For Money and Elders: Ritual, Sovereignty, and the Sacred in Kenya [1 ed.] 022665561X, 9780226655611

Many observers of Kenya’s complicated history see causes for concern, from the use of public office for private gain to

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For Money and Elders: Ritual, Sovereignty, and the Sacred in Kenya [1 ed.]
 022665561X, 9780226655611

Table of contents :
1. Introduction
2. Kenyatta's Lament: The Transformation of Ritual Ideologies in Colonial Kenya
3. Inflationary Rituals: The Mau Mau Rebellion
4. Old Age and Money: The General Numismatics of Independent Kenya
5. "Satan Is an Imitator": Kenya's Recent Cosmology of Corruption
6. Corruptus Interruptus: The Limits of Transactional Imaginaries in Moi's Kenya
7. (Not) Seeing Is Believing: Ethnicity, Trauma, and the Senses in Kenya's 2007 Postelection Violence

Citation preview

For Money and Elders

For Money and Elders Ritual, Sovereignty, and the Sacred in Kenya

r ob e rt w. b l u n t

The University of Chicago Press  ó  Chicago and London

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637 The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London © 2019 by The University of Chicago All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews. For more information, contact the University of Chicago Press, 1427 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637. Published 2019 Printed in the United States of America 28  27  26  25  24  23  22  21  20  19  1  2  3  4  5 isbn-­13: 978-­0-­226-­65561-­1 (cloth) isbn-­13: 978-­0-­226-­65575-­8 (paper) isbn-­13: 978-­0-­226-­65589-­5 (e-­book) doi: /chicago/9780226655895.001.0001 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Blunt, Robert W., author. Title: For money and elders : ritual, sovereignty, and the sacred in Kenya / Robert W. Blunt. Description: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: lccn 2019012197 | isbn 9780226655611 (cloth : alk. paper) | isbn 9780226655758 (pbk. : alk. paper) | isbn 9780226655895 (e-book) Subjects: lcsh: Kenya—Politics and government— 20th century. | Kenya—Politics and government— 21st century. | Kenya—Religion. Classification: lcc dt433.575.b595 2019 | ddc 967.62/03—dc23 lc record available at ♾ This paper meets the requirements of ansi/niso z39.48–­1992 (Permanence of Paper).

Contents 1

Introduction  1


Kenyatta’s Lament: The Transformation of Ritual Ideologies in Colonial Kenya  28


Inflationary Rituals: The Mau Mau Rebellion  60


Old Age and Money: The General Numismatics of Independent Kenya  91


“Satan Is an Imitator”: Kenya’s Recent Cosmology of Corruption  118


Corruptus Interruptus: The Limits of  Transactional Imaginaries in Moi’s Kenya  144


(Not) Seeing Is Believing: Ethnicity, Trauma, and the Senses in Kenya’s 2007 Postelection Violence  171

Coda  190 Acknowledgments  197 Notes  207 Bibliography  217 Index  231

1 Introduction According to both international onlookers and many Kenyans, the election of Mwai Kibaki in 2003 was supposed to usher in a more stable and dependable government than that of his predecessor Daniel arap Moi (1978–­2002). Kibaki united disparate parties under the banner of the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC), a clear distinction to the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the party that had been in power since independence. In what might be described as the least ethnic election in Kenya’s short history of multiparty politics (Kenya was a one-­party state until the early 1990s), Kibaki defeated his fellow Kikuyu, Uhuru Kenyatta, whom Moi had handpicked as his successor on the basis of presenting a “youth” candidate. It would turn out, however, that Kibaki’s coalition was glued together with fragile adhesives. Before his election, Kibaki had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with his key coalition partners to decentralize executive power in the drafting of a new constitution. The MOU included a power-­sharing agreement with Raila Odinga, the powerful head of the Liberal Democratic Party, NARC’s most important coalition partner. Previous versions of the draft constitution had included legal provisions for both a president popularly elected by Kenyans and a prime minister elected by Kenya’s parliament. However,


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when Kenya’s attorney general, Amos Wako, presented the final version of the draft constitution to be voted on in the constitutional referendum of November 2005, it retained sweeping powers for the president. Kibaki’s coalition soon fragmented, and Odinga, under the new banner of ODM (Orange Democratic Movement),1 led a successful revolt against what was supposed to be Kibaki’s crowning achievement, a new constitution. The constitutional referendum was soundly defeated. Although Kibaki failed to introduce a new constitution retaining exceptional executive powers of the past (on paper anyway), he nonetheless further ratified what was arguably the main fait accompli of Moi’s government—­the lifting of the state’s imprimatur from its official signs and processes while nonetheless continuing to perform a model of elderhood from which this imprimatur was popularly and tacitly held to emanate. After independence in 1963, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, had fashioned himself into the Mzee (the Kiswahili honorific for “old man”), both the generative father of the nation and the ultimate guarantor of Kenya’s development-­oriented modernity. Fast for­ ward to the period beginning in the 1980s until the end of KANU rule in 2002. During this period, Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, initiated a new era of ruse and dissimulation catalyzed by conditions of scarcity instigated by the rise of neoliberalism and Kenya’s changing post–­Cold War relationship to the United States and Britain. Under Moi, state performances of largesse cer­ tainly resembled the baroque rituals of Kenyatta’s robust patri­ monial state, but their spectacular nature masked an ongoing liq­ uidation of the commons. In this same vein, Kibaki inherited what would come to be called the “Anglo-­Leasing scandal” from Moi’s KANU government. Premised on the need to improve security and antifraud infrastructure, Anglo-­ Leasing Finance was a British company (along with several other similar firms), which had bid on these security-­related tenders during the Moi era. New forensics labs, a brand-­new passport verification system, and even naval ships were contracted for purchase by the Kenyan government. In the


case of the passport system and forensic laboratories, a French company agreed to provide them for the sum of six million Euros. However, Anglo-­Leasing Finance was awarded the contract for thirty million Euros even though they would eventually subcontract this work to the same French firm that had put in a bid of six million. Apart from ALF overcharging the Kenyan government by 500 percent, most of the infrastructure contracted for never materialized, and most of the companies involved in what was essentially a noncompetitive bidding process turned out to be a series of interlinked ghost companies connected to several key figures in Kibaki’s government (including, most notably, internal security minister Chris Murungaru and vice president Moody Awori). The contours of the Anglo-­Leasing scandal mirrored those of the Moi era. Powerful state actors falsified the state’s imprimatur, effectively counterfeiting key official signs and processes at a cost to Kenyans of billions of shillings. Critics of “corruption” and political scientists armed with ru­ brics for “fragile states” might look at the Kibaki regime and highlight a familiar litany of crimes: the use of public office for private gain, the attempt to maintain a constitutional structure lopsided toward the executive, and so on.2 Yet such efforts to list failures of governance and fiscal management themselves fail to explain what these putative crimes mean to ordinary Kenyans. Such taxonomic and reductionist tendencies fail to inquire into the vocabularies, genres, and forms though which Kenyans express their own political understandings, make sense of governance, and articulate what they expect from the sovereigns they often refer to as “the wazee” (Kiswahili for “the old men”). In It’s Our Turn to Eat, Michela Wrong’s account of Kibaki’s former anticorruption czar John Githongo, she captures these continuities between the Moi and Kibaki eras through T. E. Law­ rence’s own disillusionment with the architects of British Em­ pire after the Arab revolt in 1916. “Yet, when we achieved and the new world dawned the old man came out again and took our victory to re-­make in the likeness of the former world they knew . . . Youth could win but had not learned to keep: and was



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pitiably weak against age” (Wrong 2009, xi). Yet it bears asking: what exactly was this world that the “old man” in Kenya sought to “remake”? And what exactly distinguishes old men as such? The answer to both these questions, I argue, is more complex than anything that the category of “corruption” can convey. It requires a shift of analytical attention to the more mundane forms of everyday life Kenyans inhabit. Throughout the Moi era until the end of Kibaki’s rule, Ken­ yans certainly complained about a wide array of state and nonstate practices that they labeled “corruption.” But I argue that they were worried more about the corruption of meaning and the potential fragility of the authorities that are supposed to ground a stable relationship between signs and their referents. This book addresses this problem in detail. But to start, consider one of Kenya’s most visible and ubiquitous social institutions: the humble matatu. Matatus are commuter taxis—­usually Nissan minivans—­that ferry Kenyans and, importantly, their money, from home to work and from city to country (Mutongi 2017). As will become clearer below, its close association with money—­as both a medium of exchange and a repository of social meaning—­makes the matatu a prism through we can begin to view problems of meaning, value, and the gender of sovereignty in Kenya’s patrimonial symbolic economy.

Mungiki As the circulatory system of the nation, matatus have, not surprisingly, been a particularly dense site for rent-­seeking3 activities from a variety of interested parties. In this regard, no group has been more famous in the unofficial taxation of matatu routes than the “Mungiki sect.” Kibaki cracked down on the movement a few weeks into his presidency in early 2003 for their illegal “taxation” of matatu routes, but Mungiki made an uncanny return to the public eye just as the Anglo-­Leasing scandal was breaking. For example, a headline from the October 15, 2005, edition of The Nation queried, “Could This Be Mungiki’s Secret Den?”4


After listing various “criminal activities” in and around Nairobi that Kenya’s police boss King’ori Mwangi attributed to Mungiki—­ murders, robberies, extortion, recent strikes by matatu workers—­ the article proceeded to describe alleged Mungiki “literature and paraphernalia” confiscated by the police in a raid on a suspected Mungiki “headquarters.” These items include “cameras, receipt books, and hymn books” and, counterintuitively for an organization known for its secrecy, “membership certificates.” Items that seemed to the police slightly more sect-­like were “cleansing oils” and, more suspiciously, “flags coloured white, yellow, green, red and black—­hues associated with the sect.” At the top of the article’s list of suspect religious materials, however, were a few traditional Kikuyu houses in this case built right next to a modern house and organized around what the author describes as a “shrine.” “Oathing is done in an open space near a shrine,” Mr. Mwangi states matter-­of-­factly. One Mr. Ombati, an investigative officer at the site, supplies further confirmation of the missing occupants’ suspect ritual activities, declaring that the home in question “looks like a shrine.” The ritual activity ascribed to this “shrine,” that of “oathing,” is terrifying for many Kenyans, as it is believed to activate dangerous mystical energies that bind Mungiki members to one an­ other in relationships of secrecy and obligation. Here it is nota­ ble that the mention of oathing appears right after a description of the military-­style equipment of the special police unit, which had invaded the compound. As the reporter explains: From a distance the paramilitary police unit, specially trained for insurgency, presents a setting of an action-­packed Hollywood thriller. Each officer is armed with an automatic gun, with a pistol and a knife strapped on either side of the waist. Rounds of ammunition are secured across the chest, which is encrusted in a heavy bulletproof vest. Under the scorching sun, the officers wear steel helmets and face masks that only leave the nose and mouth visible. A senior police officer said they needed to be well armed when dealing with a group like Mungiki.5



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At work here, I argue, is an implicit comparison of differing technologies of lethal force. While it may be tempting to follow the author’s implication that the potential use of lethal/legal force by police is secular and rational and that of Mungiki is magicoreligious (Gluckman 1972), I argue that the proliferation under Moi of new, heavily armed police units on the one hand, and social movements like Mungiki armed with technologies of the numinous, on the other, are two sides of the same problem. That is, at a moment when the state’s imprimatur was rendered fugitive (the Anglo-­Leasing scandal), supplementary violence appeared to be required to enforce the truth of words, whether that entailed the speech act of swearing oaths in a nominally “traditional” ritual context, or in acts of “modern” law enforcement. When Mungiki emerged in the late 1990s, their activities both fascinated and terrified the Kenyan public. On the one hand, it was a neotraditional Kikuyu religious organization, and in that guise it advocated a return to what it imagined as Kikuyu “custom.” But Mungiki was also a “counter-­state” (Smith 1998) of sorts, at times controlling the circulation of a large share of the money and people in the informal economy of transportation, especially in Nairobi. As a self-­consciously conceived “youth” movement, its members were initially quite critical of the types of spectacles of largesse that characterized state bureaucratic behavior, which was almost always understood as gerontocratic—­power and privilege which, generally speaking, Kenyans understand to accrue to certain members of society due to their old age. Mungiki’s lower echelons were composed of a class having the most peripheral status in terms of access to state patrimonial distribution, education, and mechanisms of upward mobility more generally. As these material and symbolic resources have historically been the very ground through which Kenyans have acted upon the world, their increasing instability—­and, in some cases, their absence—­ led urban Kikuyu youth to question from where the power to stabilize the forms and flows of such resources should emanate. Moreover, the exact nature of that power—­the power to back


everything from the stability of monetary value to political promises of development—­was also fundamentally up for grabs. By the end of the Moi era in 2002, the regime had resorted to counterfeiting everything from currency to title deeds.6 Mungiki thus appeared in one sense to partake of the kind of maximizing instrumentality characteristic of the corporation: they quite literally seized the key symbol of the state—­money—­ through unofficial taxation of taxis and protection racketeering in slums (Kagwanja 2005). At the same time, Mungiki’s corporate unity, such as it was, was ultimately backed by ritual. The group self-­consciously attempted to emulate Mau Mau guerillas of the 1950s by swearing loyalty and secrecy oaths allegedly backed by a lethal, mystical force. Given the complex role that oathing has played in the Kenyan historical and political imagination, it is hardly surprising that the aggressively “youth”-­ oriented Mungiki looked to a seemingly traditional ritual form to bind themselves to one another and, initially, quarantine themselves from the corrupting power of the wazee. But for the wider Kikuyu and Kenyan public, as well as the state, Mungiki’s use of oaths was a profound source of public anxiety. In the precolonial and early colonial period, Kikuyu oaths were associated with a mysterious force called thahu, which constantly emanated from the natural world and stood as an ever-­present source of disintegration for the social world. Oaths invoked the power of thahu, and with it the condition of bodily wasting (also called thahu) that ensued if one broke the statutes of the oath or its bonds of secrecy. Today, however, most Kenyans associate oaths with the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya’s anticolonial insurgency and Kikuyu civil war of the 1950s. The oathing rituals that Mau Mau used in their attempts to produce solidarity inside the movement came to be seen by many Kenyans of all ethnic backgrounds (but especially white settlers) as a reckless Kikuyu involvement with forces they did not really control: These oaths were understood not only to be backed by mystical violence, but to also be generative of physical violence.



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For most, the oath lay somewhere between the obscenity of sheer violence and the promise of the rule of law, and it often vacillated between these two poles in the arena of public opinion. While those still sympathetic to the Mau Mau war to win back land from white settlers may have recognized the legitimacy of oathing during the 1950s, by the early 2000s, most were apprehensive about Mungiki’s oathing practices. For contemporary Kikuyus especially, the oath was a form of power little understood in terms of its mechanics and efficacy beyond it being a “traditional” practice. For many, the oath really just gestured to violent excess, a violence that produced as much social division as Kikuyu unity in the 1950s. It is no wonder, then, that Mungiki’s public reception as a self-­proclaimed moral reform movement, rooted in the conservatizing ethos of “tradition,” involved both celebration and censure. Slum residents in Nairobi, particularly before the 2002 elections, at times attributed a bureaucratic effi­ciency to Mungiki that they no longer found in the state (if they ever had in the first place). Mungiki organized garbage clean-­ups in the slums, provided security, and even performed customary legal proceedings to settle conflicts between patrilineages over bridewealth debts. Mungiki’s psychosocial texture was thus fundamentally uncanny. They felt like a threatening echo of Mau Mau and providers of modern services. However, after a period of their relative acceptance in the Kenyan public sphere, Mungiki’s standing changed drastically on March 2, 2002. That evening, some 300 alleged Mungiki members rampaged through Nairobi’s Kariobangi slum, where they killed over twenty non-­Kikuyu residents, many of whom were members of a rival Luo vigilante group known as Kamjesh. The eruptive nature of the attack and the likelihood that Mungiki were now working for slumlords against their competition suggests that some elements of Mungiki had strayed from their moral reform program and had become implicated in the messy game of privatized violence, a concomitant element of Kenya’s more “official” politics (cf. Anderson 2002). Nevertheless, Kenyans continued to feel more ambivalent about Mungiki than they did about


other majeshi (“armies”). These ethnically based militias were by no means foreign to Kenyan politics; they resembled ruling-­party youth wings from earlier moments in Kenyan political history and were often called “majeshi ya wazee,” or “armies of the old men.”7 Mungiki, in contrast, was a similar youth army, but committed to backing youth candidates. Indeed, in a sudden change of political direction (one of many), Mungiki—­who had been ardently anti-­ Moi—­ended up supporting President Moi’s candidate of choice to succeed him in the 2002 elections. This “youth candidate” was the current president of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta. Just after Kibaki was voted into power in December 2002, Mungiki engaged in deadly battles with the police over the control of taxi routes in the Rift Valley town of Nakuru. Here, the movement’s much commented-­upon fearlessness transgressed the limits of acceptability in the eyes of much of the public. When talking to current and former Mungiki members in 2005, I found they often defended the oath as being “beyond talk.” As a euphemism for Mungiki’s alleged immunity to bribes, they argued that their oath distinguished them from simply being a private army, like other majeshi ya wazee. These other “armies of the old men,” youth gangs sponsored and paid for by different ethnic big men, Mungiki viewed as lacking their own moral and religious seriousness, which they believed made them more than mercenaries. By being beyond talk, the oath represented an ultimate sovereign authority, backing the sincerity of Mungiki’s utterances and actions as well as their joint secrecy. Until 2001, neither police nor politicians could infiltrate the movement.8 However, Mungiki purportedly infiltrated the police, feeding their own intelligence apparatus using police informants, whose loyalty, in contrast to their own, was negotiable. Kenyan police carry machine guns and expect money from ordinary Kenyans at traffic stops, yet they were never the object of public anxiety that Mungiki was. Kenyans generally have assumed that the police always have their price. There was a measure of security in the bribe market. The police, hardly an unknown, came to be viewed more as obstacles in the way of getting daily business done. They



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were not the embodiments of the force of law per se. This nego­ tiability of police-­citizen relations gave the latter a chance to domesticate the state through the former.9 The Mungiki oath was an implicit critique of this state of affairs. But it also stood as a critique of the way Kenyans had long been in bed with the state, in what Achille Mbembe has aptly described as relations of “illicit conviviality” (Mbembe 2001, 128), which are neither reducible to social control by force nor a dynamic of domination and resistance. In the patrimonial system of “big men” (big and old are often interchangeable qualities for Kenyans), people voted for politicians because of their access to resources of the state, which they were in turn morally obligated to distribute to their constituencies (de Sardan 1999). Yet, as Cold War levels of donor aid increasingly dried up, and a regime du simulacre emerged under Moi to replace the patrimonial state, the oath stood as something of a symbolic lament: let there be truth, Mungiki seemed to be saying, even if that truth required a supplementary violence to enforce it. In sharp contrast to this imaginary of sovereign force outside of Kenya’s ubiquitous transactional chains, a former Mungiki commander once told me that he had joined Mungiki because elders, especially elders of the state—­an almost exclusively male category—­had become “like money”: they were occasionally dependable, but ultimately, in the transactional dynamics that permeate all aspects of Kenyan life, they were an unstable basis for social life, much like the Ken­ yan shilling under President Moi.

Kibaki’s “Little” Coin In 2005, “twenty, twenty, twenty, twenty, twenty” was the ubiquitous price for many urban routes vocally broadcast by touts across matatu stages in Nairobi’s city center. One day in 2005, it was also exactly half of the value of the 40-­shilling coin in my pocket that allowed me to avoid breaking a 500-­shilling note to pay for the fare. At the time, paying taxi fares with large notes was considered bad manners in Kenya: it violated the frenetic


loose change spirit of the matatu world. Big notes are cumbersome to make change for, requiring matatu drivers to actually come to a complete stop while the conductor or tout counts out change. Big bills also inhibit the conductor from making change for other passengers crammed into the matatu. This particular 40-­shilling coin, new in 2003, was minted to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Kenyan independence. The coin’s obverse was emblazoned with the image of President Mwai Kibaki, who, besides celebrating the nation’s birthday, was also clearly following in the footsteps of his presidential predecessors, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi (and for that matter Queen Elizabeth). While still living, both presidents had placed their own images on the nation’s legal tender, not just on coins and small value notes but on much higher denominations like 500-­ and 1,000-­shilling notes. In other words, having just achieved an election victory in the December general elections of 2002, Kibaki’s commemorative 40-­shilling coin appeared quite modest in juxtaposition to those of his predecessors. In attempting to usher in a new dispensation in governance, the new coin’s exchange value and circulation were kept relatively low, suggesting a proposed new ethos of restrained state largesse. This minted modesty seemed partially to be a response to an informal pre-­election public debate about whether it was appropriate to have a living president on the nation’s currency at all (and indeed the new constitution bars the use of images of living presidents on the currency, but new currency has yet to be printed). The iconic signifier of gerontocratic authority, Moi, had been placed on every denomination of coin and bill by the time he left office in 2002 (eventually having replaced all notes and coins that had previously born Jomo Kenyatta’s image). But Kibaki’s big man modesty backfired. Worth relatively little and limited in circulation when compared to 5-­, 10-­, and 20-­shilling coins, and 50-­, 100-­, 500-­, and 1,000-­shilling notes (which still bore the face of Moi), matatu touts—­often the most adept articulators of public sentiment—­christened the new coin with a name Kenyans found deeply humorous: “Kirucy.” Matatu



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crews in particular resented the Kibaki regime’s increased rationalization of the private transport sector, signified by state-­ mandated uniforms, standardized vehicle paint schemes, and speed governors. So, on this occasion, when I attempted to pay my fare with Kibaki’s 40-­shilling coin, the tout threw up his hands and, with the greatest mock disgust he could muster, flatly stated “Sitaki Kirucy, uko na coin ngine?” or “I don’t want Kirucy, do you have another coin?” Kirucy, or “Little Lucy,” referred to President Kibaki’s “senior” wife Lucy Kibaki. She is perhaps best known for her May 2005 late night raid of the Nation Media Group offices with her security detail. Arriving in exercise clothes late at night (something that really seemed to bother Kenyans), while in the Nation offices she angrily protested their coverage of her highly publicized fight with then-­outgoing World Bank country representative Muhktar Diop, who lived in a house that the World Bank had rented from the Kibakis, adjacent to their main house. Several nights earlier, during Mr. Diop’s farewell party, the first lady stormed into the party and attempted to unceremoniously rip the power cord connected to the music system out of the wall. Surrounded by armed guards, she then proceeded to call the local police demanding that Mr. Diop be arrested. On the night she arrived at the Nation’s offices, Lucy effectively held Nation staff hostage with the assistance of her sheepish security team while she heaped vitriolic accusations of biased reporting on those working late, grabbing staff cell phones and notebooks, and even slapping a camera man for recording the event (which, much to her presumed chagrin, was widely broadcast on Nation TV the next day). The notoriety that this incident earned Lucy was seconded only by her other well-­publicized assault of the government principal administrative secretary, Francis Musyimi, at a presidential awards ceremony for “mistakenly” referring to Lucy as “Mary Wambui,” the so called “NARC activist.” This was the tacitly agreed upon press title for Kibaki’s “junior wife,” whose ambiguous marital status was rendered even more so by Lucy’s


rumored intolerance of Wambui being mentioned anywhere in her vicinity. On a different occasion, Vice President Moody Awori publicly referred to her as the “Second Lady.” All of this culminated in an uncomfortable press event where President Kibaki, standing next to Lucy, explained to the press corps and the nation, “I have only one wife.” It was this intense dislike of Lucy and her allegedly explosive and unpredictable temper which, in the hypermasculine sphere of Kenyan public life, had earned her such a sarcastic and extremely gendered folk moniker, “Kirucy” (which can also mean “like Lucy”). Yet what is perhaps not immediately evident to those unfamiliar with how Kenyans talk about money is the way money and male elders of the state have historically been conflated, but positively. The use of the Kiswahili diminutive “ki” now modifying Lucy’s name stood in sharp juxtaposition to the usual granting of corpulence to mostly male representatives of state, epitomized in the common greeting used to address social superiors, “Habari ya mkubwa?” or, “How are you, Big Man?” Kibaki’s soft-­spoken, sparsely scheduled, and often fumbling public speeches stood in marked contrast to President Moi’s public ubiquity, rhetorical acrobatics, and patrimonial largesse, like his common practice of buying cabbages at roadside markets for hundreds of dollars apiece. In 2005, for example, while sitting in a bar in Kitale, one of former president Moi’s supportive constituencies, watching one of Kibaki’s underwhelming performances, an elderly gentleman stood up and yelled at the TV in English, “This one is a fake!” almost as if he were examining a counterfeit banknote. Yells of support from the other patrons were laced with nostalgic comparative references to Moi’s largesse and allegedly superior public speaking capacities. Over the years, I have tried to think about the significance and connection between this diminutive gendering of Kibaki’s little coin and occasionally harsh appraisals of his lackluster oratorical abilities. This particular conflation of a specific public personality with the general equivalent of the money form (albeit sarcastic and diminishing) pointed to a profound skepticism



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about the Kibaki administration’s capacity to weld a new idea of proposed rationalized governance to an equally aspirational vision of Kenyan nationhood, despite the spirit of panethnic cooperation that had brought Kibaki to power. Not far into Kibaki’s presidency, matatu workers, like the tout who rejected my payment with Kirucy, experienced Kibaki’s initial platform of combating the complex of exchange practices that often fall under the sign of “corruption” as interfering with their capacity to make a better living. Before 2003, matatu crews disregarded speed limits and vehicle capacity standards, moving as quickly as possible through stops and police roadblocks by transacting “chai” (tea, the euphemism for cash “gifts” motorists give to police) with un­ derpaid officers. In the 1980s and 1990s, as structures of governance further succumbed to the persuasive power of the shilling—­whether in the form of state largesse to gift constituencies before elections or the domestication of the law by motorists offering cash gifts to police at road blocks—­under Moi, cash had simply been more available. The increasing rate of the privatization of public office under Moi—­exacerbated by neoliberal austerity measures imposed on Kenya by donors—­facilitated a hemorrhaging of liquidated public assets (and private assets seized from business owners by Moi’s family) into Kenya’s transactional networks to such an extent that one of my taxi-­owner informants stated in a somewhat celebratory tone, “Under Moi, there was a lot more money in circulation because everyone was stealing.” It is hard to know whether the ubiquity of fee-­for-­service governance may have actually cost Kenyans more than something akin to Max Weber’s rational bureaucracy. Certainly matatu crews thought that it did. Hence the rechristening of Kibaki’s little coin was not really all that surprising. The coin was intended to communicate Kibaki’s early attempts at downsizing “customary” images of male political authority and redistributive capacity (epitomized in the concept of “bigness”), but Kibaki was not like his money in the way Moi was. Moi circulated everywhere at all levels of society, and his speeches were well known as objects


of both ridicule and celebration. Kibaki did not engage with the public much. He was “a fake!” The public rechristening of the coin with the name of Lucy Kibaki, modified by the diminutive, was a misogynistic inversion of the public understanding of the primary state function—­distribution of the “national cake”—­whose relative value and velocity was supposed to be guaranteed by the head of state, “the Mzee,” or, “the old man.” However, nostalgia for increased levels of monetary circulation expressed by matatu workers must be understood in light of the fact that, at the time, they were specially placed to access the flows of value under what Jane Guyer calls a “cash and carry system” (2004), a circulation environment in which money rarely enters formal financial institutions after it is minted. Before the advent of digital moneys stored and transferred via cell phones in Kenya (M-­PESA), Kenya’s roads, and the matatus that traversed them, were the main arteries and capillaries of all monetary circulation through Kenya’s body politic. Money moved in minivans, not banks. In this respect, Kirucy speaks to similar conceptions of value that Brad Weiss unpacks in his discussion of “the Pajero” in late twentieth-­century Tanzania. During that time, Tanzanians had rechristened the newly minted 500-­shilling note “the Pajero” for the latest Mitsubishi four-­wheel drive vehicle driven by the wealthy. Fast, able to go where others cannot, and rare, if not unobtainable for most, the Pajero’s inaccessibility attested to their status as prestige objects, beyond local control, both the car and the bill, requiring a kind of secret knowledge to successfully command (Weiss 1996, 182). In Kenya, Kirucy—­ limited in circulation and worth relatively little—­did not so much represent unobtainable mystery as failed big man largesse, revealing how Kenyans understand money as a token, in this case, of a particular type of sovereign (Silverstein 2005). But perhaps more important for my purposes here is the fact that such memorializing of better days when money was easier to come by also entailed a certain degree of amnesia. The hypercirculation of money under Moi had been a symptom of the gradual lifting of the state’s imprimatur (cf. Apter 2005),



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epitomized in the person of Moi himself, from its key symbol, its money (Blunt 2004). The Moi government had flooded the market with unregistered bank notes to outgift his competition before the 1992 elections, Kenya’s first multiparty election since independence. Much of this money was generated by the infamous (but legal) Goldenberg scandal in which “investors” were paid a 35% compensation for gold exports (which didn’t exist), a scheme designed to allegedly help generate foreign currency reserves (something the IMF and World Bank were recommending for Kenya). For the Goldenberg scheme to work as long as it did, Forex procedures were being counterfeited at the Central Bank and a secondary market developed for Forex certificates, magical objects to be sure, due to their capacity to generate value from nothing more than the appearance of officialdom, a bureaucratic sign, shorn from any material or regulatory mooring (Branch 2011, 217–­44). This overall situation led to a peculiar and disturbing condi­ tion. The two sides of money, the topdown organization of the state and the bottomup organization of the market, what Keith Hart calls “heads and tails,” completely collapsed into one another, so as to become indistinguishable (Hart 1986). What interests me about “Kirucy” is the way that, as specie, it indexes a particular conflation of the qualitative values of old age and male gerontocratic authority (even as it indexed their failure)—­ its meaning—­with the quantitative values of currency—­its value. In the public imagination anyway, they became indistinguishable alibis for each other. Or, put differently, in Kenya, big men of the state have big money, both in value and volume. Kirucy illustrates how gerontocratic power and the issue and backing of value is completely convoluted in the Kenyan popular imagination (evidenced further in the comments made by the Mungiki commander mentioned earlier). That is to say that Kenyans have come to understand the main function of the head of state to be to correlate and maintain a stable relationship between what Andrew Apter has described as “truth value” and “exchange value” (Apter 2005, 224). How Kenyans understand this


particular sovereign function—­to insure a stable relationship between meaning and value—­itself has a history. It is this history that the following chapters attempt to convey, as an historical anthropology of political form rather than a history of Kenyan politics (about which much has already been written). In my own thinking about the rise of the patrimonial state in Kenya, I have found myself returning again and again to the monetary as a decisive type of revolution not just in commerce, but also in communication more generally (Goody 1977), tied in important ways to gender and gerontocratic authority.

Elderhood and Sovereignty For Money and Elders explores Kenya’s “eldership complex” (Kopytoff 1971), focusing specifically on the trajectory of elderhood in Kenya over time, from the precolonial past to the postcolonial present. The story I tell begins with the colonial encounter of the Kikuyu of Central Kenya and tracks the colonial transformation of Kikuyu understandings of ritual efficacy. As a colonial category imposed on the Kikuyu, “ritual,” especially the juridical ritual of oathing, was supposed to have sovereign-­like effects. In repeating the words of oath administrators, those who swore oaths were supposed to be bound to the oath’s statutes by a mystical force. I show how this particular understanding of how oaths were supposed to work was actually novel to the colonial encounter. I trace the emergence of a novel “sovereign function” attached to elders in which thahu, the mystical force Kikuyu understood to enforce oaths in extreme cases of social discord, came to be understood as a kind of “curse” emanating from elders themselves, which they were also thought to control. This was a result of colonial administrators—­even more than missionaries—­wanting traditional Kikuyu social structures and “ritual” to function like idealized, if not secularized, Protestant Christian ones. That is, to have a central sovereign authority to insure the truth of signs from words spoken in oaths and, later in the postindependence period, to guarantee the value of currency. But before the



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imposition of centralized authorities and theories of governance, the Kikuyu possessed what we might call a theory of acephalous sovereignty. In their introduction to African Political Systems (1940), Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-­Pritchard introduced the concept of acephaly (literally “headlessness”) to anthropology as part of a broader effort to classify by political “type” various African societies that had become subject peoples of the British Empire (not by their own choosing, of course). Acephalous societies were “stateless societies,” the editors argued, which “lacked centralized authority, administrative machinery, and constituted judicial institutions—­in short which lack government—­and in which there is no sharp division in rank, status, and wealth” (1940, 5). Although presented in the unfortunate language of lack or absence, the early study of acephalous societies nonetheless raised the possibility of conceiving of juridical processes without the institution of a centralized juridical agent, like a king, or the law. Thirty years ago, Arjun Appadurai critiqued the determinations of such “gate-­keeping concepts” related to place in anthropology (Appadurai 1986, 357). Yet, like William Mazzarella’s re­ cent invocation of mana to talk about the rushes of energy that constitute modern urban crowds (Mazzarella 2017), I argue that acephaly might similarly be a concept whose time has only come now. As a theory of power without authority, in as much as power does not emanate from a centralized social institution, acephaly is productive to think with since it poses conceptual challenges to even critical treatments of sovereignty by philosophers concerned with the legal operations of totalitarian and even liberal states. In both types of polities, the distinctive quality of the sovereign is the right and ability to declare the state of exception: to suspend the protective elements of the law and use its force to define the limits of citizenship and of the human itself. Here I am speaking specifically to Giorgio Agamben’s influential Homo sacer project, which has provided key insights into why institutions (especially the state), invested with the power to insure social order, end up instead producing a great deal of violence


(Agamben 1998). For a historical anthropology of sovereignty in Kenya, such a formulation, however, is a nonstarter. Acephaly, as a specific type of political theory common to East Africa societies located between the centralized polities of the Great Lakes Region and the Indian Ocean Coast, was constituted quite differently, not just in terms of right (and rite) but also in its qualities and origin (or lack thereof ). Taking seriously the concept of political theology as developed by Carl Schmitt—­that the main concepts and institutions at work in modern politics are secularized versions of much older theological ones (Schmitt 2006)—­we can recognize the juridical agent of Euro-­American polities to be the trace of the figure of a divine lawgiver. But in looking for and finding (or, more accurately, “founding”) this type of centralized, juridical agent in Kikuyu senior men, colonial administrators in the Kenya colony rendered elderhood abstract, in the sense that the administration of oaths came to constitute what it meant to be old (authoritative), regardless of either age in the body or older precolonial systems of age as achievement. In the precolonial era, the mystical violence of thahu was a constitutive force outside of an already fractious society, unrooted in a sovereign ancestor or high god. Colonial officials attempted to make it a property of elder sovereignty. However, in the conversion of thahu into a curse that exclusively emanated from elders—­making it of society—­numerous crises of authority proliferated. As this book shows, these crises spring up still. Each of the following chapters turns on a single thematic pairing of crisis and elderhood to explore instances in which the desired gerontocratic capacity to back the truth of signs appears not to be working: colonial-­era Kikuyu concerns about potentially fake ritual objects; the dynamics of supplementary violence and symbolic proliferation in Mau Mau oathing rituals; public anxieties about Satanism with the advent of neoliberalism; and justifications Kenyans resorted to in their country’s 2007–­2008 postelection violence to explain their motivations for such violence. The inefficacy of signs also emerges in the supplementary



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procedures Kenyans engage in to address such “crises,” most notably through ritual and at times through violence. Over the course of the book, I demonstrate that such attempts to reconstitute or capture the sovereign capacity of elders to “back” the truth and efficacy of signs are subject to the same crises of meaning and value such attempts seek to address. By the end, I reveal a recursive logic at work in Kenyan history, in which different iterations of the same crisis around elderhood and the truth of signs emerge and accumulate over time. By revealing this recurrence, one of my aims is to further illuminate why Kenya has not so much been “structurally dependent on male labor,” as this is no longer sociologically true, but to partially account, historically and theoretically, for why the state is “cast as male” (Smith and Mwadime 2014, 25) and how this fact is tied to the relationship between money, old age, and the history of colonialism. Another key impetus for the book is the fact that, with the exception of Richard Werbner’s Reasonable Radicals and Citizenship in Botswana (2004) and Mario Aguilar’s edited volume The Politics of Age and Gerontocracy in Africa (1998), current anthropological discussions about Africa tend to discuss elderhood in descriptive terms—­most scholars would agree that ubiquitous political images and vocabularies of old age are present throughout the continent—­ yet in these discussions elderhood never really achieves the status of an analytic category. Aguilar’s volume tends to treat elderhood through the familiar category of “life cycle” in accounting for the resilience of old age as a social template for authority in discrete African societies. He states that “the old are those who provide a mediation between past and present, because the past is still considered as mandatory in the cultural creation of the present” (Aguilar 1998, 24). It thus highlights the different ways allegedly discrete African societies contend with aging against the assumed biological universalisms that undergird many life course discussions. It does not address elderhood as an abstract, generalized, ideological, or even mass mediated category. Werbner’s book treats Kalanga elites in Botswana as a counterexample to Jean François Bayart’s (1993) physiological metaphor


for African politics, “the politics of the belly,” in which elders of the state are, in Werbner’s reading of Bayart at least, only depicted as omnivorous gerontocrats when it comes to the consumption and distribution of the commons. In contrast, Werbner’s traditional authorities, who he claims embody Kalanga notions of the public good (a notion that risks appearing relatively singular), are reasonable in the sense that they “are subject to negotiation rather than driven by tyranny or unbridled exploitation” (Werbner 2004, 2). Werbner’s critique of what he terms the “Afro-­pessimist” literature seems to be that depictions of the old men of the state in places like Kenya do not portray them as bound to the demands and expectations of nonelites—­as if they are always already tyrants—­ and are therefore simply unreasonable. Yet Werbner risks caricaturing analyses of the intensely hierarchical relationships and subjectivities immanent to the political economies of circulation and capture across the continent. Alternatively, Janet Roitman aptly describes these relationships and dynamics being rooted in an “ethics of illegality,” her term for the ways actors within historically specific situations and power relations are interested in their own economic reasoning—­an ensemble of enunciative procedures through which social actors explicate their different economic practices (Roitman 2005, 191). Thus, Roitman argues that for those inside the unregulated economies of the Chad basin, for example, concepts like “work, wealth, accumulation, and economic regulation . . . are both critical and unstable” (ibid.), both in the lived world and in their elucidations of what constitutes the reasonable. Elderhood, as the presumed font of political power and source of value in Kenya, is, I would argue, a similar category, both critical to and unstable within Kenya’s postcolonial patrimonial economy. Some of the more promising developments about rethinking elderhood in Africa have come very recently not from anthropologists but from historians. Paul Ocobock, for instance, has rightly argued that discussions of the Kenyan past have for too long entailed writing histories of “single ethnic groups, and their distinct disconnected histories. . . . Gikuyu squatters, Gusii



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litigants, Kalenjin politicians, Kamba soldiers, Maasai moran, or Maragoli widows,” such that Kenyan history seems to be the “sum of its ethnic parts” (Ocobock 2017, 4). His antidote to this “ethnicization of Kenya’s past” is to consider how the British colonial state in its own “coming of age” necessitated posing as an “elder.” In this respect, the British colonial state “institutionalized age and masculinity as inseparable components of statecraft” (ibid.). Local elders and a new cadre of “adult authority figures” (which included “employers, missionaries, schoolmaster, police officers and magistrates”) were mutually, albeit unequally, invested in producing or maintaining the concept of “elder as authority” over increasingly migratory, urbanized, and transient populations of “youth.” In Ocobock’s excellent account, the figure of the elder seems predominantly to mean “parent” in the more abstract and generalized sense of a custodial authority figure. While descriptively it may be true that both the colonial state and African subjects were concerned with elderhood in Kenya, analytically it is important to state that all parties were operating with different understandings of what that meant beyond simple custodial guardianship. These differences would have consequences for the trajectory of colonial and postcolonial history in ways that cannot be derived or predicted from a category like “elder state” if by that one means something more like custodial or “paternalist” state. In this way, as I show, age and gender were not a shared idiom of politics from the get go. Rather, their centrality to both colonial and postcolonial political culture are not legible unless their histories as political categories are read as symptoms of a more thorough-­going crisis of value, meaning, and authority in Kenyan society. I would also add, finally, that while historians of Kenya might well be guilty of “ethnicizing” Kenya’s past, social anthropologists—­especially those of the Manchester School, be­ ginning with Max Gluckman—­recognized as early as 1940 that white colonial administrators and black “squatters, litigants, pol­ iticians, soldiers, and widows” were part of a single colonial society


that could not adequately be understood as the simple “sum” of its ethnic or racial parts. Interestingly, where the relative absence of more theorized discussions about elderhood is particularly notable is in the now substantial and otherwise excellent anthropological literature on African “youth” (e.g., Cole and Durham 2007; Honwana and De Boeck 2005). When elderhood is referenced, disparate perspectives have emerged. More often than not it is a term that simply marks a lack, reducible to something simply unachievable for “youth” in terms of wealth and status, due to prevailing economic conditions; or elders are viewed as sponsors of social reproduction but having declined in social relevance since the colonial era, except for state elites. While such arguments are not wrong per se, many analyses don’t consider sufficiently how this performative template of the Mzee (Old Man) has been generalized across a society like Kenya’s, becoming the apex of what Mbembe has termed “the post-­colonial master code,” that 1) while becoming the society’s primary central code, ends by governing, perhaps paradoxically, the logics that underlie all other meanings within that society; and 2) attempts to institutionalize this world of meanings as a socio-­historical world and to make that world real, turning it into part of people’s “common sense” not only by instilling it in the minds of the cibles, or “target population,” but also by integrating it into the period’s consciousness. (Mbembe 2001, 103)

This more abstract notion of elderhood resonates with Mike McGovern’s idea of aspirational kinship, in which junior-­senior relations “are both invoked ‘aspirationally’ by those with no prior link of kinship and parried by those who should in principle be bound by them” (McGovern 2012, 735). Deborah Durham makes similar arguments about the “management of age” in the challenge and riposte dynamics through which Tswana men attempt to enter the herero, or elder’s circle, at weddings (Durham 2004). Similarly, George-­Paul Mieu has also demonstrated the “queering”—­ if also the enduring salience—­ of the Samburu



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age-­set system as a result of the involvement of Samburu moran in the “ethno-­erotic economies” of coastal Kenya’s sex tourism (Meiu 2015). I thus examine how invocations of old age, which aren’t always directly articulated by Kenyans, contain important imaginaries of sovereign capacity, “aspirations” which themselves may be engines for the very instability such claims are intended to ameliorate (both critical and unstable, to put it in Roitman’s terms). The book’s chapters cover both sides of this conundrum. Chapter 2 shows how a complex colonial social field emerged in ostensibly “Kikuyu” areas of Kenya under indirect rule. My point is to show how this social field remade elders into “traditional” authorities tasked with governing the native reserves, but which resulted in a new, shared understanding of elderhood and its sovereign function among Kikuyus and colonial administrators alike. As I demonstrate, Jomo Kenyatta (1891–­1978), independent Kenya’s first president, was a key actor in bridging the colonial past and postcolonial present as the elder par excellence. Through a critical engagement with previously unexplored correspondence between Kenyatta and colonial state officials, the chapter tracks how colonial administrators and Kikuyu elders came to understand the customary nature of elder authority through the representational and regulatory capacity that objects known as ĩthathi—­what administrators called “oathing stones”—­ were believed to possess. I show how Kenyatta’s anxiety about the use of (allegedly) “fake” ĩthathi to decide “true” land ownership in the Kikuyu reserves distilled the central contradictions now intrinsic to the oath. Put simply, ritual efficacy—­and, thus, the efficacy of male elders—­had become tied to authentic customary rituals and their durable traditional artifacts, while the exact criteria by which elders and oathing stones were “real” was far from clear. The chapter thus not only attends to the colonial social processes by which this understanding of Kikuyu elderhood emerged, it also anchors these transformations in a reconstruction of what the book argues were acephalous precolonial understandings of elder practices of sovereign power that sharply contrasted with what colonial administrators, Kikuyus, and even


scholars would come to understand as Kikuyu “traditional” religion and ritual. Chapter 3 traces the effects of the unmaking and remaking of Kikuyu ritual in relationship to Protestant understandings of the sovereign function of elders detailed in the previous chapter, by reinterpreting the ritual life of guerilla fighters during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. The chapter calls attention to the way Mau Mau oathing rituals contained within the ritual frame both supplementary violence and a dynamic of symbolic proliferation. I show that the colonial state’s practices of public execution and Mau Mau ritual violence were two sides of the same coin. Both “rituals,” I argue, unfolded in what Max Gluckman (cf. 1940) termed a “social field” in which discourses about “tradition” and “modernity” were in fact being underwritten by the same political theology in a context in which elders had failed to control upstart juniors. These juniors usurped the authority of “traditional” oaths and attempted to use them to create Kikuyu solidarity, unwittingly reproducing the oath’s colonial Protestant ideology of efficacy. By introducing the concept of “ritual inflation,” I explain the dynamics of violence and symbolic proliferation at work in Mau Mau ritual as attempts to reground the sovereignty of “symbols” in addition to their attempted usurpation of the “sovereign rite” of elders. Chapter 4 marks a definitive shift in the overall narrative of the book because it offers the particularities of colonial Kikuyu ritual as the analytic and historical background for a discussion of the practices, value forms, popular expectations of, and moral panics around the gerontocratic postcolonial Kenyan nation-­state. The chapter specifically tracks how earlier transformations of Kikuyu notions of elderhood became generalized in the national imagination after independence throughout the formation of President Jomo Kenyatta’s patrimonial state. The chapter argues that in an effort to put Mau Mau violence to rest, Kenyatta attempted to re-­ emplace this same colonial understanding of the sovereign as lawgiver in “traditional” terms, but as the lord of value rather than of law. The chapter provides a concise history of the money form in



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Kenya through a discussion of the semiotics of money and empire, to show the elective affinity between the colonial Christian understandings of sovereignty discussed in chapters 2 and 3, and the general equivalent of the money form. I show, in other words, how Kenyans came to understand money, like the oaths administered by elders in the colonial period, as tokens of gerontocratic speech acts that were supposed to be simply “true,” stable, and fungible. Chapter 5 reveals the fragility of this conflation of elderhood and money through an analysis of a national moral panic about Satanism that erupted under President Moi in the early 1990s. The chapter details how during Moi’s presidential campaign, ruling party representatives handed out hundreds of millions of “counterfeit” shillings at local fundraisers and community development meetings. Due to the resulting massive increase in the money supply, Kenyans experienced a serious decrease in the shilling’s purchasing power. Many Kenyans began speculating that the real source of their politicians’ money was the clandestine sacrifice of innocents and, with the help of Satan, the magical transubstantiation of blood into money. What emerged was a situation similar to post–­oil boom Nigeria as described by Andrew Apter (2005): signs of officialdom became floating signifiers, detached from their historical moorings in the gerontocratic state. Chapter 5 thus explains why so much of Kenya’s occult discourse (and anxiety) during the 1990s and early 2000s focused on elder male politicians as counterfeit guarantors of social reproduction by exploring why new forms of Pentecostalism proposed new ritual solutions to this problem of simulacra. Chapter 6 explores how the figure of the Mzee collapsed into the figure of the policeman in the context of Moi’s patrimonial decay, by focusing on the police and what Kenyans and policy-­oriented NGOs often refer to as “police corruption.” By examining a highly publicized incident that involved police, sex, transport, and money before the December 2002 general elections, this chapter directs attention to those moments in which ordinary Kenyans bump up against the limits of patrimonial power and their convivial relationship to it. In so doing it exposes the tension between forms of


sociality and governance produced through the spectacle of value and those produced through the spectacle of the law. The final chapter focuses on the “ethnic violence” between Kalenjins and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley just after the 2007 elections, arguing that it exceeded the political calculations of ethnic armies working on behalf of political big men that had occurred in previous elections. The chapter focuses on Kalenjin justifications for acts of violence against their Kikuyu neighbors, which typically took the form of a refrain that they were preemptively saving themselves from Kikuyu violence, which, by contrast with their own, was claimed to be done for “ritual purposes.” I emphasize how the 2007 election—­in which President Mwai Kibaki was widely suspected of having counterfeited the results—­activated Kalenjin “memories” about the original “invasion” of the Rift Valley by Kikuyus in the 1970s. Central to the argument, however, is the fact that during local electoral campaigns former President Moi had completely disappeared from public view—­along with his previous levels of patrimonial distribution. Moi’s patrimonial invisibility and the violent destruction that was meted out on his property’s outbuildings, I argue, parallel the Kalenjin destruction of Kikuyu houses and Kalenjin accusations of Kikuyu violence as being occult in nature (in the sense of being hidden from view). To explain this “ethnic violence” I turn to the analytic of the uncanny—­the feeling that what is familiar can become terrifyingly unfamiliar—­in order to explain the sudden inability of Kalenjins to “see” their Kikuyu neighbors, as a way to discuss the experience of the failure of the imprimatur of big men and the way the senses, especially sight, are configured to ratify patrimonial spectacle politics.


