Organic Vehicles and Passengers

The Tsetse Fly as Transient Analytical Workspace

in Transfers


What if the protagonist in mobility was not human or technology, but nature? What kind of mobility studies might we get? This is the focus of this story of the tsetse fly, set within the history of the British colony of Southern Rhodesia from 1910 to 1973. This insect feeds on the blood of anything it can bite. Thus when it bites into wild animals to draw blood (its food), it ingests a protozoan called the trypanosome, and when afterward the insect bites into and draws blood from livestock, it inoculates the animal with the deadly parasite it has drawn from the wild animal. The tsetse fly cannot travel far on its own, so it rides on any moving body (human, animal, inanimate), turning them into conveyer belts for trypanosomiasis, and drawing diverse technological responses. The tsetse is, therefore, a perfect example of a site from which to rethink mobility.

There are over twenty-three known species of tsetse fly throughout Africa. Of these, three terrorized Southern Rhodesia throughout the duration of British settler rule, and even after the country gained its independence and became the Republic of Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980. The most widespread was what Europeans called Glossina morsitans, which was found in the Zambezi valley and the colony’s southeastern border with Mozambique. The other two species, Glossina pallidipes and Glossina brevipalpis, lived in small colonies in the districts of Sebungwe (to the northwest) and Chipinge (southeast).1

Tsetse is an insect known for accompanying moving objects for significant distances. It feeds on the blood of reptiles, birds, mammals, humans, and amphibians; it draws all its water from blood.2 The insects have a tendency to catch a ride “on the backs of pedestrians and cyclists, and under the hoods, etc., of motor cars, though they commonly pursue fast-moving objects for a considerable distance on the wing.”3 The faster the moving object or vehicle, the more the flies get attracted to it and the farther they are carried (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

The Tsetse fly (Source: Wikicommons).

Citation: Transfers 6, 2; 10.3167/TRANS.2016.060206

For nearly two decades after the cattle plague (rinderpest) of 1896–1897, Southern Rhodesian colonial authorities need not, and did not, have worries about tsetse. In a typical case of “ecological imperialism,”4 the European settler’s ox-wagons had brought in a devastating parasite against which African livestock and forest animals had no natural immunity. They died en masse.5 The extermination of forest animals denied the tsetse fly its most versatile means of transport and food source. Only those animals in the remote borderlands along the Zambezi, Limpopo, and Savé river valleys survived. In the vast acres of the now tsetse-free land, European settlers established their cattle ranches, farms, and mines.6

As the herds began recovering and returning to their old haunts, so did tsetse. In 1909, two sleeping sickness (human trypanosomiasis) cases were confirmed in the district of Sebungwe.7 The cases increased in the 1920s–1930s.8 In 1923, the chief entomologist warned that “the continued steady advance of this pest is, needless to say, creating a very grave situation.”9 By 1949, the insect had become “one of man’s worst enemies over the greater part of Africa south of the Sahara.”10 Only with the introduction and intensification of organochlorine pesticide spraying in the 1950s–1960s was the scourge finally brought under control.

In this period (1900–1960), extensive field research was undertaken “to know how, when, why, where tsetse does what it does, and [apply] this knowledge to practical control and combat” of the insect and the pathogens it spread.11 Three key entomologists—Charles Swynnerton, Rupert Jack, and much later John Ford—undertook research on the bionomics of the tsetse fly.12 It was the Englishman Swynnerton who in 1918–1919 undertook perhaps the most influential entomological study of tsetse flies up until that point. His findings, drawing extensively on pre-European African knowledge of tsetse and stratagems against it, would become the foundation for anti-tsetse operations in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Tanganyika (Tanzania).13 Building upon Swynnerton’s findings, another entomologist, Rupert Jack, conducted many experiments to understand the interactions between geology, vegetation, tsetse fly, forest animals, and trypanosomes.14

The object of these European colonial experiments on tsetse was to know in a thorough kind of way the “life economy” of this insect whose bite was deadly to people and domestic animals. This entailed not just knowing the tsetse and its animal associates but also the vegetation and geophysical environment within which it lived, refuged, bred, and hunted. The goal of this entomological, zoological, and botanic inquiry was to provide a “scientific basis” for its control.15 These researchers were talking about “a lifetime of aff ectionate study” of the tsetse; to do so they had “to live and breathe and think with it.”16

Of course these Europeans were newcomers to this insect, and while they controlled the physical infrastructure, designed the activities, and directed what, how, and where information was to be gathered, they could not personally live with the tsetse for sustained periods without falling victim to malaria. Only African men recruited as “flyboys” (i.e., flycatchers) could do this through conducting regular fly rounds or inspections of the targeted areas. They produced the information that the white entomologist consumed, that is, compiled and interpreted into a scientific report.

Yet this article is neither about these flycatchers nor “great white men of science” nor their consumption of information that Africans produced. It is not a study of institutions (laboratories and research stations), three of which are explored in the context of a much larger book project: Central Laboratory (Salisbury), and the two research stations dedicated to tsetse, Lusulu (in Sebungwe) and Rekomitjie (Kariba).17 Nor is the article concerned with the process of producing science and how the various scientific communities emerged around different tsetse species.18 I have already told this story elsewhere and it bears no repeating.19

While a discussion of the African origins of these mobility-centered understandings and stratagems against tsetse is important and interesting, it falls outside the scope of this article. In fact, the present article is intended to clear analytical space for the investigation of the mobilities of mobility-centered African understandings of tsetse into Western science and colonial stratagems against the insect. The follow-up research argues that European colonial tsetse strategy was based on African ideas. However radical that argument may be, it is not the focus of this article.

