Panelist Abstracts

Crystal Biruk, Oberlin College

Standards and ‘gifts’: Soap as improvisational technology in Malawian survey research worlds

Every year, foreign-led AIDS research projects collect household-level surveys and HIV-tests from thousands of rural Malawians during seasonal fieldwork. Their task rehearses a particular kind of modernist dream: careful planning, meticulous survey design, and intensive training of “unskilled” fieldworkers will conjure clean evidence to be enlisted into future AIDS policy and interventions. Yet, as Schumaker (2001) and others have shown, the “field” is not just a place from which data are collected; rather, it is a constructed and negotiated space in which knowledge, value, and new kinds of relations take form. Drawing on material from a chapter in my book-in-progress, Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World, this paper traces the travels of bars of Lifebuoy and Sunlight brand soap that, in line with international research ethics, act as “gifts” to thank research participants for the time and information they surrender to survey projects. I suggest that the seemingly insignificant soap-gift’s material characteristics intersect in important ways with the social relations its means and path of exchange both reflect and cohere. Soap carries multiple meanings that illuminate the political subjectivities and tensions produced in research cultures inhabited by diverse and unequal actors. Attending to soap’s imperial cultural history and to the political economy of global health research, I describe moral economies of “giving and taking”—of consent, information, and soap—in Malawian research worlds. Amid resurgent interest in the “gift” as theoretical lynchpin in anthropological accounts of well-intentioned projects in the global South, I consider functions of the soap-gift that exceed the socio-moral ones presented by Mauss (1922) in The Gift. I analyze the impersonal and standardized soap-gift as a boundary object that recruits and temporarily coheres the heterogeneous interests of multiple parties to research: foreign researchers, Malawian ethics boards, Malawian data collectors, and rural research participants (Star and Griesemer 1989). Throughout, the paper foregrounds soap as a multiply vernacularized and moralized improvisational technology at the heart of survey data collection in Malawian research worlds.

Tara Dosumu Diener, University of Michigan

Practice Makes Perfect: Signal, Noise, and Clinical Imagination in the Maternity Ward

Basic concepts of hygiene render rewashing and reusing examination gloves incomprehensible in terms of clinical practice. Verbal and physical abuse perpetuated by nursing staff against patients is similarly at odds with fundamental standards of clinical nursing practice. At Princess Christian both have become unremarkably quotidian. Much like spoken Krio, Freetown’s lingua franca, clinical practice at Princess Christian has evolved over a century of cross-pollination, the circulation of generations of medical professionals, and decades of scarcity and innovation. I argue that in this sociohistorical context, the practice of nursing – imported by British missionaries but inflected by many others since – has not been merely translated into a local dialect, but essentially altered, informed by a different cohort of logics altogether; in short, creolized. My research reveals that in at least one post-colonial, post-war institution, the incomprehensible has become a tolerated, even acceptable way to reconcile scarcity with imaginaries of clinical propriety. But what do these practices, at odds with fundamental biomedical pedagogy, call in to being? In this paper I conclude that these and other ways of “making do” on the wards at Princess Christian are not simply moments of creative improvisation, adaptations papering over holes in the health care system, but are instead historically grounded generative processes in and of themselves, “making new,” establishing alternative norms that challenge universalizing notions of what a hospital is and does.  This paper draws on ethnographic research conducted at Princess Christian Maternity Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 2011-12.

Gloria Emeagwali, Connecticut State University

Interconnections between female entrepreneurship and technological innovation in the Nigerian context

The Nigerian region consisted of various city states, kingdoms and empires before the 20th century. The amalgamation of various regions into the Nigerian nation state, at the start of the 20th century, in the colonial era, brought about major political and economic changes. In this paper we focus on some important trends in the evolution of female entrepreneurship in the region, with reference to the pre-colonial, colonial and contemporary era. We point out that the interconnections between entrepreneurship and technological innovation were most pronounced before the early 20th century. During this era, micro – enterprises for processing of vegetable oils, vegetable dehydration, the creation of condiments, soap making, textile manufacture and other endeavors, embodied locally developed innovative techniques and inventive skills that were largely generated by their female owners and producers, in Eastern and Western Nigeria, in particular. We point out that during the colonial era, some of the economic roles and technical innovations that nurtured and accompanied successful female entrepreneurship were undermined. We note, however, that female managers of micro-enterprises, in the contemporary era, continue to forge ahead, despite the numerous constraints. In the course of discussion, we reflect on the political and economic circumstances that have necessitated, facilitated and encouraged such developments, and some of the change agents directly involved in the process. We also explore areas of continuity, with reference to specific sectors. The paper, as a whole, focuses on some of the diverse modes of improvisation, innovation and inventiveness that have occurred in the Nigerian region over time, in spite of, and in some cases, because of, political and socio-economic obstacles.