2 Kenyatta’s Lament: The Transformation of Ritual Ideologies in Colonial Kenya In 1954, Max Gluckman published a short article in The Listener entitled the “The Magic of Despair.” The article was based on a BBC radio broadcast of the same name delivered during the height of the Mau Mau uprising in colonial Kenya. In it, Gluckman attempted to convince a skeptical British public that the ritual oaths Kikuyu “Mau Mau” guerillas were using to cement loyalty and secrecy within their ranks, “with their high obscenity, were not a return to African pagan religion, as was commonly alleged, but were quite a different kind of phenomenon” (Gluckman 1963 [1954], 137). Instead, Gluckman argued that Mau Mau and their oaths had been “produced by the colonization of Africa, and not by indigenous Africa itself ” (139). As Peter Worsley would later point out, the “obscenities and sacrilege” at work in Mau Mau oathing rituals had prevented the uprising from obtaining full support from Britain’s left (Worsley 1957, 16). What was perceived as Mau Mau’s aura of violent religiosity—­an aura that was highly embellished by prominent settler voices—­did not sit well with a British working class that, Wors-

Kenyatta’s Lament 29

ley argued, had “been so influenced by our imperialist history that it is perhaps the most chauvinist working class in the world, and one of the least active on colonial issues” (15). Worsley’s essay, “The Anatomy of Mau Mau,” published in 1957 (toward the end of the conflict), appeared in the anti-­Stalinist journal The New Reasoner and was a scathing indictment of both conservative and liberal settler representations of Mau Mau. Like “The Magic of Despair,” it also argued cogently about what Mau Mau was not; namely, a nationalist cult movement like the ones that blossomed early in the Melanesian colonial encounter, which he had analyzed in The Trumpet Shall Sound. Worsley noted that Kikuyus had already developed both “secular” political associations and independent Christian churches as early as the 1920s. Mau Mau was something different. He argued that Kikuyus had turned to violence, both inside and outside of the ritual frame, because the colonial government had banned their political organizations and forced the majority of the male Kikuyu popu­ lation into concentration villages. Mau Mau’s oaths were thus ri­­ tuals of last resort. They were, to quote Worsley, “quite unlike any traditional rituals even though they use elements of various tra­­ ditional rituals” (20). Here I want to build on Gluckman’s and Worsley’s observations about the colonial inspiration of Mau Mau ritual to examine historically and ethnographically the transformation of Kikuyu oaths before the 1950s. Specifically, I argue that the mandates of indirect rule in Kenya sparked a process of “unmaking” (in Weiss’s [1996] words) of Kikuyu ideologies of ritual ef­­ ficacy. But they were also remade. If  “traditional” oaths were once grounded in a distinctly acephalous ideology of ritual efficacy that refused the ontological centering of sovereignty, they came increasingly to be mediated—­for Kikuyus and colonial administrators alike—­by a Protestant understanding of how oaths were supposed to work, one that foregrounds sovereignty as an ontological rooting or fixation of power. As Ruth Marshall similarly argues about Pentecostal ideas of sovereignty, the oath moved away from an acephalous imagination and toward a “vertical and


Chapter 2

absolute one modeled on God the Father, as a power greater than which none can be thought, such as we find in Hobbes (1982 [1660]) or elaborated by Carl Schmitt (2005) as a power beyond the law” (Marshall 2014, 352). This transformation sent “the oath,” as colonial administrators referred to Kikuyu oathing procedures, on a contradictory trajectory toward being both an antidote to and engine for anomic violence. Through a close reading of the colonial administrative and ethnographic archive, I argue that for the precolonial Kikuyu, rit­­ ual efficacy entailed a semiotics of management, rather than mastery, in which the power to join word to deed was seen as excessive and dangerous, requiring careful corralling and channeling and always potentially exceeding elder control. While oaths always contain both the vow and the curse simultaneously, in contrast to this semiotics of management, colonial administrators re­­ quired a definitive sovereign authority from which the curse should emanate. And in so doing, they rewrote the ritual grammar of Kikuyu cosmology.

Writing Ritual out of Mau Mau Studies The claim that Mau Mau and its opaque and confusing ritual complex was a byproduct of colonialism may sound obvious in hindsight. As an object of inquiry examined by historians and anthropologists alike, Mau Mau has been exhaustively taken up as a way of arguing about the relationship between ethnicity and violence, and a dense site for the production of different analytic frames for understanding dynamics of continuity and change. However, Gluckman’s and Worsley’s emphasis on violence and signification in the ritual frame, as well as the apparently jumbled nature of oathing rituals in the 1950s, was never really taken up by historians. As John Lonsdale and subsequent generations of historians of Kenya have persuasively argued, the “Mau Mau rebellion”—­a Kikuyu anticolonial uprising and civil war that took place during the 1950s in the Kenya Colony—­was a violent moral debate among Kikuyus about the proper avenues

Kenyatta’s Lament 31

for achieving cultural notions of civic honor and adulthood (Lonsdale 1992). Daniel Branch has nicely shown that this was equally true for most people who fell between the poles of “loyalism,” those who sided with the colonial state’s crackdown on Mau Mau, and those who tended more toward militant support of, or active participation in, the violent aspects of the uprising (Branch 2009). Against the backdrop of the massive appropriation of land by white settlers and the forced introduction of private property and capitalism more generally, other avenues for voicing Kikuyu grievance had been cut off. The Kikuyu poor increasingly understood themselves as unable to achieve ithaka na wiathi, or “land and freedom,” the mantra of the “Kenya Land and Freedom Army,” what Mau Mau forest fighters actually called themselves. Regarding Mau Mau oaths specifically (the subject of the following chapter), much of the Mau Mau literature deals with the various contents and typological classifications of oaths as indices of differing levels of militancy and commitment to the movement (cf. Kershaw 1997). Much of this literature traces the historical origin and evolution of Kikuyu oaths. For instance, most scholars of Mau Mau understand the origin of Mau Mau oaths to be rooted in the membership oaths of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), an early Kikuyu political organization that represented Kikuyu grievances to the colonial government before the organization was banned in 1940. But none of this literature really examines the historicity of the Mau Mau oath at the level of form. In other words, while tracing the genealogy of the oath to the KCA may highlight the political dimension of Mau Mau practice, it does not actually explain either the transgressive or violent aspects of the ritual process. Whether those who administered oaths—­or those who “ate” them—­knew they were violating “sacred” taboos, as Worsley claimed, is debatable. But Worsley was right about one thing: the rituals contained jumbled collections of significata (Turner 1967, 28) mined from all over the colonial social field (e.g., the banana fronds of circumcision thrown together with overtly


Chapter 2

Christian symbols). This jumbled (and often violent) quality of Mau Mau ritual still requires explanation.1 This is in large part due to the fact that, within the Mau Mau literature, Worsley’s and Gluckman’s focus on the oathing ritual itself (from its allegedly sacrilegious and obscene qualities to its violent character and apparently baroque symbolic repertoire) has given way to ef­­ forts to recuperate Mau Mau’s rationality from colonial era depictions of its savagery. This exclusion is perhaps understandable. Gluckman, channeling Freud, argued that given the incapacities of traditional Kikuyu religion to make sense of the rapidly transforming colonial world, the ritual deployment of “blood, sex, excreta, bestiality,” or “the threat to murder near kin,” expressed universal instinctual drives that can bubble up when societal controls are weakened (Gluckman 1963, 145). At the level of description alone, Gluckman came close to reifying what many scholars have since written off as salacious settler depictions of Kikuyu savagery. But Gluckman’s analytic clustering of violence with what he called the “symbols” at work in the oaths runs counter to a scholarly tendency to separate violence from signification. The aim here is to reconsider them together, symptomatically. To do this, I rely in this chapter and the next on Webb Keane’s notion of a “semiotic ideology” for thinking about the often vaguely articulated and constantly changing assumptions about ritual efficacy at play in Kenya’s late colonial encounter. Semiotic ideologies—­the beliefs people hold and articulate about how sign systems (which encompass both words and things) are structured and operate—­rationalize and justify particular forms of action (Keane 2007, 16). In Kenya, as will become clear, colonial administrators and Kikuyus increasingly came to share a single semiotic ideology, characterized by a perspective that views sovereignty as “an ontological ground of power and order expressed in law or in enduring ideas of legitimate rule” (Hansen and Stepputat 2006, 297). Prior to colonial intrusion, however, the semiotics of Kikuyu oathing were based less on mastery than on an elaborate logic of “gambling” (Peterson 2002), in which

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participants tried to manage and channel forces that were inherently “wild” and excessive. Success in that regard might bring limited resolution to highly localized problems, but it did not ground authority per se. I argue that the colonial state’s very different assumption that sovereignty ontologically grounds order eventually generated a crisis of authority among the Kikuyu, one that would be particularly distilled in the ritual frame of Mau Mau’s oathing practices.

Unmaking Kikuyu Cosmology The process of unmaking Kikuyu cosmology was one in which the colonial state and certain Kikuyu elders attempted to naturalize gerontocratic authority as the font of ritual power, but turned on the contradictory social trajectory of what Kikuyu called ĩthathi (gĩthathi sing.). Ĩthathi were small, sacred objects that, in moments of profound social breakdown, functioned as both oracle and judge. The gĩthathi “decided” which litigant was “lying” in customary legal disputes, cursing the guilty party’s entire lineage with a condition of bodily affliction2 that could ultimately lead to death. As I will show, under indirect rule, ıĩthathi and the ritual system in which they were embedded were utterly transformed as they were incorporated into processes of native administration. While ı˜thathi may have existed before the formal establishment of indirect rule, it was under colonialism that they were ideologically invested with a peculiar, specifically gerontocratic potency. Part of this novelty was due to the fact that the colonial state invested ĩthathi not only with unprecedented regulatory capacities, but also with the power to commensurate native custom with their own “universal” law. Of course, they were unaware of the latter category’s own parochial character (cf. Sheik 2011). “Oathing stones,” as British district officers often called ĩthathi, were thus “fetishes” par excellence (cf. Pietz 1985, 1987, 1988; Spyer 1998), in that they sublimated actual cultural differences between completely different ritual ideologies into a shared enthusiasm for the oath as a technique of governance.


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This is not to say that this process of calibration and commensuration was in any measure a success for those involved. The formal similarity of oaths masked the underlying dissimilarity of their latent ideologies of efficacy. Previously, Kikuyu oaths were characterized by a sense of certainty with respect to the force that backed oaths, but uncertainty regarding its management and effects. This force, generated by nature and known as thahu, was understood to be dangerous in Kikuyu society. Its polluting, contagious quality created abject beings, both human and animal, and always potentially overwhelmed the elders who speculatively channeled it to solve specific social problems. In this respect, the force that backed oaths was not intrinsic to the oath itself or even to Kikuyu society. Rather, it was the constitutive outside of Kikuyu society, an aspect of nature really, which was only speculatively and fearfully invoked. The imposition of Protestant notions of sovereignty onto the Kikuyu ritual system thus conflated elder authority and ĩthathi with the force they previously could only hope to direct efficaciously. By attempting to bring thahu into society, the colonial situation in the Kikuyu reserves compelled new questions about thahu’s origins, qualities, and effects. More specifically, available sources provide evidence for a fundamental shift in attitude re­­ garding the certainty of oathing procedures. Whereas before Kikuyus regarded the force that backed the efficacy of oaths as frightfully certain, its outcomes were not viewed as overdetermined or even necessarily manageable due to thahu’s overwhelming and excessive character. Colonial administrative retooling of oaths produced what was arguably a new sense of uncertainty about what exactly backed oaths, combined with a strange sense of the oath’s definitive capacity to produce social order (if performed correctly). As we shall see, however, this newfound ritual certainty that oaths had to work was plagued by persistent doubts as to the authenticity of the institutions (elders) and media (ĩthathi) through which they were performed. What is most peculiar about the eventual addition of violence to oaths by Mau Mau insurgents was its complete reversal of what was supposed to have

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been the unique nature of oaths: the capacity to produce death without blame, blocking the spirals of retaliatory violence characteristic of acephalous societies, as E. E. Evans-­Pritchard long ago demonstrated in his discussion of the Nuer feud (Evans-­ Pritchard 1967). At the center of this story is the figure of Jomo Kenyatta, who was both the first president of independent Kenya and a student of Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. Kenyatta is often described as having presented Kikuyu society as an overly ordered “Arcadian republic of elders” (Berman 1996, 333). To him, oaths insured the largely mythical mechanical solidarity of a Kikuyu community that had, in truth, always been politically “loose and fractious” (ibid.). According to Kenyatta, societies, and Kikuyu society specifically, were held together by what he refers to several times in his ethnography of the Kikuyu, Facing Mount Kenya, as “symbols of truth” or “symbols of the oath” (Kenyatta 1965, 214–­17). Kenyatta’s functionalist understanding of oaths was also expressive of a widespread sense among Africans that something was actively undermining the structures and processes of traditional authority, which both the British and many Kikuyu were invested in maintaining. For Kenyatta, this corrosive “something” was money (Kenyatta 1965, 216). But in isolating money as an independent force undermining customary institutions, Kenyatta misrecognized the colonial cash economy and colonial power structures as separable things. In this respect, his lament about how money destroyed oaths paralleled attempts by Mau Mau insurgents to keep money’s allegedly deleterious effects on ritual efficacy and sincerity outside of the ritual frame: during the war, oath takers had to remove European coins from their person before uttering the oath’s statutes (Barnett and Njama 1966, 57). Colonial officials as well as Kenyatta’s political rival, Louis Leakey, were subject to the very same misrecognition. Money and elders were both integral to larger forces of abstraction, whose symbolic logics already thoroughly mediated the different elements of the Kikuyu ritual economy (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 18)—­a problem to


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which we will return. For now, Kenyatta’s experience with the Kiambu Local Native Tribunal in 1949 frames our entry into the oath’s longer history.

Kenyatta’s Lament By the late 1940s in the British Kenya colony, settler capitalism as a mode of production had begun to implode, given the increased mechanization of labor and the postwar decline in demand for Kenyan wheat (Anderson 2000, 484; Sorrenson 1967, 79). Newly redundant Kikuyu laborers flooded the native reserves3 after 1945, but when they returned home many found themselves in a situation that threatened the very possibility of achieving cultural notions of male public respectability, which demanded control over land, livestock, and women (Lonsdale 1992; Meillassoux 1972). Lands that migrant laborers had entrusted to others or had left behind were enmeshed in complicated processes of determining what the basis for land ownership was. Claims were largely based on stories of clans having obtained land from Ndorobo hunter-­gatherers over fifty years earlier, a messy basis for establishing individual private ownership, the goal of the colonial administration. Often multiple parties would claim the same land. In accordance with indirect rule, claims over land in the native reserves were largely left to colonially reconstructed native authorities to settle, in this case Local Native Councils (LNCs) and Local Native Tribunals (LNTs), known more colloquially as the kiama, or the “elders’ council.” In 1949, Jomo Kenyatta wrote to the colonial administration to complain about a crisis unfolding in the Kikuyu reserves. At the heart of Kenyatta’s complaint was the method by which LNTs were determining land ownership, namely through a divinatory practice called kũringa gĩthathi (“to hit or activate the generation stone”). The sacred objects known as ĩthathi were patrilineally inherited by Kikuyu elder males and fashioned out of stone or the atlas vertebra of an elephant. Their ethnographic descriptions generally paint them as conduits used to channel thahu, the

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ever present, dangerous energies Kikuyus associated with nature, in order to enforce the swearing of oaths. In the case of a land dispute, the oath would have run something like, “If I am not the owner of this land, may this muma (oath) kill me,” implying that one would contract thahu, which was also the name of the condition of bodily wasting that would ensue in the man’s clan if he were deemed guilty. Bodily affliction served as evidence of the gĩthathi ’s verdict. But according to Kenyatta, unscrupulous elders were using fake ĩthathi to adjudicate land tenure and ownership rights. Kenyatta worried incessantly about the durability of customary institutions of conflict settlement and their ritual media: He believed them to be the only guarantors of due process. This was because not only were litigants swearing oaths against the stone’s curse, local native tribunal members were also oathed to insure honesty in judging the stone’s effects on the “guilty” party. This fact, however, presented a problem: if ĩthathi were extensions of elder power, as Kenyatta tacitly believed, the fact that elder judges as well as litigants were oathed made the exact source of a gĩthathi’s imprimatur something of a puzzle. The following was in Kenyatta’s letter: My father Ngengi brought and won a case against Gitao Nruki for land. He won the case. Gitau appealed and when LNT Elders John, Mhugwa, Kahucho and Samuel with Registrar, Bewes, came on to the land yesterday. They ordered the Gĩthathi Oath (Thenge) be taken by the parties concerned. The kiama told the parties to collect the stone from Nganga Kabitu, in his/chief  Waruhius location at the hire cost of Shillings 40/, and it was brought by the two young boys, representing both parties, on a bicycle. It was taken to Gatundu tribunal and yesterday morning it was brought to the land. My suspicions as to the authenticity of the Gĩthathi stone were aroused by the fact that boys went for it (children normally would not handle it) and it was carried in a tin container. So I asked that I might inspect it, and in doing so, I considered it to be a false one and it was made of ordinary stone and had clearly been manufactured. I hand it to you as an exhibit. I inspected it after the elders had


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come to a decision in the case to the effect that as my father was not prepared to take the oath on the whole land as he considered that his brother should take it on his share. My father must lose the case, pay shillings 200/ cash and 40/ shillings for the hire of the gĩthathi. On inspecting the stone, namely for anthropological interests, I was amazed to find it was a fake and that it must have been used wrongly and without meaning in many cases throughout Kikuyu country. So I took possession of it. This morning I showed it to the LNT Elders John and Kabucho and the registrar, and also in the presence of the LNC councilors and they agreed that it was a faked gĩthathi. So I hand it on to you for investigation as the wrongful use of this stone has been and is a serious matter affecting many people, and at the same time encouraging bribery and corruption among Elders who hear cases who might agree at the request of one party to the Oath being taken knowing full well that it would have no effect—­ but at the same time causing the land to be decided in order that the person giving the bribe might get his share of the land to which he was not entitled.4

Although Kenyatta assumed that the deployment of a fake gĩthathi was a deception being purposely perpetrated by unscrupulous and greedy elders, his own inability to locate the definitive source of its authenticity raises serious doubts about the degree to which this was true. While Kenyatta claims anthropological authority to question the stone’s authenticity, this authority is not sufficient to appeal the stone’s verdict. In handing it over to the district commissioner (DC), Kenyatta rather unconsciously races through several theories about what the specific authority might be that the gĩthathi’s power is allegedly rooted in. No one authority emerges definitively sovereign over any other. The force of custom, at least in the version that Kenyatta is hinting at, does not seem to be operating here. Boys, rather than elders, brought the gĩthathi to the tribunal, and it is this violation of taboo that causes him to question the material properties of the gĩthathi itself. If the stone was substantively “real,” he reasons, uncircumcised boys would not have been brave enough to

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touch it. In turning the gĩthathi over to the colonial authorities, Kenyatta is, in effect, asking the colonial state to guarantee the relationship between elder authority and the gĩthathi. In stating that the fake was manufactured from “ordinary stone” he seems to be asserting the natural sovereignty of such objects, at least when allegedly real ones were present. In other words, at this moment, ĩthathi seem to require some kind of supplemental authority to authenticate not only themselves but also the ritual procedures that they are supposed to authenticate. How are we to understand Kenyatta’s appeal to so many certifying authorities? Why such epistemological confusion regarding the stone’s criteria of authenticity, the source of its regulatory force, and the qualities it was supposed to have?

The Oath Colonial-­ era ethnographic descriptions of Kikuyu ritual like those of Jomo Kenyatta and Louis Leakey must be treated with a certain degree of suspicion. The son of missionaries, fluent in the Kikuyu language, and a self-­proclaimed “white Kikuyu,” Leakey’s posthumously published The Southern Kikuyu Before 1903 claimed to be “the most detailed anthropological study that had ever been written on an African or any other primitive tribe anywhere in the world” (Leakey 1977, 104). If Kenyatta’s description of Kikuyu society was that of “an Arcadian republic of elders” (Berman 1996, 333), Leakey’s was no less so (Clark 1989, 381). Both understood Mau Mau oaths to be “illegal” by standards of legitimate ritual somewhere in the past. But Leakey’s ethnography presents other problems as well. His flat ethnographic present in which correct Kikuyu custom and ritual is read back into time more accurately depicts a society that had already undergone massive transformations. Leakey describes ĩthathi as Kikuyu sacred objects in the Durk­ heimian sense of being set apart or taboo. Kikuyus considered them rare, both in terms of their availability and because of elder strategies to keep them out of general circulation. Leakey notes


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that when disputants agreed to kũringa gĩthathi (“to hit or activate the generation stone”), the elder male representatives of the plaintiff ’s and defendant’s families would go to the stone’s hiding place and carefully wrap it in banana tree bark for its journey to the oathing location, keeping it hidden until the last possible moment before its activation (Leakey 1977, 1011). According to Leakey, under no circumstances were the objects to be sold. Moreover, if women or, even worse, junior males, touched them, they would immediately be desacralized, necessitating the ritual production of a new one—­again, a strictly elder male activity.5 Cutting against the grain of these descriptions, however, Leakey recalls that in the early twentieth century when he was collecting data, people claimed that the stones had mysterious origins and may not have been made by the Kikuyu at all (Leakey 1977, 1010). Sometimes they were assigned a Maasai origin. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the Kikuyu word for oath, muuma, is derived from the Maa word for oath, ol mumai. This maintenance of a lexical Nilotic foreignness—­ they could have just as easily adopted the more familiar Bantu Kiswahili word for oath, kiapo—­suggests an acephalous theory of political power analogous to those of the stranger king and the power of the foreign (cf. Sahlins 2008; Rutherford 2003). However, Leakey interprets this recollection as further proof that the objects were unique, incomparable, and rare, reinforcing the proscription on their circulation as common items. He continues: Gĩthathi oaths entailed the insertion of the representative’s finger into each of the stone’s seven symmetrical holes, followed by the insertion of wands of various “good” and “bad” woods (thought to amplify the effects of thahu) while the recitation of the oath’s statutes was uttered by the disputing parties in front of a group of elders. Here is Leakey’s description of the verbal oathing format for a homicide case: “If our family is in fact responsible for the death we are accused of, may we die, but if we are not guilty, may the family that is guilty and that has kept quiet in this matter and caused us to be accused all die” (Leakey 1977, 1010).

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Elders warned the disputing parties that they had seven agricultural cycles to clear themselves—­the statute of limitations for how long the stone’s power was active (ibid.). Whichever family suffered misfortune first, evidence of the gĩthathi’s verdict, lost. Essentially, people served as the equivalent of Zande chickens (Evans-­ Pritchard 1963); detecting insincere speech, the stones could kill the “lying” disputant’s entire clan and descending generations. Throughout these seven growing seasons, a host of activities and requirements were taboo: During the whole of the first planting season, no member of either family might have sexual intercourse, nor might they cause their children to go through the second birth or initiation ceremonies. Moreover, during the first planting season all he-­goats of both families had to be castrated and kept from serving the she-­goats, and all rams and bulls had to be kept away from the females. . . . If the oath had been taken in connection with a boundary dispute, the land lying between the two alleged bound­ aries might not be cultivated till the matter had been settled by the effects of the oath. (Leakey 1977, 1010)

It is unclear whether or not halting all reproductive processes was actually done or achieved. Contrary to Leakey’s tendency to take Kikuyu elder male claims about how things really worked in the precolonial past at face value, it is more likely that the impossibility of such prescriptions indexes the magnitude of the crisis that kũringa gĩthathi was supposed to resolve. The presumed rarity of such an occasion was homologous to the alleged rarity of the gĩthathi itself. Singularity of truth was the aim. However, as we shall see below, the allegedly customary ritual emphasis on producing this singularity cannot simply be read as customary, at least in the sense of being an unproblematic continuation of past ritual ideology and practice as Leakey seems to suggest. If the activation of a gĩthathi ’s power seemed to reinforce the equivalence of elders and “symbols” in Leakey’s account, its deactivation involved a degree of excess that threatened the terms of this relationship. In Leakey’s account, the problem shows up as one of control over simulacra—­namely, the possibility that


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some ĩthathi were “fake.” Kũhohoria gĩthathi (“pacifying or quieting the generation stone”), Leakey says, was necessary to spare the innocents in the “guilty” party’s family from certain death or misfortune (ibid.). The deactivation of the curse entailed the man­ ufacturing of a clay facsimile, upon which the verbal statutes of the original oath were again sworn but were cut off halfway through their utterance (ibid., 1011). The threading of sticks through the stone’s holes, part of the original oathing ceremony, was similarly prevented (ibid., 1012). At the end of the ceremony, what Leakey calls the “imitation gĩthathi ” was brought out into the bush, broken, and its pieces hidden. Clearly, the ritual production and destruction of the copy was supposed to make the semantic value of words as substantive and singular as their solid stone backer of truth, the original gĩthathi. But in doing so—­and Leakey misses this—­it indexes doubt about the efficacy of the stones themselves. While the uniqueness and potency of the gĩthathi was supposed to be ensured by limited circulation, the rules that were supposed to keep ĩthathi as relative singularities (cf. Kopytoff 1986) appeared insufficient to the task of truly keeping them that way. I will ex­­ plore why this was the case below. For Kenyatta, the problem of excess shows up differently. In recalling the Kikuyu past, he argues that the stones were excessive in their power, but he is silent on the capacity of elders to deactivate them through kũhohoria gĩthathi. This is clear in his narration of the activation ritual: “The elders stood at a little distance facing the spot where the oath ceremony was being prepared. The place had to be a barren ground not likely to be cultivated, for no one would allow the ceremony to be performed on or near his cultivation. It was feared that the evil of the oath symbols might spread to a cultivated crop and destroy it” (Ken­ yatta 1965, 216). Clearly thahu, what Kenyatta refers to as the “evil of the oath symbols,” could exceed the power of elders to direct it toward socially productive ends. In fact, it threatens to overwhelm the elders handling the gĩthathi, eviscerating the very forms of wealth—­land and crops—­that back their status as elders in the first place. And since elders are described as the only

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ones capable of activating such forces, the exact origin of their imprimatur becomes an issue. Kenyatta seems at times to assume that it originates in elders themselves. He presents elderhood as equivalent to certain representational media that he calls “symbols of the oath,” which are supposed to embody the sovereignty of the social vested in the authority of elders. Ritual efficacy is thus unambiguous: Representational media stand for elder authority, in accordance with how much authority elders wished to exercise in any oathing context. However if, as Keane argues, ritual brings to light the possibility that “authority, legitimate agency, and the various sources of social and political power do not necessarily cohere” and thus may “hint at the nature and sources of potential failure” (1997, 9), then in much the same way, kũhohoria gĩthathi, Leakey’s deactiva­ tion ritual, anticipated, signified, and enacted the anxieties about the potential failure of elderhood to be able to do just that. The important question to ask of Leakey is whether kũhohoria gĩthathi was “traditional” at all. In a 1918 account of ĩthathi there is no men­­ tion of kũhohoria gĩthathi and the ritualized production and de­­ struction of a clay copy (Tate 1918). In Kenyatta’s ethnography there is no mention of it either. Yet in both Leakey’s ethnography and Kenyatta’s letter, the elimination of copies is essential to the fu­­ ture efficacy of ĩthathi. In Leakey’s case, the production and destruction of the fake is contained within the ritual frame and thus depicted as traditional. In Kenyatta’s letter, the removal of “fake” ĩthathi from circulation must take place outside of the ritual frame, a process to be aided by the colonial state. Arguably, the anticipa­ tion of the corrupting power of the counterfeit in both cases are symptoms of the same problem, regardless of whether or not the solution to this problem is assigned to the domain of  “traditional” ritual or “modern” political entities. The ratcheting up of the pos­­ sibility of ritual failure is intriguing and suggests that other forces are at work. Kenyatta’s equation of elders and symbols also becomes the ground of second-­order equivalences outside the ritual frame that, again, are indicative of other forces at work. In Facing Mount


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Kenya, this is evident in the logical and narrative ordering of his claims about the fixity of the rates of compensation through which legal torts could be righted. Not coincidentally, he discusses these equivalences in the section immediately following his discussion of oaths. For example, in cases of homicide, Kenyatta states that “one hundred sheep or goats or ten cows was assessed on the assumption that the man would have been able, had he lived, to bring property to his group equal in value to that fixed for compensation for the loss of his life” (Kenyatta 1965, 220). This du­ rable exchange rate in turn guarantees a whole host of other equiv­­ alences (1 man = 10 cows, 10 cows = 100 sheep, 10 cows = 100 goats, 100 goats = 100 sheep, etc.). Here is a particularly salient example of what Jean-­Joseph Goux would argue is a more cultural manifestation of  Marx’s notion of the general equivalent (Goux 1990). Like theories of value that vest authority in the supposed universal equivalence of something like gold (cf. Caffentzis 1989), in this understanding elder authority and their symbolic equivalents be­­come the mutually reinforcing embodied grounds for all exchange. Instructive here is Marx’s critique of British political economists who understood money as that which rendered commodities exchangeable, rather than as the expression of their exchangeability (Marx 1976, 125–­240). Oaths, being grounded in the equivalence of elders and their “symbols,” are posited as that which facilitate the alleged stability of larger systems of meaning, value, and ex­­change. Kenyatta’s description of stable and traditional compen­sation rates, then, was indicative of an emerging principle of uni­­versal exchangeability epitomized in wage labor, hut and poll taxes, and Christian notions of a universal sovereign that could guarantee the stability of signifier and signified.

Unstable Sovereigns As stated earlier, what is so peculiar about the Kikuyu concept of thahu is that in the precolonial Kikuyu world its invocation and channeling to hold parties accountable to what they had sworn (and thus lethally detecting the “liar”) represented the extreme

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opposite of an elaborate complex of quotidian avoidance practices designed to evade the excessive and contaminating aspects of thahu, as a constant threat lying just beyond the hedgerows of the domestic compound. This acephalous theory of power as emanating from outside the social world and amorphously manifested in thahu created an extremely unstable metonymic equivalence between elder authority in the profane world and the magical objects they used to channel thahu within the ritual frame. Kikuyu practices for avoiding thahu struck one of the Kikuyu’s earliest ethnographers as baroque. In his 1922 tome about Kikuyu and Kamba “religion,” Bantu Beliefs and Magic, C. W. Hobley (the onetime coastal transport superintendent for the British Imperial East Africa Company and eventual commissioner of Kavirondo district) lists no fewer than sixty-­eight prescriptions for avoiding thahu, dealing with matters as diverse as livestock theft, incest, adultery, sodomy, domestic violence, contact with warriors, handling blood, menstrual blood, corpses, the proper methods for transporting children, handling the corpse of a goat after a hyena kills it inside the homestead, certain forms of interspecies contact (if a baby goat suckles a lactating woman, for example)—­and these are just prescriptions for humans (Hobley and Frazer 1922, 103–­23). Cattle and small stock could contract thahu as well. In a review of the book from the same year, published in the International Review of Missions, the reviewer, South African Methodist missionary anthropologist Edwin W. Smith, praised the volume for its “practical and scientific value” (Smith 1922, 600). Understanding the regulatory institutions and proscriptions of Kikuyu society could greatly aid administrators and settlers in their management of labor (ibid.), if only Hobley could compensate for his poor anthropological theorizing. Hobley would be the first in a long line of thinkers to mistake the Kikuyu for a rule-­governed society rather than a rule-­producing one. At the root of this confusion was a fixation on the alleged regulatory capacities of thahu as a form of “curse” administered by definitive agents:


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We think he (Hobley) is wrong in giving “curse” (in the medieval sense) as the equivalent of thahu. A curse, as Sir James Frazer points out, implies a personal; agent, human or divine, who has called down evil on the sufferer. It is true that natives say that the thahu condition is caused by the spirits of departed ancestors, the ngoma, but this clearly is a rationalization of the belief; an examination of Mr. Hobley’s cases shows that there is, for the most part; no suggestion of such an agency, and the thahu is removed not by prayers and offerings to the spirits but by devices of the medicine-­men. Sir J. Frazer thinks that “ceremonial uncleanliness” is a better rendering of the word, but even this is not satisfactory. Both renderings obscure the fact that people or animals that are thahu are a danger to the community. By their condition, or by their acts, they betray the presence in them of an evil-­working principle, a mystic force, whose action may be fatal if steps are not taken. (ibid., 600–­601)

Thahu was thus a constant force in daily life. Similar to Georges Bataille’s “general economy,” in which a plenitude of cosmic energy generated by the sun must be expended with no return or profit (2007, 25–­26), thahu required discharge or else would spread contagiously, wreaking social havoc. Contrary to British ideas that gĩthathi and elder were metonymic equivalents, thahu actually functioned more like a mediating—­but not necessarily commensurating—­third term. However, as a mediating third term, its excessive qualities could not effectively guarantee the equivalence between elder and stone as a dependable basis for producing social order in times of conflict. It could build up, leak, and infect people and animals when utilized for oaths. The main method for expelling thahu was purgative vomiting, a practice known as tahikio, requiring the prosthetic assistance of cool leaves. As Derek Peterson writes: Wise men induced this restorative vomiting by holding the hoof of a goat up to the lips of the victim, enjoining him or her to vomit out the thahu. The wise men then brushed the sufferer with the leaves of the mukenia tree, dipped in a collection of powders. Ngondu, one of the powders wise men used in this process, was derived from the

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stomach contents of the tree hyrax, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, the stomach contents of a ram, and fig tree leaves. Each of these substances was in some way “cool”—­the ram, for instance, ate only the soft leaves of non-­thorny plants. The contents of its stomach, which distilled the cooling leaves, were useful in cleansing the sufferers of heated contaminants. (Peterson 2002, 40)

Nature was thus both the eternal combatant of Kikuyu civilization and also that upon which Kikuyu social reproduction was dependent in certain situations. It seemed capable of endlessly replenishing hot and wild energies, which in turn always impinged upon the coolness of the homestead (ibid., 39). Such hot forces and their opposite were omnipresent, but overall they defied exact signification and routinization. Of course, there was a logic to dealing with the unpredictability of nature and thahu. People made attempts literally to corral it: Peterson speaks of magongona—­Kikuyu attempts to “protect the living from the uncharitable dead” (ibid., 41)—­in which lines were drawn separating the dangerous wilderness, where ancestors ended up, from the safer confines of the home from which they had departed. Ultimately, though, these ongoing attempts remained just that: attempts. As Peterson observes, the substances used to treat thahu “were never simply symbols, standing in a fixed relationship to [its] heat” (40). Rather, “they were unstable, unpredictable, probably dangerous substances whose effects were not mechanically determined” (ibid.). Put simply, tahikio and magongona were speculative, what Peterson rightly refers to as “gambling” (ibid.). The ultimately excessive nature of thahu thus prevented the emergence of a fixed repertoire of avoidance techniques or exact methods for handling it. In this sense, it was an engine for the proliferation of what appeared to colonial observers as rules. This fact was difficult to absorb for anthropologists, administrators, and missionaries alike because nowhere was this ambiguity more evident than in efforts to cram thahu and other ritual concepts into the conceptual categories of Christianity and its implicit semiotics of mastery. For instance, Scots Presbyterian


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missionaries at Tumutumu were disappointed that the Kikuyu lacked abstract thought about their “high god” Ngai who lived on Mount Kenya. In fact, they were making a category error. As Peterson explains, natural and social disasters like drought often involved drawing boundaries, to speculatively contain “an unfamiliar deity” Ngai, whose name (like the term for oath, recall) was etymologically Maasai (ibid., 41). For Kikuyu, it was unwise to attract Ngai’s attention at all. Still, the seeming absence of a divine sovereign authority interrupted the missionary hope for interreligious dialogue about abstract theological precepts. It destabilized the assumption that religions were always “fully formed systems” (Peterson 2002, 48), an assumption that was smuggled in via the very concepts of “religion” and “ritual” and the specific Christian genealogy that undergirded these categories (Asad in Peterson 2002, 38). This aspiration to a fixed set of rules was perhaps most potently epitomized in the Tumutumu missionaries teaching converts to “reenact the story of Adam, when animate objects were identified in the hierarchy of Creation” (Peterson 2002, 43). As Peterson succinctly puts it, “naming and mastering, in Protestant thought, were intimately related” (ibid.). Missionaries encouraged potential converts to imitate God’s perfect speech, whose words were true the instant they left the deity’s lips. Thahu, however, represented a particularly difficult translational challenge. It was the Kikuyu concept most similar to the Christian notion of sin—­or so missionaries thought. Just as sin involved infractions against God’s law, so thahu involved straightforward consequences for trespasses—­at least, what mis­­ sionaries assumed to be trespasses (Peterson 2002, 44). In contrast, as Peterson notes, “Ngai left no commandments with which to judge human action,” a problem that often led missionaries to accuse Kikuyu of having no moral conscience at all (ibid.). No matter how they tried, thahu would not lend itself to translation, and sin clearly could not convey the sense of pollution without sovereign judgment that thahu originally conveyed. The mis­­ sionar­ies were eventually obliged to invent a new word for sin, “mehia,” and in so doing abandoned efforts to recuperate thahu,

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which hampered rather than helped to establish the notion of the “immaterial transcendence” of God (ibid., 47). However, while missionaries may have given up on the regulatory capacities of thahu, the colonial state did not. Instead, together with Kikuyu elders, it attempted to distill the force of thahu into ĩthathi, to develop a “native” political resource without excess. Early Kikuyu understandings of kũringa gĩthathi had put the practice on par with other speculative practices. Again, the relationship between elder and gĩthathi was mediated by an unstable third term whose excess could destroy biological and social reproduction altogether. By limiting the gĩthathi oath’s use, as Leakey argues, elders came to imagine themselves able to maintain relative control over the full destructive power of thahu. This strategy of managing the circulation and deployment of the gĩthathi oath, however, was arguably an attempt by elders to carve out a narrowly circumscribed independence from the colonial state. This would be overturned by the state’s usurpation of the ownership of the stones themselves: After a certain point, historically, they could only be housed in colonial administrative offices.