All I seek to do here is to think of a methodology for analyzing the transport and pestiferous work that an indefatigable, unignorable insect does through its mobilities, mobilities that in turn force human societies to respond in multiple ways. (The ways themselves, including European colonial deference to African ideas and stratagems, lie outside the scope of this article.) I want to present the tsetse as an occupied body that also occupies an always fleeting, transient place. This matters because the tsetse’s transience, by virtue of being pestiferous and subversive work (spreading trypanosomes and causing trypanosomiasis), invites remedial or pest control work. Because the problem (tsetse) is highly mobile, the work of controlling it of necessity also becomes transient. The tsetse is, as noted above, at once an organic vehicle and a passenger, a maker and an outcome of mobilities.

Therefore, the utility of transient workspace is to reference the work of and through movement—that is, mobility as work and the physical location of a moving body as a transient workspace. It is a concept that goes well beyond microbial, tsetse, big forest animals, and livestock to technologies that people devise to enable themselves to do certain work while on the move (in flight, on the bus, on the train, on foot, on treadmills, etc.). From charging phones while pedaling on a bicycle between places, to using a laptop or iPad in one’s passenger seat in flight thousands of feet above the ground, to self-tracking or wearable devices, the idea of transient work and workspace is perhaps the new normal in a hypermobile world order.

Particular to this article, however, the rationale for my interest in transient workspace is to analytically occupy movement and moving bodies in order to describe the work they do. The idea is to see objects, ideas, and beings as vehicles for me as an African and a historian of Africa to move into and out of global discourses (like mobility studies, science and technology studies [STS], history of science, history of technology, animal studies, etc.). This is a vehicle that I, as sarungano (storyteller), can ride on to transport the vernaculars of my own ancestors’ “thought collectives,”20 to make sense of mobilities beyond the narrow confines of Western obsessions with things technological.21 I therefore analytically occupy that transient space—people, animals, insects, objects, air masses, water, geological phenomena, anything that moves or seems to exhibit no movement at face value—to explore the work that mobility does.

I am very conscious of the work of things that are assumed to have inertia, fixity, stasis, and solidity as opposed to agility, shiftiness, or liquidity. I propose that such things, even when fixed in location, are moving through time. Without the friction or concordance of fixity, traction and obstruction cannot happen, things cannot connect or disconnect, and happening and never happening cannot take place. Things assumed to be fixed are, therefore, implicated in the location and passage of the transient; in fact, transience means being located in a specific place for a fleeting moment. It all depends on how the observer measures time or duration, whether in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia, or millions of years.

Back to Tsetse: Is This “Can the Mosquito Speak 2.0”?

It is the summer of 1942. World War II is raging in North Africa. Two forces invade Egypt, one human (the German army), another insect (anopheles mosquito, carrier of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum), which leaves between 100,000 and 150,000 dead, twice the casualties of combat with the Germans.22 The mosquito travels just two miles on its wings, but rides on human-made technologies of transport (airplanes, boats, trains, motorcars) to go even further.

Prior to the construction of the Aswan Dam, the dry winter has kept the mosquito away due to depressed vegetation cover and scarcity of water; now, the lake and the irrigation schemes make for perfect breeding conditions, the local human populations the perfect hosts for plasmodium parasites. The parasite “takes up residence” in the human liver, bursts into tens of thousands of off spring that feed off the blood’s cell hemoglobin and multiply into further off spring. This “bursting” or “explosive” reproduction is “intended to … ensure that with the bite of another mosquito a number of spores are ingested back into the stomach of the insect, where they fertilize and complete the reproductive cycle.” The mosquito is “willing” to breed in the smallest irrigation ditches and irrigated fields.23 The mosquito, the engineering feat of building Aswan dam, the technologies of irrigating crops, the chemical fertilizers that run off into the dam and nourish invasive aquatic plants that shelter mosquitoes, the experts on mosquitoes, malaria, warfare, dam building—all these and more constitute a heterogeneous network of actors critical to the deaths of over 100,000 people.

This is my dramatization of Timothy Mitchell’s eloquent chapter “Can the Mosquito Speak?” which locates the agency of the mosquito within “interconnected circuits” of agency or actor networks. The gambiae mosquito forces itself into human (re)cognition because it carries a deadly parasite inside it, and anyone whom it bites becomes a carrier.24 If the question “Can the Mosquito Speak?” is one about the insect having intentionality or not, Mitchell’s answer is that it does not. His mosquito, like Michel Callon’s scallop,25 is despiritualized and needs a perspective outside the Western canon. As I will show from one specific thought collective shared across much of Africa, an animal, big or tiny, never walks alone or without reason; it is always spiritual(ized) matter and therefore not only intention-laden but anthropomorphic.26 Mine is a sarungano’s tsetse fly; it cannot be allowed to fly around, biting this animal or that, riding roughshod on any organic vehicle it sees, without being seen to be intentional in its mobilities. Whatever anthropomorphism it has, it has brought upon itself.

Therefore, unlike Mitchell’s mosquito, my tsetse fly does indeed have intentions. That is how animals are historically seen, experienced, and talked about within the traditions in which I as a mudzimbahwe was born and raised. Vedzimbahwe (singular, mudzimbahwe) means dwellers (or simply those) of the houses of stone. A house of stone is called imba yemabwe/imba yemahwe; many houses built in mabwe/mahwe become dzimbabwe or dzimbahwe, whence Zimbabwe (big house of stone) came.27 A builder of houses of stone, or any stone structures, is called ndongamahwe (arranger of stones); a sarungano is also a ndongamahwe. The builders and dwellers of dzimbahwe are the ancestors of the majority “Shona”-language speakers of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the southeastern parts of Zambia. A better, deeper cultural term for Shona is chidzimbahwe, denoting not merely language (means of communication) but language as chitswanda chetsome (basket of knowledge) wherein one finds the philosophies and practices of vedzimbahwe. The word Shona comes from the Ndebele word abatshona (those who go under), in reference to vedzimbahwe’s tactics of fighting from caves and hill cover, which vedzimbahwe themselves call chimurenga (Murenga or God’s way of fighting war). European colonizers adopted the Ndebele name “Shona,” which lives in common use to the present.

