Unjacketed Hardcover

Email from Ngeti

An Ethnography of Sorcery, Redemption, and Friendship in Global Africa

James H. Smith (Author), Ngeti Mwadime (Author)

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Unjacketed Hardcover, 240 pages
ISBN: 9780520281103
September 2014
$85.00, £62.95
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Email from Ngeti is a captivating story of sorcery, redemption, and transnational friendship in the globalized twenty-first century. When the anthropologist James Smith returns to Kenya to begin fieldwork for a new research project, he meets Ngeti Mwadime, a young man from the Taita Hills who is as interested in the United States as Smith is in Taita. Ngeti possesses a savvy sense of humor and an unusual command of the English language, which he teaches himself by watching American movies and memorizing the Oxford English Dictionary. Smith and Mwadime soon develop a friendship that comes to span years and continents, impacting both men in profound and unexpected ways. For Smith, Ngeti can be understood as an exemplar of a young generation of Africans navigating the multiplicity of contemporary African life—a process that is augmented by globalized culture and the Internet. Keenly aware of the world outside Taita and Kenya, Ngeti dreams big, with endless plans for striking it rich. As he struggles to free himself from what he imagines to be the hold of the past, he embarks on an odyssey that takes him to local diviners, witch-finders, Pentecostal preachers, and prophets. This is the fascinating ethnography of Mwadime and Smith, largely told through their shared emails, journals, and recorded conversations in the field. Throughout, the reader is struck by the immediacy and poignancy of coauthor Ngeti's narrative, which marks a groundbreaking shift in the nature of anthropological fieldwork and writing.
Acknowledgments ix
1 Emails from the Field: An Introduction
2 English Makes You See Far
3 God Helps Those That Help Themselves
4 Good Ants, Bad Milk, and Ugly Deeds
5 The Power of Prayer
6 Works and Days
7 A Confrontation
8 Reflections
Appendix: Members of Ngeti’s Family
James H. Smith is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Davis, and the author of Bewitching Development: Witchcraft and the Reinvention of Development in Neoliberal Kenya.

Ngeti Mwadime lives, works, and looks for opportunities in the Taita Hills and Mombasa, Kenya.
"Part memoir, part ethnography, and part literary epistle. The authors recount a fabulous tale of sorcery, redemption, and friendship in which the reader comes to know fascinating characters, especially the coauthor Ngeti. Smith and Mwadime use a variety of narrative strategies to capture the complex and dramatic realities of contemporary African social life much more profoundly than could a traditional ethnographic text."—Paul Stoller, author of The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Odyssey

"Very few ethnographies capture so well the frustrations faced by many cosmopolitan sub-Saharan Africans. This poignant account of a cross-cultural friendship portrays a common yet extraordinary man as he negotiates the shifting forces of inequality, religion, kinship, and global modernity. Conceptually sophisticated yet vividly human."—Janet McIntosh, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University and author of The Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood, and Ethnoreligious Boundaries on the Kenya Coast


Emails from the Field

An Introduction

It is 2009, and Erastus Ngeti Mwadime, a man of forty years from the Taita Hills of Kenya, is resting on the stick bed beside me in a forest mining town in the North Kivu province of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. We are staying in an impromptu lodge for artisanal miners and traders in a town that sprang up from nothing in the middle of the rainforest just a few years earlier, when trappers who live in the forest discovered bauxite and cassiterite here. A few weeks ago, the mine was seized by an armed group that some claim was the Forces for the Democratic Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a militia composed largely of former Hutu Interahamwe (those who kill together), some of whom participated in the Rwandan genocide back in 1994. Others claim it was a Congolese army battalion that took the mine and the town while pretending to be the Hutu FDLR, wanting to convince the Congolese government that their presence was necessary for security. Now, not far from here, the Congolese army-an agglomeration of reintegrated militarized groups, some of whose members were in a war with each other a few short months ago-is pushing back the FDLR in the forest. It is, in short, a situation characterized by uncertainty and rapid flux.

We are here conducting research on coltan mining and trade in the eastern DR Congo, observing how this work is organized and how it has affected people's lives in this region and beyond. Coltan, or colombite-tantalite, is an ore from which tantalum and niobium are derived. Tantalum is used in the manufacture of digital capacitors. During a tenfold global price hike brought about by the Christmas-season demand for the Sony Playstation in 2000 and subsequent on-line speculation, this mineral was at the center of Africa's "first world war." At its height, this conflict involved some fourteen foreign nations and multiple international corporate players. The ongoing conflicts in the region have resulted in around six million deaths, more than in any single conflict since World War II. Still, many families continue to depend on the extraction of minerals used in digital devices, and they directly experience the impacts of price fluctuations and shifts in demand for coltan and other "digital minerals" on the global market. The mines we have been visiting are controlled by complex, overlapping networks of political authorities, including state officials, military figures, lineage heads, and cooperatives, and Ngeti and I must constantly renegotiate these competing claims to authority and the right to collect "tax" as we move from place to place. So Ngeti, who loves computer technology and the fast, "open" communication enabled by "the Internet" more than anyone I know, is witnessing first hand the gritty, unpredictable, and often violent circumstances surrounding the extraction of the minerals that undergird the Digital Age.1

I have contracted malaria, and Ngeti is helping me by making sure that I have the water and medicine I need and by continuing to conduct research while I recuperate. Earlier today he went out while I slept, and ended up talking to a couple of female sex workers in town. They told him voluminous stories about their lives, focusing on their experiences as the concubines of Mai Mai militia generals.2 I was impressed by the quality and quantity of this material and by the degree to which Ngeti understands what I am looking for. His presence is grounding and comforting to me in what I experience as an epistemically murky and potentially dangerous place. Right now, I am very glad that he is here.

But Ngeti is also a stranger here, far from his temperate, comparatively peaceful Kenyan home. He has never seen insects like the ones in this hot, wet, rainforest region. Yesterday we spent about an hour killing monstrous spiders that seemed to bother him more than they did me. The other day, too, he had a strange rash on his ass that he insisted I see for myself. And he was clearly upset during the plane flight from the lakeside city of Goma to the forest town of Walikale: he had to get himself drunk on banana gin just to board the cargo plane. We flew in, over miles of rainforest, on an old Russian Cessna with no seats, sitting on top of plastic jerry cans filled with palm oil, and we landed on a small strip of paved forest road as female banana sellers and male bicyclists scurried out of the way. By the time we disembarked, Ngeti was so out of it that he made a big scene in front of the demanding immigration and internal security officials who sat in shacks by the road. Ngeti's drunken anger ended up costing me an additional fifty dollars. At the time, I was outwardly irritated, but now I'm over it and feeling magnanimous.

"Ngeti, unafanya nini sasa?"-what are you doing now?-I ask in a half-asleep, drug-induced tone. The antimalaria cocktail they gave me at the rural clinic has psychotropic effects. Every time I hear a noise, I feel a paranoiac shock and am certain something terrible is happening just outside the door.

"Nothing," he responds in English, "just listening to the grasshoppers crepitating."

"What is 'crepitating'?" I ask.

"It's when grasshoppers rub their legs together and make that sound."


Sometimes Ngeti will use an English word that I claim doesn't exist. We will bet, and I will lose. This is very serious business for each of us. Perhaps it is embarrassing that Ngeti's English vocabulary is better than mine, considering that I once received a near perfect score on the verbal section of the GRE. Ngeti, in contrast, barely finished at an unprestigious rural Kenyan high school, and has never stepped foot inside a university. At some point in his early twenties, however, he got hold of an Oxford English Dictionary and memorized the entire thing from cover to cover-literally, the meaning of every single English word. And he has learned to interweave this abstract, static English with folk colloquialisms and profanity picked up from movies and fiction, all of which comes out of his mouth in a creative hodgepodge of living, often comic, profundity. In addition, Ngeti has learned several computer programming languages by illegally downloading courses on-line; lately, he has been able to sell his services to local companies in Mombasa, the Kenyan port city where he now spends most of his time. Aside from this unpredictable work and the occasional opportunities I give him, he doesn't have much of an income. So I have brought him to the eastern DR Congo to help him earn some money. But Ngeti is also here because we have grown accustomed to collaborating with each other, and we like it.

Ngeti and I have known each other since 1997, and this is not the first time we have traveled together to a new place to conduct "fieldwork." We have investigated conflicting interpretations of a returned python-ancestral spirit named Omieri in western Kenya, talked to victims of postelection ethnic violence in central Kenya, and spent many days interviewing members of a neotraditionalist vigilante group called Mungiki in Nairobi and central Kenya. Most recently, in 2009, he was my research assistant in the eastern DR Congo, after which he returned home to Kenya. Ngeti and I are now good friends who know each other perhaps a bit too well. We have helped each other and have overcome the few rifts our relationship has had. Ngeti has benefited from work and occasional gifts of money from me, as well as from regional foreign travel experiences that are very uncommon for Kenyans, and I have profited from his growing research and language capacities, his profound ethnographic insights, and his companionship. We have come to see each other as intellectual equals and collaborators, which is clear from the way we interact: we banter back and forth, and sometimes we get on each other's cases. But we are not equals, because I will go home to my university job, while he will return to Kenya, where he is currently spending months at a time trying, and failing, to blast gemstones out of the ground using dynamite. Twenty-five years ago, a Kenyan of his background and talents would have been securely ensconced in a government office job somewhere.