The Limits of  Tradition The earliest mention of the gĩthathi oath in the colonial administrative archive is a 1933 request from the Forest Office in Londiani to Kiambu District Commissioner (DC) J. E. H. Lambert, asking if the DC had a stone “to spare.” Apparently, the stone the DC had borrowed from the resident magistrate in Nakuru had arrived broken.6 Clearly, “oathing stones,” as the forest officer in Londiani called them, were already well out of the hands of specific elders and their patrilineages and were now a portable and generic form of authority appropriable by colonial administrators. The fact that by 1950 the president of the Nyeri Local Native Council would need four more stones in addition to the ones the DC’s office possessed would seem to indicate a sudden increase in gĩthathi oaths, a situation we might describe as “supply-­side oathing.” The more murky and numerous the claims to historical land


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ownership became, the more the stone’s powers were in demand. Rumors of corruption, however, in the form of massive bribes to court elders, had emerged in district reports as early as 1948, echoing Kenyatta’s concern that money had rendered purchasable the elder imprimatur that he assumed was embodied in the stones, turning them into just another commodity. This contradiction between universality and particularism struck at the core of the colonial project in Kenya. Administrators preoccupied with a perceived lack of universal, durable abstractions like law or religion were equally intent on ensuring that the instruments of social regulation be locally recognizable enough to be effective. Their solution was a generalized “traditional” oath, which actually failed to quell—­and may have actually exacerbated—­ the anxieties of district officials that traditional authorities could be effective agents of social order. Eventually, elder attempts to limit the supply of ĩthathi by keeping them strictly taboo and out of circulation gave way to administrative demands for their increased use. The colonial state’s attempt to fashion elders into the embodiment of an increasingly abstract “Native Law and Custom” thus launched ĩthathi on a contradictory trajectory: Ĩthathi began circulating as all-­purpose ritual objects in colonially reconstituted oathing procedures but simultaneously challenged the local particularities upon which indirect rule was allegedly anchored. This contradiction rendered completely ambiguous the question of whether ĩthathi backed the authority of elders or elders backed the authority of ĩthathi. At the same time, it intensified the logic of proliferation that was once attributable to thahu, an explanatory concept that was now vague, if not wholly absent. Administrators would eventually attempt to generalize the new “customary” oath across all administrative districts. In 1929 the Kiambu DC wrote a memo to his peers, who had expressed the need for consensus on proper oathing procedures: It was suggested at the last District Commissioners’ meeting that uniformity in the above matter is desirable and that I should begin

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the discussion by circulating for comments the form of the oath for the Native Council which is in use in this office. It is attached. Will you please pass it on with your comments to the District Commissioner, Fort Hall, asking him to send it with his comments back to me.7

Actual administrative practices were thus pragmatic experiments in commensuration within the terms of indirect rule, not dissimilar to the Presbyterian missionaries of Tumutumu. While the DC for South Nyeri asserted the correctness of swearing to a remote sovereign authority like God, he saw no point in trying to fill oaths with explicit administrative agendas. Clauses designed to prevent Native Council members from making critical commentary about government orders, he was quick to point out, would create a situation in which elders would be violating their own oaths much of the time.8 To attempt the ritual micromanagement of Kikuyu elders would be to risk accusations of trying to facilitate something of a ritual coup, a sleight of hand through which Kikuyu and British authority could be transubstantiated. In other words, if colonial administrators wanted oaths to be effective in securing elder loyalty in councils and elder honesty in tribunals, they could not be used to secure everything on the colonial state’s agenda. Like Kikuyu elders, colonial administrators had to keep them relatively singular in purpose and restricted in circulation. In attempting to use customary law to enforce the contractual basis of new institutions like individualized land own­­ ership, elders themselves would often ask the colonial state to back the oaths’ oracular verdicts, while at other times native administration would continue without any such appeals. Aspirations for the standardization and generalization of oaths across districts were also undermined by the revolving door of district commissioners cycling in and out of administrative districts. Every few years, new district officials would circulate telegrams requesting information from other districts about proper oathing procedures so that they could be effectively replicated elsewhere. By the late 1940s, despite the fact that the specifically


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Kiambu LNC oath had been generalized all the way to Machakos, Elgeyo-­Marakwet, and Pokot districts, commissioners were still anxious about what backed sincerity in native tribunals. In other words, colonial administrative turnover, while hamstringing standardization at one level, kept producing further desire for standardization across districts and ethnicities, as seen in this brief 1949 memo from the DC of Elgeyo-­Marakwet: “I am anxious to introduce a form of oath to be sworn by all LNC Members when taking Office, and I would be grateful if you would let me have a copy of the form of oath used in the Kiambu LNC.”9 The infinite regress in the search for truth-­backing authority in moments of conflict led administrators to fixate on the right words for “natives” to recite during oaths. In attempting to find the right words, administrators hoped to strike a balance between universal aspirations of law on the one hand and native capacity to recognize their own local legal procedures on the other. In focusing on the oath’s statutes, colonial administrators produced a version of oathing in which elder authority, words, and things were not only solidly “within a single representational economy” (Keane 2007, 20) but also thought to be unproblematically equivalent. But as ĩthathi entered general circulation, just like the Kiambu LNC oath, “changes in some domains” of the gĩthathi oath’s representational economy had “consequences in others” (ibid.). To their credit, some administrators saw the dangers of generalized oathing. At a district commissioners’ meeting in 1947, one Central Province official noted that generalization of the gĩthathi oath had already gone far in destroying the regulatory aspirations that district officials had for it in the 1920s: The question of formulating a procedure generally applicable to the whole Province was fully discussed. It was considered doubtful if agreement was either desirable or possible even within the three Kikuyu districts of Nyeri, Fort Hall and Kiambu. The nature of the original Githathi oath was considered. . . . It was formerly employed only in important cases like stock theft etc. The ritual was extremely complicated and took a long time. It

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was pointed out that there is now a Githathi stone in every Native Tribunal in Nyeri District and that it is regularly taken. The complicated ritual is, in many cases, no longer followed, and the oath has therefore lost much of its original sanction. . . . The Meeting . . . further considered that generalization is one of the surest ways of making the oath ineffective.10

Some administrators simply washed their hands of trying to figure out proper oathing procedures, leaving such matters to the very institutions whose basis for ritual authority had been rendered ambiguous by colonial tampering. This provided already powerful elders ample opportunity for yet more ritual and legal improvisation. The following letter is from the registrar of the Native Tribunal in Chura, Kikuyu district, during the late 1940s, regarding the way oaths were used to decide whose competing claims to land ownership were “true”: I beg to inform you that when both parties are ordered by the court to take the customary oath “muma” or “thenge” sometimes one party refuses to take it. We obviously award the whole land or anything in dispute to the party which does not refuse to take the oath. Later we see the party which had refused to take the oath applying for an appeal. Kindly inform whether such party can be allowed to appeal the same case anymore unless it agrees to take the oath as ordered. In this court’s opinion, such party cannot be allowed to appeal the same case. Once it had already refused to take the oath that is the final judgment of the case unless it agrees to take it later on.11

The Kiambu DC simply referred the matter back to the Local Native Council. Clearly the colonial administration wanted oaths to be backed by elders, but the ambiguous hierarchy of institutions and objects led to a problematic surplus of authority, in turn generating the problem of competing legal temporalities. By the 1940s, for example, the generalization of the oath and the increased circulation of ĩthathi entailed a noticeable compression of the curse’s statute of limitation of seven agricultural seasons. Many who asked for the oath, especially to settle land ownership


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claims, had the expectation that its verdict would be more or less instantaneous. Some complained that litigants in land cases were jumping to appellate procedures prematurely, since their opponents had not yet experienced the oath’s effects. In 1945, minutes from the office of the Kiambu DC reported that Chief Magugu “said that these days people, after taking the oath in a case, did not wait for the prescribed time before filing an appeal” and that “this is not Kikuyu custom.” The DC and LNC were in agreement that “people who have taken an oath should not be allowed to appeal before the prescribed time of seven seasons.”12 Yet this assertion of the primacy of the temporality of the curse conflicted with other emerging understandings of tradition, in which the gĩthathi was understood to be the equivalent of swearing on the Bible, the practice of English courts, where a verdict potentially could be rendered the same day. Indeed, Christians who did not want to take “pagan oaths” introduced another competing authority into the framework of oathing: mission authorities could authenticate practicing Christians and certify whether a convert could be relieved from the duress of the oath altogether. These competing legal temporalities thus also undergirded conflicting understandings of evidentiary procedure. One understood the gĩthathi as oracular, able to divine wrongdoing. Another framework suggested the gĩthathi was merely the first step toward allegedly more robust evidentiary procedures. What seems to have happened over the twenty-­year period examined here is that, despite administrative aspirations for oathing to help commensurate legal regimes, the actual process produced a cacophony of “enunciative procedures” (Bayart 1993, 240–­41) that both Kikuyus and colonial administrators imagined to be backed by different authorities within the same ritual and legal form. The problematic assumption that elders and symbols were equal sovereigns became an engine for divergent fantasies of authoritative backing. The question of what drove the desire for the standardization of traditional oaths and the increased circulation of ĩthathi requires further explanation and returns us to the figure of Jomo Kenyatta, with whom we began.

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The Problem of Proliferation Whereas earlier accounts emphasized the stones’ exotic and mysterious origins and narrowly controlled circulation, administrative correspondence reveals the relative ease by which they could be obtained by 1950. While administrative mandates were put into place to prevent elders from charging “traditional” fees for a gĩthathi oath in 1950, administrators in Kiambu had no problem with the DC’s office in Nyeri paying fees to the “traditional supplier of githathi stones”: 1. No charges are being levied on the parties wishing to or required to swear the githathi oath in the Tribunals of this district. 2. Hon. Senior Chief  Wambugu is the traditional supplier of githa­­ thi stones. I have informed him of your requirements and he is willing and able to supply two stones immediately. He can produce two more in due course. 3. The traditional price of a githathi stone is thirty sheep and three rams which on present day valuation amounts to Shs. 720/-­ 4. Chief Wambugu is willing to supply the Kiambu council with stones at a cost of Shs. 280/-­ each. Will you please inform me if we are prepared to pay this amount. I personally consider this price to be very reasonable.13

Colonialism on the cheap indeed! What the DC reveals is that despite attempts to cordon off the ritual from the persuasive power of money, money is nonetheless revealed to be thoroughly mediating the equivalence between elderhood and the symbolic authority distilled in ĩthathi. Stones were being replicated and reproduced when they were supposed to be singular and unique. In this light, we might read Leakey’s description of the ritual creation and destruction of the “imitation githathi” as symptom of, rather than the antidote to, the generalization of the gĩthathi oath. If the identity of a stone was associated with specific patrilineages and traveled to and from oathing locations with its “owner,” it seems strange that such an emphatic destruction of the counterfeit would be necessary at all. Clearly, by 1950 the distinct patrilineal association and history of an individual gĩthathi


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had been replaced with a “traditional supplier” willing to offer them to colonial administrators at a “very reasonable” price. But with the mass production of ĩthathi came increased paranoia about counterfeit stones and the sincerity of elders, an intensification of the contradictions we can now see were latent within the form of the oath itself from an earlier period. Nowhere in the colonial archive is this condition of proliferating ritual authority and doubt more distilled than in the letter from Kenyatta with which we began, in which he ultimately asks the colonial state to guarantee the relationship between elder authority and stone as an allegedly stable, mediating third term. Like all accusations of corruption, he suggests that the right way of doing things is still achievable. Not only can there be an authoritative backer of truth, he suggests, but the specific agents of dissimulation are also discoverable and controllable. Again, these are assumptions Kenyatta shared with colonial administrators. Hence Kenyatta’s lament: if nothing could prevent money from rendering elders dubious backers of truth in general, the state should intervene. And it did. But at this point the state’s response to his letter should not surprise us: The DC simply asked the owner of the suspect gĩthathi, one Nganga Kabitu, to swear an oath to its authenticity. The following are the words that Nganga Kibitu is going to swear to prove that his githathi is the true one. (i)  This githathi which I hold in my hand is the githathi which belonged to my grandfather; if I do not speak the truth I must die for this Thenge. (ii)  The githathi which I hold in my hand was left to my father by my grandfather; if this is not true I must die for this Thenge. (iii)  This is the original githathi which was left to me by my father; if this not true I must die for this Thenge. (iv)  If I myself have made or if I obtained from some other person Thenge besides the original one which was my grandfather’s and which was left to me by my father I must die for this Thenge. (v)  If I purify myself after taking this Oath before three and a half years have expired I must die for this Thenge.

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(vi) If I by cunning means take any steps whatsoever to attempt to cause the death of Kenyata [sic] I must die for this Thenge. (vii)  If any persons take any steps whatsoever to kill me or my family so that it will appear that the cause of my or my family’s death was the taking of this Thenge Oath he must die for this Thenge.14

The problem of the counterfeit is proliferating here in multiple registers. Since Kabitu’s conflict is with Kenyatta’s claim regarding the stone’s authenticity, even the oracular power of the stone can be potentially faked. Kabitu is asked to swear that he will not seek to cause the death of Kenyatta in a way that might appear to simulate the effect of the curse, thus counterfeiting the oath’s verdict. But in light of the already ambiguous nature of the stone, it is unclear what exactly is backing this new certifying oath beyond a reference to another certifying media used in oaths, a slaughtered goat, or thenge. Kenyatta’s desire for state intervention, compared with the state’s actual response by authenticating the stone through another oath, reveals the question of what backed ritual authority to be an aporia.

Conclusion I have argued that the precolonial Kikuyu ideology of ritual efficacy entailed a semiotics of management and not one of mastery. Far from being a sovereign that performed a guaranteeing function, thahu was a constitutive outside to Kikuyu society, whose ultimately excessive character actually made it something of an antisovereign. It mediated the relationship between elders and “oathing stones,” but not in a way that really represented them as political or ritual equivalents. The colonial-­era incorporation of thahu as a property and extension of elder power and authority—­in effect, bringing it into the realm of the social and of politics (recall that ĩthathi were kept in district officers’ offices and mass produced by “traditional suppliers”)—­simultaneously de­­ natured thahu as the force backing oaths and raised new questions about the truth of the oath’s constituent elements and agents:


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ĩthathi and elders. This problem became especially acute when the oaths were repurposed to assist in the establishment of a wholly new regime of private property. Kenyatta had thus tried to bypass the problematic mediation of local elders whom, like their ĩthathi, he considered to be counterfeits. Yet while Kenyatta attempted to recharge and make singular the institution of the gĩthathi oath by reauthenticating it with the power of the state, the fact that district officials had been delegating such certifying functions to elders only revealed the irresolvable nature of the problems of ritual authority and efficacy that the oaths now epitomized. In the upshot, the oath’s most powerful sovereign, the gĩthathi, had become little more than a stone. The assumption of equivalence between elders and ritual symbols as the font of sovereign power, its “ontological ground” (Hansen and Stepputat 2006, 297), would eventually develop into an inflationary ritual economy in which young, dispossessed Kikuyu men would attempt to make oaths efficacious through the manipulation of unmoored “traditional” symbols, augmented by a supplemental violence, in order to produce the sovereignty that they believed thahu to both found and maintain in the past (cf. Derrida 2002, 228–­98). Mau Mau thus became a war characterized by the type of in­­ cendiary and reciprocal violence that—­in the precolonial world—­ a gĩthathi was supposed to prevent. A 1946 letter by one J. Ka­­ ranja of Limuru foreshadows the confusing rites that Worsley and Gluckman tried to explain, but at the tail end of their development. In the letter, Mr. Karanja still held out hope that if the colonial state would bring the gĩthathi oath to his area, then prob­­ lems of land distribution brought on by its commoditization could potentially be resolved: I appeal to the Government of Kenya for help on account of the poor people who are in the Kikuyu Country, and the small sub clans, because they are always deprived of their property. . . . “Githathi” is the only symbol of a truth. It would be of great assistance to the poor Kikuyu people if the Government would allow “Githathi” as the rich people would than [sic] have no chance of oppressing and exploiting the poor persons.15

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In the face of predations by wealthy Kikuyu chiefs, council members, and big men, Karanja longed for a definitive oath that could protect the poor. Before colonialism, however, it is arguable that Kikuyu would not have understood kũringa gĩthathi. Kikuyus had struggled to keep thahu’s power beyond Kikuyu society’s boundaries and gerontocratic political structures. Missionaries and administrators had placed it at its normative center. With this in mind, Mr. Karanja’s request was predictably referred back to the Local Native Council.

3 Inflationary Rituals: The Mau Mau Rebellion Ritual Efficacy and Ambiguity As detailed in the previous chapter, precolonial Kikuyu semiotic ideologies of ritual efficacy were utterly transformed in the first half of the twentieth century under conditions of British indirect rule in Kenya. These transformations came to a head during the 1950s Kikuyu civil war and anticolonial conflict popularly known as “Mau Mau,” leading to a condition of what I call ritual inflation. In Mau Mau oaths the ritual’s significata, the statutes that oath takers swore, and the violence within the ritual frame all kept on proliferating. Scholars have often noted the baroque quality of Mau Mau’s secrecy and loyalty oaths, which were often forced on Kikuyu by those more sympathetic to the rebellion. Yet this baroque quality of Mau Mau oaths has never itself been posed as a problem for analysis. Precolonial Kikuyu, colonial era Kikuyu, and their colonial masters understood oaths to have sovereign-­like effects, a singular capacity to bind word to deed or to detect liars in customary forms of litigation. However, as the previous chapter demonstrated, that did not mean that precolonial and colonial-­era

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Kikuyu understandings of ritual efficacy were continuous. The precolonial Kikuyu ideology of ritual efficacy was rooted in a distinctly acephalous “semiotics of management,” but over time and as a result of the colonial encounter, Kikuyu understandings of ritual efficacy moved toward a Protestant semiotic ideology emphasizing an ontological centering of sovereignty as oaths were increasingly incorporated into new “customary” processes of indirect rule. Concomitantly, senior men were refashioned in the image of a divine lawgiver whose speech acts were supposed simply to be true. As explained in the previous chapter, before oaths were requisitioned as tools of colonial administration in local native tribunals, Kikuyus did not understand the force that backed oaths to emanate from a centralized sovereign or a durable social institution like the law. Rather, they had an almost vitalist understanding of thahu, the force that backed oaths. Outside the ritual frame, thahu was constantly replenished in nature and was extremely polluting to human and animal kind. Daily Kikuyu life was characterized by an extensive repertoire of techniques for avoiding thahu’s contamination. Due to its sheer excess, it could only be speculatively and dangerously channeled with the prosthetic assistance of sacred objects of various types when it was invoked to back oaths. Its potential for leakage, which could make land, people, and animals unfertile, or even kill them, represented more of an unstable mediating third term than something locatable in any particular being or institution. Yet when colonial administrators remade elders as customary authorities, with the administration of oaths as their sovereign rite, thahu was unmade as the constitutive outside of Kikuyu society and was converted into an extension of elder sovereignty. Oath takers in colonial “traditional” courts would repeat the words of elder oath administrators, but new anxieties emerged around what the nature of the force was that backed oaths, and from where exactly it emanated. Who or what oath takers were swearing to or by arguably became a question for the first time for all involved, as did the possibility of ritual failure. As stated in the previous chapter, whereas before Kikuyus regarded the


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force that backed the efficacy of oaths as frightfully certain, its outcomes were not viewed as overdetermined or even necessarily manageable, due to thahu’s overwhelming and excessive character. Again, colonial administrative retooling of oaths produced a new sense of uncertainty about what exactly backed oaths, combined with a strange sense of the oath’s definitive capacity to produce social order—­if performed correctly. This chapter explores the consequences of these earlier ritual transformations by focusing on the ritual life of Mau Mau guerillas in the post–­World War II period. I will argue in the following pages that the existing Mau Mau historiography has tended to deal with the opacity of the notorious “Mau Mau oath” in terms of either its symbols or its violence, separating semiotics from sovereignty. As will become clear, Mau Mau guerillas echoed Kenyatta’s confusion about “backing,” but as colonial conditions worsened, both ritual violence and ritual symbols proliferated in Mau Mau oaths, suggesting a profound uncertainty and anxiety around the basis of the oath’s efficacy.

Mau Mau as Told The general history of Mau Mau has been exhaustively written, and it is impossible to reproduce all the nuances of such a vast literature here, but it is important for the discussion below to give a brief overview of Mau Mau’s core conflicts. My intention is to provide a sense of the role of oathing in Mau Mau as an actual practice conducted by both guerillas and the colonial state, and as a profound source of colonial anxiety. The colonial administration, it is important to note, was itself deeply contradictory in its attitude toward oaths, seeing them alternately as rational and irrational at different points. It is generally agreed that in the precolonial and early colonial period,1 authority was vested in Kikuyu senior men who had successfully marshaled the fertility of land through the exploitation of differentiated forms of gendered labor. Various minor patrilineages (mbari) were loosely linked through exchanges in women,

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junior male labor, and livestock. Female affines provided the agricultural labor of cultivation, which was converted by senior men into prestige via participation in public culture. This in turn facilitated their ongoing accumulation of wives through livestock, and of livestock through daughters. The marriage of daughters to other cattle-­giving patrilineages brought livestock into wife-­ giving patrilineages. This process also secured elders’ control over junior male labor, since junior males were completely dependent upon their fathers or patrilineal uncles (also considered fathers) to eventually provide bridewealth cattle (Kitching 1980, 203–­4). This system of labor exploitation was buttressed by a complementary marriage system in which land-­poor but cattle-­rich patriarchs could secure female rights to land through a socially valorized form of labor clientage known as the ahoi system. Circumcised men could leave their patrilocations to work for another elder, whose daughters they would marry. The muhoi guest was bound to his host mbari both ritually and morally, as well as through his own expectation of eventual adoption into the landholding patrilineage. All told, “civic virtue” was figured as the right to define and recruit socially valorized labor. It was inextricably tied to the achievement of wealth in people, land, and livestock, as well as one’s capacity to ensure the continuation of this system for generations immediately following (Lonsdale 1992). The poor thus had little of the socially recognizable weight to make their presence felt or their words count in the public sphere. Colonial land alienation and class formation unfolded amongst the Kikuyu along generational lines, and by the 1950s this had produced a crisis of social reproduction of unprecedented scale. White settlers had appropriated gigantic tracts of land for cash-­ crop production while excluding Africans from growing cash crops like coffee. This blocked the subsistence exit option for young Kikuyu, and pioneering of new land ceased to be a viable option. Initially, many Kikuyu enjoyed sharecropping rights on white-­ controlled land. They viewed the arrangement as a continuation of the ahoi labor clientage system, but with new patrons (Kanogo 1987, 105).


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However, after World War II, mechanized farming techniques became more widespread, and British demand for settler cash crops declined. Thereafter, client ahoi laborers came to be known as “squatters” in colonial parlance. Compounding the problem, mbari heads who had incorporated themselves into the colonial economy as something of a landed gentry began to seek title deeds as exclusive landowners and subsequently turned residents of their lands into “squatters” as well (ibid.). This devaluation of African labor was accompanied by a more rigid enforcement of the pass laws (the kipande system described in chapter 2), which both regulated the flow of African labor and further prevented Africans from growing cash crops. Soon, settlers acquired a market monopoly. Ultimately, young and land-­poor men and women could no longer achieve self-­mastery, or wiathi,2 through socially valorized avenues of labor clientage and wealth accumulation. Faced with a roadblock in the idealized trajectory of social reproduction, those who wanted to perform dignified labor as ahoi began to marshal an egalitarian ethos of age-­grade solidarity, or riika, against the increasingly dynastic ideology of mbari (Lonsdale 1992, 335–­36). For instance, increased militancy inside the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), one of Kenya’s first African political organizations, was facilitated by its domination by younger generations, the anake wa 40 (the circumcision set of 1940). This age-­set deeply resented the fact that their capacity to achieve wiathi was in a protracted state of arrested development. Their militancy stood in sharp contrast to the approach of more senior KCA members like Jomo Kenyatta, all of whom were members of the first generation of mission-­educated Kikuyus known as the athomi, or “readers.” In fact, the term “Mau Mau” was likely derived from an attribution to wealthier Kikuyu KCA elders from Kiambu by these more militant Rift Valley “squatters.” As John Lonsdale notes, these elders appeared more a kiama kia mau mau, or “council of greedy eaters” (Lonsdale 1992, 426), than morally responsible caretakers of social reproduction. In the eyes of younger members, KCA elders could not effectively negotiate

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for Kikuyu rights with the colonial state and the colony’s aggressive and powerful settler lobby. They “demanded much” in terms of membership fees “but delivered little” of the moral obligations and benefits that ahoi clients could have expected in an earlier era (ibid.).

A Secret Society In 1951, rumors of a secret society bound together by a “blood oath” that swore to rid the country of whites and their collaborators had reached the ears of the colonial administration. Then, in August of 1952, unknown parties burned the houses of those who refused to take membership oaths to muingi, “the movement,” which began to openly compete with the more moderate Kikuyu Central Association for members. This led to curfews in areas adjacent to Nairobi. In the coming months the situation became increasingly violent. In October, Senior Chief Waruhiu was murdered in Nairobi in broad daylight after he spoke against the growing movement in Nairobi’s slums, the Rift Valley, and other Kikuyu areas. In the days that followed, forty more Africans were killed in Nairobi for resisting Kikuyu militants. On October 20, British troops were called in to help quell dissent and Operation Jock Scott was initiated. The operation involved the round-­up of suspected Mau Mau leaders and known Kenya African Union (KAU)3 members around Nairobi. The next day, Governor Sir Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency, granting sweeping powers to the colonial government to deprive Africans of their already restricted mobility, as well as their freedom of speech and association. Soon Kikuyu were being arrested by the hundreds, and then by the thousands. This was followed by school closings in the Kikuyu reserves. Ken­ yatta, who was perceived as a Mau Mau leader and agitator, was arrested along with five others and then tried for managing and being a member of a proscribed organization. This was in spite of the fact that he was actually a moderate, invested in a notion of “conservative modernization” (Berman 1996, 316). As W. O.


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Maloba has chronicled, Governor Baring not only used public funds to bribe witnesses; he also secured a £20,000 payment to the trial judge, R. S. Thacker (Maloba 2018, 129), to ensure the trial’s outcome. Kenyatta was found guilty of all charges and was incarcerated for the next eight and a half years. As James Smith (1998) argues, those who took to the forest did not reject the whole of colonial authority, its techniques of governance, and Christianity, although this is what they were accused of by the colonial regime. Instead, they mimetically attempted to craft a “counter-­state” in the forests of  Mount Kenya and the Aberdares through creative attempts to mobilize literary bureaucratic fetishes (ibid.). As Smith chronicles, they hung letter boxes in trees to create boundaries, ate parchment with writing on it to capture writing’s magicality, and adopted elaborate military bureaucratic titles. These practices provide unique windows into the way illiterate and semiliterate Mau Mau perceived the source of colonialism’s power. To them, literacy and the bureaucratic order that it underwrote had a magical potency beyond its mere communicative capacity. These practices also spoke to incipient divisions in the movement itself, which soon divided along literate and semiliterate lines. The fractures were further exacerbated by breaks in supply lines as Central Province was cordoned off in an effort to end Mau Mau provisioning. An increasing cycle of violence and counterviolence began to plague the Kikuyu, who were by now thoroughly divided over whether the vision of the future proposed by Mau Mau or the colonial state could best help them achieve wiathi. Most relevant here is the colonial state’s fixation on oathing as a key component in stopping the spread of Mau Mau. In January of 1953, this fixation was reflected in Governor Baring’s imposition of the death penalty for those caught administering the oath. Beyond legislation, though, colonial anxiety about Mau Mau oathing came across in a discourse about Africans “backsliding” into a premodern irrationality. Colonial psychologist J. C. Carothers rendered this anxiety scientific in a report that characterized Mau Mau as an outbreak of mass psychosis mo-

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tivated by an innate inability of Africans to cope with modernization (Carothers 1954). The policy outcome of this perspective was a program of forced “villagization” of much of the Kikuyu population during the emergency. The “villages” were modeled on a system of “rehabilitation” camps designed elsewhere in the empire to cure Malays of their communist tendencies (Maloba 1993). The daily regime in the camps involved a combination of corvée labor and public works projects. Ironically, the state’s response also entailed a program of coun­ teroathing. The counteroath was a strange amalgam. On one hand, it depended on the terror that oaths inspired in Kikuyu loyalists and the presumed horror religiosis that breaking an oath allegedly instilled in insurgents. It was hoped that this would produce a consensus other than that of Mau Mau’s program of ithaka na wiathi. On the other hand, the counteroath also indexed the fear that the oaths inspired in colonists. Here, as in the pre–­Mau Mau era, the oath was supposedly marshaled toward socially “constructive” ends and was carried out with the presumed rationality of colonial statecraft. Indeed, the state tried to use elder-­ administered oaths as countersoaths. Colonial reliance on oathing was intended to be the condition of possibility for the production of colonial governmentality. Yet this administrative concession to supernatural forces undermined the basis of colonial social engineering as an allegedly rational enterprise (cf. Luongo 2011). In effect, they were trying to cure Kikuyu of their loyalty to Mau Mau through the “proper” use of  “native unreason.”

Mau Mau Historiography and Its Limitations Mau Mau is the subject of a large body of historical and historiographical writing. This corpus tackles many important issues: the social organization of the rebel armies (Anderson 2003), the relationship between Mau Mau and postindependence nationhood (Ogot 2003), the racist colonial “myth” of Mau Mau as a savage religious cult devoid of rationality (Rosberg and Nottingham 1966), and the shared Kikuyu moral philosophy that led some to revolutionary violence and others to trust in the colonial


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state as different competing venues for pursuing the achievement of respectable adulthood (Lonsdale 1992; Branch 2009). In 2005 two more major books were added to this already substantial literature, both dealing with the vicious regulatory practices of the colonial administration during the state of emergency that lasted from 1952 to 1960 (Elkins 2005; Anderson 2005). About a decade after the Mau Mau rebellion, scholars sought to deconstruct colonial myths of African savagery at the heart of depictions of Mau Mau. Sometimes this took the form of a cultural rehabilitation project. For example, Rennison Githige’s 1978 master’s thesis argued that the “religious factor” in Mau Mau, epitomized by the oath, expressed an unbroken continuity with precolonial warrior oaths. Other works explored everything from the colonial socioeconomic conditions that produced Kikuyu militancy to the Kikuyu cultural notions of honor and civic virtue that both Mau Mau and loyalist Kikuyu shared. Scholars were responding to colonial administrative depictions of the Kikuyu as a people caught somewhere between tradition and modernity (Leakey 1954). This historical deconstruction was an appropriate corrective. After all, it was this colonial diagnosis of Mau Mau as an episode of mass psychosis (Carothers 1954) that served as the justification for the forced relocation of the majority of Kikuyus into the notorious “pipeline” (see Elkins 2005), the system of camps designed to rehabilitate those suspected of being under the irrational spell of the Mau Mau oath. Noble as it was, however, attempts to decolonize the histori­ ography of Mau Mau have left a legacy of hesitancy around less understandable aspects of the war and tend to overinvest oaths with a transparent raison d’être. And despite this wide-­ranging literature, the question of how Mau Mau continues to affect Kenya’s present has attracted comparatively little academic at­­ tention beyond discussions (predominantly by historians and political scientists) about the relationship between ethnicity and nationhood and whether, and how exactly, they commingle. Mau Mau continues to haunt the Kenyan present in a manner that can only be described as uncanny, a disconcerting sense that

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there is something acutely unheimlich about a narrative that is supposed to serve as a national birth narrative (and hence feelings of the heimlich, or homeliness). This is partially due to the contradictory feelings and sentiments Mau Mau conjures. On the one hand it reactivates the trauma of the deep betrayals and endless cycles of violence and counterviolence that unfolded between social intimates in the 1950s, even members of the same family. On the other hand, in the heavily folkloric narratives of the conflict (replete with heroic and sacrificial imagery), Kikuyu ethnonationalists and neotraditionalists attribute a law-­founding capacity to this violence that need only be brought out of reserve when such groups sense an intensification of anomie (for exam­ ple, see Mungiki as discussed in the introduction). The ambivalence about Mau Mau’s past, among Kikuyus and non-­Kikuyus alike, awkwardly hovers mostly around an understanding of Mau Mau’s ritual life as premodern and irrationally violent. In a sense, and perhaps counterintuitively, colonial state and settler discourse about Mau Mau’s “savagery” has largely been adopted by contemporary Kenyans looking back on the Emergency. Although all of Kenya’s communities swear oaths, most now associate Kikuyu oathing practices in particular with a violent but opaque capacity that they argue exceeds interethnic resource competition and is therefore occult in nature. A fundamental incapacity to put violence back in reserve is thus attributed to Kikuyu subjectivity, regardless of the stated social ends that an oath may spell out in its explicit statutes. Mau Mau historiography, in turn, has generally failed to address the matter of “ritual excess,” in terms of both ritual content and excessive violence. I argue below that a more adequate understanding of the violent and proliferative logics of Mau Mau ritual can shed a great deal of light upon these social anxieties about Kikuyus and their oaths. In particular, this chapter will address the problem of what I call “ritual inflation” evident in Mau Mau ritual. Besides speaking to problems of sovereignty, legitimate rule, and its modalities in Mau Mau oaths, the analysis of ritual presented in this chapter attempts to rethink some of the limitations


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of Mau Mau historiography pointed to above. Instead of trying to cover every single treatment of oaths in the literature, instead I have selected examples that best illustrate the poles of interpre­ tation in Mau Mau scholarship. For example, many writers have examined Kikuyu ritual during the war (see Buijtenhuijs 1982; Githige 1978; Gluckman 1963; Green 1990; Kershaw 1997; Lea­­ key 1977), but most remain puzzled by the question of ritual efficacy. In most cases, where Mau Mau ritual has been treated in scholarly narratives, it has been discussed in a descriptive rather than an analytical mode, rendering Kikuyu ritual something of a black box. That is, it is assumed that oaths must have been effective somehow in binding social actors together, given their disparate reasons for joining the insurgency. But how? The semantic opacity of the ritual’s symbolic repertoires for scholars and participants alike has further confounded a proper understanding of the relationship between ritual and history. More recent work has generally emphasized, as Elkins does, that the oaths—­and the violence in the oaths—­were “the rational response of a rural people seeking to understand the enormous socioeconomic and political changes taking place around them while attempting to respond collectively to new and unjust realities” (Elkins 2005, 27). The problem with this explanation is that nearly any action on the part of the colonized could be explained this way. How are oaths different from, say, African engagements with trade unionism? The oath loses all of its specificity as a phenomenon, and the centrality of oathing to Mau Mau’s recruitment strategy is left unexplained. It becomes difficult to discuss “magical thinking” at all. This problem forces discussions of the oath’s efficacy somewhere between two explanatory poles, symbolic interpretations (of a very particular type) or utilitarian interpretations, both of which are ahistorical. Succinctly (and perhaps risking a degree of reductionism), these two basic and opposed explanations of Mau Mau ritual may be characterized as follows: (1) the symbolic or semiotic explanation, which ascribes an efficacy to Mau Mau’s oaths by claiming that the oath’s curse, and its force, were intrinsic to the symbols deployed in Mau Mau oaths,

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whose semantic values were transparent and continuous with those deployed in precolonial warrior oaths (cf. Githige 1978); and (2) a practical or utilitarian approach, where violence is understood as the fundamental feature of the oath’s efficacy. In this understanding, analysts see the rationality of the oath’s propositional statements as key to their efficacy but portrayed as “merely symbolic,” an additive to the allegedly more robust aspects of the insurgency’s goals and politics (cf. Green 1990). The first, symbolic pole thus emphasizes the meaningfulness of ritual symbols and their capacity to bind. Their efficacy is said to be rooted in a still-­salient past in which the curse was granted sweeping regulatory power. The second, practical or utilitarian pole claims that it was “really” the threat of retaliatory violence from other rebels that made oaths work. This claim often involves an implicit addendum: that Kikuyus no longer really “believed” their rituals anyway. These two opposed approaches to the Mau Mau oath thus constitute a case of the symbolic all, or the symbolic nothing, in trying to account for the oath’s presumed efficacy. For analysis, one is left with choosing between what Marshall Sahlins famously called “culture and practical reason” (Sahlins 1976). What we have then are different evaluations of the inner life of Africans and disagreement over what kinds of history should be used to account for the specific qualities of the inner forces that drove Africans to ritualize in the way they did, while agreeing that such rituals were somehow effective. Put simply, these two approaches have ignored, rationalized, or explained away what we might call excess in Mau Mau oaths. This excess is both symbolic—­that is, a semiotic problem—­and a matter of excessive violence—­which is to say, a problem of sovereignty. In order to account for this excess, I argue that we must reframe the oaths as instances of “ritual inflation.” Ritual inflation does not mean the increase in the monetary “cost” of performing rituals, though money certainly plays a part in the larger story. Rather, its meaning is located inside the ritual frame itself. As an analytic category, ritual inflation refers to the proliferation of sign vehicles and violence within Mau Mau oaths. This, I argue, is due


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to the way these rituals bear the traces of the colonial imposition, described in the previous chapter, of a centralized notion of the sovereign as divine lawgiver onto Kikuyu ritual semiotics. This imposition marked a distinctive break from a preexisting theory of power, which might genuinely be described as “acephalous” (Fortes and Evans-­Pritchard 1940).

Ritual Confusion An additional (and crucial) dynamic related to that of ritual inflation, which both the semiotic and utilitarian explanations also fail to address properly, is the fact that Mau Mau oathing rituals were puzzling for participants themselves. This is well known: oath takers often did not understand the meaning of oathing symbols,4 especially in the novel combinations in which they appeared. The assumption that the efficacy of symbols was rooted in their interpretation has implicitly pushed the necessity of positing a Kikuyu hermeneutical tradition and a reliance on that tradition’s interpreters as key to understanding how rituals work. In this way, one strand of Mau Mau scholarship essentially appears to resemble the hermeneutic tradition of Victor Turner and his main informant, Muchona the Hornet, “Interpreter of Religion.”5 This does not, in and of itself, condemn that approach. But here I want to draw on an example from my fieldwork to dwell for a moment on the problem of ritual opacity and its implications for both the symbolic and utilitarian approaches to the study of Mau Mau oaths. During many extended stays in Kenya, I came to know the late Mary Mbaire Kariuki, one of countless Kikuyu who were oathed during Mau Mau. Sometime in the early 1940s, Mbaire, together with her husband, children and cowife, was forced by the Ken­ yan colonial administration to move from Tigoni-­Limuru to a settlement scheme on top of the southern wall of the Rift Valley near the Mau Forest. The settlement was called Olenguruone. It was created in 1934 to house Kikuyus whose land had been seized by the state and subsequently sold to white settlers for the estab-

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lishment of commercial farms. Grievances surrounding this kind of forced removal were central to Mau Mau, and indeed, the first Mau Mau oaths emerged in Olenguruone. Discontent among those Kikuyus displaced from Central Kenya and the recently expelled “squatter” populations led to tension. Soon, colonial administrators began confiscating all of the cattle and crops of the residents, a collective punishment against the action of a few anticolonial agitators. They then sold this loot to “loyal” Kikuyus at a discount. Fearing that the confiscation of livestock and crops was a prelude to eviction and perpetual displacement, Olenguruone’s residents began administering what they called the “muma wa uiguano,” or “the unity oath.” They understood it to be a form of “traditional” battle oath, similar to those sworn before cattle raids against the Maasai in the nineteenth century, but which were actually derived from the membership oaths of the Kikuyu Central Association. Mbaire was among those who swore this oath. I don’t have her account of it, but Mau Mau veteran Karari Njama provided an extended account of the unity oath in his memoir of the period, and it is likely that her experience was similar. Notably, Njama starts by saying that he was deceived into en­­ tering a thingira, or traditional roundhouse, in order to help an older man who asked him to assist with some repair work. Inside it was dark, but he could hear others whispering, and they seemed equally perplexed. When the lights were ordered on, he saw that there were nearly forty people inside. He noted, too, that the door was bolted. In front of him was an arch of banana leaves, with three men standing guard holding traditional Kikuyu swords. They were ordered to queue in front of the arch, take off their shoes, and remove any coins, watches or metal objects. The man who issued the order then said, “We want you young men to join us in the struggle for freedom and the return of our stolen land. That is why we have brought you here to swear an oath joining you with us in the struggle. Mind you, this is no joking matter. Any who refuse to take this oath will be killed and bur­­ ied right here in this hut” (Barnett and Njama 1966, 57).


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One man complained that he had not heard of such an oath and would not swear it. He was immediately punched in the face and was forced to plead with his captors to have his life spared. From here, the oathing ceremony itself began. I will quote Njama. Note his description of ritual symbols: In . . . the second house I entered, a goat was being slaughtered. The meat was roasted to be eaten later and the skin was cut into thin ribbon-­like strips which were twisted and joined to form rings. The eyes of the goat were removed altogether with the thorax and the ngata, a bone which connects the head and the spinal column and contains seven holes. The eyes were stuck on either side of a 15-­inch long piece of banana stalk which was hollowed out lengthwise so that it could be used as a container. Also attached were clusters of seven Kei apple thorn’s (from a particular tree known as muthuthi or mugaa) and Sodom apples which were fixed to the three sides with these same thorns. This container was to hold a liquid formed by a mixture of goat’s blood, soil and crushed grains, such as maize, sorghum and beans. The arch, which stood about 5 feet high, was constructed of banana stalks dug into the ground and joined at the top by tying or intertwining their leaves. On this frame were put other plants and shrubs, such as sugarcane, maize stalks etc. The ngata of the goat and the thorax, or large chest piece of meat, were hung from the top of the arch near the center. Throughout the ceremony each initiate wore a ring of the twisted goatskin around his neck and held a damp ball of soil against his stomach with his right hand . . . a symbol of the person’s willingness to do everything in his power to assist the association in regaining and protecting the land belonging to the Kikuyu people. Standing thus before the arch I passed through it seven times while the oath administrator uttered and I repeated the following vows: 1. If I am called upon at any time of the day or night to assist in the work of this association, I will respond without hesitation; And if I fail to do so, may this oath kill me. 2. If I am required to raise subscriptions for this organization, I will do so; And if I fail to do so, may this oath kill me.

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3. I shall never decline to help a member of this organization who is need of assistance; And if I refuse such aid, may this oath kill me. 4. I will never reveal the existence or secrets of the association to Government or to any person who is not himself a member; And if I violate this trust, may this oath kill me. Following this and repeating these vows again on each occasion I was instructed to take seven sips of liquids from the banana stock container, seven small bites of the goats thorax—­and performing each act seven times—­to prick the eyes of the dead goat, and to insert a piece of reed into the seven holes of the nagata. The administrator then had me take a bite of sugarcane, poured cold over my feet and made a cross on my forehead with the blood and grain mixture. When this was done I was surrounded by a number of spectators who took hold of the skin ring around my neck and started counting. Reaching the number seven they all pulled, breaking the ring, and saying, may you be destroyed like this ring if you violate any of these vows! The rest of the people repeated this curse in unison. (Barnett and Njama 1966, 57–­59)

By any account, it was a complex affair. Remarkably, however, within a few years the oathing rituals had become even more baroque. There was also more than one kind of oath to be sworn. The most important, reserved for combatants, was the notorious batuni [platoon] or “warrior oath.” It was also known as the “battalion” oath and the muma wa ngero (“the oath for killing.”) Mary Mbaire took this oath as well. Again, she was hesitant to provide details, but another participant, the author H. K. Wachanga (1978), provided an account of a male-­specific oath that provides some idea of what might have been involved. By the end of 1952, he claimed, most “brave and intelligent” young men over sixteen had taken it, and all of the Mau Mau leaders had. Later recruits were allowed to join them in the forest before taking it—­a process called “regearing,” because, as Wachanga claims, it helped them to return to their normal (antigovernment) state of mind. He detailed the ceremony like this: A he-­goat was butchered and the following parts were used: the eyes, the neck-­bone, the blood and the thorax. When these things


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had been assembled and prepared, we gave the oath in the following manner. Everyone was ordered to take off their trousers and to squat facing the oath administrator. When their turn came, they took the thorax and inserted their penises through it while holding the thorax with their left hand. With their right hand they passed seven sticks through the hole one at a time. Each time they repeated the vow seven times, biting the meat, throwing a stick on the ground and swearing the following: • I

speak the truth and vow before my God and my people and by the batuni oath of our movement of Gikuyu and Mumbi which is called the secret movement of fighting for our stolen land and freedom, that I shall obey and that I shall never surrender or leave my people in danger. If I fail to do so, let this oath kill me, let this he-­goat meat kill me; and let the seven sodom apples and mugere kill me. • I speak the truth and vow before our God and my people of Kenya that I will never betray our country, or anyone belonging to our movement, to the enemy, whether he is a European or an African. If I do so, may this oath kill me. • I speak the truth and vow before God and my people that if I am called upon to kill a European or an African enemy during the day or night, or if I am called upon to burn or to destroy a European’s property, I will go forth without fear. If I refuse to do so, let this oath kill me. If I am called to go to kill enemies, even if they are my mother, father, son, daughter, brother or sister, and I refuse to do so, let this oath kill me. • I speak the truth and vow to my God and to my people that if my people of the movement approach me by day or by night and ask me to hide them, that I will do so. If I fail to do so, let this oath kill me. • I speak the truth and vow before my God and my people that I will not take away the woman of another man to become a prostitute, that I will never steal anything belonging to a member of this movement, nor kill any member. If I do any of these things, let this oath kill me. • I speak the truth and vow before God and my people that if I fail to do all of these things, I will accept any punishment which the movement decides to give me, even if it be the death

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penalty. I will give myself into the hands of my people without any question and I will be a sacrifice in our struggle for land and freedom. (Wachanga 1978, 34)

The seeming clarity of these promises, together with the matter-­ of-­fact description of the symbols involved in both rituals, makes them seem like straightforward affairs. One wonders, however, whether the participants actually understood everything that was happening, and that is where Mary Mbaire’s recollections come in. In 2005, I was quite naively asking her the meaning or function of the flora and fauna used during her oath and whether or not she understood herself still to be under its potential curse. She replied, “I didn’t really understand the oath, I just knew it was traditional, like a beating.” I have been trying to understand that statement ever since. If the oath was “traditionally” efficacious, and the symbols were “traditionally” efficacious, what explains the violence? Was that, too, “traditional”? I don’t want to ignore the gendering of corporal punishment as something many experience as an assertion of gerontocratic authority, and how women and children are categories that are often conflated by the authors of such violence. Yet Mbaire was bringing an experience of male violence from outside of the ritual frame into the normative ritual center. And recall that a few decades earlier, the oath’s mystical violence—­ thahu—­was the constitutive outside of society because it produced death without blame. Is it not just as important that the rituals were puzzling, as Mbaire confirms, even shocking, for participants themselves?