I do more than simply see tsetse from a mudzimbahwe’s perspective. I am also a student of knowledge whose umbilical cord was cut and buried on the doorstep of these African traditions but who now uses them to navigate the Western-derived academy. These traditions allow me to analytically sit as an Africa scholar inside STS and mobility studies, as well as an STS and mobilities scholar of Africa. That way, I am free to perform a double act of intellectual insurgency, using one standpoint to ask new questions and propose new methodologies in the other. In that intellectual insurgency, tsetse serves as an organic vehicle on which I carry these vedzimbahwe vernaculars into mobility studies and STS for the purpose of presenting one perspective within which intentionality and anthropomorphism are central to the treatment and descriptions of other beings.

Therefore, in the anthropomorphic lives and registers of vedzimbahwe, a lion is not just fauna, tsetse and mosquitoes mere diptera, trees mere flora, mountains simply geological formations, and rivers no more than water bodies but spiritual(ized) beings and sites, humanized and exercising power over people. That is why tsetse is mhesvi (the one that incites cattle into madness) and mosquito is hutunga, from kutunga (the one that causes pneumonia or gores like a sharp-horned animal). Here anthropomorphism is deployed in similes: a tiny insect becomes a big animal with horns, goring like a buff alo; its proboscis entering the skin and drawing blood incites (kupesva) cattle to become mad. Its success in persuading cattle into madness is not limited to cows and calves, but to bulls too, hence mhesvi is also mhesvamukono (the one that incites even the patriarchs).

Anthropomorphism is the most critical instrument the sarungano/storyteller needs to tell the story—and vedzimbahwe talk of rungano rweupenyu (life story), not zvakaitika kare (history, or what happened and is now past) because the past never leaves the living, nor can the living ever leave the past and expect to have any future. And I am the sarungano. Without the anthropomorphic intent, my hare, baboon, elephant, or lion as a character in the tale is flat; and the ancestors cannot just be lifeless figures of the past. To Westerners the spirit-ancestor may probably mean nothing; to mudzimbahwe, the ancestor is a spirit, a guide through life, and a protector. The ancestor must come to life; and that ancestor might be inhabiting the animal Western science reduces to mere fauna. The diction the ancestor originated, added to, and passed on while still mortal, saturated with tsumo (proverbs), madimikira (parables), and nyaudzosingwi (idiophones), enlivens the text I write.

As sarungano, I am merely an analytical passenger on the tsetse fly, without claiming to be a spokesman for insects. I have no stake in the Western campaigns to have critters’ voices heard; it is not my struggle. I see the tsetse speaking through its mobilities, which create “conditions of possibility” for the trypanosome to move from forest animal host to cattle and people,28 and the microbe’s mobilities within them, which manifest as nagana and sleeping sickness, and forces human society to act. The tsetse fly is examined as a mobile body, a body at work.29 This indefatigable, unignorable insect is no longer just a traveler, a transport vessel, or an aff ordance to travelers, but a transient workspacean area, site, or space where mechanical and nonmechanical work is performed as and because the body is moving. Yet it is just one of many itinerants, its journey one among myriad others.

In the first instance the animal and animate body is explored as an organic vehicle that carries other living organisms engaged in specific work. This portable organism, in the second instance, becomes an organic passenger. Trypanosomes, tsetse, big forest animals, livestock, and people possess energy that propels their micro- and macroscopic movements. Their bodies are organic machines.30 The tsetse is “the parasited one [that] parasites the parasites”31; it is a mobile site of parasites. I deal not just with one parasite (tsetse), but parasites within parasites (trypanosomes inside tsetse). Mobility specifies the various conditions under and modes through which species meet; as bodies move around, they impinge on each other’s activities and territories. It is not just animals, but plants, too.32 One species’ mobilities creates risks for another: a species intrudes into the space of others, presenting itself as “matter out of place”—Dirt.33

All species exhibit life. And life is the most important mobility of all. Mobility is about bodies moving, bodies moved; bodies animate, bodies inanimate, tangible and intangible, visible and invisible, audible and inaudible; bodies macroscopic, bodies microscopic; solid, liquid, and vaporous; bodies spiritual, bodies mortal—all of them, bodies at work. The forces driving their mobilities vary: some bodies have a brain, have intention, are self-propelled (or auto-mobile), and consciously contrive their itineraries. Others have no brain, no intention, and are propelled by things external to them, behind, beneath, or above them—like forces of gravity, the wind, evapotranspiration, and such. The world, or worldliness, becomes conceivable only through mobilities; mobility is the sign of life, stillness (not always) a sign of death or peace.

Mobility is a multispecies attribute; but from vedzimbahwe’s perspective rudzi (species) does not end with fleshly death, or breathing one’s last. In fact, vedzimbahwe would see death as signaling birth. The flesh is gone, but the spirit lives on; plant and animal matter decays, but fertilizes new life. The human, therefore, is no longer just mortal; for vedzimbahwe, post-death is the journey of the erstwhile mortal into, and tenure as, the ancestral spirithood, a higher order of humanity or the next stage of “the human” wherein flesh and spirit say their goodbyes to each other. The spirit no longer travels, lives, and speaks from its own body but is free to choose a svikiro (port of arrival), meaning a mortal kin through which it speaks again. The spirit, vedzimbahwe say, also enters, lives in, travels, and speaks in an animal of its choice. The “speaking” happens in signs that mortal kin, the intended recipients of the message, decode without ambiguity—a wing flap, a shriek, a dropped feather, a tail up, and so forth.