This book is a tapestry of email and in-person communications between myself and my Kenyan friend and collaborator, Erastus Ngeti Mwadime. Structurally and conceptually, it is built around Ngeti's lifelong odyssey to understand who has been behind his stunted progress in life, a journey that has taken him to "traditional" diviners, religious prophets, and healers and, ultimately, back home, where he confronted his own family and accused his parents of bewitching him. The book is partly Ngeti's effort to account for why he-a thoughtful, soft-spoken, affable young man who loved his mother, Monica, who passed away in 2005-also at one point felt that she may have been a witch, and that she may even have been bewitching him. If there is, in the end, no totally satisfying resolution to his quest, the outcome of his search yields a multitude of important truths and insights, and opens a rare window onto everyday life in postcolonial Africa.

Ngeti does not epitomize any of the real or represented extremes of Africa. He is not a Sudanese Lost Boy, like Dave Eggers's fictionalized Valentino Deng or the autobiographical figure John Bul Dau.3 His life has not been filled with danger, uncertainty, and abuse like that of John Chernoff's migratory West African sex worker, Hawa.4 Nor has he emerged from a newly liberated postapartheid South Africa, bearing the full weight of its troubles and hopes upon his shoulders, like Adam Ashforth's Madumo.5 Ngeti also does not represent the other end of the West's imaginative spectrum of understanding about Africa by serving as a living model of "nativist" knowledge, like Marcel Griaule's Ogotommêli, Victor Turner's Muchona the Hornet, or, in a somewhat different vein, Margorie Shostak's !Kung woman Nisa.6 But Ngeti's experience of quiet frustration, banal tedium, endless waiting, and of feeling surrounded by a world of miraculous things he knows to exist but cannot enjoy, is probably more representative of the contemporary African situation than any other I can imagine. So, in a way, is his narrative style, which communicates that he belongs nowhere and everywhere-a theme that is repeated throughout this book. Ngeti sits at an imaginative nexus that is not rooted in any particular territory (although Ngeti's physical body is very much rooted in territory, as he is all too aware). Rather, this space is composed of cross-currents of languages, things, and ideas.

These mobile things, often referred to collectively as globalization, are not merely forces that act on Ngeti. In his speech, thought, and practice, he appropriates, masters, and transforms the words, images, and ideas that come to him; in so doing, Ngeti is able to conceptually bracket these discursive threads, move between them, or blend them creatively for poetic and contrastive effect when he wants. Ngeti's remote cosmopolitanism and virtuoso mastery of multiple languages and "speech genres" are generic, especially for African youth, even if it is the case that Ngeti is especially good at what he does.7 Although Ngeti has often felt stuck in a single place, unable to "develop" or move, he has managed to do quite a lot of imaginative traveling, sometimes piecing together various elements to develop unlikely and life-changing connections with others. Despite what I just wrote about Muchona the Hornet, Ngeti is also quite a bit like the anthropologist Victor Turner's mid-twentieth-century Ndembu collaborator, in that he is a local intellectual whose quixotic outsider status in his own society has encouraged him to think quite deeply and philosophically about the world he inhabits. They differ in that, unlike the senior Muchona, the "youth" Ngeti does not see himself as an expert on Taita "tradition," nor on anything really. But Ngeti is an expert on what it is like to try to collapse the boundaries that separate far-flung, distant worlds, and a philosopher who has experimented with the consequences of doing so, often by putting his body on the line, as we will see.

Although this book is composed mainly of email communications, it is not substantively "about" email and the Internet; even so, the story that is told here, and many of the events that have unfolded between Ngeti and me, would not have taken place in the way they have without the Internet. We have become collaborators because of this technology, which allowed us quick access despite our physical separation, and over the years we have created an ethnography out of our interactions in cyberspace, supplemented by my occasional return visits to Kenya. The Internet has also encouraged Ngeti to think of himself as a growing, changing subject whose life is an adventure filled with peaks and valleys that may be of interest to others.

In his email letters, Ngeti makes sense of things that are geographically and socially close to him-including the influence of his family on his prospects for success and failure. At the same time, Ngeti's very access to cyberspace was made possible in part by his most proximal relationships. Many of the emails in this volume were originally written by him by hand, when he was in the Taita Hills, and then passed on to a Mombasa-bound matatu (passenger minivan) driver, who in turn gave them to Ngeti's sister, who worked for a time at an Internet café. She then typed them into her company's computer, and off they went into cyberspace. Ngeti's experience of the Internet thus depended on some of the very social relationships that he has tried to transcend through the Internet. And so the mundane, social conditions of possibility for the Digital Age were not exactly new to him when he went to the DR Congo. It's just that, until he reached the DRC and found artisanal miners "midwifing the iPhone," as he later put it, he was never compelled to think about these connections so directly.


I first met Ngeti when I was in the Taita Hills of southeastern Kenya conducting the research for my doctoral dissertation. My first extended visit to the hills, in 1991, was indirectly brought about by my friendship with another young Kenyan man, a Luo college student at the University of Nairobi named Owidi mak Ogega Sila-but that friendship didn't end up nearly as well. I went to the hills after being expelled from the University of Nairobi because of my association with Owidi, who was accused of being a political dissident by the university administration during then-President Moi's chancellorship. I was an undergraduate exchange student, and the university administration and the Kenyan Special Branch were suspicious about my relationship with this Kenyan student, at a time when the United States, represented by the American ambassador Smith-Hempstone, was promoting political and media liberalization and other forms of "democratization" in Kenya. For three hours in a back room of the library, a committee of university and state officials questioned me about Owidi, to their mind unsuccessfully, and afterward they would not allow me to finish my year in the exchange program. So, on an American professor's recommendation, I traveled to the remote and relatively "cool" Taita Hills, where I spent four months teaching English and European history to high school students in exchange for room and board-an experience I was later allowed to convert into college credit.8 Owidi was also expelled and briefly imprisoned for marijuana possession, which the university later claimed had been found in his room in an "American container, with an American dollar price tag" (meaning, in short, that he had allegedly bought it from me). I later tried to help Owidi by paying for his plane ticket so he could study law in Brazil, but he was returned to Kenya under mysterious circumstances. Owidi was active in the early opposition movement and, over the years, was repeatedly imprisoned and tortured in Kenya's infamous Nyayo House torture chambers until he was a shadow of his former self. The last I heard from him, he was bereft of shelter and most of his sanity on the streets of Nairobi. I have always regretted and felt somewhat responsible for what happened to Owidi, and since then have tried to ensure that my collaborations with Africans are as mutually rewarding as possible.

After that time in Kenya, I returned to the United States and to university life. Upon finishing college, I went on to pursue postgraduate study in anthropology, and after a couple of years it came time for me to pick an ethnographic field site. I ultimately decided, after some traveling around East Africa, to return to the Taita Hills. I did so in part because I had been there before and had enough experience to know that, unlike some other places in the region, people in Taita would be more than eager to share their stories and troubles with me. In Taita, "a guest is rain," as Wataita love to say (that's supposed to be a good thing). When I asked people there what my research should concern, many said something to the effect of, "The witches are making development impossible. Can you figure out why, and what can be done about it?" Ultimately I decided that their idea was a good one, and I ran with it. In the process, I tried to understand why these concepts, "witchcraft" and "development," and the practices associated with them, were important to people, what they meant, and why people perceived them as being in conflict with each other. Studying development and witchcraft, in the end, meant studying Taita people's ideas about where they had been, where they were going, and what was holding them back (after all, the root of the Kiswahili word for development, maendeleo, is "go"). It also meant studying Taita people's hopes for the future, as well as their understandings of the past, and how they mobilized or broke away from the past in their efforts to remake themselves.

It turns out that Taita hopes about the future and their thoughts about what development would look like are framed by their effective incarceration within Kenya's largest game park, Tsavo National Park. With overpopulation, deforestation, and general ecological collapse in the highlands, Tsavo is Wataita's main space for expansion and "development" for those who can't afford to own homes in the city. But Wataita are forbidden from entering the park, unless they shell out impossibly expensive park fees (they can be shot and killed if they are found in the park illegally). At the same time, Wataita receive no revenue from the funds generated by this land that they feel belongs to them, and so are effectively dispossessed by remote state actors who enrich themselves through tourist revenue at Taita's expense. And that is one of the sources of witchcraft.