Violence and the Oath In order to answer this question, we need to look closer at the symbolic and utilitarian approaches that others have used, to help us think through the question of the oath’s efficacy in relation to the problem of violence, starting with the accounts of partic­ ipants themselves. Njama, for instance, and coauthor Donald


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Barnett try to explain the oath’s efficacy via the meanings of different oathing “symbols,” which they assume to have been more or less transparent and enduring across disparate contexts of use. As they tell it, the unity oath was a modern synthesis incorporating various and often modified features of traditional initiation ceremonies (e.g. passing under the arch sipping a distasteful mixture of symbolic elements and uttering sacred vows) and customary oaths and curses (e.g. the secret and awesome number seven, the use of the sheep’s chest meat and seven holes of the ngata, derived respectively from the “oath of the sheep” and the githathi oath, and the curses for calling for divine punishment should the initiate violate his vows), together with an element of Christian symbolism (i.e. the cross drawn on the initiate’s forehead), and modern political objectives contained in the vows and instructions calling for a return of the stolen lands and freedom, which were held to be achievable against a hostile white community only through an unbreakable African unity. (Barnett and Njama 1966, 60)

It is no coincidence that this sounds like a laundry list. Arguably, this list is less syncretic than it is cumulative, a pile rather than an efficacious blend. There is a hint of a proper answer in that fact: a hint, that is, of ritual inflation. It is not only the ritual “symbols” that keep proliferating; oathing clauses to which participants must swear proliferate as well. By 1952 some initiates were swearing to over twenty of them. Just when Njama seems ready to give a lesson in Kikuyu hermeneutics, he begins instead to discuss how the oath “carried certain logical and practical necessities” (Barnett and Njama 1966, 60). The need for the movement to maintain secrecy, he claims, accounts “for the dual threat of divine and human punishment should an initiate violate his vows and for the inherent practical necessity of killing any person who ultimately refused to take the oath of unity” (ibid.). Besides the fact that Njama’s category of “divine justice” already indexes the assignment of a centralized “divine” juridical agent to the oath’s violence, it turns out divine justice is not divine at all. Or at least the nature of the relationship between divine violence and human violence is totally unclear.

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This same problem emerges in cultural reclamation arguments such as Rennison Githige’s attempt to demonstrate the Mau Mau oath’s essential Kikuyuness. For him, the authenticity of symbols is vital to continued ritual efficacy, and Mau Mau oaths were no exception. But he fails to explain any one symbol’s social meaning. Banana fronds, the awesome and evil number seven, and all the others are simply “traditional.” He is perplexed, though: while traditional oaths had only a few symbols, Mau Mau oaths had “so many symbols.” Moreover, Githige has this to say about the curse that attended oaths: In traditional oaths, the curse emphasized the fact that the oath would kill the liar. In Mau Mau oaths, as will be seen, the curse was the same as that of traditional oaths. But Mau Mau did not wait for the effect of the oath to kill the person who contravened the vows that he made. . . . Whether a man was killed by the effect of the oath or whether the Mau Mau killed him is less important here. (Githige 1978, 110)

But this analysis of ritual violence indicates just how ideological the form of the oath had become. The physical violence of reb­­ els, Githige argues, is continuous with the lethal effects of thahu, despite the fact that the traditional statute of limitations for “the curse” to take effect (again, the idea of a curse indexes a centralized juridical agent), seven growing seasons, was dispensed with and its violent sanction was enacted on the spot by those administering the oath. The mystical violence of the curse and human violence are elided, but Githige does not explain how, or why. Even the idea that violence was practical does not explain the form that it took. As mentioned earlier, one oath taker notes how he was beaten for misreciting the oath: The oath administrators certainly seemed to feel that, “traditional” symbols aside, saying words correctly has something to do with the oath’s efficacy.6 Githige is thus unable to solve the contradictions of authority and efficacy at the core of oathing, and thereby fails to recognize that the killing of alleged oath breakers was part of the


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same process of proliferation (what I have called ritual inflation) that perplexes him. One possible way out of this problem is perhaps to show, as Kristina Wirtz has, that in certain ritual contexts, “obscurity is a virtue” (Wirtz 2005, 352–­53). That is, that unintelligibility may be semantically opaque but still full of meaning. In other words, meaning is not (only) strictly denotative but can index certain forms of expert knowledge in contexts where secrecy or a hierarchy of experts is maintained through the performance of ritual competence. Certainly, some of this was at work during Mau Mau. We again remember Mary Mbaire, and how the symbols used during her oath were unintelligible and unknown, despite the fact that she still feared being under its potential curse. She didn’t really understand the oath, in this sense; she “just knew it was traditional like a beating.” I am not arguing that meaning is never explicit. But the thin patina of indexes of tradition, carried out by those who appeared to be ritual authorities, was sufficient to create felicitous conditions necessary for the oath to bind. Not incidentally, Kikuyu women were often excluded from the machinations of male gerontocratic age-­sets and their forms of secret knowledge. However, during the insurgency, Wirtz’s argument really does not describe the sociology of who oath givers and oath takers were. As both Lonsdale and Green observe, hierarchies of gender, age, and lineage had collapsed. If such authority were already a given, then Wirtz’s argument about purposeful opacity would be a more acceptable general explanation for the oath’s (presumed) efficacy. More recent attempts to explore the relationship between violence and signification in Mau Mau fail for some of the same reasons. The best attempt by far is anthropologist Maia Green’s analysis. Green is careful to avoid projecting a contrived intellectualism onto ritual participants by overemphasizing the direct communicative function of ritual. Still, despite her critique of “conventional symbolic analysis,” she often explains the meaning of ritual significata in conventional ways. For example, she describes the goat intestines that were wrapped around initiates

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taking warrior oaths as “metaphorical umbilical cords,” prosthetically used to form a new kind of Mau Mau kinship, similar to the process by which elders gave birth to their sons in circumcision rituals, thus making them warriors or brothers and acknowledged links in a patrilineal chain. And the banana fronds of circumcision ritual obviously indexed the notion of being born again into the movement. In the same way, she adds, the soil balls condensed the conflict over land. From there, however, Green flips to what seems like the opposite argument. She explains that the oath’s vows were “overtly political” (Green 1990, 80) and that the “symbols” served as mere “confirmation” (ibid.) of Mau Mau’s political ideology of ithaka na wiathi (“land and freedom”). It was this ideology that was the “real” source of the oath’s efficacy, even if it was vague: The symbolism was really just cosmetic, in Green’s understanding, and her political subject is a rationally calculating actor. For Green, traditional ritual symbols had become incomprehensible and were therefore insufficient to produce the solidarity necessary for modern large-­scale political associations like “The Kikuyu,” with the definite article. As she implicitly argues, the scrambled ritual grammars and confusing symbolic repertoires during Mau Mau oaths were ultimately a testament to their meaninglessness, to such a degree that the type of recognition produced in ritual was impos­ sible to discern. Alternatively, according to Green, the proposi­ tional statements of oaths reveal Mau Mau’s realpolitik, the ends of which were not dependent on their symbolic backing at all. Due to the collapse of traditional authority structures, the threat of violence was the only force capable of producing a unified “Tribe.” The invocation of the curse, in this understanding, “served to emphasize the seriousness of the oath’s intention through an evocation of the mystical penalties associated with oath-­breaking and betrayal,” such that “its impact in the context of escalating violence was suggestive” (ibid.). This stance is epitomized in her discussion of thahu. Like the disparate significata poached from various ritual genres in colonial Kenya and recast during Mau Mau’s oaths, thahu in Green’s


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estimation is derivative of an allegedly more robust notion of political ideology, reducing thahu to mere window dressing: It seems likely that the invocation of the notion of thahu, here served to emphasize the seriousness of the oath’s intention through an evocation of the mystical penalties associated with oath-­breaking and betrayal. Its impact, in a context of escalating violence, was suggestive. The idea of thahu, like the idea of the oath which “kill(s) him who lies” and therefore breaks it, did not in itself motivate behavior. The actual threat implied by thahu and the oath came from the people who had taken it, and committed themselves, as members of the movement, to kill traitors in what was effect a situation of war. (Green 1990, 79)

Ultimately, then, she accounts for the partial unity achieved by Mau Mau by emphasizing the utility of violence, rather than the efficacy of symbols. This severs “ritual action” from “practical statement” and wholly sidesteps the question of why rebels kept inflat­ ing the number of symbols used during oathing ceremonies. Moreover, by overvaluing the political consciousness of insurgents as purely “rational,” the propositional statements of oaths are never interrogated as being just as ambiguous as the combination of “symbols” that were supposed to lend the oath’s statutes their binding force. If propositional statements and mere force would have done the trick, why then did rebels use “symbols” at all? Lonsdale’s description of the batuni (warrior) oath is similarly problematic. This is evident not only in Lonsdale’s attempt to maintain a clear-­cut division between an expanding repertoire of allegedly distinct and “ritually stronger” oaths, but also in his claim that the actual form and media of oaths had become increasingly “shocking,” even incomprehensible: The new KCA oath of unity or first Mau Mau oath was both ritually stronger than the KCA loyalty oath and more demanding. Both used the banana-­frond arch of circumcision not found in normal political or judicial oaths. The new oath contained not only goat’s meat and blood but also a wider array of Kikuyu vegetables and

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cow’s milk. . . . The ordinary ritual separation of gender and circumcision guild were broken by mixed initiation; men and women were admitted; ukabi (Maasai) and karing’a (true) guilds were joined. All were karing’a, pure Kikuyu now. Such shocking novelty required that recruits be tricked or forced into taking the oath, without time to object. They had to give seven undertakings, on pain of death. They must be loyal, obedient, help each other and tell no tales; they must sell land neither to whites nor to hostile Kikuyu; and give to funds. By 1952 some recruits had to swear to no less than 21 clauses. Eight of these enjoined obedience, solidarity and secrecy; five promised economic support; five more swore gender discipline—­to keep female initiation but to forswear prostitution, interracial marriage, desertion of a pregnant girl and divorce; two promoted education, one of them by rejecting the Beecher report. (Lonsdale 1992, 429–­30)

The reason for “more powerful oaths,” indexing increasing levels of commitment to the movement and its more secretive and extreme elements, is not entirely clear. Nor does Lonsdale attend to the awkwardness that characterized the suturing of different propositional statements together. Each of the oaths’ ever-­ expanding statutes was plausible and comprehensible in its own right, but together they seemed to lack social symmetry. “Say no to prostitution” sat next to “Say no to the Beecher report.”7 Even less comprehensible is the fit of the ever-­multiplying sign vehicles: the banana fronds of circumcision and the cross of  baptism, for example. The novel arrangement, Lonsdale argues, was “shocking,” enough to require “deception” and “force” in order to lure initiates into the ceremony. Despite their symbolic incomprehensibility and haphazardly arranged propositional statements, though, the oaths (in his account) still accomplish the work of fixing social obligations. He writes that after the ritual “All were karing’a, pure Kikuyu now” (ibid.)—­as if it were an accomplished fact. But from reading Lonsdale’s description above, one has a sense that during the war, as time went on, not only did oaths accumulate statutes but ritual genres collapsed into one another (circumcision symbolism with “normal political or judicial oaths,” as


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Lonsdale states), suggesting that this increasing layering of disparate ritual significata was an attempt to create a veritable heap of power. It is absolutely essential to state that in this regard Mau Mau rebels differed very little from colonial state administrators and other Kikuyu, who may have only disapproved of Mau Mau oaths specifically. This suturing of signs, when examined together with insurgent violence, indexes a deep-­seated anxiety that usurpers of ritual authority would feel and a lack of surety as to the oath’s capacity to produce the very order it was supposed to achieve. The ritual symbols and statutes being piled together were already unmoored from those forces, substances, and institutions that were supposed to back them (and vice versa). The inflation of ritual symbols and statutes, shored up by the threat of supplemental violence during oathing rituals, as well as the possible enforcement of oaths by human juridical agents, points to the recognition (at some level) of an apparent breakdown at the core of sovereign authority. It was as if preexisting ritual symbolic rep­ ertoires that were supposed to communicate social value were deficient, and that inflating their numbers revealed the extent to which they had come to represent both a deficit and a hinterland of possibility.

The Question of Ritual Efficacy In each of the cases examined above (those of Njama, Githige, Green, and Lonsdale), the question of ritual efficacy—­a historical problem concerning the mechanism by which oaths worked—­is sidestepped. Clearly, though—­and this is key—­ritual efficacy was a theoretical problem for Mau Mau fighters themselves. The question is not how Mau Mau oaths worked, starting from the assumption that they did, but rather to ask the prior question of why efficacy was so clearly a problem for the various parties invested in the oaths in the first place. What is needed, then, is an analytic that encompasses the contradictions intrinsic to the form of the Mau Mau oath itself, including its violence, and that grounds these contradictions historically. I have proposed

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“ritual inflation” as just such a concept, one capable of grasping the proliferation of symbols and statutes in relation to the striking violence of the Mau Mau oaths as symptomatic of a larger problem. What Gluckman had called Mau Mau’s “magic of despair” was rooted in the inability of symbols to ground author­ ity and, conversely, the inability of authority to ground symbols. This insight is absolutely critical to the argument of this book as a whole. But I would stress that it is a historical, not ontological, claim—­the result of the imposition of a centralized Christian model of sovereignty onto a basically acephalous one. Ultimately, by focusing on the ritual dimensions of what Gluck­­ man called “despair,” we can open up new paths of explanation. It is true that Mau Mau was rooted in the contradictions wrought by the complicated articulations between a strong settler lobby and a weak colonial administration that failed to protect Africans from settler predation (Berman and Lonsdale 1992, 70–­95). It is also true that Mau Mau was partially generated by rifts between Christian Kikuyus over loyalty to the authority of either Mission or “Independent” churches (Sandgren 1989). And it is true, finally, that Mau Mau was a violent debate within the Kikuyu moral economy about the right path towards “self-­mastery,” the telos of Kikuyu ideas about social maturation and respectability (Lonsdale 1992, 315–­468). None of this explains why oathing was so central to Mau Mau’s social constitution and violent schismatic politics. As has hopefully become clear, Mau Mau’s “magic of despair” was actually an intensification of an already existing problem: the surplus of competing authorities that had become intrin­ sic to the oathing form itself. Rebels were afraid that ritual “sym­­ bols” were no longer sovereign and might not serve as the basis for a renewed gerontocratic order. This fact, however, only led to a violent and compulsive investment in their efficacy. In the previous chapter, I traced these anxieties around the criteriology of efficacious oaths even further back into the colonial period. At that point, recall, the questions concerned Kikuyu elders and the colonial administrative and missionary mistaken assumption that elder sovereignty was rooted in their ability to


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manipulate thahu, reflecting the way it was supposed to be a kind of divine punishment meted out for breaking rules. Colonial authorities effectively remade the oathing system as part of their project of indirect rule, and in very different terms. The later invocation of thahu in Mau Mau oaths, implied in the phrase “May this oath kill me,” now had to be backed by actual violence rather than by that which was supposed to be immanent to elderhood itself, at least in the colonially reconstructed version of the elder as an essentially Protestant sovereign, a divine lawgiver. These oaths were, in other words, an attempt to recover sovereignty through ritual expenditure and violence. This violence was as much about trying to reground the sovereignty of ritual symbols as to create a new basis for legitimate social action as it was a means to the rebellion’s end. As Njama’s account of the battle oath suggested, the ever-­ increasing layering of disparate ritual significata was an attempt to create a veritable heap of power, and oath givers were in fact acting as if such “symbols” were supposed to be efficacious. In this respect, they were acting like colonial administrators, other Kikuyus, and most scholars of the Mau Mau rebellion: How symbols were supposed to work was really not the issue. They worked because they were supposed to work (or so the story went). But the articulation of inflationary ritual with insurgent violence ac­ tually indexes a deep-­seated anxiety in that regard. Far from being taken for granted, there was (I argue) an uncertainty or even doubt about the efficacy of the very ritual practice in which they were so invested. And this uncertainty is itself rooted in the problem I identified in the previous chapter: the perceived failure of gerontocratic authority to “back” the truth of signs and value. Again, as Mary Mbaire Kariuki claimed, oaths and their symbols had become “traditional like a beating.” Her description is much like the way Derrida describes parole without langue: moments when the law becomes emptied of content in acts of enforcement, leaving nothing in the speech act but the enunciative force of speaking. The inflationary ritual economy of Mau Mau shows how truly ideological oaths had become for rebels.

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By “ideology” we gesture to Žižek’s use of the term: “knowingly doing activities directed towards following an illusion, but nonetheless still doing them” (Žižek 1989, 28–­30). Rebels acted as if their symbols were supposed to be efficacious in binding word to deed, but their continuous addition of new symbols to oathing repertoires, together with the violence that surrounded oathing rituals, indicates that this sovereignty was questionable for some or all of those involved. For Žižek, this notion of ideology is distinct from older notions of ideology, which, he argues, is inadequate for understanding contemporary political contexts in which people expect governments or other authorities to dissemble—­a situation of generalized cynicism. As the last chapter and the discussion above have showed, in the case of 1950s Kenya, the idea that the sovereign authority of elders was supposed to back the efficacy of symbols—­their truth—­had been set adrift. On the one hand, this produced the kind of expectations of dissimulation that Žižek is pointing to. But it also produced a yearning for the illusion of unity that ideology creates. This would seem to explain the obsessive attempts by Mau Mau rebels to reestablish what was experienced as the lost unity of collective representations and the sacred. Note too that for Durkheim, it is this unity that makes representations or “symbols” sovereign to begin with. Other analysts of ritual follow suit; Victor Turner, for instance, assumed that such unity will always cohere anew in ritual (Turner 1967). William Ramp has argued, however, that functionalist interpretations of Durkheim’s Elemen­ tary Forms overemphasize the binding capacity of ritual efferves­ cence. In contrast, he claims, Durkheim portrayed effervescence in terms of “expenditure, excess,” and “exhaustion” and saw “violence as a manifestation of intensity in particular rites” (Ramp 1998, 137). For Mau Mau oathing rituals, it is thus pertinent to ask “in what sense would excess, exhaustion, contradiction, or violence serve as an adhesive” (ibid.)? Or rather, why would rebels think that it would? The violent character of Mau Mau oaths was thus not in­ cidental. Nor was it simply instrumental but “real” force lying


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underneath a profusion of confusing signs. Mau Mau’s ritual violence cannot be assigned a utility, a definitive capacity to achieve the movement’s ambiguous ends. Rather, to practitioners, the violence seemed essential to the oath’s efficacy.8 But the point is not that violence achieved a level of efficacy: In many cases, it did not, and when Mau Mau ritual failed to create its intended sovereign-­like effects, the use of sign vehicles became radically speculative, just as speculative uses of money during a monetary crisis index the incapacity of a sovereign authority to actually back its currency. In this inflation, like a monetary one, the increasing emotional investment in symbols was proportionate to the sinking feeling that no sovereign authority backed those symbols at all. As Hansen and Stepputat argue, “The body is always the site of performance of sovereign power, which becomes most visible in states of war, extreme conditions, fragmentation and marginality,” yet sovereignty should also be understood “as a tentative always emergent form of authority grounded in violence” (2006, 297). When insurgents forced other Kikuyu to take oaths upon pain of death, and when they killed or beat alleged oath breakers, it was actually an attempt to arrest the inflationary dynamics of Mau Mau’s ritual economy, an attempt that kept on failing. It did not definitively (re)establish elder sovereignty as the “ontological ground of power” (ibid.). With every failure came a new round of oathing and violence. To extrapolate from these conundrums, then, the problem that faced Mau Mau rebels and the colonial state—­and which, as we have seen, is consistently reproduced at the level of scholarly treatments of the Mau Mau oath—­is whether symbols back authority or authority backs symbols. This has created an interpretive tendency to polarize the force of symbols and the force of violence in explanations about what backed the oath’s efficacy. But the oath’s efficacy was exactly what was often in doubt for insurgents themselves. Hence the inflationary spirals of “rational” propositional statements, symbols, and violence alike. What is more, the fact that ritual efficacy was a problem in the first place is related to the intrinsic contradictions of the ritual form

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itself. The reason scholars of Mau Mau keep trying to discover the right mechanism for the oath’s efficacy is because they have not attended to the historical and social production of the oath form and have thus tended to fixate on either the rationality of propositional statements and the utility of violence to ground sovereignty, or the plenitude of mystical force in ritual symbols. It would be irresponsible, however, to isolate the “magic of despair” used by rebels in their attempts to produce Kikuyu consensus from the equally eerie and numinous attempts by the colonial government to create a state of law during the emergency. This emphasis on grounding symbols in “true” authority and vice versa was itself a colonial production, a development out of what Gluckman conceived as a unified colonial social field. If Gluckman is guilty of something, it is of implicitly assuming that there is a substantive division between what he understood as “secular” and “magico-­religious” responses to crises.9 In Mau Mau, no such divide existed. Clearly, the colonial government tried to mystically perform law into being through force (Derrida and Anidjar 2002): public hangings of suspected insurgents sometimes topped three per day (Anderson 2005) during the height of the Emergency. But the colonial government was actually as obsessed with the efficacy of Kikuyu ritual as it was with hanging people. As Daniel Branch argues, “her majesty’s supernatural service,” and its failed campaign of counteroathing, actually led to the escalation of the war (Branch 2005). Attempting to ground sovereignty in death, either by killing oath breakers, as insurgents did, or by hanging insurgents, as the colonial state did, should both be considered, in Gluckman’s terms, “magic-­religious responses,” since both were rooted in equally metaphysical precepts about the social and political productivity of death. In this way, as Hansen and Stepputat rightly argue, “the colonial world was not a stage whereupon a fully formed cultural idea of ‘Realist’ Western Sovereignty clashed with, and superseded, other forms of sacred sovereignty.” Rather, it was “a twilight zone of multiple, indeterminate forms of power and authority” (Hansen and Stepputat 2006, 302).


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The despair generated by the “indeterminacy” that Hansen and Stepputat point to, mixed with the desire to arrest its manifest challenges and ambiguities, was never resolved for Mau Mau fighters. The Mau Mau rebellion was effectively starved by Brit­­ ish efforts to cut off its supply lines. This does not mean, however, that the problem of elderhood, sovereignty, and representation went away with the cessation of Mau Mau. If the war had continued, one wonders whether Durkheim’s statement—­that if sacredness becomes “primarily concentrated in a rite” then “that rite will become the creator of deities” (Durkheim and Fields 1996, 202)—­applies in a situation in which structures and practices of authority had been so badly corroded. The Mau Mau rebellion is an example of the expenditure of ritual effort that fails to establish any enduring sovereign, resulting in the compulsive and violent probing of the colonial universe for the right representations from which to build a new society.

4 Old Age and Money: The General Numismatics of Independent Kenya As John Lonsdale has rightly noted, Jomo Kenyatta the man, apart from being Kenya’s first prime minister and president (1963–­ 78), largely remains an enigma (Lonsdale 2002, 31). In his contradictory allegiance to the parochialisms of both tribe and nationhood, he has been accused of having cultivated “a wanton, wily, political potency” (ibid.) in the interstices of these competing, equally modern political forms. Lonsdale’s reading of Kenya’s first president is an attempt to interpret him as something other than a Machiavellian prince, as Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg had depicted him ( Jackson and Rosberg 1982, 98–­112). Kenyatta was caught, Lonsdale claims, between contradictory forces: the cultural expectation to become a moral elder generative of social order on one hand, and his own Christian mission education and the drastic transformations of self and society that literacy had bestowed, on the other (Lonsdale 2002, 31). On one side were “modern” forms of representation; on the other side were “traditional” Kikuyu understandings of civic virtue and moral authority. Kenyatta was all too aware of “the modern world’s subversion”


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(ibid.) of social order. As Lonsdale argues, he thus “defined his purpose accordingly: to select from modernity with care, so that his people could go forward with stability” (ibid.). Yet when it came to putting Mau Mau to rest, Kenyatta’s “careful selection” of elements intrinsic to capitalist modernity was something of a Faustian bargain. As argued in chapter 2, Ken­ yatta had long been anxious about the debilitating and homogenizing effects of money on the efficacy of “symbols of truth,” like ĩthathi. To his mind, they threatened the efficacy of Kikuyu elders in their colonially reconstituted role as ritual guarantors of social reproduction. The introduction of money had, he believed, eroded the binding capacity of oaths, creating a downwardly spiraling trajectory into what Kenyatta understood to be an endemic state of “bribery and corruption” in Local Native Tribunals (Kenyatta 1965, 216). This anxiety did not subside after independence. On the contrary, it shifted focus from the concrete and particular form of the oath to the abstract and general form of money that was seen to undermine it. In this respect, attention to Kenyatta’s prevailing “symbolic” concerns can help further unpack, and perhaps reframe, Lonsdale’s traditional-­ versus-­modern conflict that he locates at the heart of Kenyatta’s political practice. Kenyatta’s concern for durable symbols—­in this case, money—­reflects the irresolvable contradictions between acephalous and centralized theories of sovereignty introduced by missionaries and colonial administrators. While colonial administrative retooling of Kikuyu elders made them more like Protestant, law-­giving sovereigns, as “traditional” ritual-­administrative rulers, the way this contradictory understanding of elderhood came into articulation with a “general equivalent” in the form of money sheds further light on this process of centralization. The general equivalent thus also reflects a kind of Christian monism as the exceptional form of value against which and through which other values are both compared and made commensurable, an important aspect of what we might call money’s “sovereign” function. Yet cultural understandings of sovereignty, which become sutured to the money form in its process of ascension, are also a matter of historical specificity.

Old Age and Money

While this process was well underway in the colonial period, it is the early postcolonial period when this specific articulation—­old age and money—­becomes more analytically legible. This chapter argues that the minting of Kenya’s new currency, which came under the control of the Kenyatta government in 1966 (three years after independence), was an attempt to reground sign value (what Lonsdale calls “stability”) in the generative “substance” of genuine elderhood. This, despite the colonial origins of such a notion. Kenyatta, recall, understood money to have destroyed the capacity of elders to back the efficacy of ritual signs, exposing the oath and its media, not to mention elders themselves, to the debilitating logic of the counterfeit. Ironically, the Kenya shilling—­Kenya’s postindependence currency—­ would become central to Kenyatta’s project of rehabilitating the lost sovereignty of this colonially reconstituted elderhood, as I argue below. For Kenyatta, Mau Mau’s ritual life, in which young men attempted to usurp the “sovereign rite” to be solely responsible for the promissory capacities of ritual speech, had made this lost sovereignty painfully clear. Rather than money controlling elders, the elder of elders—­Kenyatta himself—­would control money, or, rather, currency (a differentiation about which Ken­ yatta himself was not always clear). The status of the Kenya shilling as an indexical icon of gerontocratic authority seems indisputable: Kenyatta’s image was literally engraved on the “heads” side of the new currency, along with the title of “Mzee”—­the Kiswahili honorific for an “old man,” by which Kenyatta is still referred to in a somewhat singular fashion. Kenyatta’s elderhood is still viewed as somewhat exceptional, attributed to the gerontocratic swagger in his many public speeches. Remaining relatively stable during Kenyatta’s presidency, together with the public effervescence generated by its distribution at regular spectacles of state largesse, the Kenya shilling’s dependable movement through the body politic continually ratified Kenyatta as a model both of and for generative elderhood. In this respect, the notes and coins of Kenyatta’s new republic might best be thought of as tokens of gerontocratic speech acts, which like divine speech were supposed to emanate



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from a single source and be immune to falsification, bypassing slippages between sign and referent. Thus, while the Kenyatta government was in one sense conveying “the dominant preoccupations of the issuing authority”—­ namely, controlling flows of value in and out of the country, maintaining trade and liquidity, and so forth—­its approach to currency reform was special (Mwangi 2002a, 34). Rather than focusing solely on financial relations, he had a specific eye for the “social and political relationships” that he wanted to obtain “in the currency’s circulation area” (ibid.). This approach also provided a veneer of legitimacy for the centralization of power in the executive. Eventually, Kenyatta effectively controlled parliament, the civil service, and the provincial administration. The performance of generative elderhood, with the Kenya shilling as a key actor, produced an unusual representational economy much like that of postindependence Nigeria flush with oil money (Apter 2005). There, as Apter reminds us, spectacles of “traditional culture” in the context of an oil boom ratified simulacra of customary images of power and authority as “real.” Such state spectacles “transcended the referent in official truth value and effect, performing a profound if implicit symbolic reversal” (ibid., 4), even if these customary images and ideas were in fact generated by the colonial encounter and did not exist in the same form prior to it. Kenya, of course, did not possess a booming commodity like oil. In its absence, Kenyatta’s performative efficacy had to be underwritten by his near-­monarchical access to other resources: foreign currency (as donor aid), land, and other “public” assets.1 Ultimately, Mau Mau’s spectacles of violence—­attempts to reground the sovereignty of ritual symbols as an extension of elder sovereignty—­were, in effect, superseded by the independent state’s ritualized spectacles of value (which also reset the clock for the next inflationary crisis). Here I want to argue that Kenyatta and the civil service’s efficacious performances of largesse, not violence, came to be the de facto experience of state sovereignty. Under Kenyatta, in other words, the head of state came to be understood not as the one with the right to exceptional violence per se, but rather as the ultimate guarantor, source, and measure

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of meaning and value. While state violence was of course not absent under Kenyatta’s regime, to locate its salience at the normative center of the political would be an analytic error. After all, Kenyatta did not agree with many Kikuyu, or with his first vice president, the Luo patriarch Jaramogi Oginga-­Odinga, that Mau Mau’s violence could serve as a law-­founding moment or be routinized for the purpose of nation building at all. The ground of elder generativity, however, could perform that function—­at least, that is what Kenyatta’s frequent public appearances and redistributive acts suggested. This chapter, then, is an ethnographic and historical query into the money form in Kenyan history before and during the Kenyatta presidency, in order to capture an important aspect of Kenyatta’s program of “conservative modernization” (Berman 1996). The key ethnographic moment of the chapter is the opening of the new Central Bank of Kenya in 1966, three years after formal independence in 1963. I interpret this moment as a “baptismal” event (Silverstein 2003, 203), in which Kenyatta sought to emulate or even supersede—­as the elder of elders, the Mzee—­ the status of the money form itself as the general equivalent. Before detailing this baptismal moment, though, I work through some longstanding theoretical preoccupations surrounding the relationship between money, sovereignty, and truth. I will also demonstrate how these variables worked themselves out (or did not) in the colonial monetary system Kenyatta inherited in 1963, which itself lacked anything approaching a history of “stability.”

Imperial Backing If Kenyatta was obsessed with the lost sovereignty of elders and symbols during the colonial period, his colonial masters were no less so. The key symbol of British colonial power and sovereign aspiration—­its currency—­was a source of colonial anxiety and political intervention. From 1919 to 1966, an institution known as the East African Currency Board (EACB) controlled the forms and amounts of currency circulating in the colonies of Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda. As Wambui Mwangi persuasively



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argues, the EACB was constituted out of a post–­World War I “social and political delirium” that came to be known as the East African rupee crisis (Mwangi 2002b, 763–­64). The history of this crisis, Mwangi argues, throws “into sharp relief the tortuous anatomy of power relations and social constellations in colonial East Africa” (ibid.) and starts to illuminate the significance of having currency issued by an independent African government. Prior to World War I, East Africa was in an important sense a backwater of the imperial Indian economy. The silver rupee was its currency. This odd arrangement—­whereby the colonial relation between East Africa and Britain was mediated by the latter’s most prosperous colony—­added a strange racial quality to financial dynamics. On one hand, the Kenya Colony and Protectorate’s Indian subjects both figured their expenses and stored their capital in rupees. On the other hand, white settlers generally figured profits in pounds sterling, only using rupees to figure operating costs for their farms and businesses. This pattern did not survive World War I, which, amongst other things, saw the first phases of the collapse of the gold standard (Polanyi 2001)—­notwithstanding postwar faith in its power. Britain went off the gold standard at the start of the war and remained off entirely until 1925, after which it tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to bring it back. At the same time, the Indian rupee continued to be denominated in specie. A postwar rise in the global price of silver suddenly increased the value of the rupee, while the British pound was maintained at a fixed level. The result was a decrease in profits for white settlers: their income (in pounds) grew smaller as their expenses (in rupees) increased. Colonial race relations quickly and predictably deteriorated as a result. Indians argued that the rupee should be kept at its market value, whereas whites lobbied for the rupee to be “disciplined” (Mwangi 2002b, 764) back to its prewar value. As Mwangi argues, the rupee’s value as a colonial currency should have been measured by the metropolitan currency. The fact that it had become a strong currency was, from the standpoint of white settlers, “tantamount to a rebellious show of force” (ibid.).

Old Age and Money

In one sense, the problem was caused by an inversion of racial hierarchies in the idealized colonial order of things: the sovereign aspirations of white settlers were not reflected in the growing value of essentially brown money. Whites did not want to be a backwater extension of Britain’s “real” colonial possession and substantive generator of capital, India (ibid., 768). At the same time, however, the rupee crisis also pointed to deeper problems regarding what should “back” the value of currency. Settlers seemed to be asserting that the substance of empire—­its codes of race, hierarchy, and honor—­trumped the substance of silver. With the founding of the EACB, the settlers’ argument ruled the day. A new currency was created and pegged to the British pound (off the gold standard), not specie.2 In short, creating an institution that relied on fiat money was the way to solve the problem of which and what kind of authority, institution, and force could or should control value equivalences in a global colonial order. The larger goal, however, was not fiat as such. After all, British desire to return the pound to the gold standard remained high for at least half a century. It did, however, entail fiat power over colonial currency, which otherwise threatened to absorb the wealth of empire. As Mwangi details: Firstly, the rationale for currency boards, at least in the British colonial model, usually stemmed from an imperative to protect the imperial currency from use, or rather, misuse, in the colonies. The perceived danger was that the imperial currency would be lost in the various sink holes of colonized economies and, instead of returning as a profit to the metropole, would constitute a loss to the imperial treasury. Currency boards were meant to create buffers by issuing token currencies for use in the colonial territories, to be exchanged at a fixed rate against the imperial currencies. Unlike the West African prototype, however, the impetus to establish the EACB did not come from a desire to guard against the multiple risks involved in having sterling circulating in East African territories. The Indian rupee was already well established as the standard currency in East Africa. Indeed, the EACB’s issue served precisely



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to exclude the Indian rupee from East Africa, thus substituting one colonial currency for another. (Mwangi 2002b, 767)

Mwangi thus reads the founding of the EACB as not just a financial development but as an instrument of colonial political discipline. If nothing else, this is evident in the massive losses that the EACB incurred after its inception—­losses that were not recouped for several decades. Due to the run on silver, the EACB was founded with a deficit of 246,016 pounds. By the end of the first year of operation, that deficit had increased to 903,632 pounds (ibid., 763). The inability to decide on a lasting currency solution added to the instability. Between 1919 and 1921, the currency shifted from the Indian rupee to the East African rupee, and then to the East African florin, before finally ending in the East African shilling. As Mwangi states, during that time the colonial economy experienced “wildly fluctuating changes in the value of its currency” (ibid.). The story of the East African shilling was thus intimately tied to the wild ride of the pound sterling, the currency to which it was pegged. The pound went off the gold standard (again) on September 21, 1931. Since most colonies’ currencies were pegged to the pound through the mediation of currency boards, most of Britain’s colonies followed the pound’s exit from metallic backing into what became known as the “sterling area.” The day after the United Kingdom entered World War II—­September 4, 1939—­Britain imposed exchange controls. Different colonies left and reentered the sterling area. The colonies and countries that remained were subject to restrictions when dealing with countries outside of the sterling area but not in dealings within it. After the conclusion of the war, Britain went back onto the gold standard, removed exchange controls on August 15, 1947, suffered major foreign reserve losses, and then reinstituted exchange controls on August 20, 1947. Interestingly, the pound sterling had a dual exchange rate from 1961 until the United Kingdom abolished exchange controls in 1979. The sterling area remained in existence because sterling was not fully convertible.3 After independence, Kenya imposed its own exchange controls on its sterling area

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partners beginning in June of 1965, except for its East African neighbors of Uganda and Tanzania, who used the common East African shilling under the EACB, a state of affairs that continued until independent central banks were founded in 1966. Despite the vicissitudes of the anchor currency’s value, the colonial government’s desire to convey unwavering political capacity was expressed in the unchanging imagery on the currency, which for nearly thirty years prominently featured a lion (Mwangi 2002a, 45). This symbol of both British authority and savage Africa, over which the colonial state was attempting to convey an image of control, epitomized aspirations to sovereignty rooted in fiat power, as the rupee crisis so boldly illuminated. Even when it was suggested that a change of design could help secure the currency against counterfeiting, the board was extremely resistant. It would take a different menace from hypothetical counterfeiters to move the board to action. As Mwangi shows, during the Mau Mau rebellion currency design became a source of administrative paranoia after a secret note from the director of intelligence and security was sent to the secretary of the treasury, the commissioner of police, and the secretary for defense. Mwangi details the contents of the letter: It contained a perfectly legitimate five-­shilling note of the old King George VI issue, then still in fairly wide circulation. On the face of this note, however, over the inscription “ The East African Currency Board” and the signatures of the members of the EACB had been scrawled the words “Mau Mau Very Good.” The portrait of George VI had been deliberately defaced and scribbled over. The accompanying note to the secretary of the Treasury informs the recipient that “the possibility of this method of spreading Mau Mau propaganda becoming extensive and the means of putting a stop to it was discussed with the currency officer at the Treasury. The latter has stated that banks would not normally exchange them.” (ibid.,49)

Not unlike the problems of brown money that precipitated the expulsion of the rupee from the colony, this singular act of defacement was read not only as a serious threat to British control over the African population of the colony. It also suggested a potential


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risk to the “natural” hierarchy of racial difference that was supposed to be the “real” substance of empire. The only weapon against such threats was the fiat power of banks to declare whether currency was money or not at official points of exchange. In other words, fiat power was what ultimately backed even the alleged sovereignty of the natural order. But this problem of where sovereignty ought to reside—­in fiat or in nature—­was a problem that had vexed English social theorists for some time. John Locke, for instance, considered it the exclusive right of the state to regulate and define the form and substance of money (Caffentzis 1989, 26). At the same time, he believed that silver was one of the few substances that was intrinsically valuable and thus ideally suited to ensure universal exchange. A coin signified commensurability between the idea of measurable amounts of silver and universal value and exchange (ibid., 28). The state had a right to define money, then, but true money was universal in character, and a just government would ensure that that universality was maintained. Locke initially proposed his theory in response to the problem of coin clipping. Clippers and pirates used shears and files to remove bits of silver from the standard weight of English coins. Besides reducing the wealth circulating in the country, this decreased the value of English coinage in foreign exchange. One suggestion was to reduce the silver content of coins while maintaining their “face” value. To Locke, however, this amounted to state-­sponsored counterfeiting. If clippers undermined the very possibility of sensing the “real” object world necessary for accumulating knowledge (ibid., 27), counterfeiting was an equally pernicious crime. It introduced a “continuously deepening obscurity into our reality and into our ideas” (ibid., 28), he argued, and it threatened the very ontological basis of government. The circulation of false coin, sponsored by the state, would make “counterfeiters of us all” (ibid.). Ultimately, the relation between sovereignty and money had to be measured by a third term: nature. Locke’s arguments are ironic in the light of these later developments in East Africa. There, the British sought to maintain their power—­and the racial hierarchies it suggested—­precisely

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by suppressing the “natural” power of silver to represent value. The effect, in Locke’s terms at least, was tyranny: the British in East Africa ruled not on the basis of natural truths but rather on that of counterfeit truths of their own design. Hence the irony: Locke’s ideas were better reflected by the colony’s Indian population than they were by his countrymen. It is not the case, however, that the British gave up on the possibility of natural truths. Instead, a shift had occurred: race and national character took on the character of specie. They had become, in other words, ontological “truths” in which the value of currency could safely be grounded.