These human beings and humanized-animal beings are not just passengers, drivers, or witnesses to mobility but also organic vehicles carrying things, auto-mobile (self-propelled) beings in their own right. A mudzimbahwe’s automobile is no longer just a car but any auto-mobile being, like birds in flight, fishes swimming in the rivers and oceans, insects moving from flower to flower, picking up nectar, depositing pollen, or relaying messages from the ancestors to mortal kin. In this case, mudzimbahwe’s tsetse fly is as much a spiritual being as it is a pest carrying death to cattle and humanity.

Tsetse and Geological, Climatic, and Vegetational Mobilities

Colonial entomologists say that millions of years before their time, geological mobilities (volcanic eruptions, movements of plate tectonics, and denudation) had created barriers and aff ordances for tsetse movements. From that perspective alone, makomo (mountains), mapani (valleys), nzizi (rivers), masango (forests), and miti (trees)—things we associate with fixity—are outcomes of geological, tectonic, denuding, covering, flowing, hydrological, vegetative, dispersive, germinative, geotropic, hydrotropic, and phototropic mobilities. Vedzimbahwe would go further to say that musiki (the creator) or Mwari (God) made all zvisikwa (creations), each for its own purpose.

In sarungano’s story, all are humanized, spiritualized, (re)movable, and relocated, through musiki’s command or feats of magic. Earthquakes (kudengendeka kwenyika or the shaking of the earth) are seismic mobilities that send people scattering in all directions. And the seismic is never just a geological phenomenon but a spiritual statement from Mwari (God). Kudengendeka kwenyika is no longer just the movement of tectonic plates, but God’s way of saying and doing something. Vedzimbahwe’s history abounds with various legends talking about the moving of mountains. Two of these, in the northeastern district of Murehwa in Zimbabwe, are said to have moved from the Zambezi.34 It is common to hear that denga ratsamwa (the skies are angry), or ndiko kutaura kwaMwari (this is the way God speaks) when the ground shakes, thunder rumbles, the sun is eclipsed, and so on. This section focuses on geographically fixed sites or things as outcomes of transient work that make available or deny tsetse a habitat.

Altitude, an outcome of geological mobilities, was critical to tsetse habitat and mobilities or none thereof. Zimbabwe is dominated by one natural system known as the central watershed, flanked on either side by the Zambezi and Limpopo-Savé-Lundi river systems flowing toward the Indian Ocean. Until the rinderpest epizootic in the mid-1890s, there was no tsetse fly on the central watershed bar the Chegutu-Kadoma-Nemakonde areas, whose Munyati-Mupfure-Sanyati river systems formed a direct line of advance and refuge for the fly from the Zambezi (see Figure 2).35 Besides the cold climate inhospitable to the presence of tsetse, the factor of high altitude (fixity) affected the mobility of air masses.

By contrast, low altitude suppressed air mass flows and promoted a hot climate. It also contained grasslands and thick riverine vegetation conducive to tsetse. The Limpopo basin was suitable for forest animals and tsetse fly for precisely this reason. The Makgadikgadi Desert to the west of the central watershed was dry, attracted few forest animals, and therefore, barely any tsetse. Not so with the north, northeast, and southeast of the watershed, where tsetse remained active, even after the rinderpest.36

Figure 2
Figure 2

A tsetse fly map of Zimbabwe (Source: Author).

Citation: Transfers 6, 2; 10.3167/TRANS.2016.060206

The insect was found to be especially prominent in what European colonists called the Karoo system, the Lomagundi system, and the Kalahari sands. “Lomagundi system” was a term used to denote the belt of folded sedimentary rocks stretching north–northeast from the Munyati River west of Kadoma to the Zambezi escarpment.37 The “Karroo system” was composed of sandstone and shale rock formations, and the “Kalahari sands” were simply sands found on areas stretching out of the Makgadikgadi (which European colonists corrupted to Kalahari) Desert. All three formations occur in low-lying areas conducive to tsetse. A fourth, which Europeans called Granite gneiss (composed of banded and foliated igneous and sedimentary rocks), was found in the more elevated areas (4,000 ft. above sea level)—barely the place for tsetse.38

Altitude and climate, specifically the movement of air masses that determined whether it rained or not, went hand in hand in determining the presence of tsetse. The Nyangani and Chimanimani mountains, for example, aff ected the flow of air masses coming from the sea inland, so that relief or orographic rainfall and cold temperatures created vegetational and temperature conditions unsuitable for tsetse survival. By 1927, tsetse had been found to thrive under the optimal annual mean temperature of between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.39 Consequently there was no tsetse fly between the two mountains. On either side of them, tsetse was abundant. Besides these relief features aff ecting rainfall and temperature patterns in the eastern highlands, the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) of low pressure was also found to move north and south and back again in response to the seasonal change in relative position of the earth and sun. The southeasterly trade winds were found to be drawn into this moving equatorial trough, bringing rain with them, determining the seasons and the vegetation that aff ected tsetse.40

Geological and climatic mobilities, of course, determined a third factor critical to the presence of tsetse: vegetation. Rainfall distribution determined the distribution of plant life; plant life determined forest animal populations, some of them vehicles and food sources for tsetse; and all tsetse flies were essentially forest insects. In Southern Rhodesia they mainly inhabited the mopane (Karroo system), musasa, munhondo, and mupfuti (Brachystegia), gusu (all savannah), and stream bank forests, all composed of close thicket. The insect’s distribution in all four seasons varied according to leaf-fall and flushing (releafing) times; it went where trees were in good enough leaf to off er cover from predators and the sun. Thus, when moving within the environment in hot, dry weather, tsetse flew from one patch of shade to another; the hotter the day, the closer they stayed near the trees. In September–October, they did not leave the shade until temperatures cooled “whatever attractant in the way of moving man or vehicle [was] presented to them.”41