Solen Feyissa, University of Minnesota

Contextualizing Educational uses of Information Communication Technologies in and outside of Ethiopian Classrooms

The dominating narrative about the African continent in Western media perpetuates the idea that ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’ live in a state of eternal need. Consequently, this narrative of absence in all aspects of life including education frequently leads to interventions and educational technology projects that often fail to consider historical, socio-cultural, economic and political realities. In this qualitative multiple-case study (Stake, 2006), I examined 1) How secondary school students in Ethiopia use Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) for learning within formal and informal contexts, and 2) In what ways social contexts influence ICT use within formal and informal educational contexts.  The manner in which secondary school students come to acquire ICT skills and their choice to use or not to use ICTs or particular features of an ICT for formal and informal learning may be understood using the Technology Appropriation Model (TAM) (Carroll et al., 2001). This model proposes that interaction between technology and the social world plays a central role in how technologies are appropriated or disregarded in any given context. The model defines appropriation as “the ‘unpacking’ of the innovation into its parts or functions and then customizing the innovation so that the user has transformed the shape and uses of the innovation” (Carroll et al., 2001, p. 4). In this study, I used the TAM framework to understand the complex relationship between students, their educational contexts and ICTs.

In this presentation, I will share preliminary findings of my study. I will discuss how students attempt to overcome limitations (e.g. censorship and low bandwidth) imposed on them by Ethiopia’s sole, government-owned Internet Service Provider. I will describe how students use ICTs to fill gaps that are created as a result of teacher absenteeism, as well as teachers’ knowledge deficits. Finally, I will discuss parents’ and teachers’ perceived fears of misuse of content on the Internet.

Joshua Grace, University of South Carolina

Tinkering with Development: Two Episodes in the Africanization of Tanzanian Cars

Beginning in the 1920s, car manufacturers in England and Germany attempted to grab hold of imperial car markets by designing vehicles specially suited to colonial rule. With financial assistance from the Colonial Development Fund, Tanganyika’s government opened the mandated territory to motor trials of ‘roadless lorries’ of one, ten, and forty tons. Though each of these projects failed, sometimes miserably, they helped create expectations about the external impetus of technological change as development emerged as an episteme and profession in the first half of the twentieth century. This paper will explore alternatives to this modernist narrative through two types of East African automobile histories. Situated in garages, the first uses oral histories of repair and mechanics’ private archives to establish the importance of informally acquired tacit knowledge to car repair and innovation in Tanzania. As colonial and national officials associated expertise with formal training, institutions, and certifications, young men lacking formal education created the most effective and enduring tradition of Tanzania car repair. The second history moves from the vehicle itself to the technological systems that fueled and sustained automobility. Created in 1969, the Tanzanian Petroleum Development Corporation (TPDC) was tasked with creating an ‘indigenous’ and ‘socialist’ oil market in a country with no known oil reserves. By the time TPDC’s staff had learned the basics of oil trading, the OPEC crisis presented new challenges for a nation with dwindling foreign exchange. Like mechanics in garages, these formally educated engineers were forced to tinker with a system far less open to modification than the vehicles themselves.

As part of a manuscript-in-progress, Making Cars African: Technology, Mobility, and Development in East Africa, 1870s to 1980s, this paper explores the difference between technical efficacy and technical authority in ideologies of development. Though both groups were forced to tinker with development, it was the group that failed, the oil engineers, who maintained their technical authority as informal garages became sites of government crackdowns.

Sarah Hardin, St. Anselm College

Modern Potions: The Social Repercussions of Pesticides in Senegal and the Francophone World

The Green Revolution is generally considered to have failed in Africa, but what is underappreciated are the impacts of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides and their broader social repercussions. Scholars have noted that West Africans adopted these labor-saving and productive technologies at a cost to environmental and human health. My research found that Senegalese men and women viewed the novel chemicals in terms of preexisting concoctions that could either help or harm. Rather than simply a case of Western powers dumping toxins onto Africa, the story of agricultural chemicals on the continent is one in which Africans used the technologies for their own ends. Their experiences and concerns about the chemicals in turn influenced Europeans’ production of knowledge about pesticides, Europeans’ anxieties, and in part, the backlash against the Green Revolution in the West.

My paper will review the various applications and understandings of agricultural chemicals in Senegal and France based on interviews I conducted in Senegal and France in 2008-2010 and in 2013 as well as reports written by agricultural development agents. My work reviews agricultural development in southeastern Senegal over the long twentieth century, but in this paper I will focus on the middle of the century. In the 1930s, the French introduced fungicides to preserve peanut stocks. The powder was soon used by French-appointed canton chiefs to punish people who did not pay their taxes. Through the 1950s, both Senegambian farmers and French administrators believed that people could and would poison others. Then in the 1960s, a French company introduced DDT and other pesticides to increase cotton production. One of the Pulaar words used to translate “poison” during instructional sessions was tooke or snake venom. The ways Africans viewed these dangerous chemicals and the ways both they and French officials explained accidents surfaced in agronomist conferences held in France. Not only did Senegambians view and make use of agricultural chemicals on their own terms, those terms influenced the language used and issues addressed in France.

Jennifer Hart, Wayne State University

Of Mammy Trucks and Men: African Automobility and the Politics of Development in Colonial Ghana

This paper uses debates over mammy trucks—wooden-sided vehicles used to transport goods and passengers—to explore the significance of African automobility in 20th century Ghana. Africans embraced motor transport technology in the first decades of the 20th century, incorporating imported parts into local cultures of fabrication, decoration, trade, and mobility. By transporting goods and passengers within and between urban trade centers and rural production zones and markets, drivers and vehicle owners created a culture of automobility defined by experience as passengers rather than the private vehicle ownership and the culture of family car that dominated narratives and cultures of automobility in the West. This paper argues that, far from mere cultural or technological appropriation, African automobility was at the center of important debates about the meaning and politics of development in 20th century Ghana, which far predate the technological modernization projects of the 1950s and 1960s. In framing these late-colonial debates about automobility and technology as part of a larger politics of development, this paper also raises important questions about contemporary development practice and suggests new possibilities for academic engagement in the public sphere, in conversation with urban planners, development experts, government officials, and the passenger public.

Sean Jacobs, The New School and “Africa is a Country” blog

Shifting African Digital Landscapes

Developments in online media point to interesting possibilities for African engagement in what constitutes the global online public sphere. African subjects are taking their places as audiences and
agents, rather than merely as receivers of aid and information. This paper reflects on more recent developments in social media–blogging, the “pranking” phenomenon, Afropolitans, social media, projects like Sahara Reporters, and the coming out of writer Bainyavanga Wainaina, as well as my own practice (Africa is a Country). The paper, while acknowledging questions of power and access, suggests that what the media discussed here point to is that something more interesting and fluid is happening with online media in which Africans don’t only emerge as audiences, but also as producers of media.

Donna Patterson, Wellesley College

Pharmacy, Biomedicine, and Gender in Senegal

This paper examines the creation and expansion of biomedical practice in Senegal by emphasizing the role of pharmacists. Pharmacists are indispensable to the history and contemporary practice of biomedicine in Senegal. I trace the trajectory medical professionalization by highlighting the transformation of the profession from the late colonial period. What led to the creation of the School of Medicine and Pharmacy in Dakar, Senegal during the colonial period? In what ways did pharmacists in the colonial and postcolonial period renew ideas about what pharmacy practice means? What impact did this have on how pharmacists were viewed? What role did gender play in professional development? Material for this paper is draws heavily from public records (colonial and postcolonial) found in the archives as well as oral interviews.

Anne Pollock, Georgia Tech

Africanizing synthetic chemistry?: Hope in Drug Discovery “by and for” Africa

This paper draws on ethnographic research at iThemba Pharmaceuticals, a small South African startup pharmaceutical company with an elite international scientific board, which was founded with the mission of drug discovery for TB, HIV, and malaria. One of the slogans that came up in many of my interviews was the idea of “African solutions for African problems.” South Africa is of course a problematic stand-in for the continent as a whole, but that moniker does important work. It is strikingly flexible, able to incorporate South Africans of diverse ethnicities, as well as (black) Africans from other parts of the continent who are working in South Africa. The name ‘iThemba’ means ‘hope’ in Zulu, and most of what I describe are aspirations. So far, iThemba does not make any drugs. It may never do so. Yet the aspiration is compelling nonetheless: the hope is that South Africa could become a place not only of pharmaceuticals’ raw materials, clinical trial subjects, and end users, but also of fundamental knowledge-making. iThemba’s organic synthesis methods are indistinguishable from what might be done in well-equipped labs anywhere else, and the work is informed by a network of advisors comprised of global experts. Yet, it is tied to place. The scientists talk about the motivation to do this work coming from personal experience with disease, a sense of democratic citizenship, and the opportunity to have a job at home. These scientists are attempting to make indigenous pharmaceuticals of a very particular kind: not autochthonous, but meaningfully their own.

Mahriana Rofheart, Georgia Gwinnett College

Fictional Technologies of Collaboration

Africanizing Anthropology (2001) explores the complexities surrounding the notion of collaboration; Lyn Schumaker favors collaboration’s role in anthropological knowledge production and acknowledges its connotations of colonial state surveillance. This paper takes the multivalence of “collaboration” (particularly as it relates to Africa) into the twenty-first century by tying it to scholarship on social media, sharing, and open source culture. In “What is Collaboration Anyway?” (2012), Adam Hyde et al. carefully theorize digital collaboration and argue, “As collaborative action can have more than one intent, it can also have more than one repercussion. These multiple layers are often a source of conflict and confusion” (58). These confusions form the basis for this paper’s look at technology in three African and Afro-diasporic novels. In these texts, objects are used in unexpected and somewhat science fictional ways. Such improvisation might be understood as hacking or “piracy” (as used by Tsitsi Jaji), but might also be productively read as “collaboration,” with all the term’s baggage and possibility. In Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space (2014), an innovative South African of Nigerian parentage subverts Cape Town’s frequent power outages by harnessing lunar energy, though he cannot be successful alone. Numerous intentions collide in Taona Dumisani Chiveneko’s The Hangman’s Replacement (2013), in which unsuspecting scientists in Zimbabwe genetically engineer a plant that can detect dead bodies. Such representations become particularly relevant in a context where very real collective (often cross-border) projects are fostered in spaces for digital art and technological experimentation, such as Dakar’s multi-media culture space Kër Thiossane. Works might be shared or reconfigured online, which ties to new ways of understanding collaboration but overlaps with histories of the archive and museum. Ultimately, this paper argues that “collaboration” is a particularly apt term for understanding artistic African technological practices as they circulate the globe.

Drew Thompson, Bard College

Disputes over the past: The biometric passport and studio photography in Mozambique, 1980-Recent Times

In March 2010, newspapers reported that all Mozambicans required biometric identity documents. The state billed the announcement as evidence of bureaucratic efficiency and the mineral-rich nation’s enhanced international standing. Nevertheless, the public met state efforts to integrate itself within the post-September 11th global security culture with outrage. Twenty years before, the state delegated the making of headshots for government documents to studio photographers. Inquiries by journalists revealed that the state had formed an agreement with the Belgian corporation Semelex, which provided the equipment to internally produce documents in exchange for splitting the profits. Backlash did not only extend from the increased cost of documents. In fact, what displeased the public the most was the state’s re-appropriation over who had the ability to photograph passport headshots. State intervention into the business practices of studio photography is common in Mozambique. In fact, the introduction of biometric identity documents has its roots in the 1980s,when, amid civil unrest and external conflict, the Mozambican government introduced the residency and work cards to control populations’ movements between rural and urban areas. Nevertheless, the existing historiography has yet to explore what compels the Mozambican state to use photography’s technological advancements as platforms for political intervention. In this paper, I first analyze interviews with commercial photographers to map a history of exchange between the state and commercial photography and to unpack the “technical politics” of the marriage. To understand the political stakes of the headshot both then and now, the paper’s second part compares the backlash to the biometric passport with the public’s reaction to the1980s residency and work cards. Placing historical questions of visibility, visualization, and photographic innovation at the center of biometric passport offers a context to consider the “disputes over the past” that are at the center of technological developments in Mozambique.

Laura Ann Twagira, Wesleyan University

Becoming Master’s of Nature: Women’s Transformation of a Colonial Irrigation Project

In the mid-twentieth century women living at a vast irrigated agricultural scheme in the French Soudan began to reclaim the industrial landscape of the colonial project. The Office du Niger (Office) was established in the 1930s for the export production of cotton and rice. It was one of the most ambitious development projects by the French in West Africa and was intended to modernize agriculture in the region. The French Soudan had been depicted in much early colonial literature as a near desert, sparse in people and underproductive in agriculture. The proposed Office scheme called for a large dam, a vast network of irrigation canals, and resettlement. Technology meant mastery over nature. Yet, none of the elements of the project were presented as artificial. Colonial experts argued that historically, the whole region had long-ago been fertile and well-watered. The Office du Niger promised a regeneration of the ancient waterways and the region’s agricultural abundance.

However, flooding and other technological problems made agriculture and daily life at the project difficult. Women in particular responded to these challenges by re-engineering elements of the project to suit their own needs. They built rock steps along the edges of irrigation canals mimicking the rock steps women built along the Niger River and other natural water courses. They drew water from the irrigation canals for home use and planted food crops at the edges of cash-crop fields. In these and other ways women at the project naturalized the technological trappings of the project. Much more successfully than the French, they became masters of nature by manipulating their new technological landscape.

Summer Wood, New York University

Technologies of identity in Tanzania

Birth registration has a long history as a technology for identifying individuals and counting populations, dating back to sixteenth century England. European methods of identity documentation were introduced to many parts of Africa as an aspect of colonial governance in the early twentieth century. Certain colonial technologies of identification, such as pass laws in South Africa, or identity cards listing ethnic group membership in Rwanda, became tools of oppression and violence.

Today birth certificates and identity cards are considered basic human rights, but the majority of people in many African countries still lack access to official identity documents. African governments face the task of simultaneously modernizing colonial-era paper-based birth registration systems, and introducing new technologies of identification to meet growing needs for official identity documents in the twenty-first century. This paper explores the parallel histories and present day technological and social challenges associated with improving access to birth certificates and national identity cards in Tanzania. Based on more than 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork, household surveys, archival research, and interviews with 150 families in Dar es Salaam, this paper documents the many difficulties faced by Tanzanian families when they try to register their children’s births, or obtain other official identity documents. Interviews with Tanzanian government officials illustrate the structural constraints that influence attempts to introduce new technologies such as biometric identification and SMS-based vital registration systems. The process of “Africanizing” identity technologies entails ingenuity, agency, and persistence on the part of both government officials trying to improve the system, and citizens seeking formal recognition of their identities. In conclusion, this paper considers the social and political implications of new identity technologies in Tanzania, and the potential for further marginalization of people unable to access these new technologies in an era of increased demands for identity documentation.

Susan P. Wyche, Michigan State University

If God Gives Me The Chance I Will Design my Own Phone”: Rural Kenyan Repairers and Reimagining Mobile Phone Design

In this paper, we report on a qualitative and design-focused study of 34 mobile phone repairers, or fundi wa simu, in rural Kenya, examining this exploratory research question: What would a mobile phone designed for rural Africa look like? Recent interest in repair cultures and critiques of needs assessment studies in “developing” countries guided our study. We build upon these studies by investigating repairers in rural Kenya and by approaching them as innovative designers, rather than passive adopters of Western technologies. Our findings demonstrate that repairers deeply understand mobile phone use in their rural areas. By asking them to engage in a drawing exercise, we also discovered how this knowledge translated into innovative and imaginative concepts for future mobile phones. We use these findings to motivate a design agenda that encourages technology developers to creatively engage local experts in the design process. Strategies for implementing this agenda include partnering with repairers to reimagine the physical design of mobile phones and supporting local production of them by transforming repair shops into “maker spaces.” Our conclusion is that future technology design efforts must support local experts’ abilities to design on their terms, or focus on supporting local innovation, design and manufacturing in these regions.