In late 1997, I made my way back to the Taita Hills, a seemingly remote place of near endless internal diversity. Wataita sometimes liken the hills, which seem small from a distance but turn out to be internally large and complex, to a coiled-up intestine: compact but huge and, of course, filled with shit (grudges, conflicts, concealed stories, etc.). If the hills are "like" intestines, intestines are also like the hills: diviners use goat intestines to communicate with ancestors because the intestines contain people's buried emotions and resentments and can be read like a text. Similarly, Taita has many nooks, each one saturated with the things that have happened before and inhabited by the shades of people and things that were once there. These invisible things and people jostle for space alongside the living and seek recognition from them, and the living differ about what all of this means and what they should do about it. The influence of the past, including the past's persistence in the present, is not something Wataita feel they can easily escape, even when they want to, as Ngeti often has. Living and instigative ancestors are a real part of the landscape, and they take on an active role in both helping and disciplining Taita people, even if they often do more harm than good.9

Shortly after my coming to Mgange, the town I had decided would be home, the chief, a poorly paid government administrator who supplemented his income with gifts from his neighbors, was introducing me at a town meeting. He informed everyone that I was a student who was going to be in Taita for some time, researching how Taita people lived and how their lives were changing. The crowd of mostly women that had gathered for the meeting seemed surprised and curious, and this curiosity about who I was and what I was doing persisted the whole time I lived there (had I come to buy land? did I want a Taita bride? was I CIA?). At the end of the meeting, the chief's assistant, Peter, accompanied me to look for a place where I could stay, and we ended up at a house near the church of this predominantly Catholic community. Peter had brought me to what he considered the best place in town, a relatively large house made of mud bricks, painted red in the style of European homes. It was the home of an absentee patriarch, a senior man named Valentine, who was then working as the head of security in a Mombasa tourist hotel. Valentine's wife, an older woman whom I came to know as Veronica, greeted us and, after a short conversation about rent and food, agreed that I could stay in the back room, adjacent to the sitting room.

And so I began the process of conducting fieldwork. In the mornings, I would wake up, drink sweetened milk tea courtesy of Veronica, and venture into town or down a trail to try to talk to people. Sometimes I would find myself wandering around like a witch in someone's maize field, and inevitably a concerned farmer would appear to escort me to a real trail. Communicating with a wide spectrum of people was tough work, and I didn't really have a clear idea of what I was supposed to be talking to them about. I didn't speak Kidabida (also called Kitaita, or Taita language), the language of the hills, but I did speak Kiswahili, so I paid a schoolteacher to help me with it, and I began writing hundreds of Taita words on index cards.10 I would come back home in the evening with reams of material, some of it tape-recorded, none of which I understood much of. Each night I transcribed as much as I could, and afterward I would spend a little more time writing extemporaneously about various seemingly unimportant things that were happening to me in "the field."

In the evenings, there was always a handful of young people who were somehow related to Valentine hanging out in the sitting room watching ridiculous bootlegged action videos from Asia and the U.S. on a TV that ran on a car battery. The Vietnam War, corrupted martial arts competitions, and POW camps featured prominently, as did the directors' backyards. Looking back on it now, I realize that these films were suffused with themes of restriction, escape, and success achieved, finally, against impossible odds, and this was no doubt part of their appeal. But I remember being annoyed by the noise, and by the Taita youth, in whom I confess to having had very little interest. I preferred talking with older men because they seemed to want less and to have more interesting things to say. Plus, the youth who hung around Valentine's place while he was away spoke mostly in Swahili and avoided the Taita language, which I wanted to learn. So I mostly ignored them, though occasionally I tuned in for the better films, like when they came across a bootlegged VHS cassette of The Rock, which had just been released in the States and was yet to appear in Nairobi. One of the young men watching the movie was in his late twenties, just a couple of years older than me, of medium height, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a long brown overcoat whose hood concealed most everything but his eyes. It was Ngeti, Valentine's sister's son, leaning in close and meticulously studying the film as if it contained a great secret. "I love American slang!" he said gleefully after one of the African American characters menacingly intoned, "I'm gonna enjoy guttin' you, boy!" to Nicolas Cage's lead character. I remember the line because it fascinated Ngeti and he repeated it often, for years.

One evening, I returned home drunk on homemade sugarcane beer that some senior men had given me, and found my Taita language index cards stacked neatly in a pile, covered in condemning red ink. Someone had taken the time not only to correct all of my many errors but also to supply alternative usages and examples in Kidabida; whoever it was had clearly done quite a bit of work. I soon realized it was Ngeti who had done all of this work. Our relationship evolved slowly: I taught him how to play chess, discovering that his English was better than I thought when I called him an ass-wipe under my breath. He introduced me to more people, and eventually we went to his home and ate, together with his parents and sisters. Through Ngeti, I became friendly with a whole network of people and learned a great deal about Taita and Taita language. And suddenly I was not alone at all. Ngeti had long been struggling with the issues that I was interested in, the conflict between what he described as "witchcraft" and "development" as these manifested in his own personal life and interactions, and he soon became one of my principal interlocutors.

Ngeti and I each approached the other as a gateway to another world that we desperately wanted to enter. He came across as an intellectually intense and wickedly humorous young man. At the time, he did not drink, and he would judgmentally call my beer "devil's piss"-which somehow made it taste even better. But he reveled in anything that was, as he put it, "salacious, scatological, or prurient" and couldn't get enough American profanity out of me. Like his mother and sisters, Ngeti was a saved Pentecostal Christian in a community composed almost entirely of Catholics, and many of our early conversations concerned the Bible, Christianity, and the practice of becoming "saved" or born again. I visited his Pentecostal church with him and was publicly shamed for being a typical American "devil worshiper" when I refused to be saved by the pastor. Many times we visited his best friend and guru, an early-forty-something Taita pastor-prophet named Patroba, who prayed for us and our success, usually over freshly slaughtered roast goat meat that I had paid for. Ngeti's relationship with Patroba is the subject of much of this book. My friendship with Ngeti grew out of long walks we took together, some of which lasted a few days, during which time we would camp out in a tent overnight in a faraway village and awake in the morning to ask questions of complete strangers.

Among the persons I had the pleasure of meeting through Ngeti was his mother, Monica, one of the most impressive individuals I have ever known. Much of Ngeti's narrative concerns his ambivalent relationship with his mother, which grew more tense as he got older. Monica was a powerful and magnetic woman who had a lot of strong opinions that she was not at all shy about communicating. Her jovial ebullience, to say nothing of her cooking, nourished me during many lonely, cold, and rainy days in the Taita Hills, and her smoky kitchen was a refuge for just about anyone looking for food, tea, and a place to sit and chat. Most men couldn't stay very long in that kitchen. They claimed that it was the smoke from the wood fire, but in fact it was because this was Monica's kingdom, a matricentric haven for women of all ages. From this kitchen, Monica slowly built a political career during the 1980s and early 1990s, eventually becoming the chairlady for Maendeleo ya Wanawake (The Development of Women), the state-sanctioned women's union that had long been involved in a reciprocal patron-client relationship with mostly incumbent male politicians, whom the women sometimes referred to as their "husbands."

Monica was a vocal leader in her community, and she represented Taita's interests to politicians who cared more about their friendships with political higher-ups, like President Moi, than they did about their constituents back home.11 She verbally confronted powerful, even potentially violent, male politicians whom the men around her feared and placated. In the late 1990s, after state funding for Maendeleo ya Wanawake had long since disappeared, Monica was able to parlay her experience into important positions with Kenyan NGOs doing "development" and conservation work in Taita at a time when her once relatively successful husband, a former manager for a large private transport company, was unemployed and without savings or pension. She also became more invested in religious experience, developing her powers as a prophet who could communicate with God and pave the way for other people's projects on this terrestrial plane of existence.

But it is no good to simplify Monica by turning her into a feminist heroine. She was a complicated person who was, no doubt about it, fascinated by power, and she placed herself in contact with potent invisible forces. The few times that I slept at Ngeti's home, Monica would awake in the middle of the night and venture into the outside courtyard, where she entered into what sounded to me like a noisily passionate fit of explosive, incomprehensible babble. Her voice would reach me within my dreams and then surround me as I lay breathlessly awake. She was speaking in tongues, and when she did that she screamed herself hoarse, beseeching, commanding, and seemingly summoning some invisible force into our midst. She sounded angry and violent, and the fact that she was physically powerful and large made it all the more ominous. Ngeti said this was prayer, but it always unnerved me and made me wonder what exactly Monica was communicating with. God? Demons? Her own fractured self? Why, I wondered, did these communications happen involuntarily, and always at night?12 I feel now that Monica was working to get in touch with a transcendent power that would change her and those around her, and as we will see, the power she channeled brought things and people into her life that she could not control-insidious rumors, corrupt pastors, unctuous politicians, treacherous in-laws. Ngeti has been puzzling over the consequences of his mother's power for some time, trying to understand, in his own way, what it all had to do with him. While he has always been impressed by her strength and courage, Monica has also often been a foil for Ngeti's accumulated feelings of inadequacy and failure.


