepts such as “technological capital” and “progress through technological advancement” from their “universal” meaning.4 African studies provide a vantage perspective from which to deconstruct these concepts and to show their genealogies, limits, and alternatives.
Participants in the workshop were asked to write their papers along one of three conceptual strands, namely (1) mobile technology, (2) mobilities of technology, and (3) technologies of mobility. The first strand, “mobile technology,” was not only meant to attract papers dealing with new communication technologies (radio, television, cell phones, social media) and their impact on social lifeworlds, but also papers interpreting the qualifier “mobile” in a more abstract sense, as mutable, prone to innovation, and transportable. Questions that needed to be addressed were: How is technological innovation acclaimed in certain African spheres where it is present and yearned for where it is not? What are local approaches toward transformation, novelty, originality, and ingenuity in the domain of technological change? Who is allowed to innovate, or: What is, and is not, innovation in the variegated African context anyway? According to whom? Based on what measures of merit? Who seizes the “power to innovate”? And what are the contexts in which technology and innovation (and renovation) are not acclaimed? And more abstractly: how is “technological capital” in urban and rural societies in Africa defined, challenged, or recomposed by changes in technological infrastructure and expertise? Finally, we wanted to encourage participants to think beyond just the dynamics of the mobilizations of technologies and the technologizing of mobilities, to begin to explore the consequences of both. We thought of several such examples: the effects of mobile technology (specifically cell phones and Internet) on social lives, infrastructural construction (roads, railroads, pipelines, airports) on the biophysical environments along and around them, the social lives that incoming technologies acquire locally, the feedback loop between natural resources and armed conflict (how might one use technology and mobility to mount a critique of Hardin’s “the resource curse” thesis, for example?). At the same time, we thought of how both technology and mobility are given salience, shaped, attracted, refracted, politicized, socialized, naturalized, and domesticated by the human and nonhuman environment that they operate within. Indeed, even the concept of the human itself becomes unmoored, especially in circumstances of one subset of humanity dehumanizing others. Ready examples include the Holocaust, when Jewish people were “deloused”; Rwanda, where Tutsi were reduced to and killed as “cockroaches”; and slavery and colonialism, which “thingified” Africans into machines or technologies of mass production (unpaid, coerced labor) and criminalized their movement into pestilence. All these are examples of the reduction of “human beings” into “vermin beings” (pests), with mobility at their core.5
The second conceptual strand, “mobilities of technology,” pertained to the actual processes of moving or trafficking of “things technological.” It was intended to stimulate participants in the workshop to critically examine the encounters of incoming technologies with local creativities, cultures, societies, and territorialities.6 The idea was to break away from taken-for-granted assumptions about technology transfer, according to which most technology travels from the Global North to the Global South, where it is adopted for the common good. Workshop participants were invited to present critical ethnographic analyses of instances of technology transfer, integrating endogenous perspectives on the circulation of technologies, and showing that African people are/have not (been) merely appropriating and using, but also reengineering incoming technologies whose movement into Africa they themselves initiate. Paper contributors were encouraged to pay special attention to the role of brokers or people who facilitate the deployment and/or installation of (incoming) technologies in African societies. As organizers, we wanted the workshop to interrogate the critical study of “technology transfer” and steer it toward integrating endogenous perspectives on the circulation of technologies—for example, of used or disused guns, cars, computers, and cell phones. Furthermore, Africans are not just “users” configured by “designers” in the North contrary to dominant science and technology studies insights,7 but makers, hackers, and disruptors of incoming technologies and installers of new meanings, forms, and functions of the technological. This line of inquiry was already explored in the edited volume by Jan-Bart Gewald, Sabine Luning and Klaas van Walraven on cars in Africa.8 The conversation seems to articulate with ample ethnographies demonstrating data at hand that show how car parts, computer parts, and other so-called high-tech products actually are manufactured in eastern (Chinese, Taiwanese, etc.) and southern (Latin American) “invisible” spaces. Something is happening in Africa whereby locals are not merely appropriating and using, but reengineering incoming technologies whose movement into Africa they themselves initiate. Still, Africanists dealing with this material seem reluctant to adopt more robust concepts to describe what is going on, to talk about it in technological, engineering, and industrial terms—to call it “engineering.” What seems intriguing—and where archaeologists and historians could help us—is to show that such local engineering was already happening before the advent of colonialism. The works of various scholars on African metallurgists and on African entrepreneurship suggest that guns and western commerce, for example, flowed into already charted waters.9 “Technology transfer,” therefore, is one end of the spectrum; it can only gain traction in conversation with African transfers of authority and purpose to that which is incoming, otherwise it does not gain traction locally.