General Numismatics The problem of determining what grounds the value of money is an old one. Marx’s argument, that money is actually a fetish disguising the value of congealed labor (or, more specifically, the difference between concrete and abstract labor), is probably the most familiar. But Marx was hardly the first (or last) to worry about the material sources of value that money seemed to embody. As Marc Shell argues, questions in the West about the substantive quality of money date to its earliest appearances in ancient Greece and proceeded to haunt the economic thinking of Christendom (Shell 1995, 6–­52). The introduction of state-­issued fiat currency—­that is, currency the value of which depended on nothing but the state’s promise to back it—­was and continues to be deeply resisted, even where its virtues are clear (Foster 1999, 214–­31). Tellingly, the term itself—­fiat—­is theological in origin, at least its usage in this sense. It is derived from the Hebrew god Yahweh’s original sovereign act—­Fiat lux, “Let there be light,” from Genesis 1:1. One might equally say of fiat currency, “Let there be value,” the crucial point being that sovereignty and value creation are co-­constituting. The difference, Locke sought to argue, lies in the origin of that sovereignty: is it “natural” or not? In his classic Symbolic Economies (1990) Jean-­Joseph Goux offers a different theory of this nature, one that is useful for exploring Kenyan monetary politics. Like Marx, Goux argues that



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silver, gold, and other “natural” monies are actually the end stage of a progression of value forms. Insofar as they are viewed as “natural” they are fetishes. Goux extends Marx’s argument, though, asserting that there is an isomorphic relationship between patriarchy, phallic power, language, and the money form. What they share is the underlying logic of general equivalence that Marx first critically explored with regards to money in Capital (1977 [1867]). Goux’s attempt to create what he calls a theoretical numismatics4 is motivated by a desire to reveal why certain hierarchies of value emerge and come to legislate norms. As he states: In certain points of condensation, value seems to gather, capitalize, centralize itself, investing certain elements with a privileged representativeness within the diverse set of which they are members. The mysterious genesis of this privilege is effaced, leaving the monopoly of absolute, absolved, exempted in their transcendent role as standard and measure of values. (Goux 1990, 10)

Goux thus sees a continuum in wide swaths of social theory, much of which is not normally considered in monetary terms. It can be seen, for example, in the way Derrida questions the supremacy of linguistic signs over all others in the assignment of meaning (ibid.), in the way gold became a standard mediating diverse values in exchange (central to Marx’s critique of money), or in the way a particular “pound of flesh” came to be the general signifier of erotic value for Lacan (ibid.). For Goux, all “major symbols” are “isomorphic” in their historical connection to the rise of the monetary form and function as supplements to one another in their facilitation of exchangeability. They officiate all manner of substitution or compensation. In other words, for Goux, the monetary was a decisive type of revolution not just in commerce, but in communication more generally (cf. Goody 1977). Goux argues that the various general equivalents—­ father, phallus, and money—­become sovereign at a certain point in a historical progression. Such sovereign value forms are brought about by lifting one sign or commodity out of exchange such that it reigns over all of the others in its abstract form (Goux

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1990, 21). But the rise to sovereignty is dissimulated by a “value effect” (ibid., 11) similar to what Marx terms “fetishism.” It is this dissimulation that allows them to exert themselves as the measure of subordinate symbolic orders. Just as money officiates exchange by subordinating specific labor to abstract labor in the economy, the monarch mediates conflicts in the domain of the political, according to Goux (ibid.). General equivalents are thus necessary for the maintenance of order in symbolic systems: they arrest the mêlée of the value phases that precedes their establishment as an ur-­symbol. Goux’s account is convincing at first glance. There is a stunning similarity in the way that various modes of abstraction work and the manner in which these forms of universalization hide their own conditions of possibility. Yet this resemblance at the level of form presents problems. For example, Bill Maurer argues that such propositions of “isomorphism and psychic homology” (Maurer 2006, 16) between economic and linguistic exchange are blind to the fact that Saussure’s notion of meaning-­as-­difference was itself based on Pareto’s “marginal economics of price” (ibid.). The reasoning appears to be the same because it is the same, he says: the structuralist theory of linguistic (and, in the hands of Lévi-­Strauss, cultural) meaning was itself founded on a monetary metaphor. But “if the language is interior to the money form, and vice versa,” Maurer adds, “it is difficult to say anything meaningful about money at all that is not immediately and already part of money itself ” (ibid.). Such semiotic theories of money are, he suggests, hopelessly circular. Whether or not “language is interior to the money form” in this way, the use of money is inescapably about sign-­use, abstraction, and all of their attendant complexities (Keane 2007, 270). Perhaps we might rephrase Maurer’s question as a problem of historical specificity: is language internal to money everywhere and at all times? Or, is it possible to think of making language internal to money as a particular political project? Goux, for his part, portrays the sovereign ascension of father, phallus, and money as an already accomplished fact, the telos of an



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irreversible evolutionary process. His sovereigns are de facto sovereigns, not aspirant ones. In this sense, Locke was perhaps more sensitive to political possibilities: a government could choose not to accede to the truth of silver—­Goux’s fetishized general equivalent—­and could actually slide back into what he considered primitive tyranny. Locke, however, struggles to admit what Goux makes clear: that ascension to general equivalence entails fetishization. No sovereign is naturally so, and illusion, or, perhaps more appropriately, performance, is an essential part of how money projects its “value effect.” In Derridian terms, a “supplement” is required to make the “natural” appear as such, to make the general equivalent general (Derrida 1998, 141–­52). The appeal of all of this for thinking through the social production of Kenyatta’s patrimonial state is twofold: If Goux is too quick to accept the status of general equivalence as “real” (or at least as an already accomplished fact), he redirects discussions of sovereignty away from what Geertz once called the “great beast theories” of sovereignty, which conceive of power primarily as the “capacity to harm” (Geertz 1980, 122). In Kenya, Mau Mau’s violence was exactly the problem that Kenyatta’s new national gerontocratic order was supposed to overcome. Its “magic of despair” was the condition of law without content of which Derrida makes so much. This is why the originary law-­founding moment (if this is indeed the appropriate framing) of the Kenyan nation-­ state was actually the founding of the Central Bank of Kenya. This, I argue, was the key attempt by the Kenyatta government to reground the sovereignty of symbols in elderhood. Against much of the contemporary political philosophy of sovereignty literature, then, I argue that the power of exceptional violence is not necessarily at the normative center of the political. That power, we are told, rests on propositional force and the “supplementary” violence required to “enforce” it (Derrida and Anidjar 2002). But the exceptional quality of the sovereign qua general equivalent may take several “cultural” forms—­sexual, linguistic, monetary—­and this is Goux’s relevance for contemporary discussions of sovereignty, but with a qualification: The iso-

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morphism of money, logos, father, and phallus is not simply the result of a value effect generated from completely autonomous abstracting processes. Rather, these isomorphic relations between different “cultural” manifestations of general equivalence are the result of concerted political work, the fragile ratification of which in places like Kenya is performatively choreographed (cf. Apter 2005). Kenyatta’s own spectacular project of becoming the elder par excellence, the “Father of the Nation,” required exactly this sort of detailed orchestration as head of state. But in the end, his sovereign aspirations to project a patriarchal value effect would, under President Moi, become artefactual ruins.

Promissory Acts and Promissory Notes In 1966, three years after formal independence, one of the Ken­ yan government’s key sovereign acts was finally exercised. The founding of the Central Bank of Kenya (or Banki Kuu ya Kenya in the new national language of Kiswahili) signified the shedding of another vestige of formal colonial domination. The colonial currency, the East African shilling, would soon be withdrawn from circulation. The last report of the East African Currency Board was concluded with a transcript of Kenyatta’s speech celebrating the opening of the new Central Bank. In light of apparent public anxiety that the Kenyan shilling would be worth less than the East African shilling, Kenyatta addressed the wananchi (citizens) and explained how exactly the new Central Bank guaranteed the dependability of the new currency: The Central Bank of Kenya is constituted as a part of the national machinery, an institution created and commissioned by law for the taking care of all monetary and credit matters. . . . A Government has always been regarded as a good Government if it offers to the citizens law and justice, order and security, and good money: money that everyone is glad to keep without the apprehension that tomorrow it may be worth a little bit less than today. . . . However, one thing cannot be forgotten: currency issue and management is a real business and no magic. The bank cannot make



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something out of nothing and the Government cannot by order, or “Fiat,” grant to a printed piece of paper a value independent of the backing which it possesses. Such backing is provided by foreign exchange, into which the Kenya Currency will be convertible at its established value. I am glad to say that the ratio of the foreign exchange cover is high and will remain so. But ultimately the value of the currency is determined by something still more real and durable. When we look upon the bank notes which in a short time will officially go into circulation, we see several pictures showing Kenya’s natural riches and the people working on them. This is indeed an indication where the country’s economy, and the country’s money as well, takes its strength from. It is ultimately the productive work done by the people on which the growth and the balance of the national economy depends. . . . With everyone contributing to the rise of the real national product, the task of the Bank to provide the country with sound money will be possible and easy to achieve. (East African Currency Board 1966, 118)

With these words, Kenyatta attempted to signal that the colonial era was indeed finally over. If liberating the nation’s currency from the control of the EACB caused concern among some, Kenyatta’s explanation of the real basis of the new economy emblazoned on the “tails” side of the new bills must have assuaged any concern over the Kenyan shilling’s future stability. These images were totally novel in what they indexed: independent citizens exploiting natural resources over which their newly independent African nation claimed to have sovereign control. Aside from predictions of a robust productive capacity, the Central Bank of Kenya would regulate Kenya’s currency supply, but as Kenyatta was careful to point out, it could not create value by “fiat,” an act which Kenyatta likened to “magic.” With regards to foreign currency coverage, however, Kenyatta was actually making a veiled concession. Appearances aside, the Kenyan shilling was actually the offspring of the EACB shilling and a relatively unchanged set of financial relations. If, as Keith Hart has argued, money always involves a relation between the top-­down organization of a state and the bottom-­up organiza-

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tion of society and the market, or “heads and tails” (Hart 1986), Kenyatta seemed to be admitting that as the new “head” of state, it was not his government’s imprimatur that ultimately guaranteed anything. Since it was pegged to the British pound sterling, the new Kenyan shilling, like the EACB shilling that preceded it, was vulnerable to forces beyond Kenya’s territorial boundaries. Kenya’s status as having “a good government” entailed a continuation of key aspects of the colonial relationship, not the least of which was the ongoing power of the pound. Not surprisingly, then, Kenyatta focused much of his speech on the tails side of the new currency. In discussing the imagery found there, he was attempting to depict one of his many new mantras, uhuru na kazi, or “freedom and work.” In this vision, all of the diverse forms of individual and collective wealth in the country would be inextricably tied to one another. As Lons­ dale has persuasively argued, the Kikuyu had a labor theory of value rooted in a pioneer ethos that emphasized the conversion of nature’s productive potential into culture through disciplined labor. Honorable old age was granted to those who were socially recognized as having achieved, through hard work, control over land, livestock, and women (Lonsdale 1992, 315–­468). This was the kind of work that created elders, and it was also the sort that would “back” the currency. The productive forces of the people were “still more real and durable” than the new shilling’s foreign exchange coverage. However, Kenyatta’s vision of “freedom and work” cannot be understood apart from the larger project of suppressing Mau Mau’s residual aspirations for ithaka na wiathi, or “self-­mastery through land” or “freedom” (see chapter 2). War veterans are notably absent from his scheme of value, and his vision of modernization was a decidedly conservative one controlled by elders, not unruly youth. To Kenyatta, former Mau Mau combatants were trying to become respectable elders without having gone through the disciplined labor entailed in dominant Kikuyu concepts of social maturation. They were trying to create sovereignty out of violence, instead of the “true” value of elderhood. This could not be the true source of value, and it certainly could



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not back the currency. Not only did Kenyatta exclude mention of Mau Mau during his uhuru (independence) speech on the night of December 12, 1963, he also emphasized the contributions of settlers, missionaries, traders, and colonial administrators to Kenya’s development (Clough 1998, 46). Earlier in 1962, at a speech in Githuguri, Kenyatta claimed that Mau Mau was a “disease which had been eradicated and must never be remembered again” (ibid.). Indeed, it was only after 2002 when Mwai Kibaki was elected president that it became legal for Mau Mau veterans to organize political parties expressing any reference to Mau Mau’s aspirations. Kenyatta’s new conception of national wealth thus seemed to hinge on a willful act of forgetting those to whom he told, “Hakuna cha bure,” or, “Nothing is for free!” It was not only the violence of Mau Mau that was to be excised from social memory, but also the mechanism linking generative elderhood to money, which Kenyatta inferred was a natural continuation of the Kikuyu labor theory of value rather than a fundamental break from it. Inasmuch as Mau Mau was partially a crisis of elder capacity to insure the efficacy of signs (which, to repeat, reflected Protestant Christian notions of sovereignty introduced during colonialism), Kenyatta’s silence on the opening day of the Banki Kuu Ya Kenya about his own image emblazoned on the heads side of the new currency is conspicuous. Yet he did speak of it, or rather, he simply spoke it, in the form of a sovereign speech act. In one breath, Kenyatta claimed that value could not be created by fiat—­the “reality” of money lay in its backing by foreign currency and work—­before immediately assuring his audience that the rate of foreign exchange coverage “is high and will remain so” (my emphasis). Luckily for Kenyatta, it did. This was the generalized elder speaking—­“the Mzee”—­and his assurance was in large part backed by the felicitous conditions of nationalist fervor and Kenyatta-­mania. His supporters in government were more forthcoming about this fact. Minister of Finance James Gichuru proclaimed, “We will be proud when our new currency notes are issued this year with the head of our new president.”5

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In essence, Kenyatta was creating a monetary system that operated on exactly the same lines of “traditional oaths” that the colonial administration had unwittingly remade as rhetorically traditional but semiotically Protestant. Kenyatta’s currency reflected yet another iteration of a Christian theory of sovereignty, which in this case was now ideologically invested to definitively subdue money’s intrinsic instability. Again, Kenyatta’s theory of value confused money as a form of social mediation in which Kenya was now firmly entrenched with currency as specie. Indeed, Kenyatta’s notes and coins can be likened to the speech acts of a divine lawgiver, which as Agamben argues are ideologically held to be “pure being” (Agamben 2010), divine names that are simply true, avoiding the arbitrariness of sign-­referent relations. As a generalized elder, Kenyatta implicitly claimed to have power over the creation of money, if not through absolute fiat, then through his patrimonial control over national production. But the value of Kenyan money remained subject to flows he did not, in fact, create. At best he could capture and channel those flows—­and he did so with great skill.

Generalizing Elderhood The larger political backdrop for the introduction of the new shilling was the gradual centralization of power in Kenyatta’s hands. His guarantee of the strength of the money was the culmination of a long process whereby he established himself as a generalized version of a Kikuyu elder, with all of the attendant colonial contradictions between the particular and the universal that such an ascension entailed. There is a temptation to read this ascension in purely instrumental terms. But in the interest of a more historically nuanced political anthropology of the state in Africa, I want to join Lonsdale (2002, 31) in resisting the depiction of Kenyatta as a mere political chameleon. He was indeed “shifty,” but his many shifts in policy and practice were due to an abiding set of “symbolic” preoccupations born of the colonial encounter, such as the durability of the currency. Ritual symbols


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were another iteration of those concerns. In order to manage monetary flows like the Mzee, Kenyatta had to do two things. First, he had to leverage the law to spread his control outside the limited powers of the executive. This was a one-­off process. Secondly, he had to continuously situate himself above the fray of political machinations to maintain relative equilibrium between rival factions inside the single-­party state apparatus. In some ways, the first step—­the acquisition of greater legal and constitutional power—­was the easiest. Kenyatta was aided by the fact that similar efforts were underway throughout a number of newly independent African states, many of which experimented with political centralization and one-­party rule. Cherry Gertzel has described in detail how the process played out in Kenya: The Republican constitution took Kenya a significant step closer to the strong Central Government KANU believed necessary for Kenya. The powers of the regions were abolished and an Executive President, both Head of State and Head of Government, was introduced. The constitution gave the President extremely wide powers (which were to be enlarged substantially eighteen months later in May 1966, when his emergency powers were strengthened) but bound closely to an elected legislature of which he himself had to be a constituency (i.e. an elected) member. As Head of Government he remained Head of Cabinet, which he chose himself from elected members of the legislature, and was responsible to that body. The Lower House acquired the right to pass a formal vote of no confidence in the Executive, and the Executive retained the right to dissolve Parliament at any time. . . . While parliamentary control of the Executive remained a major provision of the Republican Constitution, further amendments in 1965 and 1966 undoubtedly enhanced the Executive’s powers vis-­ à-­vis the legislature. The third amendment, for example, abolished the special provisions for amendments of those entrenched sections of the constitution (relating to the regions and to fundamental rights); consequently, amendment of the constitution now required only a two-­thirds majority of all members of each House. The fifth

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amendment, passed in April 1966, required any Member of Parliament who resigned from the party that had supported him at his election to resign his seat in Parliament, thus providing the Executive with additional, if unstated, disciplinary powers over Members. (Gertzel 1970, 34–­35)

There was also an important monetary side to this centralization of government power. While the bill that sponsored the Central Bank’s founding was being debated in parliament, then-­ minister for planning and development (and future president) Mwai Kibaki advocated for a more independent central bank with “stricter exchange control regulations” and a more independent governor able to “exercise free judgment.” As the Daily Nation details, “However, when a dispute arose between the bank’s governor and the ministry concerned, he advocated that the Minister have the final say—­as allowed in a clause of the Bill” (ibid.). Kibaki’s anxiety about such centralized control over the state’s currency was also echoed in MP R. S. Alexander’s question as to whether it was “wise” to move all local government funds from private commercial banks to the central bank. He was met with a rather blunt response from the Majoge-­Bassi MP, Mr. Z. Anyieni, who matter-­of-­factly stated, “since the government controlled the money in the bank it should have the right to do something to help Africans” (ibid.). Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg go so far as to call the power that resulted from such sweeping constitutional change and centralization of political power “monarchical” (1982, 98). The term might exaggerate, but it is true that as of 1966, when the new shilling was issued, Kenya was a de facto one-­party state with an extremely empowered executive. Inasmuch as he indirectly controlled all of the organs responsible for national finances, Kenyatta really did have the power to create money by fiat. The opposition to these legal maneuvers, while couched in ideological terms, often had an ethnic character. Here we enter dangerous theoretical waters. Much of the literature on African



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politics has emphasized the horizontal relationship of tribe and tribalism as the essential unit of analysis for the study and understanding of African political dynamics, both within and on the periphery of state structures. And indeed, Kenyans themselves have often read national politics through the lens of ethnicity. Yet this approach may misread Kenyan politics in key ways. For scholars, the error owes in large part to the reification of modernist notions of state and society in both liberal and Marxist theory in which ethnicity is supposed to be superseded by other associations and solidarities like class or national identity (Berman 1998, 306). As Jean-­François Bayart has argued, African political structures should be granted their own historicity as distinctive formations, rather than constituted through their apparent lacks, failures, and deficits (Bayart 1993, 2–­20). Ethnicity, in his view, is more an idiom of African politics than its substance. Similarly, John Comaroff observes that “the state” should not only be understood in its nominative form, as a “political order, structure, and institution” in which ethnicity plays a key role in Kenya, but as a verb: state also “denotes to ‘give voice,’ to ‘articulate,’ to ‘narrate’ ” (Comaroff 1998, 322). In other words, states state, but how they do so is a matter of historical specificity rather than normative generality. Ethnicity is one such “statement,” but there are others. Initially—­and aside from notable opposition by Mau Mau veterans who were members of his own tribe—­Kenyatta had to manage political opposition from the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), a party made up in large part of people from smaller ethnic groups who feared Kikuyu domination. Instead of resorting to violence or suppression, however, Kenyatta co-­ opted KADU’s educated and political elite with displays of state largesse. As Throup and Hornsby state, “KADU Members of Parliament soon began to cross the floor of the National Assembly to join the ruling party in return for favours, preferment and a better deal for their communities in the allocation of national development budgets” (1998, 12). What was actually at stake

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in these extensions of patronage was a modernizing system of gerontocracy (Spencer 1965; cf. Wilson 1977; Aguilar 1998), not ethnicity per se. Or at least, a generalized elderhood exceeded ethnic particularities. Kenyatta’s state was supposed to “give voice” like a Kikuyu old man, and being an old man, an mzee, was as important as, and perhaps more so than, being Kikuyu. Contemporary readings of gerontocracy continue to focus on internal group political structures. Some studies take a blatantly culturalist stance, explaining the persistence of gerontocratic authority as stemming from the way that “the old are those who provide a mediation between past and present, because the past is still considered as mandatory in the cultural creation of the present” (Aguilar 1998, 24). In this way, systems of age gradation in contemporary African societies and states basically get treated as part of the larger processes of “decentralized despotism” (Mamdani 1996), maintaining an analytic distinction between “the centrally located modern state and the locally organized Native Authority” (ibid., 109). Big men in Kenya are thus usually seen as ethnic big men, in both the scholarly and Kenyan popular imaginations.6 While such observations are in a certain sense true, this kind of analysis is inadequate on several levels. First, it does not adequately address the way in which old age has been so fundamentally altered over time in terms of its criteriology, which has become highly fluid due to its reconfiguration during colonialism and its subsequent monetization. Kenyans often complain about how young men with money are sometimes addressed as “Mzee” (cf. Meiu 2017). In Kenya, those alterations are wholly tied up with matters of economy, ritual, and representation, as was clear in the discussion of thahu and gĩthathi stones in chapter 2. Second, such an approach to the study of gerontocratic orders fails to take seriously the development of gerontocracy as a generalized (i.e., cross-­ethnic) political form, the truth of which cannot easily be reduced to the historical similarity of allegedly discreet societies in terms of their political “type” (Fortes and



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Evans-­Pritchard 1940). Clearly, this dynamic of generalization was already at work in the colonial era, as evidenced by the attempts of administrators to universalize oathing stones across ethnic divides. But it reached new heights when Kenyatta took power. He presented himself as elder of elders and developed a generalized template for political authority whose sovereign right was to redistribute “the national cake,” either in cash or in kind. It was not just a matter of elders “inventing tradition” in order to justify gerontocratic modalities of rule and the perks that go with it. Instead, and much more provocatively, Kenyatta’s rule heralded a new era in which, as “Father of the Nation” and head of state, Kenyatta sought the same sort of abstract value as the money form itself. In so doing, he initiated a system in which political potency would be completely dependent on incessant displays of monarchic power infused with the nation’s new currency.

Spectacular Governance The founding of the Central Bank, then, was a spectacular bap­ tismal moment that more or less created a general template for all events where status is at stake, from local fundraisers to university graduations.7 Its subsequent iterations, tokens of this original type, are best exemplified by the institution of the harambee, a distributive event that was a particularly dense site for the social reproduction of the state’s master code in society. Harambee is a Kiswahili term that roughly translates as “Let’s pull together,” and it was the main slogan of the Kenyatta regime and era. As events, harambees were (and still are) public fund-­raising events for local community development projects, particularly where official state development funds were lacking. These events were undeniably important in building schools and dispensaries in rural Kenya, but they were also one of the main arenas where the gerontocratic order of things was continually ratified. The amount that individuals give was (and still is) announced on the spot. The harambee’s organizers take on bureau-

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cratic titles that are used throughout the event, delineating lines of hierarchy even if such titles did not always mark a strong division of labor: chairman, vice-­chairman, treasurer, secretary, and so forth. Guests of honor such as local politicians and wealthy businessmen (who are often one and the same) were usually separated from those who are unable to give as much. Colin Leys provides an excellent description of a state ha­ rambee while being rather explicit about the spectacular, if not medieval, character of Kenyatta’s “court”: To the court came delegations of all kinds; district, regional, tribal, and also functional. Most of them came from particular districts, often in huge numbers, accompanied by teams of traditional dancers and choirs of school children, organized and led by the MPs and local councilors, and provincial and district officers from the area. They gave displays of dancing and singing; the leaders presented cheques for various causes sponsored by the President and expressed their sentiments of loyalty and respect; and would finally outline various needs and grievances. In return the President would thank them, commend the dances and songs, exhort them to unity and hard work, and discuss their requests, explaining why some could not be met and undertaking to attend to others. (Leys 1974, 246)

As a template, the harambee thus cemented the patrimonial econ­ omy in which political allegiance, from the neighborhood to the nation-­state, became inextricably tied to such relationships of unequal conviviality (Mbembe 2001). The fact that the nation’s money flowed visibly from political big men and regular wanan­ chi into the collectivist coffers of the harambee era reveals how significant money was to the “stability” and order Lonsdale argues Kenyatta was attempting to produce more generally. The similarity between explicitly state-­sponsored harambees and lower-­level ones is often quite striking. Kenyan weddings, too, often look like state spectacles, and vice versa.8 Events like weddings, where everyone is expected to be able to eat, mimic the way state spectacles are sites for intense feelings of entitlement to “gifts,” the quality and quantity of which are vaguely premised on reading stereotypic signs of distributive capacity.



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Before the advent of globalizing multimedia and before different images of bodily and societal health came to Kenya, all people would in a sense aspire to be old and “big,” both metaphorically and literally. Corpulence served as an index of political potency, which the president was both a model of and a model for. For many Kenyans over forty, especially in rural areas, it still does. Corpulence is exactly the Kenyan version of the sort of natural sovereign that Locke had in mind as an anchor to both truth and exchangeability. In other words, different public and semipublic events, to put them in Geertz’s terms, are usually “coarser versions” (Geertz 1980, 128) of those enacted by social superiors, whether they are pastors, policemen, or parliamentarians, in a logic that is fundamentally segmentary.9 However, the actual capacity of most Kenyans to inhabit such signs of generative and distributive capacity demonstrate the power of Kenyatta’s “value effect,” to which most could never measure up. While Kenyans may feel they are entitled to the resources of the state, their ability to imitate the Mzee is always potentially prone to the dangers of simulation, since they do not actually share the president’s monarchic command of resources. The aspiration to do so has historically constituted the substance and interests of political struggles in Kenya, which is replete with the type of elaborate gastronomic metaphors found in similar contexts across the continent (Bayart 1993). Even though the siphoning off of resources from various ministries, parastatal corporations, and municipal authorities is often labeled “corruption” and in a formal sense is illegal, such practices nonetheless have an ethics inasmuch as appearing “big” and providing for social subordinates is a “practice of truth and, consequently a manner of self-­understanding” (Roitman 2005, 21; see also de Sardan 1999). Historically these logics have run all the way through Ken­ yan society, even down to its lowest levels. While this moment was the tail end of a protracted period of epistemological murkiness around what exactly backed colonial currencies, as well as gerontocratic symbols—­nature, race, labor, or fiat power—­Kenyatta, in line with his longstanding symbolic

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preoccupations, attempted to performatively resolve these problems at the founding of the Central Bank. As I have argued, the opening of the Central Bank of Kenya is best read as a baptismal event, in which Kenyatta attempted to reground the sovereignty of elderhood in spectacles of value rather than violence. The tenuous suturing of old age to money would reveal itself as Kenya’s relations with powerful external forces shifted.


5 “Satan Is an Imitator”: Kenya’s Recent Cosmology of Corruption In this and the following chapter, I look at what happens when Kenyatta’s patronage system, which elevated elders to purveyors of value and made Kenyatta himself elder amongst elders, begins to fall apart. In a sense, this collapse was inevitable, inasmuch as it depended on a continuous flow of money and resources from outside the system. As thahu had been for his predecessors, the power of money was something that was more corralled than created. Major cracks began to emerge when Daniel arap Moi succeeded Kenyatta in 1978. As the global political-­economic context changed over the coming decade, the contradictions of the patronage system became more and more evident. With the end of the Cold War and the cessation of its attendant resource flows, fights over resources became severe. These fights took the form of ethnic conflict, but again, much of what was at stake was the disintegration of a cross-­ethnic gerontocratic system. This chapter is particularly concerned with the resurgence of fakes—­a problem Kenyatta hoped to solve by restoring the generative capacity of elders, their “truth,” as it were. As I have shown, though, his system actually promoted a kind of “illicit

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conviviality,” in which citizens winked at the failures of their leaders, as long those leaders continued to act as sources of value. As time went on, the Kenyan state became an entity experienced by the majority of its citizens as “overempowered and excessively penetrative” on one hand (Karlstrom 2003, 104) but also impotent on the other. It could organize violence, but it failed to provide even the most basic of services. Bayart, Ellis, and Hibou (1999) have described this as the increasing “criminalization” of the African state under neoliberal conditions, although such a term seems too blunt in the Kenyan context, taking recourse in a normative referent of legality. Under the neoliberal conditions of the 1990s, the capacities of Kenya’s political patrons began to seriously fail, and they resorted evermore to tactics that were more criminal in the Lockean sense. State agents began actively counterfeiting the state’s key symbols and political processes. At the same time, though, they retained their “face value” in state fetishes like money. This contradiction created a good deal of social anxiety. For some, the state’s capacity to ensure a stable relationship between meaning and value became a utopian ideal, never to be achieved. Others started to doubt both the value of the national currency and the substance of elderhood that supposedly grounded it. Others still began to experience and perceive the patronage gift as a literal devil’s pact. Beginning in the mid-­1990s, there was a proliferation of various pamphlets, booklets, and speech genres announcing an impending apocalypse. Some were secular, some religious. All were concerned with the increasing problem of simulation and fakery. In some ways, the anxiety was provoked by neoliberal reforms. One of the conditions of neoliberal structural adjustment was the floating of the Kenyan shilling. Although its value had always depended on external factors, this change highlighted the fact and definitively cut it off from local, visible forms of substance. But those forms of substance were seen to be compromised too. Nothing seemed stable or certain. In a bit of historical irony, Locke had taken a similarly apocalyptic tone in his own incessant pamphlet war against counterfeiters. Just as Locke had feared, the circulation of the state’s


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compromised coin led to the dissimulation of multiple forms of value, from those materialized in objects to those embodied in persons and political relationships. By the Moi era, Kenya’s Isaac Newtons, who might have saved the substance of the shilling, had long since been forced out of the ruling party. Some had left the country altogether. In order to determine the shilling’s “true” value in this context, people created methods of detection that far exceeded the state regulatory mechanisms that Locke had invoked. Like Locke, though, they were concerned with more than just the shilling. The problematic relationship between the fake and the real extended far beyond the realm of economic exchange in any simple sense. In a piece published in the Daily Nation opinion section, Mutuma Mathiu decries the pervasiveness of the fake in the judicial process, packaging and labeling, textbook publications, manufacturing of durable goods, academic credentialing, and an array of fake licenses: “This Army of forgers is destroying not just the economy but also the credibility of our institutions. . . . It is a tragedy to allow the problem to become a catastrophe.”1 Oh, for a bit of Locke’s silver! What new, more trustworthy entity would emerge to salvage the mess and be the new adhesive between the signifier and the signified? For the growing population of Pentecostals in the country, the answer was the Holy Spirit. For them, the moral ambivalence that now pervaded patron-­client transactions stemmed from the fact that those transactions were actually evil simulations of morally valorized relations of exchange. One phrase that became popular during the period was “Satan is an imitator.” This phrase, with its immanent promise of discernment between true and false, seen and unseen, and good and evil, frames my inquiry into how Kenyans experienced the unfolding material and symbolic transformations of their everyday lives under neoliberal conditions such as massive cuts in Cold War levels of donor aid, the devaluation of the shilling, and the bombardment of local markets with foreign, often used goods. Even those reforms that were allegedly productive, like multiparty elections and the increased circulation of money, contributed to

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a widespread condition of epistemological murk. This condition often entered public registers via deliverance narratives told in the genre of the grotesque. In their narratives, those who were “saved” linked local forms of embodied value, symbolized in blood (Weiss 1996; White 2000; Apter 2005; Comaroff and Comaroff 1993), with the dissimulating power of the ur-­symbol of value negation, the devil (Taussig 1980). They fingered state agents, institutions, and artifacts as the very mechanisms by which Satan collected the life force of Kenya’s regular folk. Casting out Satan from the bodies of Kenya’s afflicted signified an imagined casting off of certain social relations and practices characteristic of patron-­client networks that Kenyatta helped to build. This chapter will examine some of these deliverance narratives and place them within the (re)construction of Kenyan visions of modernity in the context of its shifting moral economy. First, I will give a general description of Satanism as a “standardized nightmare” (Wilson 1951, 313), which not only produced a typology of the negative citizen—­the devil worshipper—­but also used a universal theory of evil to give voice to Kenyans’ moral apprehensiveness toward their total social world. Then I will use one of the deliverance narratives to show the epistemological crises that surrounded the deadly doubling of Satan. Next, I will root this phenomenon within larger structural transformations in the Kenyan and international economy, briefly examining the disconnection between donor intention in policies of economic structural adjustment and their actual effect on the operation of the Kenyan patronage state. Finally, I will show how narratives of deliverance from the devil were, and continue to be, one mechanism for confronting the simulacral quality of money.

Kenya’s “Standardized Nightmare,” Devilishly Rendered In the early 1990s, as the first regime of donor-­imposed conditionalities took root in the daily practices of Kenyan politics and economy, Kenyans developed a heightened concern for new forms of illicit evil rumored to be at work in Kenyan life. Devil


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worship had arrived. So profound and public was the anxiety that President Moi appointed a presidential commission of in­ quiry into the presence of devil worship in the country. The entity was composed of clergy from various established denominations as well as Kenya’s newer Pentecostal-­style churches; in theory, at least, it would speak the truth. The commission had completed its work in 1994, but the results were not released until 1999. The report acknowledged the presence of devil worship in the country but placed blame on the unreasonable consumptive desires of ordinary Kenyans. The official version alleged that undisciplined and irreverent “youth” had insatiable lust for the “foreign” trappings of global consumer culture that made them “try anything” to get money, including making pacts with Satan.2 These accusations against regular wananchi (citizens) did not go unanswered, though. Many believed that the lapse of time between the commission’s activities and the partial release of the results demonstrated that the commission, despite being granted sweeping powers to detect the presence of devil worship within Kenya, was in reality a counterfeit state production to mask the machinations of Kenya’s elite. This suspicion was only deepened by the events of the past decade—­state-­sponsored political violence and decreasing economic fortunes—­all of which made state proclamations suspect. At the time, some told me, “Do they really expect us to believe that devil worshippers can investigate devil worshippers?” In a sense, the report’s reception indexed the contradictory vectors of Kenyan disillusionment with the state. Decreasing faith in state symbols and processes was accompanied by an increasing, very real dependence on their imagined capacities. By the late nineties, this double bind had produced a fatal split between meaning and value that went far beyond the patrimonial “wink-­wink” system of illicit conviviality. It manifested, amongst other ways, as a widespread fear of demonic affliction. Just as the possessed were divided between the demonic and the human self, so was Kenya struggling between demonic and “holy” forces. Soon, new voices emerged claiming the capacity to discern

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the fake from the real by narrating experiences with Kenya’s infernal political machine. As reformed former devil worshipper Pastor Paul Migwi explained in his multipage spread in a July 1999 weekend magazine of the Daily Nation (Kenya’s mainstream news daily), Kenya was so deeply entrenched in satanic addiction that he was planning to open a Satanism recovery center. The center’s goal was to aid in rehabilitating the nation and restoring its populace to a productive public morality.3 Later, he published a confessional volume of his own exploits that received much public attention—­no doubt due in part to its graphic depictions of such satanic practices as incest, cannibalism, and sorcery. In it, Migwi warns the Kenyan public of the potential dangers of public institutions like schools; it was his teacher who recruited him into Satan’s secret world in the first place (Migwi 1999). He tells a tale of modernist promises dashed by a simple error of perception. Rather than securing employment in the civil service upon secondary school or university graduation—­formerly the norm—­students like him were at risk of becoming accomplices in satanic murder for hire. Like many other Kenyans in the twilight of the Moi era, Migwi was horrified to suddenly discover that he had labored for years under false pretenses. Rather than “building the nation,” as Kenyatta used to instruct the nation, Migwi believed he had assisted the devil in building an invisible shadow state, where blood was converted into money. Pentecostal news magazines echoed Migwi’s claims. Through engagement with Satan’s seductive simulacra, they said, unsuspecting Kenyans were deceived into participating in illicit forms of commerce through their own quotidian practices: attending school, accepting new employment, or going to the market.4 Readers had to ask themselves: what is the state and what is my relation to it? Several social movements tried to answer this question during the nineties, but churches were at the forefront. In light of the inability of the five senses to discern the fake from the real, they claimed, extrasensory techniques were required. Deliverance was one such technique. For Pentecostals, who advocated what Meyer (1998) has aptly characterized as “a total


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break from the past,” deliverance was the mechanism through which moral ambiguity could be eliminated by imposing strict and clear-­cut categories of good and evil. What is crucial to see is that the ambiguity they feared was fundamentally a conflict between old and new. That was the space of the devil. On one hand, narratives of deliverance pointed to long-­established but now faltering local social mores. These mores were not just ideological but also embodied. Again, as Jean François Bayart’s description of the “the politics of the belly” suggests, African notions of power and the social relations that such politics ensure though the commensality of “eating” have historically been perceived as residing not just in the bureaucratic rituals of statecraft but in the large bellies of those who have mastered the arcane knowledge required to remain corpulent.5 The “old” system, the system created by Kenyatta and taken to its limits by Moi, was quite “embodied.” As bellies got bigger while the value of Kenya’s money got smaller, Kenyans wondered whether the power to produce and control money should be so closely aligned with those whose power has histor­ ically been linked to the capacity to “eat and let eat”. The breakdown provoked collective bodily sentiments of convulsion and affliction and also opened the door for the sublime feeling of re­ lease when people finally did “make a break with the past” (see Weiss 1996; Comaroff 1985).

John Omino’s Story The pattern of seduction that ensnares the modern Kenyan into diabolical commercial activity is made evident in a volume entitled Satanism: How the Devil Is Trapping God’s People. Anonymously authored, and available on many of Nairobi’s street corners and Christian book stores, it is the lurid spiritual biography of one John Omino, who testifies to his initiation into the Ken­ yan (im)moral economy. As the story begins, Omino feels fortunate to have found work in a tight labor market, having being hired as a driver for an elite businessman from Cameroon known

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as Ali. Ali, who owns a luxurious house in Lavington6 and whose cars are “several and sleek,” explains to Omino that he prefers living in Kenya because of its “political stability and pleasant climate.” Ali offers Omino 15,000 shillings per month as his initial salary, a good salary by Kenyan standards. Omino is careful to point out, however, that he suspects his own good fortune is due in part to the 1992 elections, when “there was a lot of money in circulation.” Despite his suspicion regarding the possibly inflated rate of his new salary, Omino accepts the job so that he can save enough money to marry. Omino tells the reader, “We drove to his offices at Barclay’s Plaza in his dark blue Pajero7 and I signed a contract.” As Omino comes to learn, this seemingly benign bureaucratic procedure, signing what will prove to be a devil’s contract, is part of a much larger façade of business as usual. After two years of service and an incremental pay increase, Omino decides that he is finally ready to marry. Still being short of the amount of money he deems necessary for a wedding and bridewealth payments, Omino asks his employer for a loan. Initially put off by his request, Ali quickly changes his tune and tells him, “In fact, if you really need to make some extra money, there is something for us to do tonight.” Feeling indebted to his generous employer, Omino is quick to accept the offer, assuming he will merely be continuing his daytime driving and ordinary errands after hours. Returning to Ali’s mansion later that evening, however, Omino is led to an underground mausoleum, where, much to his horror, Ali removes twin baby boys from a suitcase, injects them with poison, and then processes their body parts for the market. Omino is then instructed to drive in Ali’s blue Mercedes to the Kenol petrol station on the Mombasa road (the usual route of commercial transport to Kenya’s coastal port), where he is to hand off the package to a man in a white Nissan Highrider. Arriving at the Kenol station Omino sees the Nissan, which has “long antennas and a foreign number plate” (indicative of a nongovernmental organization vehicle). He exchanges the body parts for a brown envelope and returns the letter to his employer, who opens it to reveal a bundle of crisp American


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one hundred dollar bills, half of which he gives to Omino. With more than 5,000 dollars in his pocket (approximately 300,000 Kenyan shillings) Omino goes home and ponders his ill-­gotten earnings and whether this is the kind of “work” he wants to do. Before we continue with the story, there are several images worth unpacking. In his efforts to improve himself in socially valorized ways through the generative institution of marriage, Omino is forced to engage in practices that subvert the reproductive potential of others. Despite East Africa’s long, often peaceful history with Islam, Ali’s Muslim name connects his illicit wealth with what Kenyans, especially after the 1998 US embassy bombings, began to perceive as a “foreign” religion with supposedly violent tendencies. Such depictions also convey much older associations between the Arab world and the commodification of human life under the Omani control of the East African slave trade. Ali confirms this sentiment because his “work” takes place during “the night”—­the inversion of the Kenyan notion of honest business, which is done “in the light of day, bila magendo” (without deception or corruption),8 that is, not hidden. Dishonesty is also often attributed to coastal Muslims, who allegedly conceal their economic exploitation through the use of spirit familiars known as majini.9 The sleek cars and other imported luxuries of Omino’s devil-­ worshipping employer have all been generated at the cost of the lifeblood of other citizens, suggesting patronage kills in order to provide. Children, iconic of activity that produces value through marriage and the continuation of a lineage, are killed for money rather than being produced through money, or bridewealth. Fi­ nally, the Nissan “highriders,” Mitsubishi Pajeros, and Land Ro­ vers driven by expatriate NGO workers are only a cover for an overseas trade in Kenya’s lifeblood, its future generations, who are being sacrificed in exchange for “strong” currency, US dollars. Whereas before the aesthetics of consumption displayed by both development workers and local elites were something to be aspired to, they are now viewed as a contradiction when

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measured against seemingly benign proclamations of assisting in development. NGOs collude with other transnational and translocal elites to corrupt the public good. As a transnational, private businessman, Ali owns several automobiles that signify power and unrestricted social mobility (Weiss 1996, 182). He is an mbenzi (literally a Benz person), and this status completes the link between Ali’s foreign interests and those of Kenya’s political and consumptive elite, wabenzi (Benz people) themselves. Omino’s “contract” is really a Faustian pact; bureaucratic documents and procedures and additional trappings of the “modern” state do not guarantee the rights and privileges supposedly entailed on their pages. In addition, by facilitating the penetration of Kenya by parasitic foreign forces, Omino assists in compromising the nation’s future. The importation of dollars only adds to the perception that the state is spectral, as Kenyan currency cannot even facilitate valuable exchanges of an illicit nature. Despite Omino’s intentions to quit this dubious employment after one year, the profitable lifestyle of a Satanist proves too intoxicating. Omino’s seemingly endless supply of disposable cash leads him to excessive drinking, prostitutes, and extensive overseas travel, during which he attends conferences with other Satanists at elite clubs. These expenditures divert money away from Omino’s plan to pay bridewealth, purchase a shamba (farm plot), and pay school fees. Meanwhile, Omino’s main occupation continues to be the provision of blood for Satan. After traversing various bureaucratic levels of Satan’s hierarchically organized shadow state, Omino finally ascends to the top. Taking a secret oath of allegiance, he is henceforth infected with the demon of material wealth. This “demon” not only instills in Omino an insatiable lust for material possessions, but it also enables him to profit at the expense of others beyond what would normally be socially acceptable limits: I was told that a money consciousness had been bestowed on me and wherever I went, money would inevitably follow me. People


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would sell off their property to me at a loss, dealers would charge me much less and lots of business proposals would come my way. I was instructed to only help those who I thought deserve it, to have as few friends as possible, and never practice restraint of the flesh. Indulgence was the key word. (Anonymous 2000, 34)

Omino’s “money consciousness,” described as a state of demonic affliction, facilitates his garnering of profit to such a degree that he is eventually able to build his own mansion complete with underground altar. The dream of owning a shamba with a small stone house has mutated into a monstrous caricature of excess. Omino’s immodest mansion is only supported by an invisible, negative economy that takes place underneath the house’s foundations. Like the simulacra of contracts, money, and “legitimate” work that seduced him in the first place, the poseur persona of a legitimate businessman “dealing in forex” (currency exchange) now protects Omino from suspicion. In fact, his character has become like devil’s money, in the sense that he has become a false representation of a moral, upright, and respectable citizen, an mtu wa heshima (literally, a person of respect). Finally, in defiance of the institutions that are idealized as reproducing morality (i.e., the family, marriage, church), Omino murders his fiancée, whom he describes as having become too “homely” to satisfy his newly acquired tastes for the exotic. After several years of clandestine murder for profit, however, Omino realizes the extent of his disconnection from his family. During a momentary lapse in his insatiable appetite for sex and imported automobiles, he emulates the prodigal son, driving to the house of his mother, who is in the midst of hosting a prayer meeting. Upon seeing her son walk toward her home, she and her comrades immediately begin to thank God for Omino’s return. After explaining the reasons behind his recent “strange behavior,” Omino confides in his mother that he has “gone too far” to receive salvation. Declaring that “everything is possible with God,” Omino’s mother takes him to church the next day, where he is exorcised of his money consciousness. En-

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during hours of convulsive attacks, vomiting, and fever, Omino returns to her home, attending church every day for two weeks to undergo more Pentecostal-­style purges. Plagued by the faces of the people he has murdered, in a final appeal, he asks God for deliverance, which he receives, with a feeling of “total release.” Indebted to the pastor of this church, Omino is told by him to make his story known, so that others can be saved. Omino’s narrative was part of a larger mainstream discourse in at least two senses. First, similar narratives appeared frequently in the print media of mainstream news dailies and in evangelical tracts. This was particularly the case in the Kiswahili version of the Daily Nation, Taifa Leo, where stories of the occult are often front-­page news. In these stories and commentaries, everyone from former president Moi to the urban unemployed deployed the symbolic weight of the devil as a distillation of Kenyan moral angst. Second, and perhaps more important, is the way in which the devil was inextricably linked to everyday occurrences. Despite lurid descriptions of cannibalism and murder, the most striking feature of Omino’s tale is the ordinariness of his desires and ambitions, and also the strategies that he pursues for fulfilling them. Like most Kenyans, Omino was a wage laborer seeking to improve his lot in life. And, like many Kenyans, he pursued his idealized path toward manhood through established practices that fall under the rubrics of “patronage.” Omino’s tale also suggests that the top-­heavy, reciprocal nature of patron-­client relationships had become murky. Thus, while he was dependent on patronage income, the source of this income is as unclear as Ali’s occupation and identity, which are somehow tied to transnational, “foreign” circuits of commerce. Omino’s faith in the trappings of established modes of production was misplaced. Far from being elements of a morally un­ ambiguous structure of relations, they came to reflect a universe that was fractured and unpredictable. Omino’s narrative of “noth­ ing being what it seems” implies that everyday order had become perverted. Making money could only take place by causing death. Death had become a commodity itself, the biopower of


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citizens symbolized in the gross significata of the blood of youth, that is, unrealized value. Like witches of the recent past, Omino trafficked in death for personal gain (cf. Austen 1993). Established relations of patronage, in other words, were no longer able to provide the basis of recognizable exchange. This moral inversion of established and valorized avenues of social reproduction suggests that something about them had changed, as had the world that contained them.