Therefore, the geological, climatic, and vegetational are not just sites or venues within which the mobilities of an insect took place. They are eventuations of mobilities and mobilities in their own right. In the case of tsetse, the tsetse comes to occupy a geological, climatic, animal, and plant environment that is not static, but engaged in its own journeys through time, time that, in vedzimbahwe logic, is always spiritualized. The geological is associated with Mwari and the ancestors buried in the soil. Rainmakers make the rain fall. Animals of the forest are spiritual and humanized beings; and plants and forests the docile and wandering grounds of malevolent and benevolent spirits.42

The Organic Vehicle and Passenger

Even the insect is a spiritualized being. It is, as shown, mhesvi the inciter, but it is more. Its virulence or quiescence at specific moments is a message that the ancestors are communicating to the living. Angry ancestors punished the living using swarming hwiza locusts, quelea birds, armies of worms, and mikondombera (epizootics and epidemics); they expressed happiness by keeping these pests in check. Vedzimbahwe certainly interpreted as such tungundu (their name for rinderpest), locust swarms, and famine that hit Southern Rhodesia simultaneously in 1896. One view was that the ancestral spirits (mhondoro) had sent this triple scourge to punish vedzimbahwe for allowing vapambipfumi (occupiers) to invade the land. The medicine was simple: chase the white man out and the pestilences would be cured.43 Elders in southeastern areas of Zimbabwe suggest it was not merely the European colonizer’s physical rupture of ecological boundaries that unleashed ndedzi (the local name of tsetse) from the 1930s onward. Rather, the ancestors were angry at the colonizer’s complete disregard for ancestral spiritual authority, not least the intrusion of Christian mission stations, and the designation of once-sacred forests like Chirinda and Gonarezhou into private or state property. Before colonization forests belonged to the spirits; after colonization they belonged to the state.44

The tsetse fly that now follows is not vedzimbahwe’s but vangerengere’s. Vangeréngeré comes from a dzimbahwe idiophone, ngeré-ngeré (unintelligible sound) of vasinémabvi (those without knees), the name vedzimbahwe gave to European settlers. Vangerengere’s tsetse is a despiritualized insect and a subject of Western laboratory scientific practice. As presented in the colonial state documents, the tsetse’s mobilities are factual, devoid of any spirituality, anthropomorphism, or intent. The animation of the tsetse’s actions draws from the sarungano’s narrative tradition, in which animals big and small have intention and are always humanized. The reader will quickly notice that the European register describing the tsetse as organic vehicle is ahistorical and focused on the insect’s everyday life, or what the colonial officials called “bionomics” or “life economies” of the tsetse.45 It is not that the “facts” about tsetse’s bionomics were wrong, but rather how these facts came about and who produced and presented them. To address the latter, we must first deal with the bionomics.

The question confronting Southern Rhodesia’s Division of Entomology (later Tsetse Branch) from the 1910s onward was how to control or eliminate an insect that turned human movement into its movement, human transport systems into its vehicles, and their pathways into its pathways and those of the deadly trypanosomes it carried. Otherwise innocuous animals, people, and inanimate objects became serious veterinary risks whose mobilities had to be controlled. The tsetse’s site of attack was never random, targeting the animal’s legs, below the knee in humans, and the often-exposed underside of the belly.46 By its movement or stillness, an animal became (un)attractive and (in)visible as a host to tsetse fly. Complacency or timidity under attack made a perfect host (like warthog and buff alo), irritability (leg kicking, skin-rippling, head-shaking), a bad one.47 The buff alo, with its love for chewing the cud, under the cool breezy shade of the tree, or in the shallow waters of the river, made itself quite available to tsetse (Figure 3).

Animal behavior made some animals tsetse-tolerant and tsetse-vulnerable, others tsetse-avoiding and tsetse-resistant. Regular hosts were larger browsers and grazers permanently resident in one area all year; once they were eliminated or scattered, the tsetse could not survive permanently on “chance encounters with food hosts.” “Occasional” hosts such as cane rats,

Figure 3
Figure 3

Buffalo’s love of relaxing in the water and the tsetse fly’s feeding opportunity (Source: Author)

Citation: Transfers 6, 2; 10.3167/TRANS.2016.060206

antbears, monkeys, baboons, storks, vultures, bushpigs, elephants, and humans were hideous, selective, or migratory and therefore poor feeds.48 Tsetse labored to get its meal from “these accessory food animals” in winter; in summer, vegetation overabundance dispersed forest animals and encumbered tsetse’s hunt for food.49 Instead of a natural predisposition to a specific host, therefore, tsetse’s blood diet and its feeding mobilities were ecologically contingent.

Stops on the animals’ pathways to/from pastures and waterholes became points at which tsetse flies caught rides, fed, and became vehicles for trypanosomes. The beaten track through open ground rendered animals easily visible to tsetse taking cover from its own predators (birds). When the animals came to the pool to drink, the female tsetse lurched (kuti svétu) onto them to feed, with the male flies in tow, evidently intent on having sex. On that basis, the tsetse did have intentionality, yes. Only animals whose drink and bath times coincided with tsetse’s active (daylight) hours became its food source.50

The fly landed on the animal, was carried around as it fed, filled its stomach with blood, then flew away to rest in the tree branches nearby. When hungry, tsetse indiscriminately followed and probed any moving object for blood, including even car tires. The mobile nature of its food source (the animal) meant tsetse had to travel with and on it, on terms and an itinerary dictated by it, and by the diurnal rhythms of light, temperature, and humidity. The tsetse was “quiescent at night,” except on warm moonlit nights.51 When the animals stopped at waterholes, rivers, or lakes, or returned to graze, browse, or chew the cud in the tree shade, the insect pounced and fed upon them. Generally, tsetse was more active later in the day, especially during or right after the maximum temperature and minimum humidity were reached, and the light intensity started declining, the silhouette effect improving.52