The final conceptual strand, “technologies of mobility,” referred to the means or ways with which things and people encounter one another or interact. Other than limiting the discussion to technological means of transport, networks of transportation, or mobility as transportation, we wanted workshop participants to explore the many means with which mobilities are performed, thus including not only human-fabricated means of transportation, but also human-tamed or untamable natural phenomena. We are interested, in particular, in exploring the carrying capacity of the space in transit (such as the interior of trains, buses, or airplanes) as “affordances” or “movement-spaces” that enable passengers to interact and feel kinesthetically entangled in certain (e)motions.10 This aspect ties into means and networks of transport, but its intentions are quite different: we would like to explore more closely how the kinetics of movement is engaged in a process of carrying, to account for the space occupied as one of presence-in-place—visually, acoustically, weightily, socially, economically, politically, and so forth. The vessels involved might include people (smugglers, soldiers, thieves, prostitutes, researchers, businesspeople, cross-border traders), multispecies (mosquitoes, tsetse flies, locusts, birds, wild animals, livestock, etc.), inanimate beings (flooded rivers, winds, volcanoes, rainfall, hot weather), or technological vehicles outlined above. What are they carrying? How do these vehicles and their passengers change the way we do our research and write our archaeological, historical, and anthropological narratives?
The objective in asking such questions is to invite contributors to the African mobilities portfolio to consider “things mobile” and “things technological” beyond the familiar gaze of flows or circulations of commodities, hi-tech, news, capital, and people, and to imagine and empiricize mobility itself beyond the techno-logics.
Outline of the Current Special Section
Since the Leuven workshop, we have expanded our interest toward mobilities in lieu of technology, a theme reflected in this and subsequent essays. We are awake to the tendency for concepts to reflect a Western-centricity, a critique one could make for literatures on capitalism (and its exclusion of the contribution of slavery and colonialism); modernity premised on Western origin and markers;11 the reduction of technology to things Western; the reduction of innovation to technology;12 and democracy to a Western model of governance.13 The consequence is that when scholars say they are studying capitalism, modernity, technology, innovation, and governance in Africa, they are merely exploring people, things, and stories relevant to the idioms and rubrics formulated in Western academia. It gets even worse: not only are they investigating Western things exported to Africa; they are also exporting Western categories to Africa to structure the empirical material they produce out of local voices.
Therefore, African mobilities are such that if technology (specifically the automobile, trains, airplanes, ships, telephones, cell phones, and the Internet) is removed, it should still be possible to talk about mobility.14 This special section is organized around what Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga (this issue) calls modes of “vehicle” as a starting point toward thinking about any and all forms of mobility. The three articles attempt to decenter the automobile through a focus on “other vehicles” and, in so doing, to expose other(ed) mobilities, those that escape the predominant human-centric, techno-centric, and Western approaches to mobility. Alessandro Jedlowski’s article opens with the shipping container, which he uses both as a material thing and a metaphor for exploring the role of containment and spatial location of moving things and their economies of meaning. Jedlowski’s analysis of the container is also literally moved further into the social realm. He examines the connectivity that the container enables (and, maybe unexpectedly, also disrupts). As we follow the trajectory of a container, rented by a migrant Nigerian couple living in Italy and sending goods back home, we learn how a wide range of commodities initially intended to bring better futures for two families and the couple itself, arrive in new destinations and become a source of conflict between the families, thus decisively transforming social routes, communities, and individuals’ lives. A complex configuration of mobilities and expectations is taking shape along the migrant’s dream or obligation to care for those left behind. The container allows Jedlowski to tell not only the story of the African diaspora as one of technology transfer by Africans, but also how they are linking and synchronizing the world to Africa by dint of their hard work, entrepreneurship, and creativities.