Kenya in the 1990s: The (Im)morality of Patronage Politics The transition from Kenyatta to the leadership of Daniel arap Moi in the late 1970s was accomplished by a rearrangement of power at the district and provincial administrative levels. As a former KADU MP of the smallest Tugen subgroup of Kalenjin speakers in the Rift Valley Province, Moi facilitated a power shift from Kikuyu domination of clientele networks to that of more peripheral groups formerly affiliated with the defunct KADU, namely the Kalenjin and Abaluhya. Moi inherited power at the beginning of Kenya’s economic decline. The late seventies had seen a brief period of economic prosperity related to a failure of the South American coffee crop in the late seventies and the short subsequent boom in the price of Kenyan coffee. Soon, Moi’s KANU became more insidious in its manipulation of various ethnic factions, exacerbating patrimonial practices to counter Kikuyu and Luo power. State paranoia was fueled by paranoia over a 1982 coup attempt orchestrated by senior Kikuyu and Luo air force officers. Calls for multiparty elections during the 1980s and their realization in 1992 can rightly be understood as attempts to parry the capriciousness of Moi’s KANU.10 But as Angelique Haugerud has noted, calls for “democracy” and multiparty politics should be understood as a “legitimizing strategy” (Haugerud 1997, 37) of those whose patronage strength had been seriously curtailed by Moi’s policies and tactics. Moi’s riposte was to go further than Kenyatta ever had and absorb the national assembly into the ex-

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ecutive branch, forging a system whereby political and economic survival became almost totally dependent on allegiance to the office of the president (Throup and Hornsby 1998, 39). In short, he intensified patrimonial logics at the same time that he was fighting off multiple challenges to his status as the new elder of elders. Independent patronage networks became increasingly difficult to keep separate from central power, as members of parliament were forced to tow the party line or be sacked. Local officials who might suddenly find themselves isolated from processes of redistributive accumulation could easily be “voted” out of office in the next elections as their political capacities became more narrowly circumscribed. The neglect of the Kikuyu-­dominated Central Province in favor of investment in areas peripheral to Kenyatta’s regime had the net effect of exacerbating competition over resources, “creating a merry-­go-­round struggle for office and patronage, which permeated the heart of the state” (ibid., 50). Aside from the widespread trend towards multipartyism, a series of structural contingencies of a global scale deeply affected the African continent in the 1990s. In something of a hasty retreat from Cold War lending policies, Western donors imposed new conditions upon African governments they had once supported unconditionally. Thus, as the 1980s became the 1990s, Kenyans were dismayed to discover that they were no longer the bastion of African peace and prosperity as the “democratic” West had once heralded them. Espousing a policy of debt recovery rather than increased lending, donors began to implement conditions designed to combat corruption and insisted that Ken­ ya’s inability to meet the balance of payments on accrued debts was related to a “crisis of governance” (Haugerud 1997, 21). The policies were not tailor-­made for Kenya but represented a wider response to criticisms of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both of which claimed that the eighties were a “lost decade” for African economic growth due to inappropriate structural adjustment prescriptions to “African conditions” (Hibou 1999, 69). Rather than recognizing the Kenyan state as something of a “moral economy” (de Sardan 1999), with its own


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embedded logics and mechanisms of distribution, donors saw “corruption” and dysfunction. Hundreds of millions of dollars11 in aid were withheld by the IMF, World Bank, and other bilateral donors, and demands were made to shrink the civil service.12 All of this was done in the hopes of creating a functional Western-­style state; in practice, it only assisted in the creation of a dysfunctional African one. The salvation of the Kenyan state was to be achieved through the virtual undoing of its moral and geopolitical boundaries: the massive importation of foreign-­ made goods, the devaluation of the shilling, and the export of primary commodities in exchange for foreign currency. Yet, as numerous studies have attested (Bayart 1993; Bayart, Ellis, and Hibou 1999; de Sardan 1999), rather than supplanting logics of “negotiation, gift-­giving, solidarity, predatory authority, and redistributive accumulation” (de Sardan 1999, 25), structural adjustment exacerbated the consumptive logics and acquisitive tactics inside Kenya’s version of the politics of the belly. Patron-­client relations did not simply disappear; instead, the decreased material base upset the delicate balance between the consumptive habits of elites and the capacities of their various client networks. An elderly man in a Nairobi bar, whom I met one evening in July 2000, made the nature of this contradiction explicit. According to him, the system of “toa kitu kidogo,”13 or TKK, had been perverted to the point that it had ceased to be profitable for those involved. To fuel continued largesse under leaner funding conditions, patrons began to demand excessive “gifts” from an increasingly impoverished Kenyan public. In this new climate, the man told me, toa kitu kidogo seemed to have changed into “toa kitu kikubwa,” or “put out a big something.” Worse, it seemed that it would soon become “toa kila kitu,” or “put out everything.”

Angels of  Light In complaining about “putting out everything,” the old man was voicing a material dissatisfaction. The breakdown of the patronage system seemed to put greater pressure on everyone when it

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came to the flow of resources. It created suffering in other realms of experience too, though. As the Omino story demonstrates, with a stable patronage system comes a relatively stable “truth.” Its place was taken by a regime of simulacra, in which nothing was as it appeared and everything bright could hide a darker reality. This kind of epistemological crisis is not entirely unique to Kenya. Elsewhere, Andrew Apter (2005) demonstrates that the fall in world oil prices in the eighties actually exacerbated Nigerian dependence on oil, transforming state agencies and the infrastructure that had been built by oil money into mechanisms and conduits for private gain. As Apter states, Nigeria’s “lifeblood” mutated into “bad blood,” as the nation that had modeled itself on the “money form” began to lapse into “mimetic representations of itself ” (ibid., 251–­52). As signifiers of value became detached from the value of oil, bureaucratic documents, letterheads, and stamps were transformed into “floating signifiers,” the value of which only became evident after they had been used to siphon off some unsuspecting victim’s cash in various confidence schemes (ibid., 13, 254). The Kenyan situation was quite similar, only the “flow” that was cut off was donor money, not oil. The initial shock of liberalization set off a domino effect, which eventually toppled most of the signposts of the familiar. As in Nigeria, the costs of political and economic patronage became hopelessly confused with its benefits, producing widespread speculation and paranoia about the nature and holders of wealth. Were elected leaders patron saints or cannibals? Were regular citizens people or products? The result was a general crisis of representation—­it was hard to tell what the truth was. To make matters worse, given the atmosphere of increased local and international attention and external auditing, Kenya’s big men and women were forced to deploy more and more elusive strategies to protect their interests. Since increased circulation of money and goods had little of the democratizing effect that it was touted as having by various economic and political experts, power instead became more capricious. The key strategy was counterfeiting, which masked


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brutal acquisitive tactics by faking the already fetishized symbols of state power. The problem was, as these fake fetishes increased in circulation, their truth-­value decreased through each lap of exchange. Ironically, state agents’ attempts to protect the opacity of their power rendered their practices strangely translucent. In fact, the new form of power was perceived as existing in a context of “open secrets”—­things that everybody “knew” but had no real means to prove (Haugerud 1997). In addition to mainstream newspapers, publications began to appear that attempted to salvage order from disorder by commenting and advising on the dangers of everyday life. Many were actually the mouthpieces of various evangelical and Pentecostal churches. For instance, tabloid papers, what Moi called the “gutter press,” claimed to know the “real” reasons behind Kenya’s spate of road and rail accidents: Satan’s elite cadre were orchestrating mass carnage so that blood could be collected by “powerful magicians in readiness for the upcoming general elections.”14 While road budgets had merely been “eaten” by contractors who were connected to various state officials in charge of public works, the inability of the law or of the press to improve conditions on Kenya’s roads suggested that big men were impervious to due process or even peer pressure, something that could rightly be attributed to their use of majini (bloodthirsty spirit familiars) or uchawi (witchcraft). In publications like Money Update, investment and savings advice columns were adjacent to articles on how to protect against devil worship and witchcraft, as if true economic development was de­ pendent on the elimination of evil magic. Inside an issue of the Grace Glory Times from the summer of 2000, one of the writers, apostle Lucy Wangui, describes a vision sent to her by the Holy Spirit. In it, a rungu (club) cracks open and a snake slithers out of its two pieces. Upon being asked the whereabouts of the rungu, the Lord tells Wangui that it is “in the state house and it is eating the nation and His Church.” The rungu is a reference to the  fimbo ya nyayo (staff of footsteps), which President Moi carried during daily public appearances. Nyayo, or “footsteps,” the slogan of the Moi regime, denoted a notion of

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development entrenched in older configurations of the patronage state; the “footsteps” image of the new KANU indicated Moi’s initial desire to follow the policies and practices of the Kenyatta government, which was (and is still) widely viewed as having been a benevolent regime. Moi’s various “Nyayo projects”—­like the costly but ultimately moribund endeavor to domestically produce an affordable car, the “Nyayo car,” for every Kenyan family, or the many empty or half-­finished “Nyayo schools” that dot the countryside—­read like a cast of characters in a costly tragicomedy produced with public funds. For Kenyans like Wangui, though, “corruption” in its normal sense is inadequate for describing the spectacular train wreck of these development projects.15 Patronage practices (often referred to as “corruption”) were assigned an additional, invisible operation. Despite the president’s glib proclamations of a progressive and benevolent vision for Kenya’s “development,” the Holy Spirit revealed that nyayo covered a darker Kenyan reality. Patronage as the “gift that keeps on giving” had been transformed into the gift that keeps on killing. According to Wangui, Kenya needed to be delivered from those who only posed as “angels of light” but who in truth were servants of Satan, secret devourers of the state and its citizenry. In attempting to identify and defeat the seemingly illicit source of political power, conspiracy theories depicted political capacity as magical in nature. Occult power was the connective substance between powerful public means and nefarious private ends. It magically masked the negative production of value in everyday social processes. Every truth, whether propositional or sentimental, could be faked. Yet because these occult forces were masked in objects and institutions of everyday life, prosperity was impossible without properly identifying the “true” agents and institutions of satanic fakery. It is this dialectic between a simultaneous assertion and negation of the very possibility of transparency that is the essence of Kenya’s simulacral dilemma. Since the senses could no longer determine the “true” nature of things or people, Pentecostals had to rely upon the Holy Spirit for their “sight.” Deliverance narratives therefore often followed a standardized


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trajectory wherein the Holy Spirit is attributed with the ultimate capacity for moral discernment. Instead of producing a consensus on ways and means, though, this simply created a further level of uncertainty about which churches had the “real” Holy Spirit. There was an elaborate war of words regarding the true signs of legitimacy of specific churches and pastors (like wealth, or the capacity to heal), not to mention the proper techniques for recognizing such legitimacy. In this way, the ongoing proliferation of divinatory authorities in the form of Pentecostal churches was an eerie replaying of the problem of the proliferating ritual authorities generated during the colonial period. Like other Africans (see Geschiere 1997; Comaroff and Comaroff 1993; Smith 2008), Kenyans well know that invisible wisdom can be the source of power for evil machinations as well as a moral social order. Either way, it is the very failure of signs to be efficacious that invests the invisible with such creative power for better or for worse. And it is the constant probing of the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate invisible power that made Kenya’s Satanism discourse so productive of moral and political potentialities. In a political context marked both by possession by the devil—­and the unchecked appetite for consuming the bare essentials of life, blood, and bodies that ensues—­and by the crumbling of patronage relations that such appetites attempt to signify, deliverance actually represented, at the time, a powerful form of political skepticism. Wangui’s “vision” succinctly illustrates wide public suspicion of established political and social relationships. The assignment of the role of poseur to state agents, who only mime the routines of development as “angels of light,” reflects the sense of disconnection between the state’s rhetoric of provision and what was taken to be its clandestine political maneuvering and corruption.

Satanic Shillings It is important to see, however, that the ambivalence did not simply apply to elders and agents of the state. It also involved a

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profound moral uncertainty concerning the artifacts and instruments of the gerontocratic state. Here again we return to money. Money is a central object of moral angst because Kenyans expected their currency to be a universal form of value, grounded in the “real” of Kenyatta’s generalized elderhood (cf. Hutchinson 1996). Like people elsewhere in the modern world, Kenyans comment on money’s capacity to equate all objects regardless of their difference or social consequences. As Brad Weiss has commented, however, money is seldom just “a unit of measurement or transparent medium of exchange” (1996, 181). The everyday experience of money’s hierarchically organized notes and coins also conveys a sense of the relative capacity of some to command the system of exchange more than others (ibid.). As Weiss states, the attribution of the name Pajero, an expensive Mitsubishi four-­wheel-­drive automobile, to the 500-­Tanzanian shilling note conveyed not just the inaccessibility of the car and the note to the general populace, but also the inaccessibility of the knowledge of how to command and navigate their routes of circulation (ibid., 182). As a rarity, both “Pajeros” appeared to be prestige ob­ jects “beyond local origins as well as local control” (ibid.). In Kenya, the 500-­Kenyan shilling note’s circulation coincided with a different kind of entrenchment of elite power. Before the 1992 elections the note was the largest denomination available in the country and was emblazoned with Daniel arap Moi’s image. Soon, however, it was renamed “the Jirongo,” after the Youth for KANU ’92 leader Cyrus Jirongo. Jirongo was known for distributing truckloads of the bills to various constituencies before Kenya’s first multiparty election. His briefcase of money accompanied him to everything from school fundraisers to football matches, and wherever he went, his “Jirongos” were sure to be left behind. Jirongo’s status as a “KANU youth activist” actually worked to secure the position of Moi as the iconic representation of gerontocratic authority. The high value of the notes he commanded demonstrated the sheer redistributive capacity of the Mzee’s party and showed that the elder controlled its youth. This kind of KANU largesse worked for at least some time to


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quell growing public doubt as to whether Moi’s image on the bill alone was sufficient to back value more generally, as it had in the case of Kenyatta. The increased flow of the 500-­shilling note through the nation crystallized Moi’s vision of a prosperous nation-­state, a patrimonial distribution network, the stability of which was to be guaranteed by the experience of old age and re­ presented in the form of national currency. The value of shillings remained relatively stable and delivered the election to Moi against its first multiparty challenge, but the spurious origins of the 500-­shilling notes eventually came out. Some had been generated from the sale of property owned by Jirongo’s development company to the National Social Security Fund at exorbitant rates. Others were just bills that were never registered with the Central Bank before they entered circulation. Shillings were obviously used to pay off officials at the mint, who in turn produced counterfeit bills. The net result of printing what Beatrice Hibou has aptly described as “official counterfeit” (Hibou 1999, 108) banknotes was twofold. First, it literally devalued the shilling, which was already decrepit in global market terms, and nearly bankrupted the Central Bank. Beyond that, however, it also generated deep consternation about money and the morality of exchange (Bloch and Parry 1989) and led to a profound sense of anxiety. What backed what? Kenyatta had long ago claimed that the minting of money was “a real business, and no magic”; this, however, seemed to be real magic, and no business. By the time inflation reached 100 percent by August 1993, the moniker “Jirongo” had acquired a sinister cast. He was the “youth” who faithlessly toiled to prove the dependability of Mzee Moi as a basis for national cohesiveness, but it all seemed to be based on lies. Was old age an alibi for money or was money an alibi for old age? The stability and free circulation of money is one of the key Western signifiers of a functional state, particularly in a context defined by liberalized currency markets. It is a ubiquitous sym­ bol of the state. Its changing value is therefore directly tied to the changing fortunes of the state, both real and symbolic. What

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happened with the Jirongos was that the false value of the money came to be seen as inseparable from the false value of the state itself. Ideally, money was to be used to establish a home, pay bridewealth, initiate a commercial enterprise, and contribute to the prosperity of a community. As false money, however, it could potentially undermine all of these things. In fact, the release of the Jirongos was just the tip of the iceberg. As the nineties progressed, the state and state elites became ever more deeply involved in the counterfeiting of state prerogatives: titles, deeds, money, law—­all of its key symbols and productive processes led to a profound sense of anxiety. One key area of contention was land. Only Moi could pull off a counterfeiting operation on the scale of the Jirongo scandal. Lesser elites were forced to turn to assets outside the scrutiny of international observers and their balance sheets, and in the process land became Kenya’s new patronage currency (Klopp 2000, 7). Using “official” mechanisms such as the forgery of land deeds, they seized everything from forestlands to public toilets for future personal development. This made something of a joke of the mantra of Mau Mau insurgents, “ithaka na wiathi,” or “moral agency through land ownership” (Berman and Lonsdale 1992, 316). When elites used money to acquire someone else’s land by “purchasing” a fake deed through the land office, money, and by extension the state, was no longer doing the work that it was “supposed” to do: assisting citizens in realizing their future aspirations. Instead, it was producing negative value (Munn 1986, 13) and, in doing so, causing local conceptions of social maturation and the mechanisms for realizing such ideals, like land ownership, to implode. All of this brings us back to Satan, the original counterfeiter. Although Omino participates in what he initially believes to be legitimate labor practices, he nonetheless cannot escape the eerie feeling that his labor has an unknowable added value, that his wages are ultimately the wages of sin. Omino conflates the state’s supposedly enduring symbol of value, the shilling (productive), with murder (destructive). Those who discern the secret that the national currency is based on diabolical value implicitly demand


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a truer currency. Thus, before Omino knows the truth about his patron’s diabolical productive practices, he is paid in shillings. After he discovers the secret/truth, however, he is paid in dollars. Shillings are spectral representations of wealth; dollars are its reliable embodiment. His narrative thus indexes the ephemeral and futile character of established modes of social reproduction and contrasts them with materially substantial but morally ambiguous nonlocal ones. Omino’s Luo name also suggests the conservative attitudes Luos are generally thought to have toward the inalienable relationship between a patrilineage and its landholding (Cohen and Atieno Odhiambo 1992; Shipton 1997). Omino’s signifying act of building a home after making it in Satan’s inverted kingdom conflates moral agency, manhood, or self-­sufficiency through land ownership with “dirty” money. Land and money, in his narrative, have become effectively the same: both can be counterfeited. Omino’s story was not, or not only, about these kinds of fears; they were part and parcel of the deliverance genre. In the late nineties, for instance, and in an exact mirror of state practices, rumors contended that Satan was circulating simulacral money. As the Daily Nation reported it in 1999, rumors were that devil worshippers were leaving 500-­shilling notes on the street to ensnare new victims into satanic patronage. By then the notes were somewhat less valuable than in the early Jirongo period, but they still represented one eighth of an average monthly salary. They were identical in appearance to regular bills, the rumor went, but transformed themselves into poisonous snakes that killed unsuspecting victims. Others claimed that the faux bills acted as homing beacons to attract well-­dressed devil worshippers on nocturnal visits to the household of the unfortunate receiver of the devil’s gift. Upon arrival, these representatives of Satan demanded allegiance to their clandestine organization and participation in its grisly practices.16 The well-­dressed patrons who supposedly left these notes in the street were reminiscent of President Moi’s roadside “purchasing” of agricultural products at ridiculously inflated rates to demonstrate his good will. Such

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gifts, then, produced more diabolical patronage as they trickled down the rhizome-­like structures of Kenya’s exchange networks. Anyone attempting to use Satan’s gift money for anything but the building of clandestine networks, it was held, was met with death (cf. Taussig 1980). The simulacral nature of money and its tendency to subvert the higher purpose of anything it touched demonstrated a widely held moral apprehensiveness Kenyans have regarding the social relationships that facilitate the procurement of money. Unlike Parker Shipton’s account of “bitter money” amongst the Luo of western Kenya, where the “spirit of the theft” and its accompanying danger clings to its procurer (Shipton 1997, 170), simulacral money’s deadly ability to kill (by turning into a snake) or to assist in killing (by enmeshing its possessor into lethal patronage logics) was independent of any one agent who had engaged in a morally offensive transaction. Satanic money tainted anyone or anything it touched. The implications were obvious: any mone­ tized transaction was potentially fraught with moral ambiguity. Whereas the procurer of bitter money can ritually cleanse it, the holder of simulacral money could only morally transact by transforming the nature of the relationships congealed in the money form. That meant severing the spirit of the gift from the value of money, and only the universal power of the Holy Spirit could do so. People began to use ritualized means to acquire control over their economy and society. The Holy Spirit, as an agent of deliverance from the devil, filled the gap between old patronage practices and emergent moral systems and regimes of value. It was an imaginary token of a guaranteed “real” in a simulacral world.

Conclusion As personal salvation became one of the key modes of engagement with a variety of social ills that Kenyans perceived to afflict them, narratives of seduction by and deliverance from Satan’s imitations offer a privileged vehicle for examining how Kenyans interpret global processes in local ways. Solving the problem of


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the Kenyan shilling’s shrinking, if not patently false, value in turn entailed imagining severing exchange relations with state agents whose bellies, not unlike Locke’s silver, had ceased to ensure a tangible relation between meaning and value. In the words of one high-­ranking, disaffected KANU politician, the ties that bind, by the end of the Moi era, had become “demonic umbilical cords.” In a political context where smaller level sociopolitical structures are metonymic of larger ones, patronage ties are often conceived of in kinship idiom. But the movement of this kinship metaphor from the visible world of family-­like affect and obligation into the semivisible realm of Satan’s parallel world made these “umbilical cords” ripe for severing. Thus the doubling of reality depicted in Kenyan deliverance narratives pointed toward a devaluation of established modes of social reproduction, such as the kin relations or political relations discussed in kinship idioms long held to be “normal” in contemporary Kenya. The simulacra associated with Satan also demonstrate the paradox in Kenyans’ disillusionment with their political vocabularies. Signs like money or deeds, which Kenyans diabolized, were also ironically deemed necessary. John Omino’s tale viscerally depicts an attempt to sever the value of money from the spirit of the patronage gift. Pentecostals imagined severing their ties with the satanic networks that they had inhabited in their previous “immoral” existence. Thus deliverance narratives anchored conversion from former practices that had become unstable and, in the opinion of the “saved,” unsustainable. Satan’s elaborate simulacra signified a wide public disenchantment with and even fear of many of the institutions of Kenya’s particular modernity that were once vested with moral certainty. In that sense, the figure of Satan actually was seen as facilitating a moral realignment of the signifier and the signified. For if Satan’s evil imitated the “good,” then his exorcism suggested that the “good” was something attainable—­money that was valuable, exchange that did not kill. In other words, the discourse on Satan showed that social reproduction, although transformed, was not totally chimerical. Satan ultimately did not facilitate an out-­and-­out rejection of “modernity” but a negative investment in its key signifiers.

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Deliverance from the devil, therefore, became a mechanism through which many Kenyans attempted to know the difference between true and false, or good and evil. Echoing Jean and John Comaroff ’s assertion that the apparent increase in occult discourses throughout Africa is an illustration of Evans-­Pritchard’s old observation that “new situations demand new magic” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999, 279), deliverance became one of the principal modes through which Kenyans tried to restore tangible truth to the word, to reconstruct a morally viable modernity. Indeed, deliverance, which sought to reunite signs with their “true” meanings, might be said to be the new magic of the global age. Deliverance narratives attempted to materialize a new consensus for social exchange and materialize a reality vis-­à-­vis the plethora of “epistemological crimes” that resulted from the state’s inability to regulate its own signs.

6 Corruptus Interruptus: The Limits of  Transactional Imaginaries in Moi’s Kenya Sovereignty and the Law This chapter attempts to unsettle treatments of sovereignty that assume an intrinsic relationship between violence and the law even while critiquing the capacity of the law to ground social order through violence. In such discussions, the police become the embodiment of the force of law without content, especially in totalitarian contexts. In contrast, this chapter explores alternative conceptions of the police and, by extension, sovereignty, at work in Kenya through an examination of police/citizen interactions at a marked political moment: the end of the twenty-­ four-­year rule of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi in 2002. Through a particular example of the complicated “illicit conviviality” (Mbembe 2001) that pervades state/society relations in many patrimonial political contexts—­in this case between a policeman, a bus driver, and the bus driver’s wife—­I attempt to reframe normative conceptions about the police and law en-

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forcement in the context of Kenya’s failing patrimonial economy of circulation and capture in the early 2000s.

The Writing on the Wall In the early 1990s the Kenyan patrimonial state experienced a severe diminishment of its redistributive capacities due to post–­ Cold War cutbacks in international aid provision, a significant basis of state rent-­seeking since the Kenyatta era (cf. Bayart 1993; Himbara 1994). Sponsored by multilateral donors, those cuts, which in 1992 forced Kenya’s first multiparty elections since independence (Haugerud 1997), marked a very significant turn toward what Andrew Apter, in the Nigerian context, has termed the “politics of illusion” (Apter 2005, 224). Indeed, the 1992 elections represented a “new type of crisis” that exceeded “vote rigging and competition for the national cake” (ibid.), something that took place well within the former single-­party political system. Before the 1992 elections, the substance of the national cake itself was fabricated, through large-­scale confidence schemes, so that Moi’s Kenya African National Union (KANU) party could literally outgift their political competition. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to say that a great deal of “funny money” was put into circulation by ruling party stalwarts. As already discussed in chapter 4, Cyrus Jirongo, then the head of Youth for Kanu ’92, distributed so many 500-­shilling notes (which were new at the time, as well as the largest denomination of Kenyan shillings) at political rallies and fundraisers that Kenyans rechristened the note “the Jirongo.” As a “youthful” supporter and representative of President Moi’s re-­election, Jirongo’s sheer distributive capacity—­and therefore by extension Moi’s—­further ratified Moi as the gerontocratic leader par excellence. While much of this cash was generated through the sale of property owned by Jirongo’s Sololo Outlets Holding Company to the National Social Security Fund at the extremely exaggerated cost of 1.2 billion shillings, there were even more grandiose


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examples of the seemingly magical production of money. The infamous Goldenberg scandal was an export compensation scheme involving agreements between the Kenyan government, the Central Bank, and a company known as Goldenberg International. In the name of building up Kenya’s foreign currency reserves, in line with the IMF and the World Bank mandates, Goldenberg International was granted a monopoly on the export of diamonds and gold from Kenya. The company was then paid a compensation rate of 35 percent in domestic currency in excess of the actual market value of gold and diamonds. The problem of course was that Kenya had no diamonds or gold. The company’s revenues came exclusively from the Central Bank of Kenya, which was paying out vast sums to Goldenberg for bogus claims for export credits and bonuses filed by the company. As Daniel Branch states, by 1993, 7 percent of the money in circulation in Kenya had been transferred to Goldenberg (Branch 2011, 219) and the massive amounts of cash released into the body politic drove inflation to the point of nearly collapsing the Kenyan economy. But perhaps just as important is the “epi­ stemic murk” (Taussig 1991) that emerged around political patrons. As discussed in detail earlier a national moral panic about the presence of Satanism in quotidian life spoke to the problem of being able to know the real basis of value in Kenya. Exhorting Kenyans to be wary of Satan’s imitations, emerging Pentecostal pastors and publications argued that Kenya’s political patrons could continue gifting their constituencies only because they sac­ rificed unsuspecting youth, satanically transubstantiating the blood of the innocent into cash (Blunt 2004; Smith 2004). Eventually, as the histrionics around Satanism wore off and the reality of material shortages became more apparent, displays of state-­sponsored big-­man largesse became more difficult to maintain, and politicians increasingly retreated from public view. It is during this time of retreat, I will argue, that the police took on a heightened public significance as the state representatives whom citizens encountered most often in daily life and on the road. These encounters occurred in ways that do not conform to

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normative conceptions of policing as enforcement, the law, or even “corruption,” a term that most Kenyans and international observers attach to the Kenya Police. This chapter will therefore examine the police as objects of public speculation—­embodying both public derision and desire—­in the context of the decline of President Daniel arap Moi’s patrimonial regime.

Theories of the Postcolonial State, Sovereignty, and Violence In his earlier ruminations about the banality of power exercised by autocratic regimes in Africa (e.g., Mobutu’s Zaire, Eyadema’s Togo, Biya’s Cameroon, and Moi’s Kenya), Achille Mbembe asserts that in situations where the truth of patrimonial signs dissipates, a condition of regularized violence can emerge whereby state agents, like the police, attempt to prop up and enforce their believability (Mbembe 2001). Thus, in these different autocratic political contexts, as indices of redistributive capacity and power, bodily signs like the belly, the mouth, and the phallus (as well as extracorporeal signs like the Mercedes-­Benz) should rightfully be understood as “historical phenomena in their own right” and “genuine sites of power” (ibid., 132) around which a politics of agonistic challenge and riposte unfolds between the autocrat and the citizen. Mbembe’s figure of “the autocrat”—­a thinly veiled reference to Paul Biya—­illustrates one side of this politics. In the autocrat’s inability to secure any “single, permanently stable system of signs, images, and markers current in the postcolony” (ibid., 108) his anxious police actions lack proportionality to alleged infractions, namely the folk’s playful imitation, occasional appropriation of, and sarcastic redeployment of these signs. However, the folk’s carnivalesque ridicule of the signs and slogans of officialdom do not produce a situation where the truth of their laughter degrades power in any way, as Mikhail Bakhtin argued about the capacity of Rabelaisian humor (Bakhtin 2009). Instead ruler and ruled disempower one another in a theater of nervous laughter and violence. Hence Mbembe’s assertion that what the


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postcolony produces first and foremost are signs (Mbembe 2001, 102), proliferating and recycling them exactly because they fail to become durable abstractions that could anchor the social world. Rather, they take on the status of mere “artifacts” (ibid., 102), which never rise to the level of sacredness that would render the laughter of the folk truly taboo. Thus for Mbembe, the state’s enforcement of the signs and media of patrimonial largesse is similar to the uncanny replaying of the originary violence of the law as discussed in Derrida’s critical engagement with Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. In his essay “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’ ” (Derrida and Anidjar 2002), Derrida argues that Benjamin’s attempt to maintain a firm division between law-­founding and law-­maintaining violence is an aporia: a moment of sovereign violence he likens to parole without langue, where the force of law becomes palpably present but its content is continually rendered fugitive in its very enforcement. This force of law emptied of content is what lends the law, according to Derrida, its “revolting ambiguity” (Derrida and Anidjar 2002, 277). In the same vein, Begonia Arextaga points to the spectral quality of the state in the form of the law—­its presence as force, but absence as content—­such that, counterintuitively, this spectrality produces both fear of and desire for the state’s violence to be efficacious in grounding social order. Central to this spectral quality of the state and law are the police, whom citizens experience through “disappearances, corpses, arrests, and internments, but whose identity remains mysterious, as objects of constant speculation, rumor and fear” (Arextaga 2003, 406). The police are thus key players in producing a condition of longing mixed with aversion to state power amongst citizens. This condition, which Arextaga likens to “madness,” pushes citizens to speculate into the state’s raison d’être: violence induces attempts by citizens to render state violence legible and rational despite being victims of its excessive force. As she states, “The hold of the law, the impossibility of extricating oneself from it, rests on the force of its performance, which, lacking symbolic

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content, can create an obsessive attempt at interpretation, at translation of force into pure reason” (Arextaga 2003, 407). These subjective dynamics, she cogently argues, are what link citizens to states and are what gives the state-­as-­form such remarkable “tenacity and adaptability” (ibid., 393). It is precisely this fundamental ambiguity of the law, or signs of officialdom, that reproduces what Mbembe calls the postcolony’s “master code” of floating signifiers. Like the state form’s “tenacity and adaptability,” Mbembe’s signs of officialdom return again and again, recycled. In the postcolony, then, signs don’t so much function as vehicles for meaning, or Durkheimian collective sentiment, but as negative heteroglossia, unable to either truly challenge or ground authority. In all of these approaches, violence seems to occupy the normative center of the political, in a manner similar to Giorgio Agamben’s arguments about the key right of the sovereign as the right to impose the state of exception. In the West (presumably), juridical agents effectively stand outside the law’s constraints as enforcers of the law, and “criminals” are similarly outside the law, but as “bare life” devoid of rights and therefore expendable. As a leviathan never put into reserve, in more totalitarian contexts (although not exclusively there), the difference between the juridical agent, like the autocrat or the police, and their individual subjectivity is completely effaced (Agamben 1998). What is different about Mbembe’s account of the postcolony from these other accounts of the state, law, and their uncanny effects is the way that it opens up the possibility of analyzing signs of officialdom, rather than laws, as the imagined ground of social order for leaders and citizens alike. Further displacing the law as the privileged unit of analysis for understanding autocratic regimes, one can rightfully argue—­as Mateo Taussig-­Rubbo does about Kenya—­that while constitutional reform may have been a significant factor for political mobilization in multiparty politics, the constitution itself “does not seem to have been a particularly vital site for understanding public order or political culture” (Taussig-­Rubbo 2012, 249). Here, similarly, Taussig-­Rubbo calls


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attention to how constitutions can hover somewhere between “fetish and technical object, between governing law and empty letter,” such that they can be either “cool how-­to manuals; or they can be avoided; not playing the role of metanorm in everyday political activity and thus not be ‘constitutions’ even in the minimum legal sense” (ibid., 248). In this respect, constitutional texts themselves can become the same types of unstable official signs as the corporeal qualia (the belly, the phallus, etc.) of Mbembe’s autocrat. Yet while Mbembe helps us understand the salaciousness and excess involved in patrimonial political theater by displacing the law as the central framework for understanding politics (or, prop­­ erly, governmentality), the relationship between the law and of­ ficial signs is maintained as something of a functional equivalence. In other words, the violence of enforcement remains at the normative center of Mbembe’s analysis (like Derrida’s and Arextaga’s). It is this central assumption that I want to trouble in a couple of ways. While not denying the role of state violence in the social and political worlds of various autocratic political contexts, the daily life of official signs—­including their uptake and evaluation—­tends in these analyses to be sacrificed to moments of spectacular violence. There are other performative modes through which signs are understood to be efficacious that do not equate enforcement with violence per se. Or at least the enforcement of official signs through violence must be a phenomenon that is historicized as the result of particular processes, rather than simply posited as their essence. For example, Andrew Apter has brought together Jean and John Comaroff ’s well-­known essay on occult economies (1999)—­ the deployment, real or imagined, of magical means for material ends—­and the simulacral regime of Mbembe’s commandement productively to historicize post–­oil boom Nigeria’s entrance into the neoliberal epoch. This epochal shift, he argues, was characterized by two closely related trends: “the collapse of national currencies deregulated by the state, and the collapse of the state

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when ‘reformed’ by the market and privatized from within—­ that is when money scarcely ‘refers’ to things—­and the state’s imprimatur and legislative categories have lost credibility and institutional backing” (Apter 2005, 284). As Apter details, during President Babangida’s era of coercion through gifts, rumors of magical money and the vampiric practices of big men spoke to the way the state only tenuously remained the locus of distribution of oil money, which was gradually declining in value. Occult rumors during this period should properly be interpreted as forms of speculation into the entrenched nature of patrimonial power against the backdrop of the declining value of oil. Later, President Sunny Abacha’s slippage toward coercion through force was a concomitant feature of the complete lifting of the state’s imprimatur from its official signs altogether. Official letterhead from government ministries, for example, became the props of the con artist, luring unsuspecting foreigners and citizens alike into deals promising big payouts from secretly cached oil reserves, whose liquidity could be realized if the unsuspecting victim would simply supply their bank account information (ibid., 282–­84). Although the Nigerian state’s imprimatur was always already performative, it was more stable during the oil boom years, epitomized in state festivals during the 1970s that sought visually to ratify the suturing of the general equivalent of the petro-­Naira to the project of producing a generalized black culture and nation. When the bottom fell out—­again, gesturing to the Comaroffs and Mbembe—­Apter reframes this neoliberal period of occult speculation and violence such that Mbembe’s “postcolony” can be understood more broadly as a historically specific state of “semiotic suspension” when “signs stripped of their referential moorings are almost literally up for grabs” (ibid., 283). I ask, then, what are juridical agents in such moments? How might other understandings of the police as representatives of autocratic regimes be at work in the public imagination under such conditions?


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The Policeman and the Everyday I have presented Apter’s historically grounded synthesis of Mbembe and the Comaroffs to highlight certain dynamics that were also at work in Kenya during the last decade of President Moi’s patrimonial rule (circa 1992 to 2002). I argue that while cuts in donor aid clearly affected the truth value of official signs when the material base of Moi’s patronage state had dissipated (as Kenya entered the neoliberal era of austerity and structural adjustment), the police should be understood as more than simply the violent enforcers of the postcolony’s “hollow pretense” (Mbembe 2001, 108). Any emphasis on spectacular state violence, especially police violence, arguably obscures the contexts in which Ken­ yans experienced policing on an everyday basis under the Moi government—­most especially on the road, as “enforcers” of the movement of people and value (recall the discussion of matatus from the introduction). This is not to say that Mbembe’s “postcolony” has not been analytically productive in its blurring of the state/society divide (Karlstrom 2003); it has been a valuable starting point for an anthropology of the police and imaginaries of policing (and by extension sovereignty) in postcolonial socie­ ties. Yet studying the police in a postcolonial context—­where the arbitrary application of law is a chief inheritance of the colonial order of things—­should, I argue, prompt us to ask fresh questions about the primacy of the law as either the basis for social stability or as that which corrodes social order in legally justified acts of violence. The question then is not so much whether the original violence of the law is revisited in every police action of the Kenyan state but whether such a founding moment of violence is the basis for the Kenyan imaginary of social order at all. As I argued earlier, the violence of Kenya’s anticolonial rebellion—­Mau Mau—­could not have been such a moment. The conflict’s ethnicity particularity and its spirals of violence and counterviolence (often between social intimates) were simply not routinizable into anything like the law. This, in spite of the fact that, as James

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Smith argues, Mau Mau’s appropriation and magical deployment of typewriters, stamps, and other bureaucratic literary fetishes point to the aspirations of forest fighters to craft a “counter-­state” (Smith 1998). Instead, as I argued in chapter 4, the founding of the Central Bank in 1966, three years after independence, can be read as something much more akin to such a baptismal moment. On the opening day of the bank, Kenya’s first president Jomo Ken­ yatta enunciated a vision and performative template in which all signs, even monetary ones, would be given a respectable alibi by none other than himself. In Derrida and Arextaga’s terms, then, the spectrality of the state in Kenya may not necessarily follow from the incompleteness of the law, but from the instability of other social institutions that may be, in deliberately anachronistic terms, “functionally equivalent.” Here I allude to what David Graeber calls “total reciprocity,” his translation of Mauss’s “total prestation,” a totalizing reciprocity that serves as “the kind of baseline of sociality” (Mauss in Graeber 2005, 421) that exists in many places, even where legal codes exist on paper. Asking whether or not the law provides the basis for imagi­ naries of social order, even in its violent failure, should provoke new questions about the nature of police-­citizen interactions outside the well-­worn normative vocabularies of “corruption” and “failed states” (cf. Roitman 2005; Jauregui 2014), even when such terms are deployed by the public (Muir 2016). As I will demonstrate below, while police “bribery” at road blocks in Kenya under Moi may have circumvented the law, it arguably provided one of the key mechanisms of social stability between state actors and citizens, as the state ceased to fulfill its other archetypal patrimonial functions.1 This is not to say that practices of largesse created a “just” or “equal” social sphere, however one may define those terms. Social systems premised on unequal (albeit reciprocal) exchange instead of capitalist contract can establish vicious forms of social stratification. It may be difficult either to participate in social functions on equal terms or to extricate oneself from them altogether, creating crippling social debt and servitude. Nonetheless, the parallelism of the potlatch with Achille Mbembe’s


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depiction of postcolonial relations of domination and subservience is striking. The relations between ruler and ruled are not so much premised on coercion but on relationships of conviviality, the “myriad ways that ordinary people guide, deceive, and toy with power instead of confronting it directly” in order “to join in the feast” (Mbembe 2001, 128, 107). At the end of the Moi regime, as the state collapsed into the figure of the policeman in the sense outlined above, everyday Ken­ yan life actually produced a situation in which the state’s alibi for its official signs was called into question. The police are more publicly visible in their rent-­seeking activities than the politicians and bureaucrats whose relative obscurity made them the locus of occult anxiety during the 1990s (Blunt 2004). With the police, a very different mode of nervous speculation emerged. As the positive moral valuation of bribing police officers tipped toward a revaluation of the practice as parasitic, the police became objects of desire in jackpot fantasies characteristic of the “casino capitalism” of the millennial moment (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff 2001). Kenyans widely viewed the police as all that was left of a more prosperous era of public state patronage, but they could also potentially be revealed (as the narrative below will show) to be little more than vestigial remains or inferior copies. Under these neoliberal conditions of state retreat, the police came to be seen not as the representatives of the state’s violent enunciative capacity gone awry, but rather as a trace of its former capacity to produce and distribute value. To show how, I turn now to a highly publicized incident involving police, sex, witchcraft, and money before Ken­ ya’s December 2002 general elections. I argue that such moments not only illuminate ideas about state power different from those typical of Western European nation-­states, but also demonstrate citizens’ attempts to morally qualify such imaginaries and intimacies and delimit their conviviality with the state.