Two things impressed me most about Ngeti. One was his thorough knowledge of American culture, idioms, and politics, all of which he garnered from his inconvenient vantage in the Taita Hills. The other was that, although he and his entire family were completely broke (his father had just lost his job at the company for which he had worked for nearly thirty years), his questions to me were rarely about money-at least at first. Rather, Ngeti was sincerely interested in what I can only call the meaning of life and wanted to know more about what was happening beyond the hills. At the time, he was particularly intrigued by the latest Mars probe and the U.S. government's UFO and alien conspiracy cover-up, which he had learned about from watching bad VHS cassette copies of The X-Files as if the show was a documentary. He also wanted to take in the things around him-the beauty of the Taita Hills and the largeness of the night sky-and would spend quite a bit of time memorizing and marveling over the many ingredients listed in my Power Bars, which he read aloud as if it was poetry. At the same time, there was a real angst and even a rancor about Ngeti: sometimes he would wave his hand in the air and, mimicking Sean Connery's Alcatraz prisoner character in The Rock, intone, "Gentlemen, welcome to the Rock!," and we'd laugh with bittersweet irony, because he was essentially saying that Taita was a prison in which he was destined to remain confined.

At times, Ngeti was more of a hindrance than a help. I remember on one occasion we tried to participate in a rainmaking ritual, and the organizer of the ritual informed us that if a white person were to be present, the ancestors would have to be appeased-which meant that I would need to contribute fifty dollars for a goat and beer. When news got out that I had in fact done so, rival rainmakers complained that the goat was supposed to have been a magnanimous gift from the rainmaker's homestead and accused the rainmaker of bewitching the ritual with his selfishness. When the day came, this turmoil entered into the divination proceedings, and Ngeti couldn't stand the hypocrisy. Like many young Taita men, he was ambivalent about Taita traditions and often disgusted by actual senior men, who he felt were sullying the past and probably ruining contemporary Wataita's relationships with the ancestors. He viewed these men as parochial and obsessed with money, in sharp contrast to what he understood to be the values of now deceased Taita people, who presumably embodied the ideals of reciprocity and openness that had made Taita hearts "cool" and "moist" like the disappearing forests. Ngeti, assuming that I was looking for the Truth about rainmaking and Taita culture, reasoned that I was not going to get it, or anything else of value, here, so we might as well go find some roast meat to eat somewhere else. "These guys are charlatans. Let's get out of here," he urged. Of course, I wouldn't leave. Instead I embraced the fact that there was contestation about the value and virtue of this and similar events (conflict meant, at the very least, that there would be more to write about).

Afterward, when I offered some of my own interpretations about what the rainmakers were doing, Ngeti expressed wonder for the discipline of anthropology, providing an insight that may well elude many professional anthropologists: "Anthropology is very interesting, bwana. It isn't about whether something is true or not. It's about understanding what things mean." From that moment on, Ngeti had no end of interpretations about the deep symbolic meanings of different Taita practices, and many of his ruminations were quite complexly anthropological indeed. I didn't realize it at the time, but he took to anthropology so readily because he was already trying to understand Americans and other Westerners, as well as his own society, as if he were an anthropologist. He was also coming to appreciate the ways in which all people were interconnected, as well as how and where they differed. A few years later, when I started sending him chapters of my thesis via email, he would respond with emails like this, which revealed, among other things, that he had found a way to read up on hermeneutics, or the art of interpretation (though he apparently still saw the senior men in his town as a "gang").

Allow me to say that your article was a very interesting reading, bwana. Mimi sidhani kama iko na makosa yoyote [I don't think there are any mistakes at all]. Frankly speaking, when you were doing your research, everything was very fuzzy, and for a guy with only a secondary school education you can't quite blame me so much, bwana. I think if there is gonna be another session of researching I'll pay more attention. You are an anthropologist with brain-hurting terminologies and a thorough knowledge of hermeneutics, both deep and suspicious. Mbatia and Mkula [rainmakers] will tell me that the rainmaking ritual at Ndolwa is gonna bring rain because fifty years ago it did bring tons upon tons of rain and because of blah blah blah rain is gonna come. Then you come in from thousands of miles from home, you engage in the hermeneutics of "surfaces" and "depths." You quietly sit with Mbatia and his gang and seek to articulate and explain the common meanings of the cultural practices via a sympathetic communion or participant-observer inquiry. Then you turn to "deep hermeneutics" and attempt (successfully) to dig beneath surface interpretation (beneath the hermeneutics of the everyday), because deep hermeneutics suspects that the Taita understanding and interpretations might in fact be quite distorted, partial, or deluded and might actually be motivated to hide the truth, to obscure or cover up deeper and more frightening truths. Then this hermeneutics of suspicion leads you to dig even deeper, a task which leads you to discover that the Taita have very little understanding of the changes that are sweeping thru the globe, both economical, environmental, political, and spiritual. Terms like El Niño or global warming, structural adjustments, cannot be transliterated into Kitaita [Taita language]. The shifting world out there is all too magical and infested with diabolical beings that are threatening to blast the Taita asses to oblivion.13

Ngeti's email expressed his sympathy and love for a place that he has also seen as an obstacle to his personal progress. Indeed, he often thought about how he could harness the powerful forces emanating from outside Taita so that "Taita asses" might be saved, but his visions tended to be painfully impractical. In particular, I recall his idea that, one day, a ski lift would connect the Taita Hills with the tourist hotels in Tsavo's lowlands, enabling foreign tourists to visit the hills and interact with the people there while contributing to the local economy. At night he would go to sleep listening to movie dialogue on a Walkman I had lent him, surrounded by magazine advertisement images that smothered his mud brick walls: illustrious cityscapes; fast and furious sports cars; libidinous women clad only in bath bubbles. In the morning he would awake to his tattered dreams on the wall, milk the one cow his family had, and make his way down to the maize fields to dig. But Ngeti remained patient, preparing himself, through these mediated glimpses of another world and through his mastery of its language, to enter into that parallel universe when the time was right. The problem was that he kept feeling himself drawn into another, more proximal world in which historical malevolence held sway over everything else.


Ngeti's situation was related to his being the descendant of a comparatively prosperous family that was now in decline. The family, and those around them, thought about their rise and decline in religious terms, because religion in Taita is a powerful social fact. When Christianity first started making headway in the Taita Hills in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, it was not perceived as a religion in the modern Western sense of a "belief system." The first schools were mission schools, so Christianity and schooling went hand in hand, and with time they became the gateway for wage labor employment in cities. At first, many seniors resisted the spread of the new religion and the loss of their sons' labor to the mission schools, but young people saw opportunity in Christianity and education, and many used their schooling to curtail or evade the power of seniors and of what they saw as the past.14 Conflict between youths and seniors was, and often still is, articulated in religious terms, as a conflict between Christianity and what some call Kidabida (hill ways) or Wutasi (after kutasa, the practice of unanimously spitting out beer in order to cleanse everyone's hearts of anger and demonstrate goodheartedness so that whatever is about to happen will be successful). Ironically, these seniors soon became dependent on their mostly male Christian children for wage remittances, which they argued should be handed over to them in the same way that captured livestock had been in earlier generations.15 For their part, male youths worried about their elders' ability to "bewitch" them through cursing. And Christians, as they came to constitute a more affluent and somewhat withdrawn social class, worried that their less well off non-Christian neighbors might bewitch them out of jealousy. In those days, sustained interaction between Christian and non-Christian communities was limited: Christians were prevented from marrying non-Christians, and they were not allowed to participate in communitywide regenerative rituals like rainmaking and fighi (activated, weaponized forests) renewal (discussed later). As outward Christianity came to be equated with success, these public Kidabida rituals were effectively driven underground, becoming nocturnal activities that many equated with witchcraft. At the same time, the repressed non-Christian past continued to hold immense power. Wataita (including Ngeti's parents) regularly recount the various ways in which Taita magic has confounded, and continues to confound, colonial and postcolonial state authorities who work to punish or control Taita in one way or another.

Monica's father, Anthony Maghanga (born in 1913), was among the first people in their community to convert to Catholicism and the very first to be buried on church land. Most of Anthony's children were successful by local standards, having used their mission education to acquire full-time employment in Mombasa and to invest money in local land, businesses, and marriage and exchange partners. Ngeti's father's father, Boniface, converted later in life, and Boniface's son, Charles, used the income that Boniface had earned as a game poacher to marry up in status. Both of Ngeti's parents, Charles and Monica, grew up during the 1950s in a straight-lined row of houses near the Catholic church, set apart from neighboring, circular communities of "heathens" who practiced non-Christian, "traditional" Taita ritual.