As noted, the male tsetse usually came for the sex, not feeding. It was a master tactician, deploying strategically in the grass or woods in such a way that the flying females and their movements formed a silhouette against the sky. As the female tsetse descended on the animal and engorged its proboscis, the males pounced on it. The males settled on the skin of a person or animal, taking short flights to chase the females, before returning to their seats. As long as the females were around, the males ignored sucking the blood altogether.53 (Eventually, however, even the sex-crazed males had to eat or die.) Once the female was impregnated, it reproduced without need for sexual intercourse for the rest of its life.54 G. morsitans “bulls” formed a crowd around their “cows,” while G. brevipalpis normally queued behind each other, biding their time.

Male or female, the tsetse was found to digest and assimilate ingested blood within two days. Most of it went toward nutrition, the surplus being converted into fat that provided “a reserve of energy” in lean times.55 Therefore, the tsetse’s itinerary represents energy production and expenditure in motion, the tsetse burning energy to get to a moving object, saving energy by landing, producing energy by feeding, creating an energy stockpile through digestion, which is itself a consumption process. How far tsetse traveled also depended on the vehicle it was using (a car, a person, an elephant, or flying on its own).

In the course of feeding, the tsetse ingested the trypanosomes, which attached themselves to the insect’s long mouth (proboscis), hung onto its walls, and commenced their developmental journey within it, ready for inoculation into the insect’s next bite victim. Like several other insect species, tsetse was found to have an internal protective lining in its middle stomach impenetrable to trypanosomes. Thus it could carry infectious matter without itself being infected, save for the younger tsetse, which often got infected at first feeding.56 As the tsetse bit into flesh to draw blood, the microbe exited one organic vehicle and entered another—from insect into bird, buff alo into human, forest animal into domestic animal.57

The trypanosome was not coming into no-man’s-land, however, but into space organically equipped with a cellular defense system. Domestic animals and people produced antibodies in response to tsetse infection. Trypanosomiasis in both occurred because some antibodies were not protective and generally those that did were limited in their effectiveness. Some protozoa were eliminated as soon as they came up against the body’s immune system. Others neutralized the body’s defense system, so that they mutated, multiplied, and thrived within it. Thus the human or animal’s body was no longer just an idle, unintending but attractive conveyor of microbes, rendered complicit in its own destruction from within.58

In other words, the debilitating—and demobilizing—mobilities of trypanosoma within the body outwardly expressed as symptoms of trypanosomiasis. The first sign was the fever kicking in, the heartbeat accelerating, a temporary rash appearing, severe headaches striking, and glands swelling, becoming tender. A person developed a “tendency to lapse into sleep … during the daytime.”59 Then at night, insomnia and restlessness set in. The person’s speech became slower and labored, the walking unsteady, muscles twitching, hands trembling, the body wasting away, then the bedsores spreading, sphincters relaxing, coma.60 Symptoms, therefore, were signatures and footprints of the invisible microbe traversing the internal byways and highways of infected human or animal bodies, footprints not immediately legible unless through microscopy, or until their incremental weight ground through the density of the body’s flesh onto the surface—as rash, as wasted flesh—Bones.

Concluding Remarks: The Transient Analytical Workspace

Today risky mobilities of biological material (including bugs) constitute a serious biosecurity issue. The (likely) presence of deadly insects and microbia forces the convergence of political, military, legal, scientific, and other bodies to come together, as Timothy Mitchell shows. On the one hand, security agencies worry about the potential of individuals or groups to mobilize microorganisms for a harmful purpose.61 Scientists see pests not only as harmful organisms but useful material (even technologies) against the diseases they cause: as transgenic organisms released back into the environment to sterilize and weaken their own lot, and as bio-indicators of invasions and escalations, for instance.62 The development of technologies that enhance the speed and distance of transportation and communication has enhanced the spread of viruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and electronic viruses as well as information about biological viruses. Instead of calling them “networked diseases,”63 as such, I emphasize the modes and work of mobilities and transport instead, which are no longer limited to human-made transport systems, as growing interest in transcontinental bird migrations and the transmission of H5N1 (avian flu) has shown.64 These mobilities—this “mobile life,”65 or “the biology of life on the move”66—need to be understood historically, microscopically, and specifically as interactions and workspaces involving multiple species and their interrelations.67

Broadening the concept of “vehicle” and “passenger” renders explicit the transport work that links together tsetse, trypanosomes, big forest animals, and people within a larger field of “passengering” beyond just automobiles. The transient analytical workspace takes the notion of the automobile toward many modes of auto-mobile (self-propelled) entities and what they carry. As transient workspaces these bodies-in-motion constitute a site from which an invasive species of mobility studies and STS can be broached that even further widens the arc of analysis beyond cars, trains, airplanes, bicycles, and city pedestrians, waves, cell phones, and highways, railways, flyways, cyberways, and waterways.68 The concept of a transient analytical workspace widens even further a conversation that has shifted from “places to play” toward “places in play,” beyond mobile cities toward urban mobilities, and beyond place-shaping mobilities toward mobility-shaping places,69 beyond aeromobilities,70 towards humans and machines in space,71 unmanned devices (drones and satellites),72 and subaquatic mobilities and life forms.73

What passes off as mobility studies in Africa has thus far followed the same trajectory as the Western conceptual lineage of which it is a part: trains and railroads, cars and roads, airplanes and airports, then cell phones and cyberspace.74 I find the more compelling literature to lie outside this emerging transport history of Africa, for instance, writings on migration, pastoralism, agriculture, war, and trade,75 and historicizations of the camel, the horse, the donkey, and the mule.76

None of the literature, of course, covers nondomestic or forest animals. I mean not only the big animals but also small, even invisible ones. And since I write as mudzimbahwe, the transient analytical workspace is no longer just the conventional human-assembled vehicle—train, car, airplane, and so on—or the organic vehicle carrying the material or mortal passenger, cargo, or ideas. In a culture where animals, trees, forests, hills, pools, rivers, and people constitute the abodes, purveyors, and mouthpieces of ancestral, wandering, benevolent and malevolent spirits,77 the concept of a vehicle, of transport, indeed mobility, is theoretically blown wide open. This perspective is what I bring to the study of mobility with tsetse as my vehicle, specifically to an exploration of the mobility of African ideas and practices relating to a mobile insect.


