Mavhunga is pushing against global narratives about Africa (as dark chaos, helplessly poor, always importing expertise and innovation from the West) to highlight instead how Africans are themselves initiating the movements—of technology, capital, commodities, and other cultural goods. He is keen to highlight the creative agency of Africans, noting that “they are not necessarily appropriating modernities external to them, but are involved in a process of exchange, emitting their own things in exchange for those of the outside world. The goods are not just coming to them; they are actively constructing transnational networks through their own mobilities in the world—or those of their goods” (11)
Clapperton wonders how to avoid ordering the story in such an “already appropriated” register and decides to do so by beginning with African technology and its itineraries, on the one hand, and incoming technology and its itineraries, on the other. He draws on STS work (Latour and Woolgar 1979; Akrich 1992) to understand “where an incoming artifact is coming from and how its originators think they can delegate to a thing, by virtue of its interpretively flexible materiality, the power to configure users.” (15)
Clapperton’s main questions are: “what happens to these properties when the incoming thing comes into contact with Africans? Does it come already as a technology and configure the Africans as users, or do Africans assign it meanings and functions as a means (if that’s what we mean by technology) of performing specific projects of their own?
“What happens if we also extend the register of “designer” (or its equivalent) so that it is no longer just the scientist or engineer who invented the thing that then travels, but also the African who is coming into contact with, or importing, it? What if the “laboratory” is no longer the Western building where science is practiced, but the crop field, the forest, and other “open” and (en)closed places where knowledge is made and turned into tangible practical outcomes? What if we invert the subject of analysis, such that it is no longer just incoming things that are “interpretively (in)flexible,” “(im)mutable mobiles,” or “inscription devices,” but also African technologies? The “African” here refers to what might otherwise be called “indigenous”—by which I specifically mean things derived from within and by African societies.” (16)
Mavhunga is also keen to address the assumption of the village and rurality as “backwards” (and with it indigenous knowledge). He argues that “the urban focus of Africanist scholarship, both as represented by the research topics of faculty as well as students, and the tendency to prioritize the colonial and postcolonial periods, reinforces this. Thus, he turns to the village space to illustrate how guided mobility was also, at core, a mobile workspace.” (40)