By the 1990s, any "development" Ngeti's family had once acquired was purely symbolic, and the family's big house was, as Ngeti put it, an empty shell. Ngeti's parents blamed their family's economic decline on an invisible occult onslaught by people who were jealous of their Christian rectitude and the prosperity they had achieved as comparatively educated Christians. Ngeti and his family spun different explanations concerning why this decline was happening to them personally, focusing mostly on occult action by jealous kin and neighbors and at Charles's workplace. At the same time, many people in the neighborhood believed that Ngeti's family were the "biggest witches" and quietly suggested that they had camouflaged themselves in Christianity and used occult powers to "develop" while others "stayed behind." In the late 1980s, Monica was "saved" through Pentecostalism, explaining that the Catholic Church had long ago been taken over by Taita's witches, who now sat on the church council. Leaving the church and becoming saved was partly Monica's, and later her whole family's, way of responding to and protecting themselves both from decline and from the disturbing changes they saw taking place in their society.


As I grew more familiar with Ngeti's family, I came to understand their troubles and responsibilities and to feel that some of them were also my own. Over time, too, it became clear to me that Ngeti was indeed interested in making money with my help. It was simply that his imaginative ambitions were so vast that he had not wanted to chase me, and my investing potential, away with petty requests for small sums. By now I had been in Taita for well over a year, and in what he imagined, incorrectly, to be some of our final moments, Ngeti began to feel that he should secure my help before I disappeared, presumably forever. Slowly, he began introducing business ideas into our walks and games of chess, all the while making it clear that any business arrangement we entered into would have the protection of Divine Providence. He had spoken with his Pentecostal preacher friend Patroba, who had received word from God Himself that great things would happen to Ngeti and me, presuming that we pay a tithe to Patroba's church. Patroba wanted Ngeti to know that God was watching our emerging friendship and had a plan for both of us. "You know," Ngeti said one evening as we waited for his mother and sisters to prepare a dinner of stewed meat and ugali (maize meal) for us at his home, "business is not the kind of thing that you enter into with a large investment. You do not begin at Form Four [meaning, roughly, the senior year of high school], before going to Standard One [the first grade]. You work up from small things."

Ngeti unfurled a plan: his father's father, Boniface, had been a famous poacher during the 1950s and had been the first African in the Taita Hills to own a car. This man had a son by another wife who now had a rhino horn that he had kept in his possession for many years. Might I be able to find a foreign buyer for this illegal item-perhaps in Dubai, if smuggling a whole rhino horn into the United States was too difficult? Or, he suggested, it could be broken down into smaller units, which could easily be concealed. He had done enough homework to know that rhino horn, with its special medicinal uses, especially as an aphrodisiac, is more valuable than gold and can sell for over $1,000 per ounce on the right market.

I refused. "Ngeti, I am not going to smuggle a rhino horn."

"Why?" he demanded.

"Because it's illegal and unethical-rhinos are an endangered species," I offered weakly. Anyway, I continued, the horn had been sitting around for some time. Would it even still be valuable?

Ngeti persisted: "But I have already talked to Patroba about this, and God says it's a good idea and it will work."

"I don't care what Patroba says God says," I retorted, redrawing the disappearing boundary that separated Patroba from God. "There's just no way."

Ngeti concealed his frustration, waited about a week, and switched his approach to gemstones. The plains around Tsavo are rich in green garnet, rubies, and other precious stones, and many Wataita dream of becoming rich from these resources, which they feel belong to them, since they lie within Taita-Taveta District. Many Wataita are angered by the "foreign" Kenyan Kikuyu entrepreneurs, mostly women, who make a small fortune off Taita's wealth, from which Wataita are excluded. Wataita simply don't have the money to get started in this trade-though those who work in the mostly foreign-owned mines will often surreptitiously pocket some stones, then sell them to non-Taita middlemen in the back rooms of bars and other businesses, like hair salons.

Eventually, I relented. I felt indebted to Ngeti for the help he had given me in the field and for work he had done, much of which had been uncompensated, carried out under the rubric of friendship. I agreed to look into it, and we ended up spending a whole Saturday buying gemstones in the semiarid lowland Taita town of Mwatate. As we sat in a room in the back of a bar, shady dealers came out of the woodwork with their materials wrapped in old newspaper shards. We listened to their stories and gazed at their little stones for hours, picking and sorting. We drew some men close and shooed others away. In the end, I probably spent a couple hundred dollars on a small plastic bag filled with stones. It was only about a week prior to my planned departure for the States, so Ngeti and I went together to Nairobi immediately to look for potential buyers. There, we booked a room at a cheap hotel in a bad part of town and visited several Indian and South African jewelry stores. The stones were worthless: too dull, too many cracks, too many bubbles. I could see all of Ngeti's dreams of fast wealth disappear in an instant when one jeweler did us a favor by smashing the stones into dust before our eyes. Ngeti's horrified shock vanished under a dark cloud of depression. He returned to Mgange to milk the cow and dig in his shamba (field).


I returned home and, over the course of two years, wrote my dissertation, then, after much searching, landed a job. Ngeti and I lost touch, until one day in 2002 he managed to email me:

Mzungu! [White man!] Where in Zeus's butt-hole are you?!!!! [This is a paraphrase of a line from The Rock.] Hope you're well! Have been trying to contact you! Get in touch, Ngeti.

I responded with an email that I no longer have, and we exchanged a few more emails back and forth. Eventually, I told him that I had an old laptop computer that I would pass on to him, and that a school friend and aspiring anthropologist named Robert Blunt, who was visiting Kenya, would soon give him some money from me. Ngeti responded, in his characteristic amalgam of Swahili, English, and even Spanish and French. I have edited some of the emails that appear later in this book for readability, but here I have retained the original to provide a sense of Ngeti's capacity to move back and forth between languages and speech genres, containing all of them within himself while also merging them to create something new. In this way we are able to glimpse, through him, a world that is not divided by cultural and linguistic exclusivity, but which exists as a creative dialogic synthesis that, in turn, tells us a great deal about who Ngeti is. It is worth taking in:

Pole sana ati huku pata huu ujumbe, sasa nina tuma tena, bwana. Nilipata e-mail moja kutoka kwa some fuck head anaitwa daemon yuko pale@midway.kitu fulani. Cheka chaeka!!!! [I'm sorry you didn't get my messages, and I'm attaching them again. I got an email from some fuckhead named "daemon" there at there@midway.something. LOL!]

Just for light moments sake, I have been thinking about migrating to Canada and beginning a generation of Taitas there. The present Negroes were dragged there by force, this time I wanna make a voluntary trip there. That's my dream, that's my joke. But you know, however, when there is no way, then make one.

So tell me mon ami, what is new apart from other things that we are familiar with? Tell you what, remember I told you I was seeing some girl? This is this twenty something lady that I have been seeing. Man, she is something. When I'm okay, financially okay, I will scan her photo and send it to you. Man, I have been lonely but I think with time things are gonna be fine for me. There is so much that we have to say but right now my mind is in a foment. So please write Rob and tell him he can give me a call on 433724. Let him ask for Ngeti and the password will be "The Eagle Has Landed." I'll try writing him again and seeing what happens. Thanks once again buddy and wait for my call. Take care. Love, Ngeti.

Then came the earlier email, which he had failed to send successfully at first:

Vipi amerikanski! [What's up, American! (Ngeti has picked up the Russian term from Cold War-era American movies)],

Sasa mimi niko Mombasa bwana [Right now, I'm in Mombasa, man]. By the way, Happy Independence Day. It also happens to be my birthday. Mimi nilikuandikia through Amanda lakini inaonekana kuwa wewe labda hukupata hii kitu [I have written to you through Amanda (meaning he had written me letters by hand, which he then gave to his sister, who worked at a cybercafé, to send to me by email), but it seems you haven't received them]. Habari ya mambo ya kule marekani? Sasa niko Mombasa, nilifika huku jana 4th of July, ninajaribu kutafuta mambo kidogo kidogo lakini sijui itakua vipi, lakini ninafikiri mambo yatakua sawa [How are things in America? Right now I am in Mombasa, and arrived on the 4th of July, and I'm trying to look for something small small (meaning a job), but I don't know how it's going to turn out]. Tell you what bwana, hebu niambiye mambo ya ile laptop [tell me about the laptop], what is it able to do, apart from exploring the Net? Unajua hiyo kitu nina weza kupata nayo kitu kidogo kidogo. Sijui una mpango gani wakuifikisha hapa [You know, with this thing I can get something small small (meaning some money). I don't know what plan you have to get it here]. Tell me mambo mazuri mazuri bwana, hapa mimi nimeboeka sana [Tell me something good man, I'm bored stiff here].