Corruptus Interruptus One night in August 2002, as some friends and I were coming home from a Nairobi nightspot, the conversation inside the car

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came to a dramatic pause when the driver tuned the radio to one of Nairobi’s newer Kikuyu-­speaking FM stations. Looking rather bemused after listening for a few seconds, one of my comrades let out a breathy, “Imagine!” Unable to follow the Kikuyu broadcast, I asked one of the passengers to convey what was happening. He explained that the host of a call-­in radio show was eliciting public opinions about a peculiar situation that had unfolded along River Road earlier in the day. “River Road” conjures feelings of ambivalence for many Ken­ yans. Immortalized by Meja Mwangi in Going Down River Road, his gritty novel of postindependence urban malaise, this section of Nairobi is known for its music cassette stalls whose bootlegged wares compete with the cacophony of life emanating from tenement units, bars, and brothels. Here, even the most conventional notions of licit and illicit fade into one another as hawkers of counterfeit goods, police, Pentecostals, and prostitutes are bound together by the daily transactions that constitute the urban Kenyan lived world. Going down River Road, one experiences an acute distillation of the wider Kenyan political economy of predation cum value added. Here, survival, even occasional prosperity, is realized for those who are able to align the right combination of will, actors, and processes, conjunctures that always entail risk, speculation, and compromise with various forms of authority. River Road is constantly in motion. The story discussed on the radio, however, was marked by a different logic. This perhaps accounted for its shock value, as well as for the speed at which it traveled. In it, established Ken­ yan logics of circulation and accumulation came to a grinding halt, figuratively freezing up in time and space. It went like this. Responding to cries for help, a worker at one of River Road’s hotels entered a room where a policeman and the wife of a long-­ haul bus driver had become “stuck together,” midcoitus. Suspecting his wife’s infidelities, the bus driver, a Kamba, had allegedly ensorcelled her with a form of fidelity magic. His Kamba ethnicity is significant: In the taxonomy of Kenyan ethnic stereotypes, Kambas are prejudiciously perceived to be particularly skilled in matters of the occult. The practice was later described to me by


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a Kamba friend. It begins with the purchase of a knife with a sheath from an mganga (“witchdoctor”), which the suspicious husband would then nonchalantly leave in his wife’s kitchen. Since such a knife would be unusual as a woman’s tool, when she would voluntarily pick it up and “admire” it by removing it from its sheath, her husband would direct her to place it back in its sheath “where it belonged.” If she does so without being forced, the spell is ostensibly cast. Ethnic specificity notwithstanding, tales of hapless men victimized in some way by sexually charged occult power are almost ordinary in Kenya. However, the sordid details of this story took a novel turn. Somehow, the bus driver was notified of his wife’s dilemma. Through a messenger, he explained that he would not unbind the couple until the policeman paid “traditional” adultery compensation of 50,000 shillings. The policeman was not able to marshal resources, though, and eventually died, along with the unfortunate wife, still stuck together. This was the wreckage of an illicit, and failed, state-­citizen transaction. Rumors later circulated that the hotel staff were selling tickets to curious onlookers, who had been alerted to the situation by FM radio. This lent the episode a sense of wonderment and spectacle. The nature of the attraction was not entirely clear, however. Some among the crowd no doubt came to gaze at this frozen connivance and witness the couple while they were still alive. For others, however, the real attraction may have been the symbolic quality of the event, the manner in which it interrupted the standard transactional chain in a way only death can. Besides the obvious sexual charge, then, the event provided a meaningful narrative around which the transactional dynamics of Nairobi and the complicated ethics that drive or subvert them were interrogated and debated. As the incident became the talk of the town in the ensuing weeks, Nairobians wove a rich urban morality tale of wronged husbands, corpulent cops, and ambiguously valued women. Debates raged about who was to blame for having produced the situation in the first place. Here, discussion centered on the

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ubiquitous connection between sex and money and who in this unfortunate ménage a trois was the most “greedy.” The police officer was an obvious target: “He already takes our money on the road, now he uses that money to take our wives as well,” many concluded. The bus driver’s wife did not escape her share of scorn, however. Middle-­aged men with whom I spoke resorted to cliché: She had been wooed by a corpulent state agent whose fat belly indexed his proximity to and command over money, and she ought to have resisted. This point was a bit ironic, as our bar room conversations were frequently interrupted when my interlocutors would jump to their feet and rub their own bellies while gyrating to the syncopations of Congolese rumba. In such venues, one must demonstrate one’s wealth. The bus driver was generally viewed with the most sympathy. After all, was he not justified in asserting his rights as a husband to adultery compensation since his wife’s infidelities put the logics of neat patrimonial reproduction at risk? Few seemed to find it problematic that the bus driver was mortgaging his wife against a jackpot payoff of twice the average annual Kenyan salary. Many did, however, comment on the perils of utilizing the occult to secure such remuneration. What was it about the spectacular nature of this transactional failure that seemed necessary to view or talk about? This story is rather explicit about the fluidity of the state/society divide that is particularly acute in Kenya. But it is also illustrative of the predominant imaginary of the state’s archetypal functions: that of redistribution, bound in some way to the moral demands of customs like adultery compensation. Was the policeman still a state actor in the hotel room on River Road? How did the bus driver calculate the sum of 50,000 shillings as the proper rate of adultery compensation, and where was this sum supposed to have come from? The timing of this event is vital. It unfolded in the last moments of a regime whose signifiers of value could no longer remain floating. Before the 2002 elections, Kenya as a whole had


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come to resemble River Road’s dynamic of legally and morally unbound hyperexchangeability; it was no longer an enclave. Then-­presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki’s campaign promises to stamp out “corruption” if elected were measured against long-­ established expectations about convivial consumption of public resources by both ruler and ruled, and together they produced a general environment of heightened speculation. State actors and the public at large exploited whatever means were necessary to get their share of the “national cake” before a potential rationalization of the state bureaucracy could ensue. This story thus also indexes the degree to which Kenya’s symbolic economy of patrimonialism, distilled in signs like bodily corpulence and the Mercedes-­Benz, had become very tenuously anchored to actual material moorings, productive processes, and systems of trust more generally. Since Moi’s government had counterfeited official signs like money and title deeds throughout the 1990s, the state became a domain of speculative fantasy, a mass hallucination that constantly deferred the question of the actual redistributive capacity of Kenya’s big men and women, whose large bodies allegedly served as the alibis for a robust patrimonial state. The symbolic economy of authority, wealth, and power was beset by a kind of inflation through speculation. When combined with the new era of material scarcity, this set the stage for a correction between visual signifiers and the forms of value that had historically underwritten them. After a decade of metascams in which guarantors of social reproduction had been counterfeited, “the state” had literally reached the limits of its ability to defer payment of various social debts, even in the intimate spheres to which it had ultimately retreated. Pace Mbembe, there was no ultimate triumph of the state’s self-­ referential “master code” over the quotidian world. Instead, a space of interruption was opened up between the stereotypic signification of power and its concretization in the bodies of its ostensible bearers. This should sound familiar. In many ways, this inflationary bout was an uncanny resurgence of the same problems that had

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first beset the colonial ritual economy, and subsequently Mau Mau’s inflationary dynamics. The “substance” that lay behind signs seemed uncontrollable. Kenyatta’s expansive patrimonialism did not fix the problem. At best, it deferred it. More likely, though, it led to an exacerbation of the very inflationary and speculative logics it sought to address, such that when the mysterious “flow” of resources was cut off, the system began to feed on itself.

The Last Moments of the Moi Era In December 2002, Moi’s ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) government was defeated by the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC), led by Mwai Kibaki. While the decrepit conditions of Kenya’s roads, its half-­finished public works projects, and the missing billions in public monies that had disappeared under Moi were experienced and talked about as societal decline, in many ways they also stood as a reminder of better days when state contracts were easier to come by and the Kenyan government’s redistributive capacities were more robust. Kenya’s reigning political epistemology, a vestige of Cold War levels of donor aid, was thus similar to that of oil-­boom Nigeria described by Andrew Apter, in which “the parceling up of the national cake was, after all, the normalized vision of effective government, even if the channels of distribution remained relatively obscure” (Apter 2005, 41–­42). In 2004, for example, the Kibaki government tried to rationalize the largely unregulated matatu commuter taxi industry. One point of contention was the number of passengers allowed in a vehicle. Up until that point, bus operators would stuff as many people as possible onto the bus, but now the government wanted to strictly limit the number, and to make them all wear seat belts. Faced with these new demands, a friend at the Matatu Owners Association reminisced about the ease with which Kenyans were able to get money under Moi. “Everyone was stealing,” he said, almost wistfully. He was a Kikuyu and had been a supporter of the then-­opposition


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NARC coalition. He had no love for what he called “that Kalenjin,” Moi. But like many others, he had enjoyed the opportunities afforded to taxi owners in unregulated spaces like the road. Other public sectors also experienced a change for the worse. Previously, state construction projects took a long time to complete as the state continued to fund sycophantic contractors and “friends” in order to continue the “work.” The Nairobi Post Office was one such project. It took over a decade to complete, much to the chagrin of Nairobians, who still point to it as the quintessential “white elephant” of the Moi regime. Moreover, only twenty-­eight of the intended thirty-­six floors were created. The National Youth Service housing scheme on Thika Road was another example. Its plant-­infested walls sat without windows or youth service tenants, those who were supposed to be provided housing while building the nation. Complaints about “corruption” are an othering discourse, of course. They did not necessarily apply when one’s own ethnic constituency was the beneficiary of patronage. As one of my friends explained to me in one of many conversations we had about the morality of money in Kenya, “Kenyans don’t really care how the money got there, as long as it is there.” After all, much of this hemorrhaging of public funds into such white elephants also flowed through different patrimonial networks. By 2002, however, many such projects stood as empty hulks that rendered Moi the autocrat an ambiguous figure to much of the Kenyan public. Thus it is tempting to read the 2002 defeat of Moi’s KANU party as indicative of an emergent political consciousness about the failures of patrimonialism—­that people suddenly realized that years of investment in social capital through state expenditure (albeit at a deficit) rather than in more productive forms of infrastructural development (cf. Apter 2005) had ruined much of the economy and made political signs meaningless. However, such a perspective fails to take notice of the complicated interplay of the official and the unofficial and thus the more modest scale of the everyday, where the reproduction of the state as an imagi-

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nary takes place. As I explained in the previous chapter, some of the clearest sites of patrimonial power were school fundraisers, local government political rallies, and even wedding planning meetings, where various representatives of official authority were often guests of honor. It is really here that the visible retreat of officials from their earlier visibility in smaller Kenyan public spheres pushed the illicit conviviality of state and citizen to more intimate quarters—­like the hotel bedroom. Moreover, while NARC’s 2002 election victory over KANU is often attributed to its promise to combat corruption, the story of the policeman and the bus driver’s wife illuminates just how much Kenyans had come to depend not only on the transactional dynamics that link state actors like the police with regular folks like the bus driver and his wife. Since such transactions often traveled under the sign of “corruption” to many an outside observer due to their blurring of the state/society divide, this story also serves as a powerful optic through which to observe how Kenyans actually understand “the state” and its alleged agents of law enforcement, the police.

Figures of Law The story of the policeman and the bus driver’s wife clearly complicates the recent emphasis in the social sciences on the devolution of the state into its mere policing function. As discussed earlier, in this understanding police are viewed as objects of public anxiety, phantasmal embodiments of the force of law that lack any substantive content or semiotic durability (Arextaga 2003). The law is thus the quintessential characteristic of every police action (cf. Agamben 1998), especially in its violent capacity. But by characterizing the law as all-­pervasive violence, this metaphysics of “the Law” (cf. Derrida and Anidjar 2002) never leads to an examination of the ongoing production and reproduction of the imaginary of the state as desirable for many who live under its particular, historically contingent forms. In fact, the story recounted above shows that this metaphysical


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approach entails an a priori conflation of the state with the law and begs the question as to whether the alleged capillary representatives of the law’s violent capacity, that is, the police, ever perform anything other than functioning as the nervous implementation of sovereignty in the social worlds that they inhabit. The fact that transactional relations between the policeman and the everyman froze up in this story thus challenges the infinite regress of “the law” and the accompanying overemphasis on the regulatory dimensions of policing. More often than not, however, the key Kenyan concern—­the circulation of resources—­is set by a complicated set of institutions and processes that fall under the sign of “tradition,” including many of the networks of obligation and entitlement that direct the flows of value in contemporary Kenya. The striking “punch line” of the story was that this disciplinary regime of traditional obligation failed too: The bus driver demanded a “traditional” adultery compensation, but the police officer could not fulfill his obligation to pay it, which led to questions about the ongoing production of the desirability of the state. This may not be immediately obvious to those unfamiliar with Kenya’s economy of roads epitomized in the story, so let me now present the reader with a brief introduction to the tale’s dramatis personae of social types, interpreting each of the characters in the story as a distillation of transactional processes. the p oliceman

At the time of the story, the dilapidation of Kenya’s roads presented daily obstacles for commutes to and from work, city and country, rural outstation to rural outstation.2 During the Moi era, the tendering process for road construction was one of the denser sites of unofficially-­official appropriation of public budgets. Either proposed roads would never actually be built after start-­up money had been disbursed, or the excessive “eating” of road monies would leave only enough funds for a paltry five-­ inch-­deep tarmac surface, which would be washed away by the

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first heavy rains. Needless to say, the creative routes that bus, commuter taxi, and car drivers wove on top of Kenya’s roads were attempts to avoid the costly damage to vehicles caused by potholes and corrugation. It was not just the condition of the roads that presented a problem, however. Police roadblocks competed with potholes in number and potential expense. Police did perform regulatory duties like controlling the flow of traffic through Nairobi’s many roundabouts, as well as inspecting vehicles for smuggled goods and weapons on main east-­west thoroughfares. But they were better known for a notoriously negotiable style of law enforcement. Moreover, despite their access to standard-­issue automatic rifles, the police usually did not represent the force of the law run amok. Quite the contrary: Ever since independence, citizens had effectively domesticated the state through the roadside payoff, and police were the instrument of that domestication. Courts were time consuming and costly, taking regular citizens out of whatever money-­making activities they normally engaged in. Going to court was a high price to pay for a mere broken headlight or an expired insurance tag. The common wisdom was that police always had their price. The 50 to 200 (but often more) shillings it cost to help the officer buy “maziwa kwa watoto” (milk for the children) was preferable to losing a day’s wage to time spent in court, not to mention the inevitable fines handed out by the traffic judge. For example: In 2000, I was sitting in the back seat of my friend Sammy’s Nissan, waiting for him to finish some business in a seed store in downtown Nairobi. A policeman came over to inspect the insurance and road license sticker on the front windshield. Sammy’s insurance had lapsed, precipitating a discussion that was as comical as it was heated. The officer was apparently embarrassed to be engaging in negotiations over the infraction with an mzungu (white person) present, especially at a time when donors were putting intense pressure on the Kenyan government to improve public sector service delivery by decreasing graft. At the same time, the officer clearly did not want to


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lose the opportunity to earn that evening’s money for beer and nyama choma (roasted meat), both of which the police were notorious for consuming in vast quantities in the police canteen. The officer’s solution to this problem was right in line with larger counterfeit institutional processes of the Kenyan state. He simply decided to mime what he imagined I would understand as proper procedure. Entering the passenger side of the car, he announced that he was taking us to the central police station downtown to have us properly “booked” for the infraction. Arriving at the central police headquarters, the officer told me to wait in the car while Sammy was processed. The transaction took about five minutes inside. It even entailed a price reduction on the officer’s part. As I have previously explained, as IMF and World Bank austerity measures scaled back the material base of the patronage state, politicians retreated from their past levels of redistribution.3 Shrinking state budgets for a number of public services led to a privatization of public office in areas of the government dealing with the regulation of licensing, standards, and the movement of money and people. Yet while the practices of gifting or tipping midlevel bureaucrats to obtain government documents or licenses were hidden in offices, police bribery was in contrast a relatively open-­air affair. It was not uncommon to see officers running after 200-­shilling notes that they had dropped when transport workers and motorists failed to hand off the cash in the cumbersome “secretive” handshakes that everyone knew with varying degrees of proficiency. While police were ever-­present at roadblocks and roundabouts, however, it was perhaps just as important that they were fixtures in the wider social landscape as well. They were an integral part of communities even: they were kin at weddings, drinking buddies in bars, and guests at fundraising events. These were all visible arenas of expenditure: relatives, age-­mates, and potential lovers viewed and experienced them as events of personal deficit if they could not join in the feast. Everyone knew that the policeman’s renowned corpulence was paid for by the small sums

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of money they collected on Kenya’s roads. Thus being a traffic cop was commonly perceived as a lucrative position, though not nearly as lucrative as being a sergeant who always received a share of his subordinate’s takings. This provisioning of senior officers no doubt ran all the way to the top, too, making those in the higher echelons of policing especially corpulent. This whole situation was exacerbated as rumors began to circulate of imminent police reform after Moi would “retire” from politics. The rumors increased demand on all motorists, but it was especially difficult for public transport drivers, as it affected their take-­home pay. Hence the politics of their domestic engagements. But as with the bus driver in the story, the ratcheting up of police demands in the twilight of the Moi regime fueled popular fantasies of—­and speculation into—­just how much police might take home in a day’s work. the b us dr iv er

Kenya’s economy has long been what Jane Guyer has labeled a “cash and carry” system (Guyer 2004, 3), where money gazetted by the Central Bank often never again enters formal economic institutions. For most Kenyans in the late 1990s and early 2000s—­before the advent of digital money moved by cell phones—­money moved in buses, not in banks. The road was therefore the main route of monetary circulation for Kenya’s laboring classes. This was not only the case for people carrying home wages from urban centers in order to provide for their households and pay school fees. For those with surplus capital, investments in land and buildings no longer made sense unless they were well connected to the political machine. Again, ownership under Moi was not fully guaranteed by the state due to the falsification of various forms of contract (see Klopp 2000; Blunt 2004). Title deed holders often had the unfortunate experience of having their own land or buildings “purchased” with the help of an endless army of fixers and middlemen who, for a nominal fee, could produce another deed. As John Galaty has


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observed about land ownership in the Rift Valley, being able to actually utilize one’s land holdings depended on having a “force-­ on-­the-­ground” (Galaty 2005, 182) rather than the legal protection that emanates from the state. Given all this, money and property were best kept moving. The matatu, or minibus commuter taxi, was the favored investment vehicle around Nairobi and Central Province. Owning one guaranteed that at the end of the day, “some money will be there.” This became an important factor in the dramaturgy of desire in domestic reproduction: matatu owners, drivers, and touts were prime catches for single women during unpredictable times. Touts have always had an erotic allure for teenage girls due to their flashy hip-­hop influenced clothing. And more than a few married women have succumbed to the advances of the transport man, a figure with an ambiguously heroic status in Kenyan life. In one late night pub session, for instance, I was enthusiastically introduced to “Mwangi,” a driver for the Nuclear Investments Matatu Corporation, who had become a minor celebrity amongst Rift Valley Kikuyus. He figured prominently in a song popular at the time that praised his fair dealings with customers and safe driving practices. The key point, however, is that this kind of constant contact with money, regardless of its often-­fluctuating daily amount, generally insured that at least school fees would be paid, food would be bought, and social obligations of redistribution at funerals, weddings, and harambees would still be met. During much of the Moi era, ordinary Kenyans, but especially bus and matatu drivers, experienced the same pretense of officialdom from the police that I experienced with Sammy in downtown Nairobi. Despite their illegality, such transactions took on a semi-­official status in their own right. Sometimes they were downright jovial. Since police losses were already tallied into the calculations that matatu crews make on what they would take home at the end of the day, it was better to part with some cash and a joke than to be held up. In Kenya’s transport economy of circulation, time was literally money. In repetitive

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urban routes, less time stopped meant more passengers, more fares, and hence the potential to increase one’s earnings, if only slightly, as owners expected a fixed, agreed-­upon daily amount from their crew. And since the same drivers worked the same routes and saw the same police over and over again, relations with police could be convivial. In fact, they had to be, if any profit was expected. It is perhaps predictable, then, that the idiom of these fee-­for-­ service transactions would be gastronomic commensality. It is no surprise that “chai,” or tea, the beverage served millions of times per day in Kenyan households to visitors and family members, and which thus epitomizes Kenyan hospitality, became the symbolic valence of the domestication of the state by citizens on the roads. In the case of the events described in the story, however, it is clear that roadside “chai” was losing some its sweetness for those serving it and that stronger medicine was required to reestablish the proper terms of conviviality. the b us dr iv er’s wif e

One of my acquaintances is a crime reporter for one of the main Kenyan news dailies. Upon asking him how he maintained a clear genre of criminality in a social milieu where police regularly receive money to circumvent the law, he responded with a story about police and sex. “You see, Robert, you assume that all of the officers are bad. This is not true. Inside the police barracks, life is quite difficult. You may want to be honest and not take bribes, but if you don’t, you may lose your wife.” He continued: “Everyone knows that after you begin working for the police, you have to change your uniform size three times in the first three months alone because you begin eating so much. Try competing with a sergeant who is able to buy your young beautiful wife nice things while you are out working hard.” In my friend’s morality tale of honest men undone by the corpulence of less scrupulous men lies a central contradiction: while women are essential to social reproduction, their own erotic


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desires, material needs, or even dedication to the maintenance of the household are all seen as potential threats to that social reproduction. They are thus subjects of the same patrimonial lament that is repeated at the level of the state: that the domestic system “works” only as long as those in power continue to control the flow of resources. It is difficult to disagree. Such perceptions partially account for why the bus driver’s wife is so mute in the story. Her actions and motivations are only visible via the men who are, for lack of a better phrase, after the same thing (sex and money). The morality of her role as mediation between state and citizen was what was really at issue in the public responses to the story. The policeman exceeded the accepted sphere of state demands—­“chai” or maziwa kwa watoto, yes . . . but my wife, no—­while the bus driver actually reversed the order of mediation, such that the movement of the policeman was now at his mercy. Others understood the driver to have been leveraging for just compensation from the state—­which, again, by the end of the Moi regime was seen to have deferred its debts for too long.

Conclusion In many ways, this incident of “corruptus interruptus” was just that: an interruption. Afterward, Nairobians certainly asked themselves to what degree they really ought to be in bed with power and where the limits of the “omnivorous potentialities of the post-­colony” (Masquelier 2001, 269) should be located. But it did not lead to any new imaginaries of liberal democracy, and ultimately, political logics did not change. By the time I had come back to Kenya in December 2002 for the general elections, Moi’s decision to prop up Uhuru Kenyatta—­son of Jomo Ken­ yatta and scion of one of the wealthiest families in Kenya—­had led to a new version of the story more flattering to state agents. As cash handouts and development promises intensified during the quick, two-­week campaigning season before December 27, I heard that the policeman and the bus driver’s wife had not in fact died. As it turned out, the officer had actually been able to

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pay the 50,000 shillings and traditional requirements had been fulfilled. The connivance between state and citizen represented by the freezing up was thus momentary. As if to prove the point, during the same campaign season, many of those supporting Uhuru considered him fit for office precisely because he had already “eaten enough.” His family owned many prosperous businesses and possessed vast land holdings that everyone in Kenya acknowledges Jomo Kenyatta had grabbed. He was, in effect, too rich to steal. It is tempting to be cynical about such political opinions. But in the tension between eating and being eaten, those poles of political and social behavior characteristic of the “politics of the belly” (Bayart 1993), there is an array of moral qualifications and positions that fit very awkwardly within any normative analytical framework of the legal and that may remind us that the policeman is not beyond being “eaten” by his own commanding officer or relatives. To return to Mbembe’s argument about the radical incompleteness of signs of officialdom and the law in postcolonial Africa, there exists a tension between forms of sociality and governance produced through the logic of the gift and the institution of the law, the affective componentry of obligation versus the disciplined subject of regulation. Certainly, nervous moments of state-­sponsored crackdown in the name of the law have happened in Kenya. But such police actions do not square easily with the complicated reciprocities of patron-­client relations whose network logics often circumvent the law altogether, especially because law makers and law enforcers are often themselves key to such transactional logics. Mbembe is right that in many contemporary African patrimonial states, officials lose functional specificity. The president, the partyman, the policeman—­all become embodiments of the “hollow pretense” (Mbembe 2001, 111) of officialdom that may or may not have to do with the law strictly speaking, but with the alleged reality of official signs more generally: the belly, the phallus, the Mercedes-­Benz. And as Apter (2005) has nicely demonstrated in his work on post–­oil boom Nigeria, such signs may or


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may not have any substantive mooring, as typified in practices of state-­sponsored counterfeiting (see also Bayart, Ellis, and Hibou 1999; Blunt 2004; Comaroff and Comaroff 2006). While this fabrication of simulacra is, according to Mbembe, a potentially endless process, it is fair to ask whether postcolonial African sub­ jects ever interrogate the alibis for value of their respective re­ gimes, or whether this question can be endlessly deferred. Clearly, in the case of Kenya, what underwrites these signs and backs their value was rendered profoundly unstable by its complicated historical conflation with the value of money. This is what Jean-­Paul Olivier de Sardan refers to as the “over-­monetarisation” (de Sardan 1999, 45) of various forms of social obligation that collapse easy analytical divisions between the modern and the customary or the commodity and the gift. Since such signs have served as the nodal anchors for the transfer of wealth from state to citizen (and vice versa), it is important to ask whether violence, and police violence in particular, plays a predominant role in the ongoing production of desire for the state to truly possess the legitimate monopoly of violence. Or, might other fantasies of state capacity be at work in the Kenyan public imaginary?

7 (Not) Seeing Is Believing: Ethnicity, Trauma, and the Senses in Kenya’s 2007 Postelection Violence There is probably no event that distills the fragility of Kenya’s historical conflation of elderhood with the sovereign capacity to back signs more than the ethnic violence that erupted in Kenya after the general election of December 2007. This event might well be considered the endgame of the transformation of elders into figures modeled on the nominalist god of Protestant Chris­ tianity and invested with the fiat power to seemingly create some­ thing from nothing. And no other episode in Kenya’s recent history lays so completely bare the violent consequences of the perceived failure of these would-­be sovereigns to guarantee a sense of certainty in the truth and value of signs in society. The epicenter of the violence occurred in mixed Kikuyu/ Kalenjin communities in Rift Valley Province. During this time, Tugen Kalenjin1 informants expressed a profound uncertainty and anxiety about the origins and inner nature of their Kikuyu neighbors, with whom they had lived for many years in rela­ tionships of “social intimacy” (Appadurai 1998). One dimension


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of this uncertainty was expressed in conspiracy theories about Kikuyus being foreigners and therefore not “real” Kenyans.2 According to Kalenjin informants, white settlers had allegedly brought Kikuyus from the Congo to work on their farms during the colonial period. This idea, expressed by Kalenjins, that Kikuyus had only recently arrived sharply contrasted with the alleged long-­term residence of Kalenjins in the Rift. But this uncertainty around Kikuyu origins was not the only way that Kalenjin informants expressed their concerns about the possibility of truly knowing these Others—­even people they had “known” for many years. Recycling colonial-­era settler fantasies about the Kikuyu and their ritual activities during Mau Mau, many Kalenjin informants also claimed that Kikuyus had a secret occult interior—­something sinister and invisible within them—­despite their long-­standing social and spatial visibility as both neighbors and social intimates. Here one also gets a sense of what I earlier characterized as the recursive aspect of the problem of backing in Kenya’s history: An earlier generation’s attempt to bring to a halt the slippage of signs and values becomes the object of subsequent generations’ efforts to achieve the same result in a different domain of social life. The incumbent land conflicts that have plagued the Rift since the colonial era—­disagreements over who should legitimately own land in the Rift Valley—­might suggest that ethnicity could best be understood in utilitarian terms as a basis for collective action in competitions over scarce natural resources like land and water, as many rational choice and game-­theoretical models of ethnicity claim (e.g., Eifert, Miguel, and Posner 2010). Yet how would such a utilitarian approach adequately explain why some Kalenjin felt they had to kill Kikuyus to avoid, as some claimed, being “ritually” murdered by them? What such approaches fail to explain, in other words, are both the intensity of the subjective and affective dimensions of the violence, and the specific content of the fears that motivated it. To engage critically and empathetically with this compulsion to murder, this chapter brings together a few seemingly disparate literatures. The first is a social scientific rehabilitation of Freud’s

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notion of the uncanny, the sense that the familiar, or the heim­ lich (literally, “homeliness”), becomes suddenly and unsettlingly foreign—­unheimlich. The second is a careful selection of concepts presented in Arjun Appadurai’s 1998 article “Dead Certainty: Ethnic Violence in the Era of Globalization,” which sensitively attempts an anthropology of violence between what he calls “social intimates.” Appadurai explores the way violence, especially spectacular violence, is a highly communicative symbolic activity, a type of forensic procedure that uses the body of the ethnic other to attempt to stabilize identities when anxiety about the erosion of ethnic difference through social intimacy has occurred. This violence seeks to reintroduce the certainty of an alleged essential difference between (ethnic) self and other. Finally, I rely upon Andrew Apter’s analysis of the use of spectacle in African politics for communicating political capacity, efficacy, and legitimacy (2005). Apter provides an interesting account of how patrimonial largesse and “the society of the spectacle” (Debord 1994 [1967]) configures the senses, especially sight, as the locus for producing and experiencing evidence of the real. His work assists in accounting for what happens to the senses, or the experience of the senses, when state spectacles are determined to be untrustworthy in some way, or where seeing can no longer be understood as the basis for believing. In this case, it is the visibility of the head of state who personally, rather than legally, guaranteed key signs of officialdom like title deeds that is at issue. And as Freud discusses, the onset of the sense of the uncanny is often expressed as a failure of sight, or a sudden mistrust of the senses. Here I seek to provide a historical and psychosocial account of how uncertainty (and the expectation of certainty) is both a category of experience and a byproduct of social and historical processes inseparable from the modern State.

The (Il)logic of Collective Action The experience of the patrimonial state’s efficacy in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province is extremely mixed. This is due in part to the spatial proximity of different communities having enjoyed a


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privileged status under different rulers. Under the consecutive rules of Jomo Kenyatta (1963–­1978) and Daniel arap Moi (1978–­ 2002), each president often intervened in assisting members of their ethnic constituencies (Kikuyu and Kalenjin, respectively) in the unencumbered acquisition of resources, especially land. Ethnic others, meanwhile, faced profound challenges in securing title deeds, a process that could take years. During my research in 2008 very close to former President Moi’s home near Kabarak, Kalenjin informants happily recounted tales of securing deeds in as little as one day. Indeed, it is important to state against primordialist assertions of ethnicity that in Kenya, the opening up of land for settlement has been a main mechanism through which ethnicity has been constituted, reified, and ratified through the selective, often personalized, imprimatur of the state. Incumbent land conflicts in Rift Valley Province thus do go far in explaining the ambivalence that Kalenjins and Kikuyus feel toward one another, but the ambivalence they share is nearly identical in its psychosocial texture, and it is pushed by an underlying concern: Is our claim real? Before the 2007 elections, Pres­ ident Kibaki—­“a Kikuyu,” as people often explicitly point out about politicians (and one another)—­threatened to take back the Mau Forest, one of Kenya’s largest rain catchment areas, from private landowners due to the way that the land had been “grabbed” by Kalenjin politicians and redistributed to Kalenjin settlers during Moi’s rule (Klopp and Sang 2011). For example, in Nyandarua, during the last few years of Moi’s rule, the president “gave” forest land to Tugen (Kalenjin) settlers. When they were pressed by nearby Kikuyu residents to provide proof of ownership in the form of deeds, Moi is alleged to have said to his anxious classificatory kinsmen, “Waambie mimi ni title deed,” or, “Tell them I am the title deed.” Yet the fading durability of Moi’s fiat power was generative of anxious supplementary claims by 2007. Around the time of the elections, many Kalenjins had come to understand their rights to legitimate land ownership in the Rift to be rooted in claims of Nilotic autochthony, arguing that that they had always “owned” the Rift as its “original” inhabitants.

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In contrast, Kikuyus often understand their right to land ownership in the Rift through appeals to an extended history of residency and labor that goes back to the colonial era. During this period many Kikuyus left the crowded native reserves in Central Province and migrated to Rift Valley Province in search of wage labor on white-­owned farms. In reality, many Kikuyu inhabitants of the Rift migrated there in the 1970s in order to take advantage of government land-­buying programs initiated by Kenyatta, but which many Kenyans understand as having benefitted Kikuyus more than others. Additionally, as Kenya’s largest ethnic group, Kikuyu claims to land ownership everywhere in Kenya are also often buttressed by a collective imagining of having “fought for freedom.” This highly folkloricized reference to Kenya’s anticolonial rebellion and Kikuyu civil war, Mau Mau, underscores the way in which Kikuyu ethnic chauvinism justifies their rights to the nation’s resources. Kikuyus often claim that their violent internal conflict can serve as an adequate national birth narrative. Considering the actual shape that the Kenyan state and Kikuyu politics took after independence, this is an ironic claim. After independence in 1963, Jomo Kenyatta repressed Mau Mau’s aspirations and revolutionary energies. He rather quickly instituted a largely Kikuyu-­controlled patrimonial state whose modality of rule was based upon a highly personalized form of ritualized patrimonial largesse (Gertzel 1970, 34–­35; Jackson and Rosberg 1982, 98–­112; Leys 1974, 246). The rule of Daniel arap Moi, Kenyatta’s successor, differed only in terms of which ethnic constituency benefitted from his imprimatur and largesse, but under drastically different global socioeconomic conditions, which I address below. In short, both Kikuyu and Kalenjin claims to legitimate land ownership in the Rift are deeply complicated by the fact that both communities enjoyed, albeit in different postcolonial periods, selective state imprimatur. Indeed, it was arguably through these practices of selective state imprimatur that the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin became distinctive and differentiated “tribes” as modern political identities. Despite the largely acephalous nature of Kenya’s precolonial societies, in


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which Evans-­Pritchard famously argued “tribe” meant the largest possible group of people with whom one must deliberate and show restraint (i.e., a legal-­jural definition rather than an ethnolinguistic definition), Kenya’s postcolonial tribes work more like patricorporations with revolving doors of gerontocratic leadership. Inasmuch as Kenya’s various ethnic identities have evolved often intense relationships of political competition, the relative stability of identity has been intimately tied to the relative stability of the certifying authority of the head of state. During the 1990s, as a post–­Cold War neoliberal global order emerged, new international development agendas pushed “good governance” as the secret to economic growth. Upon his election to the presidency in 2002, Mwai Kibaki was tasked by this global order with instituting a new regime of legality in which the conversion of public land into private land by fiat could be rendered “fraudulent” ex post facto. These gestures toward the rationali­ zation of certain aspects of legal enforcement drove uncertainty around whether the title deed of any piece of “private property” was, in any meaningful sense, “real.” This ambiguity around who or what should back land claims in the Rift Valley Province was deeply troubling for its Kalenjin inhabitants, but for reasons that went beyond the fear of losing land to a potential “Kikuyu” bureaucratic rationalization of the state. As I will show, feelings that the 2007 election was stolen were also experienced as a profound trauma, the symptoms of which came to a head in early January 2008. But as I will also argue, any normative or utilitarian analysis of the violence through the lens of resource competition, or of the violence as either the result or evidence of a “failed state,” inadequately explains how many Kalenjins understood their own participation in the ensuing anti-­Kikuyu violence.

The 2007 Elections and Their Aftermath In 2002, Mwai Kibaki and his National Alliance Rainbow Coa­ lition (NARC) defeated then-­President Daniel arap Moi’s chosen successor Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s current president and the son

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of its first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Kibaki was elected on a platform of combating corruption and cleaning up Kenya’s kleptocratic state, but soon after his electoral victory members of Kibaki’s cabinet were implicated in the same sorts of scandals that characterized the Moi era. These included, most notably, the Anglo-­Leasing scandal described earlier. Rather than arresting the dynamics of redistributive accumulation and the privatization of public office characteristic of Kenya’s patrimonial politics, under Kibaki, government sponsored metascams in the law enforcement and military contracting sectors continued to proliferate. The capstone event of Kibaki’s continuation of established Kenyan political traditions—­of “pilfering the public” (Klopp 2000) through official counterfeiting of everything from banknotes, to title deeds, to accounting processes within the Central Bank—­proved to be the counterfeit presidential election of 2007. Throughout the day on which votes were counted, Raila Odinga and the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) appeared to hold a significant lead over Kibaki and his newly formed Party of  National Unity (PNU). Odinga, the son of Ken­ ya’s first vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, had successfully marshaled a broad electoral base amongst his own Luo ethnic constituency in Nyanza Province, Luhya peoples in Western Province, Kalenjin in Rift Valley Province, and religious and ethnic minorities from the Coast Province. This coalition provided sufficient electoral numbers to defeat the strong Kikuyu voting bloc. A USAID-­sponsored exit poll from the International Republican Institute would later state that Odinga had won the election by a six-­point margin.3 It thus came as a national shock when the visibly nervous election commissioner, Samuel Kivuitu, appeared on Kenyan television and declared Kibaki the winner on December 30. Shortly thereafter, the incumbent president was shuttled off to State House (the presidential residence) to be sworn in on television, rather than in Uhuru Park where millions had attended his inauguration in 2002. Most Kenyans read this rapid turn of events through the lens of ethnicity, blaming Kikuyus generally for what


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they presumed to be fraudulent poll results rather than PNU’s ruling elite. The Rift Valley soon descended into what one of my colleagues has aptly described as a “low-­level civil war” between Kikuyus and Kalenjins. Many Luo and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley were also persecuted in areas where Kikuyus were the majority population. By March—­after nearly three months of fighting resulting in the deaths of over 1,500 people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands—­former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan helped broker a fragile national peace and power-­sharing deal between PNU and ODM. In the court of public opinion, it was difficult to produce evidence that Kikuyus were not supporting the election results. As Adam Ashforth has observed about the tense period just after the elections, “[a]s the weeks dragged on, it was rare to find Kikuyu leaders or intellectuals speaking out against the fraudulent election, confirming for many the communal basis of the theft” (Ashforth 2009, 15). If only they had. As an English colleague detailed to me, while attempting to return to Nairobi from Western Kenya through the Rift Valley, she continually encountered roadblocks manned by young Kalenjin men burning tires and bodies—­presumably Kikuyu—­in the middle of the roadways. In Kikuyu-­dominated areas, similarly grisly displays of broken Kalenjin bodies appeared. Massive displaced persons camps were erected on the outskirts of Nakuru to absorb the tens of thousands of mostly Kikuyu refugees from Rift Valley towns further north and east like Eldoret. It was there that the most iconic image of the violence occurred on January 2, when fifty Kikuyu men, women, and children were locked inside a church while a mob of young Kalenjin men doused the church in gasoline and ignited it (Human Rights Watch 2008, 41). Eldoret was quickly transformed into a killing field defined by spectacular forms of public violence. Many Kenyans and international observers were surprised by the extent and intensity of the violence. This surprise was at least partially rooted in a consensus around what had been the primary causes of the “tribal clashes” that marked Kenya’s 1992 and 1997

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multiparty elections: scaring “outsiders” away from their registered polling stations to maintain neatly territorialized ethnic voting blocs. Against the backdrop of then-­President Moi’s frequent warnings that multipartyism would breed tribalism, Kenya African National Union (KANU) ruling party big men had, in 1992 and 1997, made sure that their violent attempts to maintain electoral dominance would appear as self-­evident expressions of primordial ethnic hatred and rivalry. Mercenary youth gangs had literally dressed for their roles, donning “traditional” costumes, including “traditional” weapons like bows and arrows and pangas (machetes) in order to elicit the type of nightly news explanation for African conflict that has come to dominate news media reportage on Africa. But what might have appeared to have been archetypal expressions of primordial ethnic rivalries distilled in images of traditionally clad warriors attacking “outsiders” (i.e., Rift Valley Kikuyus) was really a violent staging of Kenyan political theater. In this instance, ethnicity, or at least its visual signifiers (i.e., “traditional” clothing and weapons, etc.) assembled from a heritage understanding of history heavily inflected by the ethnic regalia for sale in Kenyan tourist markets, was a political resource meant to ratify Moi’s political prophecies and to justify his continued insistence that only he could keep Kenya peaceful. Thus, in 1992 and 1997, ethnicity was deployed as one of many enunciative procedures in the ongoing struggle to capture global flows of value in the form of foreign aid or rent, opportunities provided by the state’s proximity to the world system. But the violence of 2008 was different. Despite the recent investigation by the International Criminal Court into six public figures who were charged with orchestrating the violence, it would be a mistake to see the violence simply as patrimonial politics run amok. Rather than organized gangs of “traditional warriors” conducting strategic raids against electoral enemies, as was the case in 1992 and 1997, this time, in many instances, it was actually violence between social intimates.4 These were not paid, camouflaged militias but rather Kalenjins and Kikuyus who had lived next to one another for decades.


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Justifications for the violence varied in form and content. One Kalenjin informant’s explanation epitomized the general sense that had emerged amongst Kenyans as to why the violence happened: “If that Kikuyu president does not recognize our people’s claim to the Mau Forest, why should we recognize Kibaki’s people’s claim to land here?” Kibaki’s promise to reclaim the Mau Forest, land that had been grabbed, privatized, and then sold to Kalenjin settlers with Moi’s tacit consent, was an engine for Kalenjin anxiety. Many also read the brazen manner through which Kibaki and his associates had “stolen” the presidency as an omen for more bad things to come. Most notably, they feared an eerie replaying of the original Kikuyu “invasion” of the Rift Valley, which in their collective imagination took place in the 1970s under Ken­ yatta. As previously mentioned, parts of the Rift formerly held by whites had been heavily resettled by Kikuyus in government land schemes after independence. Whether this settlement was legal or not was irrelevant: most considered land title to flow directly from the head of state. If that “head” was not “theirs,” they reasoned, they could lose the land. It was not an unreasonable assumption. As noted earlier, another Kalenjin informant explained to me how in 1999 it had taken only one day for her to get a title deed for a newly purchased piece of land. Many of the Kikuyu poor in the Rift Valley, who might have achieved the means to buy land as late as the 1980s or 1990s, were still waiting for title deeds as late as 2002. Many Rift Valley Kalenjins feared that their land would simply be reallocated to others if Kibaki were reelected. But this is not all there is to Kalenjin anxieties around ethnicity. Strangely, former president Moi himself became a controver­ sial figure for Kalenjins after “retiring” from politics in 2002. Some had fond memories of his past feats. On one occasion, for instance, a teacher from Ortum in West Pokot recounted the time when he and his colleagues had been invited to Moi’s house as a thank you to all the educators in the district of Pokot. As he explained, “Moi was such a good mzee (honorable old man). When

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we were at his house there was nothing that we had to ask for: sodas, nyama (meat), keki (cake), kila kitu (everything).” While such gifts from the head of state might sound like relative banalities, such intimate moments with the self-­proclaimed “professor of politics” and gerontocrat par excellence are highly significant social events for those who partake of even small displays of state largesse. Moreover, these redistributive rituals, especially larger scale ones, do the work of ratifying what Andrew Apter calls the “visual ontology” of  “seeing is believing” (2005, 283)—­in this case, in the redistributive capacities of Kenyan politicians in general, but particularly those of the president. Patrimonial state spectacles thus configure the senses, especially sight, as the main locus for assessing evidence of the state’s redistributive capacity, the taken-­for-­granted understanding that most Kenyans have of the archetypal state function. Yet arguably this training of citizenry toward such visual ontologies also renders sight vulnerable as a vehicle for trauma when such spectacles become undependable. After Kibaki’s so-­called electoral “victory” in 2007, many Ka­ lenjins felt themselves outside the protective embrace of “Baba Moi,” whose instructions to support Kibaki were completely rejected. No longer able or willing to maintain the flow of sodas, beer, meat, cash, and “development” resources to his local constituency after being “retired” for five years, Moi became a picture of restraint, a sharp contrast to the Pokot teacher’s celebratory claims about his generosity, a reputation established by the dizzying schedule of public performances that characterized Moi’s rule. During the 2008 postelection violence, anger toward Moi eerily paralleled anger toward Kikuyus. Locals burned Moi’s fields on his farm near Kabarak, and his sons were humiliatingly defeated in electoral contests (Ashforth 2009, 15). As a local man in a pub near Moi’s farm explained to me, “He has five generators on his farm but I don’t have stima (electricity).” In other words, Moi’s resources had become invisible. Since no one really saw Moi anymore, cloistered as he now was on his farm in “retirement,” the absence of his constant public appearances had the effect of reversing (for Kalenjins) Kenya’s political visual


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ontology of “seeing is believing.” No longer being able to see Moi and his spectacular displays of patrimonial largesse implied a general Kalenjin mistrust of their own senses, something that had profound implications for how Kikuyus were also perceived. This will become clearer below.

