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.
Email from Ngeti An Ethnography of Sorcery, Redemption, and Friendship in Global Africa
Emails from the Field
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 pa
About the Book
Reviews"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
Table of Contents
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
Appendix: Members of Ngeti’s Family