Tell me, can you get those crazy books on hacking, and more on UFOs? For some crazy reasons, I do not believe we are alone in this freaking universe. There are multicolored guys out there waiting for the earthlings to wake up from their religious slumber and realize that God is not a small timer, and he thinks big, and his thinking does not end with human beings.

Write me man, and tell me something. I miss you mucho grande. In the mean time, take care my friend.{ems}Ngeti

After a week or two, Ngeti got a couple of hundred dollars from me, through Rob, and I think I did manage to send him some books. Over the years, most of my emails to Ngeti centered around journeys I was making for work: a trip across country in a beater car to an adjunct professor job in Santa Cruz, another trip in the opposite direction to a post-doc in northeastern Indiana, yet another trip in a pickup truck to a tenure-track position in Atlanta. Each relocation brought romantic troubles, and Ngeti would express his sympathy, sometimes even offering to get a "witchdoctor" to help me appease a lover's heart. I was busy during this time, and now I feel guilty to admit that he wrote me more often than I wrote him, and a number of his emails went unanswered.

In his email letters, Ngeti told me about some of his recent problems. He had suffered a falling out with his parents, which culminated in his father cursing him-at least, that was Ngeti's interpretation of his father's words. The story involved a dispute about whom his younger sister should be marrying. Ngeti did not approve of his sister's fiancé, but his parents were receiving bridewealth payments from him, which Ngeti believed clouded their judgment. Ngeti confronted the potential groom and ended up alienating himself from both his sisters and his parents, who went to the chief and persuaded him to write a letter insisting that Ngeti remove himself from these affairs. The chief, who controlled the police and was considered a spokesperson for customary law (a form of law inherited from colonial times), potentially had the ability to put Ngeti in jail. In the midst of all this, Ngeti wrote me the following email:

Vipi mzungu, this is the guy who wrote you a couple of weeks ago to inform you that the goods have been received and the S.O.B. is fucking grateful.

Right now, Jim, my parents think I'm an asshole or something. The situation is not good. Tell you what, I will forward you the letter, which I assume you did not get. Actually, this is what I did some time back. As I was surfing the net, I entered the porno world and I, like an idiot, subscribed to one of them magazines. From that day on there has been no end to naked women in my mail, man. So much spam, it's fucking nuts! So, use my virgin address, which has known no man, and let the old whore be fucked. Tell you what, on Monday I saw "Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones." Tell me about Uncle Sam and what you are up to in the meantime.

Ngeti went on to explain that he had a story he wanted to tell me that would "knock my socks off," which concerned his parents and his family. He said that when I was done reading it, "the hermeneutics of suspicion would set in." His decision to write about this was partly cathartic and partly counter-cultural, because Taita families do not ordinarily tell their secrets. It is for this reason, Ngeti believes, that these families, and Wataita as a whole, never truly move beyond historic grudges, which end up manifesting as witchcraft attacks and accusations in the present. So Ngeti was breaking with the past, and with tradition, in a way that he hoped would be productive and that was in keeping with some of his earlier experiments, including his interest in Pentecostalism. Initially, Ngeti probably also wanted to shame his parents, and so revenge was no doubt a partial motive. Ngeti's feelings about and interpretations of the events described in this book have changed since he began writing them down several years ago, a change that has much to do with the death of his mother. This event traumatized Ngeti, causing him to feel sorrow and regret. These days, writing about his past has helped him to forgive and understand himself as much as the people around him.

Ngeti's subsequent email laid the foundation for his new witchcraft story. Some parts of it were in Swahili, but I have translated the entirety into English:

What's up, white man, how's America? I believe you received my email of a few days ago. Now I'm going to give you one very crazy story, but after this story is over I think you'll have a different picture about Taita families. It's a long story, and it's going to take a while to write it. It is gonna come in bits and pieces.

It is conventional knowledge that my maternal grandparents were superwitches. Before I proceed, you are wondering why there is this story now and not when you were around. Well, for the last two years I have been going through some bad shit and so I started doing research on my entire family. I came up with some pretty amazing stuff. As you know, this witchcraft thing is a very hush hush thing among the Taita and the only time you hear people talking about it is when there is a witch hunter in town or when someone dies in mysterious circumstances, and even then people will be like, "Well, you did not hear this from me."

Well, my maternal grandfather, as is common knowledge among those in the age bracket of forty up to a hundred years, was a staunch Catholic. This is attested to by the unusual fact that, when he died, he was interred in the church compound at the Mgange Catholic church. The circumstances surrounding his death are bizarre, in that he collapsed in the witness box while being cross examined in a land case in which he was the defendant. The story has it that, when he collapsed, he was quickly taken to Wesu hospital, where he died several hours later. People say he was losing the case and that he had used witchcraft to try and get the case decided in his favor. His sudden collapse in the witness box is attributed by many to the fact that he had been sworn to tell the truth with the Bible. Anyway, the guy left behind a grieving family whose dark side was deliberately overlooked by men and women in whose minds the fear of coming out and pointing a finger at a known witch reigned supreme.

I can as a Taita add that 90% of Taita families have witchcraft. I give the 10% the benefit of the doubt, though I wouldn't put medium consultation past them. I'm sure you're aware of the user-friendly terms that are used to describe and defend the practice, terms like fighi and milimu, these being to defend against dangerous neighbors.16 But remember, all are lethal despite their various applications. When people talk about using such things for defense, they are just villains claiming to be victims. My maternal grandparents were what I will call "upper-class witches" or "holy witches." By this term I mean those witches who at the time of the introduction of Catholicism were the first to embrace it and were ardent teachers and defenders of its doctrines . . .

[I lost parts of this email. In the original email, which I can no longer find, Ngeti offered a story about his grandmother, who allegedly killed some children by issuing incantations over some food. Ngeti referred to this as "transubstantiation" and went on to explain, anthropologically, "but here the effect is not the renewal of the soul but its demise."]

One fact that we should be aware of is that witches are scared silly of death and being found out that they are witches. Their lives are spent in perpetual rituals of secrecy and covering their tracks. They spend a great deal of energy being likable; you find them in the church council, village committees, school committees, etc. Another fact is witchcraft has 2 distinct forms-for good, that is defending the land against aliens (fighi); and for evil, destroying the progress or retarding the development of those that it sometimes defends. Both are passed on from generation to generation, and their potency is dependent upon the sacrifices that its practitioners are prepared to make, which ranges from animal to human sacrifice.

Well, mon ami, this is just the beginning of the saga. This is Ngeti your friend signing out, take care of yourself. God bless.

As his emails began to accumulate in my inbox, it became clear to me that, with my help, Ngeti and I might have a coauthored book here, and that it would be a moving personal account of postcolonial African life, told in a first-person English whose verisimilitude would be unique and moving to an American audience. I also hoped that, by publishing Ngeti's emails and giving him any royalties that might accrue from these writings, our ongoing collaboration would finally benefit him in a substantial way without my having to smuggle a rhino horn. When Ngeti became aware, at my suggestion, that his emails could someday be read by a wider audience, if he was so inclined, he was very enthusiastic. Later, he gave me part of his diary, which I also include here, and we had a couple of long interview discussions about these events as well, which I have turned into chapters.

As Ngeti started writing more explicitly for an audience, his writing style shifted away from heteroglossic "Swa-English" toward "pure" English, with his new public in mind. Even as this happened, his writing continued to shift among different genres, evoking, at different points, magical realism, American pulp horror fiction, ethnography, explorer narratives, and the Beats. Over time, I have become ever more taken in by this story and by Ngeti's powers of authorship and narration. I am now convinced that his is the voice of a whole generation of young men in the Global South, who are trying to find a way to improve their lives by using the conceptual and cultural resources that are available to them, from places near and far away.

I say "men" because his is a particularly gendered story, and his hopes and actions are shaped by the comparative "wiggle room" his gender has conferred upon him. Here and in what follows I have included all of his language, from ruminations on theology to descriptions of fungal towels soaked in the semen of unknown men, and I have embraced and echoed his profanity, because I see this carnivalesque collapsing of hierarchies as fertile and generative. It speaks to Ngeti's knowledge of, and confidence in, multiple worlds, in which he goes traveling. I want to close now with a few contextualizing remarks that I feel are important for fully appreciating Ngeti and his narrative.

Some Big Ideas

Some of the issues that emerge from the story we are telling include youth subjectivity in Africa; the cultural politics of language; the politicization of gender and generation; the influence of technology, media, and the Internet; changing understandings of "development"; the growth of new religious movements like Pentecostalism; and the continuing importance of what anthropologists have long glossed as "kinship" (or what Marshall Sahlins refers to as "the mutuality of belonging").17 I want to draw attention to three overarching Big Themes that frame all of these others before turning back to Ngeti's story. The first has to do with political economy and African futures, the second with subjectivity and globalization, and the third with ethnographic practice.