Rupert W. Jack, “The Tsetse Fly Problem in Southern Rhodesia,” May 1933, 1. South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis/Tsetse Archives (hereafter SACEMA/TA).


Rupert W. Jack, “The Life Economy of a Tsetse Fly,” January–February 1944. SACEMA/TA.


Rupert W. Jack, “Tsetse Fly: Traffic Control,” Rhodesia Agricultural Journal no. 5 (1930), 493–501.


Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).


C. A. Spinage, Cattle Plague: A History (New York: Kluwer, 2003), 497–549.


Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).


Andrew Fleming, Report on the Public Health, Southern Rhodesia, 1909 (Salisbury: Government Printer, 1910), and “Trypanosomiasis in Southern Rhodesia,” Transactions of the Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 6 (1913): 298–310; J. W. Stephens and H. B. Fantham, “On the Peculiar Morphology of a Trypanosome from a Case of Sleeping Sickness and the Possibility of Its Being a New Species (T. rhodesiense),” Annals of Tropical Medical Parasitology 4 (1910): 343–350.


D. M. Blair, “Human Trypanosomiasis in Southern Rhodesia, 1911–1938,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 32, no. 6 (1939): 729–742.


“Annual Report of the Chief Entomologist 1923,”. SACEMA/TA.


J. A. Whellan, “Tsetse Fly in S. Rhodesia, 1949,”. SACEMA/TA.


John Phillips, “The Application of Ecological Research Methods to the Tsetse (Glossina SPP.) Problem in Tanganyika Territory: A Preliminary Account,” Ecology 4, no. 11 (1930): 713–733.


Rupert W. Jack (chief entomologist), “Tsetse Fly: A Four Years’ Experiment in Game Elimination,” June 1923. SACEMA/TA.


Charles Swynnerton, “An Examination of the Tsetse Problem in North Mossurize,” Bulletin of Entomological Research 11 (1921): 355–356.


Jack, “Tsetse Fly: Traffic Control; “The Tsetse Fly Problem”; Rupert W. Jack, “Experiments with Tsetse Fly Traps against Glossina Morsitans in Southern Rhodesia,” Rhodesia Agricultural Journal 30, no. 5 (1933): 393–398; Rupert W. Jack, “Tsetse Fly and Game,” Rhodesia Agricultural Journal 31 (1934): 259–294.


The Trypanosomiasis Committee of Southern Rhodesia, “The Scientific Basis of the Control of Glossina Morsitans by Game Destruction,” Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire 54 (1946): 10–16.


E. Bursell, “Tsetse Control in Relation to Wild Life Conservation,” University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, 19–26 May 1961: 4. SACEMA/TA.


Annual Report of the Branch of Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Control for the Year Ending 30 September 1971, 14–31.


G. D. H. Carpenter, “Third, Fourth and Fifth Reports on the Bionomics of Glossina palpalis on Lake Victoria,” Report of the Sleeping Sickness Commission of the Royal Society 17 (1919): 3–101; W. F. Fiske, “Investigations into the Bionomics of Glossina palpalis,” Bulletin of Entomological Research 10 (1920): 347–463; A. D. Marks (Glossinologist), to the Assistant Director, Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Control Branch, “Sengwa Research Progress Report,” 3 February 1968. SACEMA/TA.


Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, “Big Game Hunters, Bacteriologists, and Tsetse Fly Entomology in Colonial Southeast Africa: The Selous–Austen Debate Revisited, 1905–1940s,” ICON 12 (2007): 75–117.


Ludwik Fleck, The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, ed. T. J. Trenn and R.K. Merton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979 [1935]).


This critique has been made before, but not in mobility studies. See Joel Dinerstein, “Technology and Its Discontents: On the Verge of the Posthuman.” American Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2006): 569–595; David Noble, The Religion of Technology (New York: Knopf, 1997).


Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 21.


Ibid., 24, 53.


Ibid., 24–53.


Especially Michel Callon, “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay,” in Power, Action and Belief, ed. John Law, (London: Routledge, 1986), 196–233; Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979).


Mavhunga, Transient Workspaces, 21–38.


For “the Zimbabwe culture,” see Innocent Pikirayi, The Zimbabwe Culture (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2001).


Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (New York: Routledge, 2011), xii.


Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge, 2002), xvii, 2.


Richard White, The Organic Machine (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).


Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), x.


A subject of recent attention for Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, “Naturing the Nation: Aliens, Apocalypse and the Postcolonial State,” Journal of Southern African Studies 27, no. 3 (2001): 627–651.


Douglas, Purity and Danger, xvii, 2.


W. S. Taberer,“Mashonaland Natives,” Journal of the Royal African Society 4, no. 15 (1905), 311–336.


John Ford, The Role of the Trypanosomiases in African Ecology: A Study of the Tsetse Fly Problem (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 283.


D. M. Blair, “Human Trypanosomiasis in Southern Rhodesia, 1911–1938,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 32, no. 6 (1939): 729–742.


