Email from Ngeti

by James H. Smith 

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington DC. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference theme “Producing Anthropology.” We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts every day between now and December 5th. Warning: This post contains profanity.

Man, it was crazy! It was like walking into a world that was permanently drifting in and out of a thick pea soup, no terra firma, just gently undulating dough under your feet. Imagine the dough to be grayish in color, a fucking large expanse of it, and if you looked real hard at it you would catch a glimpse of a winking eye and an obscene fat finger with a pouting red mouth at the end of it sticking up at you, saying “Fuck you, with knots on, A-hole!!” It was pure zombie land, where reason plays second fiddle to the intricacies of the unconscious.

My old friend Ngeti wrote this to me in an email some years after I returned to the States from the Taita Hills, where I first came to know him while conducting doctoral research on issues related to witchcraft and development. In the spirit of transparency and revelation that had lately become his own, Ngeti had begun opening up to me about aspects of his personal history that were new to me. In this message, Ngeti was trying to get me to understand the experiences he went through “at the hands of the great waghanga,” or what he referred to as “witchdoctors,” over ten years ago, when he was still a teenager. He had gone to visit this particular healer with his father, who was worried about the fact that he seemed to hate books so much, for he had dropped out of school.

After some time communicating in this way, we decided to work together, turning his thoughts about his experiences into a co-authored book. I soon found myself faced with the problem of how to put different pieces of his narrative together to form a whole: although Ngeti did a great job of translating his experiences into English for others, there was so much more that was significant for understanding his story, which I felt also needed to be conveyed. The end result was an innovative ethnography that self-consciously interweaves my thoughts and his through emails and ruminations on those letters, as well as more traditional methods like extended interviews in the field.

Email from Ngeti implicitly poses many challenging questions related to the production of anthropology: what happens to ethnography when the anthropologist’s “informant” is also a kind of anthropologist, estranged from his own home and painstakingly curious about other worlds? One thing that became clear is that far from being “cut off” from the rest of the world, Ngeti was creatively engaging with other places from a very early age, even when he knew next to nothing about them. The messages introduce readers to a person and to aspects of Africa that are different from what they might be accustomed to, since they represent none of the well-worn extremes of Africa. Unseen people like Ngeti, and the mundane but poignant everyday struggles in which they are continually engaged are rarely viewed as being significant or important.

For some time now, anthropology has been grappling with new ways to transcend its own limits, often by using “theory” (and, ironically, continental philosophy) to escape from Western philosophical assumptions, and perhaps unleash a new world in the bargain (the so called ontological turn, for example). While many of these interventions have been very salutary, they often reiterate the singular voice of the author-theorist whose mind grasps all the connections that need to be made. There is a certain risk in presenting material in the way Ngeti and I have, in that it upends the ethnographer’s absolute authority without giving up on the challenging task of interpretation on the part of that very ethnographer. And so Email from Ngeti points to a possible form of collaboration that might help anthropology to forge new directions in the future.

James H. Smith is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Davis.

Ngeti Mwadime lives, works, and looks for opportunities in the Taita Hills and Mombasa, Kenya.

 

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