The first major theme concerns what has been variously called neoliberalism or post-Fordism, referring to the transnationalization of a political-economic system formerly framed by national territorial borders, in which the state figured prominently as the symbol and generator of "development." The collapse and reconfiguration of this system is part of the reason why Ngeti feels bewitched in the first place. Although the shift from a Fordist to a post-Fordist economy has played out differently in Kenya than it has in the United States, it is nonetheless a global phenomenon.18 Ngeti's narrative gives us a sense of how people are experiencing and acting on this structural transformation in locally idiomatic repertoires that are also broadly relevant to people the world over. While Ngeti's biography has been shaped by these global and national events, in this book he does not dwell on them at all, so a brief history is in order.

Postcolonial Kenya began as a nation mainly in name, its sovereignty compromised by the "debt" that it allegedly owed to its colonizing invaders.19 Kenya's people achieved independence from the British in 1963, after a protracted anticolonial and civil war in which approximately fifteen thousand Africans were killed. Afterward, Kenyans inherited a number of enduring problems, including foreign debt, dependence on foreign inputs and aid, and structural inequality that would only worsen over time. Nonetheless, until the late 1980s Kenya was, for many, the model modernizing African nation state because of its strong export-driven economy based mostly on coffee, its vibrant Indian Ocean port of Mombasa, its internationally renowned wildlife tourism, and its relatively peaceful political environment. During this time, the Kenyan state was at the center of the nation's "development," the government was the main employer, and high school-educated men could look forward to long-term government jobs that often came with pensions.20 Schooling and health care were largely subsidized, and people strongly demanded education, viewing it as a mechanism for acquiring employment and connecting to a larger world. In Taita, many men went to school, secured jobs in the city of Mombasa, and sent part of their wages home to their wives in Taita, who used these funds to send their children to school, thus renewing the whole cyclical process. In the meantime, women and children grew crops at home, and villages developed relationships with male politicians (most of whom had also made their money in Mombasa), many of whom funneled development resources from the state to Taita. This is not to say that everything was wonderful in the 1970s and 1980s-there was a great deal of inequality and political oppression on the part of a clique of people who tried to control the state for their own interests. But there was at least a kind of recognizable system, and a relationship between means and ends, which would later seem to come undone.

This postcolonial model of development, which was structurally and ideologically dependent on male labor, male state figures, and a state cast as male, changed fundamentally throughout the 1990s. It started when the national economy was hit hard by a decline in the global price of coffee, Kenya's main export, in the 1980s. Under President Daniel arap T. Moi, Kenya began taking out structural adjustment loans (also referred to as structural adjustment programs, or SAPS), which were tied to "conditionalities" deemed necessary by the banks because the Kenyan government couldn't pay its so-called debt. About a quarter of the Kenyan budget continues to go to servicing the interest from this debt. During the post-Cold War 1990s, when Kenya was no longer usable as a bulwark against Soviet communism, aid was cut dramatically, and the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) increasingly tied loans to what they now called "good governance."

Kenyan state actors responded to the decline of aid and the new "conditionalities" attached to loans by enacting the model of "free market capitalism" that the economic developers were peddling.21 Kenyan state officials like then-Minister of Finance Mudavadi rapidly lifted price controls, floated the Kenyan shilling, removed restrictions on imports, privatized all public industries, and dramatically downsized the civil service. All of this produced massive unemployment and inflation, while also transforming the state. State figures and politicians continued to hang on, of course, but often they could no longer rely on their salaries or state resources and so became increasingly "corrupt," the very thing that structural adjustment reforms were intended to eradicate. At the same time, foreign NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), working on everything from "development" to human rights and civil society education, became visibly powerful in Kenyan political and economic life. Their influence came to eclipse that of the state, so much so that, in Ngeti's town, an international NGO called Plan International completely took over development work from the chiefs and politicians, building projects and subsidizing children's school fees. These NGOs fed local social change by actively recruiting women and young men to work for them, awarding salaries that were much better than the government could offer.

An explosion of new media matched the apparent decline of the state, as presses became liberalized and foreign bootlegged films from the United States, South Asia, and Nigeria quickly materialized in local markets. By the beginning of the twenty-first century these changes were coupled with the rise of cybercafés, which became magnets for youth and supercharged incubators of youth consciousness.22 They also became points of immersion in an imaginary alternative universe where, for the first time in history, African youth could study, say, the sexual practices of white people in the same way that white anthropologists had been doing with respect to Africans for decades. In the course of this study, they became familiar with Wazungu (whites/Europeans) in a way that was revolutionary and destabilizing and that has not been even close to fully appreciated. Pornography was not the only, or even the main, thing that came out of the rise of Internet culture, but its cultural and political importance is easily overlooked by those who would be inclined to see it as embarrassing.

Ngeti was coming of age in the midst of this crisis and transformation, but all of the people presented in this book were coming to terms with these changes in their own way: Ngeti's father, Charles, lost his job and his pension; his mother, Monica, moved from involvement in state-centered politics to immersion in new religious movements; his friend Patroba used his religious practice to teach people what kinds of subjects they should be in the new economy. And so on. What was happening was that old structures were disintegrating and people were reimagining what the future would look like in various ways.23 Some of these involved breaking with the past completely, while others involved recuperating and engaging with the past in imaginative ways. (In practice, even breaking with the past entailed conjuring it up in a new guise.) Always, there was a sense that reality as lived in Africa was somehow "fake" or substandard in relation to other places, and this was confirmed by pervasive media and, for some, Internet exposure.24 Ngeti wanted to break through from his world to another, largely imaginary one, and he used various instruments to do this, including language, technology, books, religion, and eventually, anthropology. He took these things and changed them, and he was also changed by them.

Making a new future means reinventing oneself, and Ngeti is quite palpably engaged in a project of self-remaking-which brings us to our second theme: subjectivity. Ngeti has often tried to transcend local, parochial relationships and entanglements in order to access what he perceives as more meaningful and universal connections. He attempts to do this by "untying" himself from people who are related to him through descent and territory.25 His first effort in this direction is through language, and later through his travels into the repressed and hidden aspects of daily life, like the worlds of "witchdoctors" and sex workers. Eventually, he tried to reinvent himself and the future through Pentecostal religion. He has often felt that others people's histories, emotions, and interests hold him back, and that living in the countryside both produces this situation and is the outcome of it-he is home because he has been tied, and he knows he has been tied because he is at home. Ngeti imagines another world in which people are free of history and move into the future fueled by their own free will, a fantasy that has been nurtured by the books he reads, the films he watches, the music he listens to, and the particular relationship to God that he has tried to cultivate. Ngeti's project of self-actualization puts him in good company, for he is joined by a host of young people in the Global South who re-create themselves in testimonials about their life struggles in churches, radio shows, and, of course, Facebook. But Ngeti, and others like him, are also trying to create something greater than the autonomous self, by forging new patterns of kinship and new forms of belonging with others who are not connected to them by virtue of some shared connection to territory.

I believe that all of this is quite important and sheds a great deal of light not only on African subjectivity, but on subjectivity in general.26 There is a grand metanarrative concerning the individualized person in Africa and the West that runs something like this: In the modern West, a diverse set of things happened to make it seem as if we are bounded individual subjects.27 Crawford Macpherson famously called it the philosophy of possessive individualism, highlighting the coimplication of modern Western notions of property (a bounded thing, as opposed to the fluid materialization of social relationships) and the idea of a rights-bearing person that owns his or her characteristics as property.28 Thanks to Raymond Williams, we know that the term individual wasn't applied to people until the eighteenth century, which was also the time when modernist notions of individually owned, completely commodified property became fully elaborated.29 In direct and telling contrast, African subjectivity has been portrayed as open, relational, and incomplete, as if African notions of the person had not yet evolved toward a single, known telos.30

Africanist anthropology has done much work to show the diversity of African understandings and enactments of the person, in the process challenging simple Western notions of African subjectivity as "open" and unbounded.31 John and Jean Comaroff, for example, have argued that "postmodern" Western understandings of fractal, shifting personhood actually resemble certain African (specifically Tswana) understandings of the person as "becoming" rather than "being," citing this as evidence for Europe's belated "evolution" toward Africa.32 This is certainly true of Taita, where, well into colonial times, men became individuated subjects by expanding themselves, across space and over time, through exchange networks. They became "big" persons through the exchange of things like livestock, which generated the expanding social networks that the objects themselves also symbolized. Over the course of their lives, men were "called" to positions of ever-expanding authority by everyday objects that were also materializations of ancestors. These agentive objects (a cow bell, a medicine bag, and a sitting stool, acquired in stages throughout one's life) represented and enabled men to enter into relations of mutual indebtedness: keeping and trading livestock (bell), healing and protecting communities with medicine (bag), and sitting on the council of elders (stool).33 The spatial-temporal expansion of the male self continued after death, with his ongoing participation in daily life as an ancestor whose skull, similarly agentive, was likely to be placed in a nearby cave, while his lineage descendants carried on his name and personality. This process of expanding the self through communication and exchange with others was always threatened by usabi, or what Ngeti glosses as witchcraft. Witchcraft, directed at men and women by enemies, subverted the process of progressive self-expansion through others.34

Over the course of the colonial and postcolonial periods, elites often adopted more outwardly Western understandings of individualism, and sometimes used Western idioms to complain about Taita kinship as a form of dependency synonymous with witchcraft, or being "tied." In a similar vein, Ngeti is trying to become an autonomous subject, in part by communicating with and connecting to something foreign that is outside of him. Through autobiographical narration and email communication, he is also baring his soul and releasing pain and resentment. This quintessentially "modern" compulsion to communicate through technology also reflects the main purpose of Taita ritual action, which is aimed at releasing anger through symbolically loaded acts like kutasa as a prelude to building communities based on trust.35 Ngeti's actions thus reflect long-standing Taita understandings of self-making, an active and explicitly social process that one brings about by contacting and communicating with relatively distant others through objects and media. This thing he wants to connect with shifts: sometimes it exists in a geographical location, and sometimes it is rooted in a transcendent Divine.

