Transient Workspaces, 2014

Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe, 2014

Author(s): Clapperton C. Mavhunga
  • Type: Book
  • Researcher: Other Researchers
  • Timeline: 2010s
  • Affiliation: Faculty

About the Book

In this book, Clapperton Mavhunga views technology in Africa from an African perspective. Technology in his account is not something always brought in from outside, but is also something that ordinary people understand, make, and practice through their everyday innovations or creativities—including things that few would even consider technological. Technology does not always originate in the laboratory in a Western-style building but also in the society in the forest, in the crop field, and in other places where knowledge is made and turned into practical outcomes. 

African creativities are found in African mobilities. Mavhunga shows the movement of people as not merely conveyances across space but transient workspaces. Taking indigenous hunting in Zimbabwe as one example, he explores African philosophies of mobilities as spiritually guided and of the forest as a sacred space. Viewing the hunt as guided mobility, Mavhunga considers interesting questions of what constitutes technology under regimes of spirituality. He describes how African hunters extended their knowledge traditions to domesticate the gun, how European colonizers, with no remedy of their own, turned to indigenous hunters for help in combating the deadly tsetse fly, and examines how wildlife conservation regimes have criminalized African hunting rather than enlisting hunters (and their knowledge) as allies in wildlife sustainability. The hunt, Mavhunga writes, is one of many criminalized knowledges and practices to which African people turn in times of economic or political crisis. He argues that these practices need to be decriminalized and examined as technologies of everyday innovation with a view toward constructive engagement, innovating with Africans rather than for them.


“Mavhunga expertly applies African-based theoretical innovations to extend the new mobilities paradigm and histories of technology and, in doing so, to generate new ways of thinking about mobility–far beyond the sociotechnological novelties that animate the West. Drawing on his deeply experiential understanding of the material, philosophical, and spiritual bases of the hunting practices of the vaShona and maTshangana people, he shows how they created pathways and ways of working together that he calls ‘transient workspaces.’ In a gracefully executed pivot, he uses this understanding to challenge Western understandings of mobility, technology, wildlife conservation, and biodiversity management.”
—Mimi Sheller, Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy, Drexel University; author of Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity

“Clapperton Mavhunga’s study is important for weaving together concepts from mobility studies, environmental history, studies in the diffusion of technology (in this case firearms), colonial and post-colonial studies of Africa, and the history of technology to understand the past two centuries of life in what is today Zimbabwe. His accounts joins many others that have shown why Western technologies often cannot be successfully introduced from the outside. Rarely, however, have the results of ignoring local residents during the transfer process been sketched in such stark and forceful terms. Mavhunga’s account upends traditional understandings of everything from African independence movements to poaching to what we think we know about technological innovation.”
—Bruce E. Seely, Dean, College of Sciences and Arts, Michigan Technological University

“This fascinating narrative describes how vaShona and maTshangana hunters exercised significant ‘bottom-up’ control over colonizers’ efforts to eradicate the tsetse fly in southern Africa. The author masterfully blends archival interviews and colonial records to show how indigenous culture shaped the use of European weapons in ways that illumine current efforts to control wild animal poaching in the region.”
—Donald E. Klingner, Distinguished Professor, University of Colorado Colorado Springs

“Adroitly blending the traditional and the modern, this refreshing history of Zimbabwe offers an original interpretation of African technology. Using an environmental motif, Mavhunga’s novel approach is an important contribution, highlighting the agency of ordinary people, their mobility, their ingenuity, and their knowledge both of humanity and the natural and spiritual environment.”
—Jane Carruthers, Emeritus Professor, University of South Africa; author of The Kruger National Park: A Social and Political History

About the Author

Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga is Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) at MIT. His professional interests lie in the history, theory, and practice of science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship in the international context, with a focus on Africa. Mavhunga joined MIT as an assistant professor in 2008 after completing his PhD at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe (MIT Press, 2014), which received Honorable Mentions in the Turku Prize (European Society for Environmental History) and Herskovits Prize (African Studies Association) in 2015. His second is an edited volume entitled What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? which explores STI in Africa from an archaeological, historical, philosophical, anthropological, STS, engineering, development, and policymaking perspective. Mavhunga’s second monograph—on tsetse fly as a site of African knowledge production—is finally finished after extensive further research and is expected late 2017 or early 2018. His current project focuses on African modes of chemistry, focusing on the making and strategic deployment of plant, animal, and mineral materials as poisons and medicines. Some of Mavhunga’s essays appear in Social TextHistory and TechnologyTransfers, and Journal of Southern African Studies.

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