Harrison Esam Awuh’s contribution is set within the context of the forced sedenterization of the Baka people, a hunter-and-gatherers group living in Cameroon. It is an example of people as makers and vehicles carrying knowledge, transferring it over time and place, and emplacing it—and themselves—in new surroundings in ways that decisively transform the environment. Following the demarcation of a nature park, the Baka were forced to resettle in villages. The analytical opposition of mobility versus immobility illustrates how forced displacement and resettlement fundamentally disrupted knowledge about the forest, food production, healing practices, and conceptions of social personhood. Strikingly, immobility here does not necessarily mean the lack or absence of movement. Rather, as Awuh points out, immobility can also refer to the forced transfer of people, knowledge, and goods. In this context of enforced sedentarization, knowledge and practice become disconnected.15 For the Baka, mobility is a constitutive feature of masculinity, of living with the human environment, and of knowledge acquisition. The article shows the types of negotiations people need to engage in when their mobile forms of life get restricted, and when the transfer of certain types of knowledge is difficult to organize.
Finally, Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga’s article takes the container and carrier theme even further by drawing our attention to the mobilities induced or performed by insects such as the tsetse fly, which spreads trypanosomiasis in humans and animals. Mavhunga defines living things (people included) as organic vehicles and passengers, blowing wide open the concept of “automobility” to what he calls “auto-mobility” (self-propelled movement). His article is a radical call to rethink what moves whom. It is an invitation to look at mobility beyond the field of transportation as conventionally understood, that is, movement by cars, airplanes, horse carriers, and so on. Organic vehicles like the tsetse fly carry organisms, while their own movements are likewise experienced by other entities in their environment, humans included. The transportation happens in a world full of movement. Not merely flux, but moving, traveling and flying along and around. Mavhunga’s paper shows how the organic vehicle is both an actor and a subject of control of its movement—thus subjected to forms of power. This power can be located in nature, in law, or in society.
When one considers the protagonists in mobility as no longer just human or technology, mobility itself becomes work and the physical locations of a moving body turn into what Mavhunga has described as a “transient workspace.”16 We are thus able to account for not just people or technology or even Western “stuff,” but practically everything that exhibits both movement and stasis—from people, animals, insects, or solid objects to air masses, water, and even mountains and seas—as implicated in mobility studies. Thus beyond this special section, readers can expect a very robust and eclectic treatment of mobility, one that is at once locally grounded and transnational, transcontinental, and transdisciplinary. Similarly to the way Partha Chatterjee proposes the idea of “modernity in two languages,” “yours” and “ours,”17 our approach is to encourage “mobility in two [or many] languages,” that of “locals” on the African continent and those of outsiders, and admixtures. If what we are saying does not sit snuggly into framings of mobility that far, it could well be that there were viewpoints missing from the conversation. Our job is to open the door for them to come in.
The authors of this introductory essay want to thank paper presenters, discussants, and visitors to the conference Technology and Mobility in Africa: Exploring a New Analytical Field (Leuven, 17–18 October 2013) for their enthusiastic participation in the conference, on which this special section is based: in alphabetical order, Harrison Esam Awuh (KU Leuven), Martha Chinouya (Northumbria University), Guillaume Bumba (KU Leuven), Jeroen Cuvelier (UGent), Stefaan Dondeyne (KU Leuven), Thomas Hendriks (KU Leuven), Alessandro Jedlowski (ULiege), Stefanie Kerckhofs (KU Leuven), Gillian Mathys (UGent), Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga (MIT), Gijs Mom (University of Technology, Eindhoven) Jessika Nilsson (KU Leuven), Katrien Pype (KU Leuven), Noel B. Salazar (KU Leuven), Steven Van Bockstael (UGent), and Pieter Vlaeminck (KU Leuven). The conference was a collaboration between the Department of African Languages and Cultures (UGent), Conflict Research Group (UGent), Center for International Law (VUB), and Doctoral School in the Humanities (KU Leuven–OJO Initiative).
Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987); Raymond E. Dumett, El Dorado in West Africa: The Gold-Mining Frontier, African Labor, and Colonial Capitalism in the Gold Coast, 1875–1900 (Suffolk: James Currey, 1998); Arturo Escobar, “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture,” Current Anthropology 35, no. 3 (June 1994): 211–231; Michael M. J. Fischer, Emergent Forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Daniel Headrick, Technology: A World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010); Eugenia W. Herbert, Iron, Gender, and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Societies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); Bruno Latour, Changer de société, refaire de la sociologie, trans. Nicolas Guilhot (Paris: La Découverte, 2006); George Marcus “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multisited Ethnography.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 95–117; Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman, eds., The Social Shaping of Technology, 2nd ed. (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999); Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Bryan Pfaffenberger “Social Anthropology of Technology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 21 (1992): 491–516.
Tim Cresswell, On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (Abingdon, Oxford: Taylor and Francis, 2006); Tim Edensor, Geographies of Rhythm: Nature, Place, Mobilities and Bodies (Surrey: Ashgate, 2010); Paola Jiron, “Mobile Borders in Urban Daily Mobility Practices in Santiago de Chile,” International Political Sociology 4, no. 1 (March 2010): 66–79; Robert L. Kelly, “Mobility/Sedentism: Concepts, Archaeological Measures, and Effects,” Annual Review of Anthropology 21 (1992): 43–66; Gordon Pirie, Gijs Mom, and Laurent Tissot, eds., Mobility in History: The State of the Art in the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (Neuchâtel: Éditions Alphil, 2009); Saskia Sassen, Globalization and Its Discountents (New York: New Press, 1998); John Urry, “Global Flows and Global Citizenship,” in Democracy, Citizenship, and the Global City, ed. Isin Engin (London: Routledge, 2000), 62–78; John Urry, “Cultures of Mobility,” Lifestyle, Desire and Politics: Contemporary Identities, ed. Thomas Johansson and Ove Sernhede, 79–66 (Gothenberg: Daidalos, 2002).
Jan-Bart Gewald, Sabine Luning, and Klaas van Walraven, The Speed of Change: Motor Vehicles and People in Africa, 1890–2000 (Leiden: Brill 2009); Gabrielle Hecht, Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011); Mitchell, Rule of Experts; Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); Daniel Headrick, Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).
Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, “Vermin Beings: On Pestiferous Animals and Human Game.” Social Text 29, no. 106 (2011): 151–176.
Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).
Steve Woolgar, “The Turn to Technology in Social Studies of Science,” Science, Technology, and Human Values 16, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 20–50; Madeleine Akrich, “The De-scription of Technical Objects,” in Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, ed. W. E. Bijker and J. Law (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 205–224); Marianne De Laet and Annemarie Mol, “The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology,” Social Studies of Science 30, no. 2 (April 2000): 225–263.
Gewald, Luning, and van Walraven, Speed of Change.
Candice Goucher, “Iron Isn’t Iron ’til It Is Rust: Trade and Ecology in the Decline of West African Iron-Smelting,” Journal of African History 22, no. 2 (1981): 179–189; Pierre De Maret, “The Smith’s Myth and the Origin of Leadership in Central Africa,” in African Iron Working: Ancient and Traditional, ed. Randi Haaland and Peter Shinnie (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1985), 73–87). Marcia Wright, “Iron and Regional History: Report on a Research Project in Southwestern Tanzania,” African Economic History 14 (1985): 147–165; Marcia Wright, “Life and Technology in Everyday Life: Reflections on the Career of Mzee Stefano, Master Smelter in Ufipa, Tanzania,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 15, no. 1 (2002): 17–34; Saheed Adejumobi and Toyin Falola, “Iron Smelting and Jewelry Making” (joint essay), in Understanding Yoruba Life and Culture, ed. Nike S. Lawal, Mathew N. O. Sadiku, and P. Ade Dopamu (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004), 361–376); Dumett, El Dorado.
S. N. Eisenstadt, “Multiple Modernities,” Daedalus 129, no. 1 (2000): 1–29; for a critique, see Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).
Benoît Godin, “Innovation: The History of a Category,” Project on the Intellectual History of Innovation Working Paper no. 1, Montréal, 2008.
Teresa Caldeira and James Holston, “Democracy and Violence in Brazil,” Society for Comparative Study of Society and History 41, no. 4 (1999): 691–728.
Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, “Vehicles Organic and Inorganic: Provisional Notes on the Automobile,” Mobility and the Environment Workshop, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC), Munich, June 2010.
See also Mavhunga, Transient Workspaces, 151–220.
Partha Chatterjee, A Possible India: Essays in Political Criticism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997).