As Ngeti persistently fails to make the connections he wants to make, or to communicate effectively with Truth, he is drawn deeper into geographically immediate histories and comes to the realization, over and over again, that his body and life are not really his own. In other words, discovering the fact that he has been penetrated by others comes as the result of trying to communicate with a different, foreign Other. This means that Ngeti's witchcraft "beliefs" don't make sense in terms of a local, bounded cosmology, or ontology, but must be seen as the product of a thwarted relationship with an imaginary outside world through which he struggles to realize himself as an autonomous being.

We could put this in a somewhat different vein and say simply that Ngeti is bored. His boredom, I contend, is produced by his practice of withdrawal from the people and routines around him. This makes him feel suspended, held in limbo, a state which Heidegger saw as a chief characteristic of what he called "profound boredom." Heidegger viewed the withdrawal from lived temporality and the corresponding extension of time (also known as boredom) as a peculiarly "modern" condition. As the philosopher David Hoy paraphrases, "This boredom permeates 'modern man' generally and is the mood or attunement of the present age."36 For Ngeti, withdrawal goes hand in hand with his knowledge of another temporality from which he is excluded-one that is presumably faster and more interesting, broken down into countless yet-to-be-experienced experiences that have the effect of compressing time. The more Ngeti withdraws from the temporality of daily life, the more anxious he becomes about being pulled back into it, feeling the power of past events on his life. These past experiences, many of which were not actually his own, constrain his desire to free himself from one lived, experiential temporality and to enter into another, imaginary one. And so throughout the following text Ngeti alternates between boredom and anxiety, always acutely aware that he is running out of time. His humor and talent help him to get loose from his suspended state.

In trying to understand other people's affects, which (we will see) reside inside him as objects, Ngeti ends up being drawn to some very classical anthropological subject matters, including kinship, ritual, and witchcraft. All of which leads us to the third and final theme. In recent years, considerable effort has been given to analyzing and attempting to accomplish collaborative ethnography.37 All ethnography has always been collaborative to some degree, but for most of its history anthropologists defined the agenda for research as they encountered people who had little if any idea of what the anthropological project was. Only rare individuals, like Victor Turner's Muchona the Hornet and Marcel Griaule's Ogotommêli, seemed to think of their own culture anthropologically, and typically they did so as guardians of secret, esoteric knowledges and traditions. Recently, George Marcus and others have used the terms para-ethnography and para-site to describe fieldwork among people who are already thinking ethnographically and anthropologically about their actions and about their social situations.38 These anthropologists typically have in mind fieldwork among experts (say, lawyers or journalists) who are also doing a kind of ethnographic fieldwork in a particular institutional setting, like a laboratory or corporation.39

But increasingly anthropologists are doing para-ethnographic work even in seemingly remote settings that are actually as "globalized" as any other.40 In fact, as a result of trying to understand the world beyond Taita, Ngeti has come to identify more closely with that world and to feel kinship with it, a process that has made him feel estranged from his geographical home. Ngeti's experience of disconnection from home is quintessentially anthropological. After all, many anthropologists routinely describe the purpose of their discipline as "making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange," especially to their first-year undergraduates. There is no doubt a major difference in our anthropological missions: Ngeti's is an effort to identify and manage the social forces that are operating on him, and he is compelled to take these forces seriously as "facts" rather than as metaphors or signs of something else. This is methodologically frustrating for the anthropologist who wants to engage Ngeti the anthropologist, because his actions and statements do signify in ways that he is not always aware of and which require interpretation. And the verisimilitude that characterizes Ngeti's statements and actions, as well as our relationship, covers over a great deal of important difference. No two people who watch a movie are watching the same movie, but the way in which my The Rock differs from Ngeti's The Rock reveals a complicated, mutually imbricated cultural history that is also a global history.

To cite one particularly relevant example: Ngeti uses English terms like witchcraft to describe his experiences, but this does not mean that what he is referencing is the same as the European understanding of witchcraft that emerged in the 1500s. It also doesn't mean that we should throw away the English term witchcraft and look for a more "Taita" term, because some of the implications of the English term (e.g., an absolute evil that is synonymous with Satan) are part of what Ngeti is trying to get across and, indeed, are among the meanings buried in this dialogic utterance. In general, Ngeti's speech and practice resemble his use of the term witchcraft: the things he says and does look so familiar to us because they are designed to, but that does not make them the same, and it does not make what Ngeti calls an interpretive "hermeneutics of suspicion" any less necessary or relevant. At the same time, we would not understand Ngeti any better by resorting completely to Taita terms and idioms. So, Ngeti challenges us as anthropologists to think about how to engage a world in which people move self-consciously between different epistemic frames, at times stepping completely into the language of their interlocutors while simultaneously acknowledging that there are things (like witchcraft) that cannot be reduced to a universal language or rationality. Moreover, Ngeti offers an ethnographic window into a potential utopian future, providing insights into what a citizen in a borderless world might look like. For this emergent subject, "identity" and "subjectivity" are not static things, or inherited histories, but practices of movement back and forth and of translation that is never finished, because naturally there is always something left unsaid.


This book is divided into eight chapters, each of which contains multiple essays by Ngeti and commentary written by me. Chapter 2, "English Makes You See Far," concerns Ngeti's lifelong love affair with the English language. His essays in this chapter touch on a stubborn weed, a sociopathic missionary, an angry school prefect, a creative teacher, an Irish nun, and pornographic magazines. Taken together, these email letters, and my comments, make an argument about what his fluency means and what it has enabled him to do. Chapter 3, "God Helps Those That Help Themselves," focuses on the efforts of Ngeti's family to ascertain who was bewitching him so that he "hated books." Here Ngeti describes his adolescent experiences of being "tied" so that other people's anger would not enter him. His writings capture the exotic mystery of these rituals, and my commentary contextualizes them with essays about Taita's colonial history and the current postcolonial situation. In chapter 4, "Good Ants, Bad Milk, and Ugly Deeds," Ngeti pulls back, at my suggestion, and provides some backdrop to witchcraft in Taita and to his anxieties about being bewitched. His essays dwell on the insect world of the past, a sick cow, a family brawl, and a magic cat. They also move us from rural Taita to the city of Mombasa, the setting for chapters 5 and 6.

In chapter 5, "The Power of Prayer," Ngeti writes about his decision to take a cue from his mother and leave his life of marijuana, reggae, and brothels behind to become "saved" in a major Pentecostal church. He describes the excitement of public salvation, how it felt to speak in tongues, and his early interactions with the preacher-prophet Patroba, who would become a significant figure in his life. The chapter is filled with other anecdotes, including an adolescent run-in with the police, a fight with a demonic avocado, and an encounter with hungry demons on the beach. Chapter 6, "Works and Days," comprises a diary that Ngeti wrote for a year while he was living with Patroba in Mombasa and struggling, with another saved friend, to put together a business with the Lord's blessing. This chapter marks the beginning of Ngeti's disillusionment with Pentecostalism. It is filled with pithy, tantalizing narratives about a fateful accident, a case of plastic teeth, and God's favorite cell phone, among other things. Chapter 7, "A Confrontation," emerges from oral discussions I had with Ngeti when I returned to Taita in 2003. In this chapter, Ngeti brings me up to speed about his recent conflicts with his parents, and together we work to arrive at a solution. Chapter 8, "Reflections," is also based on an interview with Ngeti, this one at the end of 2010, and includes Ngeti's more recent interpretations of the events depicted in the book, following on the deaths of Patroba and his mother. In this chapter, I also offer insights into Ngeti's story and, in the spirit of dialogic anthropology, suggest the impact that it has had on my own life.

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