D. R. Hunter, Precambrian of the Southern Hemisphere (New York: Elsevier, 1981), 618.


Rupert W. Jack, “Some Environmental Factors Relating to the Distribution of Glossina Morsitans Westw. In Southern Rhodesia,” South African Journal of Science 24 (1927): 457–475.


Ford, The Role of the Trypanosomiases, 461.


Ibid., 116.


Jack, “The Life Economy,” 9.


Mavhunga, Transient Workspaces, ch. 1–2.


Zimbabwe Fieldwork: Mediel Hove, in Conversation with Titus Mulungushi, 21 June 2001. Black Bvekenyas Project (hereafter BBP).


Interview with Timothy Sumbani, Chipinda Pools, 14 December 2010. BBP/ MovOBF.


Jack, “The Life Economy,” 9.


Ibid., 8.


A. D. Marks (glossinologist), “Preliminary Notes on the Relationship of the Behaviour of Tsetse Flies and Impala,” 15 February 1967. SACEMA/TA; A. D. Marks (entomologist), “Notes on the Behaviour of Tsetse Fly (G. morsitans and G. pallidipes) with Regard to Impala,” 1 September 1966.


Trypanosomiasis Committee, “The Scientific Basis,” 13–14.




John Ford (director), “Report of the Director of Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Control and Reclamation for the Year Ended 30th September 1960,”. SACEMA/TA; Ford, The Role of the Trypanosomiases, 21, 29–32.


Jack, “The Life Economy,” 7.


B. M. Leggate, “The Diurnal Feeding Activity, Resting Sites and Trypanosome Challenge of G. Pallidipes at Rekomitjie,” September 1960, 250. SACEMA/TA.


Swynnerton, “An Examination,” 355–356.


Jack, “The Life Economy,” 3.




Ford, The Role of the Trypanosomiases, 77–78, 88.




Jack, “The Life Economy,” 10–11.


Ford, The Role of the Trypanosomiases, 68.


Fleming, “Trypanosomiasis in Southern Rhodesia,” 300–302.


For a human-centered study of mobility risk, see Susan Ginsburg, Securing Human Mobility in the Age of Risk: New Challenges for Travel, Migration, and Borders (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2010).


See Uli Beisel and Christophe Boëte, “The Flying Public Health Tool: Genetically Modified Mosquitoes and Malaria Control,” Science as Culture 22, no. 1 (2013), 38–60; Noémi Tousignant, “Insects-as-Infrastructure: Indicating Project Locustox and the Sahelization of Ecotoxicology,” Science as Culture 22, no. 1 (2013), 108–131.


Jeffrey R. Ryan and Jan F. Glarum, Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Containing and Preventing Biological Threats (Amsterdam and Boston: Elsevier, 2008); Andreas Wenger and Reto Wollenmann, eds., Bioterrorism: Confronting a Complex Threat (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2007).


See the debate in Nature and Science that occurred on either side of these two articles: H. Chen et al., “H5N1 Virus Outbreak in Migratory Waterfowl,” Nature 436 (2005): 191–192; and Declan Butler, “Blogger Reveals China’s Migratory Goose Farms Near Site of Flu Outbreak,” Nature 441 (2006): 263.


Nigel Clark, “Mobile Life: Biosecurity Practices and Insect Globalization,” Science as Culture 22, no. 1 (2013), 16–37.


Hugh Dingle, Migration: The Biology of Life on the Move (New York: Oxford University, 1996).


S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4 (2010): 545–576.


Among others, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Gijs Mom, The Electric Vehicle (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Tim Creswell, On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (London: Routledge, 2006); Joseph Amato, On Foot: A History of Walking (New York: New York University Press, 2004).


Mimi Sheller and John Urry, eds., Tourism Mobilities: Places to Play, Places in Play (London: Routledge, 2004), and Sheller and Urry, eds., Mobile Technologies of the City (London: Routledge, 2006).


Saulo Cwerner, Sven Kesslring, and John Urry, eds., Aeromobilities (London: Routledge, 2009).


David Mindell, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).


Pamela Mack, Viewing the Earth: The Social Construction of the Landsat Satellite System (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).


Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).


Jamie Monson, Africa’s Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009). Gordon Pirie, Air Empire: British Civil Aviation, 1919–39 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009); Jan-Bart Gewald, Sabine Luning, and K. van Walraven, eds., The Speed of Change: Motor Vehicles and People in Africa 1890–2000 (Leiden: Brill, 2009); Abebe Zegeye and Robert Muponde, eds., Social Lives of Mobile Telephony (London: Routledge, 2012).


Thomas J. Barfield, The Nomadic Alternative (Englewood Cliff s, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993); Victor Azarya, “The Nomadic Factor in Africa: Dominance or Marginality,” in Nomads in the Sedentary World, ed. Anatoly M. Khazanov and Andre Wink (London: Curzon Press, 2001), 250–284.


Richard Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); Barfield, The Nomadic Alternative; Robin Law, The Horse in West African History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980); Humphrey J. Fischer, “‘He Swalloweth the Ground with Fierceness and Rage’: The Horse in the Central Sudan,” Journal of African History 13, no. 2 (1972): 367–388. Humphrey J. Fischer, “‘He Swalloweth the Ground with Fierceness and Rage’: The Horse in the Central Sudan II: Its Use,” Journal of African History 14, no. 3 (1973): 355–379; Sandra Swart, Riding High: Horses, Humans and History in South Africa (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2010).


Mavhunga, Transient Workspaces, 41–42.

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Contributor Notes

Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga is an associate professor of science, technology, and society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a research associate of the Center for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA). He studied for his doctorate at the University of Michigan, his MA at Wits, and BA Honors at the University of Zimbabwe. He is the author of Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe (MIT Press, 2015).


Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies