The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White men poaching animals in Zimbabwe? Yup, that’s been going on for a long, long time.

Cecil the lion rests in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, in this undated photo. (Andy Loveridge/Wildlife Conservation Research Unit via AP)
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I had no intention of writing about Cecil – the Zimbabwean lion killed by an American dentist on vacation. Unlike most newsworthy stories coming out of Africa, Cecil the lion was well covered by Western media outlets. And even if that coverage was characteristically disappointing, I didn’t have more to add to the discussion after writer Roxane Gay dropped the mic.

But as part of this year’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, it just so happens that the book I was scheduled to write about this week – MIT professor Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga’s “Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe” – uses indigenous hunting in Zimbabwe as the context for its argument.

“Transient Workspaces” is not a book about hunting per se, but Mavhunga paints a vivid picture of hunting in Zimbabwe from the pre-colonial period to the present as he demonstrates how innovation is driven by ordinary people solving problems they encounter in everyday life.

I wanted to read Mavhunga’s book not because I was interested in a different take on wildlife conservation (although it ably delivers on that), but because I wanted to learn from his “bottom-up” approach. I study how Western interventions are transformed when implemented in African settings, and in his book Mavhunga offers a thorough example of this in describing the domestication of the gun. Although many think of the modern gun as a European technology, its adoption and adaptation in Zimbabwe shows local knowledge was essential in its use. He writes that there was a “ … symbiotic relationship between the guns the white man brought and the understandings and technologies local maTshangana possessed, without which the guns might be entirely worthless as hunting instruments” (87).

Mavhunga’s comprehensive description of the domestication of the gun challenges earlier understandings of Africans as mere receivers of technology. It requires that our perspectives shift to incorporate local populations:

“… the global circulation of technology and indeed its definitions and purposes, can never be fully understood unless we include people who do not create the technology, but who make it work for them in a certain way according to their own objectives” (96).

Taking this idea beyond the gun, later in the book he writes:

“…the plan of the building might be from London or Manchester, but the means and ways of turning the white man’s designs into a physical reality could actually be based on resources endogenous to the societies of the colonial subjects” (149).

This powerful argument to see technology and innovation in the lives of everyday people and the sophisticated but accessible use of African philosophy to ground his book are reason enough to read Mavhunga’s book. Learning in detail about the racialized history of hunting in Zimbabwe is just a bonus. For example, the different rules governing whites and Africans hunting:

“The Transvaal law governing hunting passed in 1858 stipulated that a white man must accompany any African going into the forests with a gun; that the gun and its African user must be registered; that African hunters who ‘strayed’ from their white supervisor in the bush must be found before night fell; and that for every one white man there must be no more than two swart skuts accompanying him” (79).

[Cecil the lion and mankind’s long history of both revering and destroying his species]

Mavhunga also writes of the different approaches to hunting, first of an indigenous hunter and then of a white hunter:

“To the hunter, nature was a totem, food, clothing skins (if only now ceremonial), and an educational space where boys were groomed into amadoda sibili (real men). The pot was not just the raison d’être for hunting, but a sign that the education handed down across generations, sometimes from father to son, other times through communal knowledge, had achieved uptake. There were rules governing the hunt: breeding seasons were known, closed seasons respected, and open seasons fully utilized. People hunted just enough for their needs, and the animal population was too big and diverse to be exhausted.
Then the white man came with his gun, his rinderpest, his lorries, his monopolistic laws, and his tsetse operations. All hell broke loose. The animal population diminished. The very same people who had caused the massive depletion of herds now became the fiercest warriors for conservation. The very same people who had acquired their skills and knowledge of Africa’s forest animals from Africans now criminalized the very professoriate of the hunt that had educated them. They had found a society where animals, like all natural resources, was like water—so critical to survival that without it people must surely die. Now they were telling people not to drink water” (170).

My reading Mavhunga’s book in the wake of the Cecil uproar made stark the continued thread of history. Like in Roxane Gay’s op-ed in the New York Times, “Transient Workspaces” presents how animal and human life were differentially valued. Mavhunga writes of colonial administrator Allan Wright (known as Chibwechitedza, or Slippery Stone), who was “most remembered for caring more for forest animals than the Africans he was being sent to administer under British indirect rule” (172).

Read more posts in the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular:

This book will change the way you think about cash transfers for the poor

What are the best and worst ways to help those mired in international conflicts?

Governance, gender and no guarantees in Africa’s oil-rich states