The Nonutility of  Violence Such sentiments of disappointment, even shock, at Moi’s absence emerged concomitantly with a general view that agents of law enforcement and state institutions, which grant imprimatur to official documents like title deeds, were firmly back in the hands of Kikuyus after five years of Kibaki’s reign. It is important to state here, however, that as the violence raged, it clearly exceeded any kind of patrimonial control, and the violence’s often unrestrained, spectacular aspects made it difficult to understand as politically productive, at least in terms of party politics. Many Kalenjins with whom I spoke certainly asserted that their acts of violence had helped bring about the political coalition that invested Raila Odinga with limited executive powers in the new position of prime minister, created for him as part of the power-­ sharing deal negotiated by Kofi Annan. However further inquiry revealed a growing doubt among young male perpetrators of anti-­Kikuyu violence in the area that such political achievements would show them any real benefits.5 After admitting as much, one Kalenjin young man, a university graduate no less, calmly told me that killing Kikuyus had simply made him “feel better.” Many of his age-­mates nodded in agreement. But perhaps most perplexing was the explanation from one fifty-­year-­old Kalenjin woman regarding why the killing of Kikuyus in her area had lasted for so long. According to her, Kalenjin violence was preemptive. She reported this as a generalized Kalenjin perspective in their area. As she claimed, “those people (Kikuyus) kill in funny, funny ways.” Kikuyus, as she described them, killed for “ritual” purposes (unlike Kalenjins), harvesting body parts to use, she implied, in the dark oaths they took to

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unify their community during times of war. This sort of anti-­ Kikuyu stereotype about dark rituals in the forest involving human body parts had been in circulation since the 1950s. As described in chapter 2, Kikuyu Mau Mau insurgents used ritualized ordeals, or “oaths,” to bind one another to the rebellion’s agenda. Colonial paranoia about the Mau Mau oath indicated an anxiety about Kikuyus reverting to a “bush mentality.” But such accusations of a dark Kikuyu interiority completely masked the moral and material crises initiated by colonialism that had in fact precipitated Mau Mau. White anxieties were distilled in rumors about the oaths containing cannibalistic elements. During the 2007 postelection violence, a similar paranoia was augmented by reports of truckloads of young Kikuyu “warriors” claiming to have recently been oathed (by whom was often left unclear) in and around Nairobi for the purposes of fighting Kalenjins. It is important to state here, however, that in contrast to the rancorous anxiety that this Kalenjin woman was expressing around the allegedly macabre and secretive elements of Kikuyu ritual practices, her late mother had given one of her sons (the woman’s younger brother) a Kikuyu first name in order to commemorate the Kikuyu midwife who had helped her during her son’s difficult delivery. This midwife had been a lifelong friend of her mother. Her son, whose name carried the trace of an uncomfortably intimate history with Kikuyus, also had a child with a Kikuyu woman. However, this particular Kalenjin woman implicitly argued, such intimacies were not a safeguard against the ultimately sinister nature of “those people.” As she went on to explain, Kalenjins only killed people with poisoned arrows, an allegedly more humane and transparent mode of lethal force free from any hidden, occult agenda. When I reminded her that Kalenjins also take oaths to cement social agreement and obligation during times of crisis, she insisted that such matters were simply not comparable. Her suggestion that Kikuyus have an unknowable, occult inte­ rior—­evidenced in the dismembered bodies of Kalenjin victims indexes the way that supposedly found during the clashes—­


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established neighborly repertoires of  knowing the Other through commercial exchange or domestic partnership provided no sure knowledge of Kikuyus. Love, marriage, shared age, or the shared experience of a difficult birth were, in this moment, suddenly were understood as having failed to produce any kind of certainty around what exactly a Kikuyu was. I would argue, moreover, that such a protracted history of intimate social contact was actually threatening to her own understanding of how exactly she was truly “Kalenjin” at a time when the truth of one’s ethnicity was being connected with one’s willingness to commit acts of violence. Similarly, the fact that killing made the aforementioned student “feel better” suggests that violence was exactly the supplemental procedure through which a feeling of ethnic completeness and certainty could be realized, as fleeting as such a sentiment probably was. I will expand upon the idea of “ethnic completeness” below.

The Ethnic Uncanny I have not described these depressing fieldwork conversations and scenes of extreme violence for the purposes of making Kalenjins seem “backward,” or to engage in a form of ethnographic pornography. It goes without saying that similar logics of ethnic or racial paranoia and cathartic violence are at the heart of the European and American (both north and south) historical experience. Instead, I want to try to demonstrate how ethnicity’s incompleteness is something that Kenyans themselves struggle with, especially when the anchors for what John Lonsdale calls “moral ethnicity” or the “internal standard of civic virtue against which we measure our personal esteem” (Lonsdale 1994, 131) appear to social actors to be on the verge of dissipating. “Political tribalism,” Lonsdale’s category for thinking through ethnicity’s other, negative side (ibid.), is analytically sealed off from moral ethnicity as a relational rather than internal category of self. However, I would argue that the two terms are more related in processes of interethnic recognition and misrecognition than Lons­ dale might allow in his classic formulation, especially in places

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where ethnic others live in close proximity on land whose owner­ ship was previously experienced as secure but is no longer. As evidenced in the autobiographical details of the Kalenjin woman just discussed, there have been long periods of amity between Kikuyus and Kalenjins in the Rift Valley Province and elsewhere. But the descriptions of sudden occult anxieties seem to point to an experiential tipping point where previous dynamics of recognition suddenly fail. As Hegel famously argued, the appraisal of others is the only way that stable selves can be dialectically generated. In this instance, however, the “ground” of such mutual recognition seemed uncertain, and Kalenjins experienced something like a collective psychic trauma due to the ambiguity of personalized authority-­backed claims to legitimate land ownership in a situation in which land ownership was still necessary to both Kikuyu and Kalenjin notions of public respectability and moral personhood. Whether such notions of Kalenjin “moral ethnicity” are rooted in a notion of custom or the respectability that accrues in the ownership of private property is unimpor­ tant. Capitalism, after all, has its own moral economy, as Ralph Austen reminds us (Austen 1993, 89–­110). What matters is that the anchors for what had historically guaranteed land ownership in Rift Valley Province became one of the main election issues. The elaborate accounts of and explanations for why Kikuyus whom Kalenjins knew and trusted were suddenly “seen” as containing a sinister occult interiority, or, perhaps more accurately, could not be seen as friends, beg further explanation. Like the violent rejection of the intimacy Kalenjins had experienced with Moi through the destruction of his property due to his new alleged invisibility, similar tropes of invisibility were attributed to Kikuyus. And similarly, a violent rejection of Kikuyu social intimates ensued.

Violence and Intimacy Like Arjun Appadurai, I also want to ask, “Under what conditions is group violence between previously social intimates associated with certain forms of uncertainty regarding ethnic


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identity?” (Appadurai 1998, 225). In this vein, I argue that when the anticipated moral and material bases of social life dissipate, along with the disappearance of interethnic recognition and amity, a form of anxiety emerges that can only be described as uncanny. Although some may disapprove of such psychoanalytic nomenclature, I find the idea of “the uncanny”—­which has a previous conceptual life in aesthetics, rather than psychology—­ to be a helpful way to theorize the sudden sense that one’s neighbors might not be what they seem, and why that uncertainty is so terrifying. This terror requires some further explanation. The uncanny is Freud’s term for the moment of slippage between the heimlich and the unheimlich, when the familiar is simultaneously experienced as foreign. For Joseph Masco, this slippage is also a moment when the senses—­the perceptual apparatus that is fundamental to establishing the experiential matrices of the familiar—­are suddenly untrustworthy, or no longer seem to guarantee the real (Masco 2006, 28). In this perceptual failure, the difference between reality and the imagination is effaced (ibid.). In such moments, the world appears haunted, and outmoded cultural forms that seem inimical to modernity return (for example, dark Kikuyu oaths and ritual cannibalism). This return is deeply unsettling. As Mascoe reads Freud, the supernatural aspects of the uncanny are ultimately “moments of cultural as well as psychic slippage, episodes where purportedly animistic beliefs of human prehistory colonize the modernist everyday, points of confusion where an industrial society wonders if ghosts might, in fact, still exist” (ibid., 28–­29). For Freud this return of the repressed is epitomized in the gaze of dolls or the eerie force that animates automatons (ibid.), themes drawn from gothic fiction. This experience of the foreign-­yet-­familiar object, like a doll, may be too much for the subject to bear and may result in the total rejection of that object (objects can be people or “objects” in the more normative sense in the psychoanalytic frame). The form of that rejection is not really explored by Freud, although at a surface level, it is characterized by a strong sense of aversion, disgust, or hostility.6

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The problem with Freud’s formulation of the uncanny reflects the larger problems that psychoanalysis faced more generally in its early manifestations. Its inductive method tied the experience of the uncanny to strictly endopsychic processes and conflicts like the now much-­derided castration anxiety. The anticipation of castration, Freud argued, accounted for the rapid onset of the desire to experience the fullness of home and, consequently, the neurotic symptoms discussed above. Freud associated the sense of the heimlich, the comforting familiar sense of home, with the womb (ibid.). More recent scholarly treatments of the uncanny differ substantially from Freud’s original formulation by analytically forging linkages between the state, perception, trauma, and historical memory (Dolar 1991). In other words, the uncanny is an effect of immanently social and historical processes, a structure of modernity itself (cf. Masco 2006), rather than an effect of the human developmental cycle. That is to say that the experience of the uncanny is related to how the senses themselves are bound up with modernist political, cultural, and psychic structures. If we think of the Kenyan patrimonial state as a bundle of often highly personalized, often spectacular, if not also relatively fragile, certifying processes, when such certifying processes fail, Kenyans feel compelled to produce accounts to explain their failure. The explanation that a general Kikuyu theft of the election occurred is one such account or attempt at explanation. But a highly personal experience of the uncertainty of one’s Kikuyu neighbors is often lost in generalized, anonymous explanations for such intense anxiety and explosive anger. The point is that accusations of Kikuyu theft also accompanied rumors of a Kikuyu occult interiority, not unlike like Freud’s dolls who, for Freud’s neurotic, contained an unknowable quality in their eyes, an unbearable excess, a force similar to that which drives anxieties of witchcraft in many parts of the continent (cf. Siegel 2006). And like witches, as Appadurai argues, the only real way to know for sure whether one’s neighbor really harbors an occult interior is through the forensic procedure of autopsy (Appadurai


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1998, 232), even if that autopsy and the chain of causation it ratifies is conducted through the bodies of one’s own people. While Appadurai argues that “the ethnic body can be a theater for the engagement of uncertainty” (Appadurai 1998, 227), in the case of Kenya it was the bodies of dead Kalenjins that had supposedly found during the conflict, that confirmed to the Kalenjin woman and her neighbors the truth of Kikuyu evil, even amidst those she knew very well. However, in the midst of a conflict whose cyclical violence ceases to have any definitive origin, killing the other also serves a preemptive function, as something of a “premortem autopsy, which, rather than achieving death because of prior uncertainty, achieves categorical certainty, through dismemberment and death” (ibid.). Killing in public ways, in other words, is a way of producing “dead certainty” (ibid.) about the other when routines of mutual recognition, and the perceptual apparatus that facilitates such recognition, become disrupted. The spectrality of ethnicity as an engine of interethnic conflict is neglected by utilitarian explanations. While such an approach can go far in understanding the conflicts over land in places like the Rift Valley, they lack a critical awareness about, and thus fail to explain, the intensity, form, or content of violence and the beliefs that motivate its perpetrators. In the Rift Valley violence of 2007 and 2008, the history of patrimonial distribution of land and title deeds partly explains these things, but only if the historical configuration of the senses into a visual ontology of “seeing is believing” is equally attended to (as well as what happens when this visual ontology fails). In this way, an analysis of violence between ethnic others who have nonetheless been social intimates moves us away from analyses of violence as utility and toward a consideration of violence as a way of contending with the uncanny. The uncanny captures an experiential tipping point, a sudden suspicion, in the context of the Rift Valley, where people suspected their neighbors might not be what they seemed due to a purported ethnic essence that couldn’t be seen, only suspected. The violence perpetrated against these uncanny others was a way of trying to produce a sense of certainty, not only

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about the definitive presence of their secret essence, but also the perpetrators’ own. After all, it bears repeating that the conditions of personhood for both were essentially the same. But, under Moi, as in many instances in the past, the failure of generalized elderhood to back the veracity of signs threw claims to surety into doubt, thus rendering the senses untrustworthy.

Coda For Money and Elders has attempted to demonstrate, from the ground up, what Achille Mbembe has described as the main “tragedy of colonialism”: the historical development away from multiple forms of marriage, divinity, and currencies as resources for social development, toward what he calls the “paradigm of ‘the one,’ the monotheistic paradigm” (as stated in Mbembe’s November 20, 2013, interview with Thomas M. Blazer from the website Africa Is a Country). In this vein, following Meyer Fortes, E. E. Evans-­Pritchard, and the other contributors to African Po­ litical Systems (1940), this book has attempted to show how the political-­theological ideas of a society with a centralized ideology of governance, a single currency, and a notion of a single sovereign were grafted onto a society that was fundamentally acephalous, and how this transformation has ramified throughout Kenyan social and political life in the postcolonial period. In this respect, I suppose what I have attempted to offer here is an ethnographic and historical rendering of the “tragedy”—­in Mbembe’s sense—­of Kenya’s colonial and postcolonial political theology. This has entailed, first and foremost, the historicization and relativization of the Euro-­Christian conception of sovereignty itself. This is something that philosophical critiques of political


theology like those of Schmitt (2006) and Agamben (1998) do not really do. Following Heidegger’s (1962) influential rejection of dialectical and historical thinking, these philosophers have tended to naturalize ancient Greek and Judeo-­Christian concepts of sovereignty in their attempts to elaborate a “political ontology.” But if For Money and Elders has demonstrated anything, it is that such approaches are inadequate when it comes to addressing the actual history of political philosophy as experimented with by different powers in the colonial and postcolonial settings that make up most of the world. Importantly, this book has done so immanently, analyzing the specific social forms in and through which such a philosophy was elaborated, debated, and transformed in the Kenyan case. Namely, that is, by examining the different powers that a range of social actors—­ colonial government functionaries, Mau Mau guerillas, Pentecostal Christians, and “ethnic” militias—­have ascribed to elders and money in both colonial and postcolonial contexts. As I hope has been clear from the start, the categories of “religion” and “ritual” are of the utmost significance for my analysis. For Money and Elders is thus both indebted to—­and in critical tension with—­Talal Asad’s influential genealogical critique of “religion” and “ritual” as anthropological categories (Asad 1993). For Asad’s Foucauldian methodology, categories are always prescriptive, and in the act of translating the lifeworlds of others, the categories of “religion” and “ritual” amount to analytic errors committed by the anthropologist. In his well-­known critique of Geertz, for example, Asad argues that the presumption of religion and politics as essential and separate domains of thought and action is far from universally true and is a specific (and perhaps unconscious) inheritance of the Protestant Reformation, especially the Calvinist separation of the ecclesiastical and civil spheres. Asad’s concern for the power that categories like “religion” and “ritual” have to shape Western perception of Islam in particular as illiberal, due to its different understanding of the relationship




between divine sovereignty and earthly politics, is well taken. It is a powerful critique of the hegemony historically at work in anthropology and other modes of Western thought, which, as he says, “has profound implications for the way in which non-­ western traditions are now able to grow and change” (Asad 1993, 1). But my goal has not been to rescue religion and ritual from critique. Instead, For Money and Elders has attempted to move beyond Asad’s genealogical exercise to treat the imposition of Christian categories of “religion” and “ritual” not as mere errors in anthropological analysis, but as the implicit conceptual frameworks imposed on the Kikuyu by colonial administrators in an actual social and historical process. I have argued, in turn, that this imposition established a recursive problem around the relationship between elder authority and the truth of signs. In this regard, I would like to expand on Derek Peterson’s claim that Protestant missionaries practiced a form of comparative religion to find vernacular equivalents of biblical concepts during the colonial encounter in Kenya (Peterson 2002, 37–­58). Colonial administrators were involved in a very similar project of commensuration of British and Kikuyu juridical rituals. As I argued in chapter 2, the mystical capacity to bind word to deed was not a feature of elder sovereignty (as many colonial administrators and early ethnographers of the Kikuyu mistakenly believed). Rather, this power seeped in from nature and was understood by Kikuyus as an excessive and polluting sacredness that could overwhelm those who tried to deploy it as a social adhesive. The underlying semiotic ideology of precolonial Kikuyu oaths was thus very different from that of British legal oaths whose “force” allegedly emanated from a centralized authority—­a concept carrying the trace of the Christian divine lawgiver. In this respect, by naturalizing their own conception of sovereignty, colonial administrators made a similar error to that of Agamben and Schmitt, but with concrete historical consequences. This latter form of the sovereign was what elders were fashioned into by colonial indirect rule, equipped with a new power to back or enforce ritual speech.


Regarding the subfield of Kenyan studies specifically, my hope is to move scholarship away from longstanding concerns with ethnicity as a central analytic category. For Money and El­ ders is, in this sense, part of a growing body of work that includes Luise White’s Speaking with Vampires, Derek Peterson’s Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival, and Paul Ocobock’s An Uncertain Age. Philip Holden’s analysis of the work that “national autobiographies” written by leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda, Mohandas Ghandi, and Jawahar­ lal Nehru played in the formation of national identity is also instructive, albeit in a less narratological vein. As it was embodied in the figure of Jomo Kenyatta, elderhood “mapped the nations’ history onto an individual’s body” such that the “growth of an individual implicitly identified as a national father explicitly parallels the growth of national consciousness, and frequently, proleptically, the achievement of an independent nation-­state” (Holden 2008, 5). I find Holden’s analysis of various postcolonial national fathers suggestive and helpful for thinking about how everything from Kenyatta’s style of dress to the writing of his anthropological monograph Facing Mount Kenya contributed to the way Kenyans read his ubiquitous public appearances. At the same time, Kenyatta sought to cultivate a public imaginary of sovereign power as a property exclusive to him, as the standard and measure of generative elderhood. Tellingly, Kenyatta’s successor literally sought to follow in his footsteps. The political philosophy of Daniel arap Moi’s government, “nyayo” (literally “footsteps” in Kiswahili), clearly indicated his initial desire to imitate Kenyatta’s style of centralized personal rule. By beginning with and attending to the historicity of ritual form, and then analytically moving out from ritual, finally, I want to issue a challenge to current discussions about the poles of postcolonial Kenyan religious politics as “nonconformism versus traditionalism.” For example, Derek Peterson’s erudite book Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival depicts nonconformist Protestant Christianity and conversion as forms of “critical agency,” in contrast to the often-­depressing logics of ethnic




patriotism and traditionalism. As I have argued, however, the political-­theological concepts of administrators and not just mis­ sionaries or those concerned with explicit religious conversion were also key to the conversion of Africans, inasmuch as ritual itself was “converted” into an instrument of “traditional” governance. This retooling of the acephalous management of misfortune toward “monotheistic” sovereignty (gesturing again to Mbembe) challenges the polarity of Peterson’s formulation. Moreover, the colonial transformations of Kikuyu elders from speculative to singular sovereigns paved the way for postcolonial Kenyan understandings of the token-­type relationships between money and elderhood at the level of the nation. In this respect, my provocation mirrors Neena Mahadev’s criticism of much of the anthropology of Christianity literature, which insufficiently theorizes Christianity’s underlying economic concepts (Mahadev 2018). Ruth Marshall similarly argues that the anthropology of Christianity’s attempt to follow Asad’s treatment of Islam “in its own terms” perhaps neglects the Christianity of anthropology itself—­and not just anthropology, as Marshall is quick to point out, but “all social science, philosophy, history, and our names today for the secular, [and] for sovereignty” (Marshall 2014, 350). Following from this, my hope is that Kenyans will find it important to know that “oaths” have a Euro-­Christian history—­ albeit a veiled one—­despite the common assumption that they are the quintessence of traditional power. Knowing as much may temper the political aspirations and desires with which they are invested. As I have shown, many of their invocations over the twentieth and twenty-­first centuries have not realized the promise of law, but sheer violence in its place. By thinking about ritual and elderhood through the lens of a thoroughly historicized tertiary abstraction like “sovereignty,” I want to encourage scholars of Kenya to follow these colonial transformations of Kikuyu understandings of sovereignty beyond explicitly Kikuyu, religious, or ritual contexts and into the social and political domains wherever attempts to produce centralized sovereign-­like effects are evident. Finally, regarding the discussions of sovereignty that


have been an essential part of the theoretical landscape of the humanities and social sciences for the last two decades, I have placed the political-­economic back at the normative center of the political-­theological, in an attempt to open up possibilities for critically and historically understanding what the nature, function, and effects of “sovereignty” might be considered to be.


Acknowledgments In 1998, Fr. Patrick Wanakuta Baraza allowed an agnostic, lapsed Presbyterian to live with him at the cathedral house in Eldoret for three months. Fr. Patrick and I became friends at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, in 1996. Under the generous sponsorship of the late Bishop Cornelius Korir and Fr. Stephen Okumu, Fr. Patrick arranged for me to be able to study intensive Kiswahili inside the cathedral compound while I considered leaving behind a career in biblical studies. During that time, he patiently guided my initial inquiries into religion and ritual in East Africa and his family hosted me for that August’s initiation ceremonies near Bungoma. I remain indebted to Fr. Patrick for pushing me toward the anthropological study of religion. It was John Gitau Kariuki who intensively tutored me that summer. Four years earlier, he had taught me my first words of Kiswahili when I was little more than a teenager studying abroad in Kenya as an undergraduate. Since 1994, Gitau has been my coethnographer, brother, and travel companion each time I have come to Kenya to work. He has also been a language teacher and fastidious researcher for numerous other scholars, priests, missionaries, and NGO workers from the US and Europe for the past thirty years. He deserves the widest possible recognition as a cornerstone in the production of knowledge



about Kenya. Thanks to Gitau, the entire Kariuki clan took me in and taught me about the responsibilities of kinship and the now generations-­long struggle to achieve land ownership and respectability. I warmly acknowledge the contributions to this book by Gitau’s late mother Mary Mbaire; Gitau’s wife Jane Njeri aka Mama Kariuki; Gitau’s brother in-­law, the late Joseph Ndungu; and several of Gitau’s siblings: the late Mzee Peter, Mwaura, George, Amos, James, Ruth, Virginia, Sammy, and our long-­lost brother and dear friend Alex Karanja. I never got to meet the late Mzee Mboga Kariuki but I am indebted to him for the gift of his family. Other larger than life characters from Gilgil deserve special mention, namely the late Mau Mau veteran Njamba “the hero but not of the thighs,” the gregarious retired English teacher who prefers to be called by his official title, “The Duke of Kahuhoshire,” as well as Baba Karanja, whose jerrycans of honey wine lubricate the social relations of Gilgil. Mike and Judy Rainy, who taught me as an undergraduate, have always provided a beautiful and hospitable place to land in Kajiado. For years they have patiently entertained my questions about the intimate but fractured relationship between Kikuyu and Maasai society and have been nothing short of another set of parents. Pakuo Lesorogol, Larale Lesorogol, and Phillip Cheres have also been venerable elders and teachers for a quarter century now. I can only hope that this book meets their high standard of patient inquiry and represents a successful “eating of news.” Major Hilary Gachinga, a UN peacekeeper in Kosovo during the 1990s, and Una MacAskill, a public health nurse from Glasgow, also our landlords in Spring Valley in 2005 and 2006, helped make Nairobi a home and have remained steadfast friends. Beth Pratt and Simon Heck provided me food, shelter, and laughter in Nairobi around 2003 during a valuable preliminary research trip. In 2002, I received a Title VI FLAS fellowship through Yale University to study intermediate Kiswahili with Ali Skandor and Ann Biersteker in Mombasa. Ann is another cornerstone in the study of East Africa in the US. The University of Chicago has a long tradition of critical Africanist scholarship that spans several generations. When I


arrived there as an MA student in 1999, my interests were nurtured by Anne-­Maria Makhulu, Hylton White, Zolani Ngwane, Kelly Gillespie, Jesse Shipley, and particularly Jim Smith, who kindly and humorously mentored me as a fellow Kenyanist. Ralph Austen was a mensch of an MA advisor who shepherded my early attempts to understand the relationship between religion and political economy. That same MA year, Andy Apter taught me classic ethnographies of Africa and supported my application to the PhD program in anthropology. His work on the political economy of the sign in post–­oil boom Nigeria fundamentally informs this work. Preceding the generation of Africanists mentioned above, Brad Weiss, Misty Bastian, and Adeline Masquelier have all, at various points in time, provided generous guidance and feedback on different aspects of this work. In the eleven years I participated in the African Studies Workshop at Chicago, I had the good fortune to argue, laugh, and occasionally cry with Bernard Dubbeld, Kerry Chance, Rosa Williams, Betsey Brada, Anita Hannig, Claudia Gastrow, Kate McHarry, Lauren Coyle-­Rosen, Bianca Dahl, Beth Brummel, Jeremy Jones, Joshua Walker, Mark Geraughty, Erin Moore, George-­Paul Meiu, Zebulon Dingley, and our adopted relative from Princeton, Paul Ocobock. Jennifer Cole and Emily Osborn were also valuable teachers and colleagues. Bill Murphy from Northwestern University was also vital to the African Studies Workshop at Chicago. Francois Richard has an almost priestly dedication to the care and intellectual enrichment of graduate students at Chicago, and I have benefitted more than a few times from his counsel and love. It goes without saying that Jean and John Comaroff have left an indelible mark on my thinking about pretty much everything in anthropology and African studies and, to slightly misquote Binyavanga Wainaina, “how not to write about Africa.” Both, in their own ways, have always exhorted their students to write imaginative sociologies, and as teachers they practice a dialectical pedagogy—­conserving but transcending social anthropology’s past, which continues to inform my own writing and teaching. As an advisor and friend, Jean always, and I mean always,


200 Acknowledgments

responds to emails, even when they contain half-­baked ideas or rants. As my doktorvater, Stephan Palmié’s deep dedication to a historical anthropology of religion and mastery over major and minor intellectual genealogies was something to behold. Some of my best nights in grad school were spent on Stephan and Doris’s porch drinking Aventinus and eating delicious food. Joe Masco taught me about the hauntings of modernity and what a historically informed psychoanalytic approach to social life and its attendant traumas could look like. Although I only studied with the late Michel-­Rolph Trouillot for one semester before he became ill, he affixed his sense of what it means to be an intellectual permanently in my consciousness: to be critical but hopeful, and to push away the cynicism that often plagues the academic personality. In 2006, Danilyn Rutherford allowed me to TA her “Systems” course, which examined the unacknowledged debts to Christian theology that so much European social theory imagines itself to have overcome. I remain indebted to her for this opportunity. I would also like to acknowledge Anne Ch’ien, the anthropology department’s tireless administrator and logistical genius, who keeps the entire ship afloat. My cohort member Sarah Muir deserves special mention for her friendship and collegiality over the years. Courtney Handman and James Slotta have always been very sup­­ portive, patiently helping me think through the inflationary semiotics of Kikuyu ritual when I wasn’t particularly adept at the formal side of semiotic anthropology. Jeremy Jones, who travelled to Zimbabwe with my wife Danielle Walters when we were all undergraduates at Lewis & Clark College a lifetime ago, is largely responsible for me finishing my dissertation. When, as an older graduate student, I was working full time and had become a father, Jeremy always pulled me out of the void during those moments when it wasn’t exactly clear that any of this was going to work out. If there are any good ideas in this book, they likely began with Jeremy’s astute input and caring friendship. Zebulon Dingley, who entered my introductory Kiswahili class when he was nineteen, is now a formidable scholar of East Afri-


can history, religion, and society in his own right. When yet another family health crisis emerged in the summer of 2018 against the backdrop of looming deadlines, Zeb did a final edit of each chapter of this book and helped me clarify some of the muddier parts of my arguments (something he has actually been doing since he was an undergraduate). He has my deepest respect and affection. During my final three years at Chicago, I was an anthropology preceptor in the Masters Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), where I had the privilege of working for John MacAloon, one of Victor Turner’s last students and a renowned anthropologist of sport. John taught me more about course design, teaching, and effective pedagogy than just about anyone. He also taught me how to stick up for people in more structurally marginal positions within the university. My time as a preceptor would have been much less enjoyable if it weren’t for the wicked humor and comradery of my office mate and fellow preceptor Anwen Tormey. After precepting, Anwen went on to serve as the administrator for the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory for many years, a task I suspect was on par with trying to herd cats. During my time as a preceptor, I also had standout students in Lee Cabatingan, Mark Drury, Brady G’sell, and Ella Butler. At the University of Michigan, where I spent most of the 2010–­2011 academic year, I was warmly welcomed into the (now) Department of Afroamerican and African Studies on a Mellon-­ Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellowship dedicated to the study of ethnicity in Africa. I would like to thank Adam Ashforth, Vivienne Koech, and Terrence Ashforth for housing and feeding me without asking for anything in return except for commensality and Congolese music. Adam’s work on spiritual insecurity is fundamental knowledge in African studies in my opinion, and I have fond memories of our often-­heated discussions about the value and deficiencies of previous witchcraft studies. Without Derek Peterson’s work on precolonial Kikuyu ritual as cosmological gambling, this book simply would not have been possible. Derek




has remained a valuable colleague and friend. My hope is that he finds the provocations in this book worthy of his consideration. Omolade Adunbi was a sympathetic agemate at Michigan as we began our post–­grad school professional life at the same time. Nesha Haniff was a wonderful joking partner in the halls of DAAS. Anne Pitcher, Martin Murray, Kelly Askew, and Howard Stein were compelling interlocutors that year. There were several graduate students, now professors and higher ed professionals, who made my time at Michigan interesting and exciting: Jack Taylor, Robin d’Avignon, Emma Park, Brady G’sell, Shana Melnysyn, Stephen Sparks, Nafisa Essop Sheik, and Anneeth Hundle Kaur were all generous with their time and intellectual energies. Lorena Rizzo was a consummate intellectual comrade for that year. Mike McGovern, Janet Roitman, Ruth Marshall, Sasha Newell, and Janet McIntosh have all at different times selflessly offered their formidable intellects and advice to my thinking and writing. Ruth saved me from an embarrassing analytic error in my reading of Agamben with kindness and good humor. To Janet Roitman (and Adam), I would simply like to say (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) that I hope I have avoided any “absenticity of thoughtification” in this book. In 2017 when I was on the mend from surgery and chronic illness, completely out of the blue John Lonsdale wrote me a very kind and enthusiastic email about my research. John, along with Bruce Berman, really set the terms for the historical study of Kenya, especially around the relationship between ethnicity and violence. This book is in critical conversation with much of their work. Receiving that email was a career highlight. There are also a number of friends and scholars whom I met during fieldwork and after, sometimes mostly through email correspondence, who have all in their own way been part of the mix: Wambui Mwangi (whose work on colonial currency figures prominently in this book), Dominic Wabala, Gabrielle Lynch, Daniel Branch, David Anderson, Cherry Leonardi, Mary Davies, Laura Hotchkiss, Dave Eaton, Melissa Lefkowitz, Richard Waller, Justin Willis,


Matt Carotenuto, Kate Luongo, Brett Shadle, Harm Kossen, Kenda Muntongi, Neilesh Bose, Neena Mahadev, Francois Luambo Makiadi, and Musa Juma. Stephanie Wynne-­Jones, who was the assistant director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa during my fieldwork, cared for us, taught us to bake with suet, and memorably took us on a research trip to Mafia Island, where I learned more about memory and slavery in a week than I had in years of academic study. Nathan Connolly, the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University, has been my dear friend, confidant, and interlocutor about all things that matter for the last two decades. He has been hearing about this book for far too many years. At the University of Chicago Press, David Brent patiently waited for a book for years and didn’t even make me feel too guilty when it finally materialized at the exact moment of his retirement. I really appreciate David’s years of friendship and good will. Priya Nelson has been a thoughtful and benevolent editor. I am grateful for her patience and confidence in the manuscript and for her encouragement to really think about who I was trying to write for. The whole publication process would have been a great deal more painful if it weren’t for the ever-­competent Dylan Montanari and Caterina MacLean. At Lafayette College, where I have been an anthropologist amongst the religious studies folks, I have been fortunate to have a vibrant and fun group of colleagues who are super smart and invested in the best of what liberal education can be: Steve Belletto, Paul Barclay, George Panichas, Bill Bissell, Michael Feola, Mary Armstrong, Nandini Sikand, Owen McCleod, Chawne Kimber, Carrie Rohman, Christopher Lee, Rachel Goshgarian, and Wendy Wilson-­Fall. Wendy, Rachel, and Owen are frankly some of the finest friends and colleagues one could ask for. They have sustained me in some of the more difficult moments of being an academic with laughter, music, banter, and wine. Long live the McKelvy sessions! My department chair Eric Ziolkowski is a gentleman scholar whose vast knowledge of religious studies




and incomparable work ethic sets a high bar for junior faculty. His mentoring and departmental leadership have gone a long way in making Lafayette a viable intellectual home for me. Our departmental administrator Laura McGee deserves special mention as well. Steve Belletto is a tireless friend, colleague, and ally. When I became incapacitated due to illness, Steve helped me respond to my manuscript reviews and has never hesitated to offer valuable editorial help. I would also like to thank Tom Jackson for our frequent conversations. At Lafayette I have had the privilege of teaching and learning from an assortment of funny, gifted, and empathetic students: Kamini Masood, Ilana Goldstein, Griffin Williams, Avery Harnish, Sean Cavanagh, Mayci Shimon, Bobby Dipietro, Nils Stalhkrantz, Adam Shankman, Ayat Husseini, Harriet Ottewel-­Soulsby, Nora Hand, Neysa Barry, Christian Ramirez, L’eunice Faust, Nina Milligan, Emily Mulford, Mwangala Simataa, Kelven arap Serem, Zuli Yusif, Raymond Macharia, Will Gordon, Nirupa Basnet, Tomoki Sasaki, Matthew Plitt, Morgan West, Tatiana Logan, and Dana Lapides. In the Lehigh Valley, I am grateful to the Kenyan diasporic community for allowing me to participate in their lives as they navigate the awfulness that immigrants are forced to contend with in the age of Trumpism. I want to especially acknowledge the members of LV Benga Africa for transforming Allentown and Easton into a Kisumu nightclub on an almost monthly basis. Their beautiful guitar-­based dance music, which originates on the shores of Lake Victoria, graces everything from funeral fund­ raisers for the Luo and Luhya communities in Allentown, to shows for the residents of McKelvy House at Lafayette College: Freddy Owino Wuod Collela, Eric Odhiambo, Steven Onyango Wuod Omari, Ooko “Chairman” Ndolo, Jamarachi Mulumbu, and, last but not least, Ian “Nyathi Otenga” Eagleson, ethnomusicologist, guitar teacher, and all-­around excellent human. Ian and I met in Mombasa in 2002 and since that time he has become nothing short of a brother.


My parents, Martha and Robert Greene, have provided editing help and writing advice on more drafts of my work than I can bear to acknowledge. The only consolation I can offer for this affliction is to remind them that spirited discussions of religion and politics began at their table in Reagan’s Michigan during the 1980s. What I have chosen to do professionally, in no small way, stems from their intellectual passion and influence. Deb and Dave Blunt’s home in Michigan has always been a crucial place to recharge, laugh, and feast, usually with the mischievous humor and culinary acumen of Blaine Forintos and Anne-­Marie Bokatsian. My father Dave, who made and sold industrial products with his brothers and father, has never faltered in his support of his eccentric, bookish, and foul-­mouthed son. My in-­laws, Jay and Monique Walters, are the glue that has held our family together in difficult times, always stepping in to pick up the slack when we have been overwhelmed with life and career obligations. The research for this book was generously supported by the African Language Fund at the University of Chicago, a Fulbright-­ Hays Doctoral Dissertation Abroad Fellowship, and a Social Science Research Council (Mellon Foundation) IDRF Award. Danielle Walters is this book’s spine. I say this with the conviction that acknowledgements to spouses and partners in academic books are pretty cliché at this point. Truly, how does one even begin to acknowledge the kind of partnership that is the condition of possibility for pretty much everything? While writing this book we had three children, the pressures of tenure, a difficult career change, two serious illnesses, and more than enough time apart. Danielle went to Kenya before I did when she was nineteen, and I am quite sure that if her enthusiasm for studying there had not been so infectious, I never would have gone to Kenya at all. I absolutely mean it when I say that she is the first cause in my journey to comprehend and understand Kenya and Africa’s place in the world. I dedicate this book to her and our three children, Simonne Amina, Nathan Kariuki, and Julian Winslow, whose patience for their father and his Congolese music collection should have run




out long ago. I would be remiss if I did not also include in this dedication our unofficially official adopted daughter from Kenya, Zainab Hussein, who in the last five years has become a big sister to our kids and a hip interpreter of popular culture for a pair of aging and cranky Gen Xers. Mungu akubariki na tunakupenda.

Notes chapter 1

1. odm was named for the image of the citrus fruit, which would symbolize the “no” vote on the constitutional referendum ballot, the “yes” vote being symbolized by a banana. 2. For example, the Fragile States Index compiled by the American think tank The Fund for Peace ranks state “vulnerability” by different social, political, and economic indicators. As stated on the their website, “The Fragile States Index, produced by The Fund for Peace, is a critical tool in highlighting not only the normal pressures that all states experience, but also in identifying when those pressures are pushing a state towards the brink of failure. By highlighting pertinent issues in weak and failing states, The Fragile States Index—­and the social science framework and software application upon which it is built—­ makes political risk assessment and early warning of conflict accessible to policy-­makers and the public at large.” Kenya has been attributed an “alert” status signified by the color orange, which is two category rankings above the red “alert” status. See /2017/05/14/fragile-­states-­index-­2017-­annual-­report/. 3. Rent-­seeking refers to the practice of securing a larger share of existing wealth without necessarily building new wealth. 4. Fred Mutinda, “Could This Be Mungiki’s Secret Den?” Nation, 13 October 2005. 5. Ibid.


Notes to Chapter 2

6. As Jacqueline Klopp argues, “Given the secretive nature of the transactions behind land grabbing, which often take place on paper in the Ministry of Lands, it is difficult if not impossible to document the number of grabs over time and measure whether the generally perceived acceleration is actual or not.” However, in the infamous case of Nairobi’s Westlands Market, she demonstrates how deceptive performances of the state’s imprimatur were key to the political land-­grabbing practices of politicians during Moi’s rule. In the case of the Westlands Market, a former Nairobi commissioner marched into the middle of the marketplace, which had been designated Nairobi city council land since the Kenyatta era, and told the merchants to leave because he had been “given” the land. “The Town Clerk, Wandera, had issued a letter of allotment on April 15, 1994, using Nairobi City Commission stationary even though the Commission no longer existed. This allotment letter gave Karani a 99-­year lease under highly favorable conditions” (Klopp 2000, 10). 7. For a discussion of the coercive character of party youth wings in Kenya, especially before the 1963 election, see Ocobock 2017. 8. Ndura Waruinge, Mungiki’s former “national coordinator,” who, at the time of my fieldwork, was a born-­again Christian pastor, maintains that even as of 2006 Mungiki were not bribable. It is fair to say that at this point, however, there were probably many Mungikis and any claim about a singular Mungiki is likely to be wrong in many instances. 9. This is evidenced in the constant state commissioning of new special police units to deal with Mungiki, who often ended up becoming their business partners. The most well-­known example of this is the now disbanded Rhino Squad. See Dauti Kahura, “Mungiki Hit Matatu Trade,” Standard, May 16, 2005. chapter 2

1. One notable exception in this regard is James H. Smith’s (1998) analysis of how forest fighters redeployed colonial literary-­bureaucratic fetishes, like typewriters and stamps, to carve out a “counter-­state” in the forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares. 2. The exact symptomology of thahu remains vague, but C. W. Hobley, the colonial administrator turned comparative religionist, described thahu as a condition of bodily wasting or eruption of boils that were apparently lethal (Hobley and Frazer 1922, 103). 3. Kenya’s reserves were areas set aside for Africans along ethnic lines that colonial authorities understood to be relatively fixed in nature. The

Notes to Chapter 3 209

colonial state tightly controlled the movement of Africans between the reserves and settler dominated areas. The Native Administration Amendment Ordinance passed in 1920 required all African males of working age to wear the kipande (literally “a small piece” in Kiswahili), a small metal box that contained the name, fingerprints, and labor history of the wearer, around their necks at all times. The kipande was also known as the Native Administration Docket (Anderson 2000). 4. kna ma/1/1, Jomo Kenyatta, Letter in Reference to Gatundu No. 116/48 and lnc. No. 65/49, 1949. 5. The few elder informants with whom I spoke who could even remember ĩthathi claimed that in order to produce a new one, an elder would have to first hew a piece of rock, which would become the gĩthathi, from the earth behind his house where “no one had walked.” 6. kna ma/1/1, Forest Office Londiani to dc Kiambu, “Oath Stone Kikuyu,” 22 February 1933; dc Kiambu to Forester Londiani, 23 February 1933. 7. kna ma/1/1, dc South Nyeri to dc Kiambu, “Form of Oath for Native Council and Native Tribunals,” 27 February 1929. 8. kna ma/1/1, dc Fort Hall to dc South Nyeri, “Forms of Oath for Native Council, Native Tribunal,” 16 April 1929. 9. kna ma/1/1, dc Elgeyo-­Marakwet to dc Kiambu, “lnc Oath,” 17 January 1949; dc Kiambu to dc Elgeyo-­Marakwet, “lnc Oath,” 25 January 1949. 10. kna ma/1/1, dc’s Meeting, Minute 51/47, “Native Oaths,” 5–­8 November 1947. 11. kna ma/1/1, Registrar, Native Tribunal Kikuyu, “Re: Customary Oath ‘Thenge’ or ‘Muuma’ Procedure,” 21 July 1948, Kiambu lnc. Meeting Minute 25/48, 10–­12 August 1948. 12. kna ma/1/1, d.o. for dc Kiambu to all Tribunal Clerks Kiambu, “Re: Oaths,” 1 October 1945. 13. kna ma/1/1, d.o. for President of  Nyeri lnc to dc Kiambu, “Re: African Customary Oath,” 20 July 1950. 14. kna ma/1/1, d.o. for dc Kiambu, “Thenge Oath to be Taken by Nganga Kabitu,” 7 October 1949. 15. kna ma/1/1, J. Karanja to dc Kiambu, 2 January 1946. chapter 3

1. In 1887, the Imperial British East Africa Company leased a coastal strip of land from Seyyid Said, the sultan of Zanzibar, and in 1895 claimed the land from the coast as far west as Lake Naivasha, thus


Notes to Chapter 3

creating the East Africa Protectorate. With the insolvency of the IBEA in 1895, the protectorate was handed over to the British government for direct rule. The protectorate’s western border was subsequently expanded to Uganda in 1902, eventually becoming a Crown colony in 1920, with the exception of the original coastal strip, which remained a protectorate. The development of the Kenya Uganda railway began in 1895 and was completed in 1901, being built by 32,000 laborers imported from British India. The need to cover the humongous cost of the railway’s development to the English public drove the imperative to bring in settlers to create agricultural export products. African subsistence agriculture was not seen as a sufficient material base for an export economy of scale. English and South African settlers were given massive tracts of land by Crown decree, employing predominantly Kikuyu agricultural workers, sometimes as sharecroppers and later, with the introduction of hut and poll taxes, as wage laborers. 2. The slogan of the Mau Mau guerillas was ithaka na wiathi, which has commonly been translated from Kikuyu to English as “land and freedom.” As John Lonsdale has argued, this translation does not adequately address the concept of wiathi as the apex of aspiration for Kikuyu men. Lonsdale translates the term “self-­mastery,” signaling Kikuyu conceptions of honor where men would demonstrate their freedom from indebtedness to others through mastering various forms of fertility in land, women, and livestock (Lonsdale 1992). 3. The Kenya African Union was the successor institution to the Kikuyu Central Association 4. I will continue to use “symbol” as an ethnographic category of Mau Mau scholarship and of Kikuyus themselves, as demonstrated in the last chapter. 5. Turner’s hermeneutic assumed that there was meaning behind symbols, which societal members interpret. Turner maintained that the Ndembu had a hermeneutical tradition, a questionable assumption. See Turner 1970, 131–­50. 6. As mentioned in chapter 2, this incident is a significant example of how oaths are really about participants attempting to participate in the essence of divine speech itself, to such an extent that in failing to, a supplementary violence is required to force the oath taker to do so. Again, this is a profound development away from precolonial acephalous ideologies of ritual efficacy. 7. The Beecher report made recommendations about colonial education policy to the effect that certain missionary curriculums were too

Notes to Chapter 4 211

literary and inappropriate for African peasant farmers, who should be educated in trades and other more “useful” skills. 8. As explained previously, oath takers also often were beaten for making mistakes in the recitation of the oaths statutes during the oathing ritual itself. 9. This error is clearest in the introduction to The Allocation of Re­ sponsibility (Gluckman 1972). chapter 4

1. A good example of Kenyatta’s big-­man largesse is the piece of land “given” to my research assistant’s mother for performing traditional dances at state functions. The Kenyatta family is still one of the largest land owners in Kenya, a fact largely due to Kenyatta’s prebendal “land grabbing.” 2. A currency board system is intended to provide locally issued currency with 100 percent foreign currency coverage in a chosen “peg” (here the British pound). 3. This history of the East African shilling and its relation to the pound sterling can be found at 4. Numismatics is the study of coins, but Goux seems to be gesturing to the Greek root nomizein, from which the Latin word for coin, nu­ misma, derives, meaning “to use according to law.” It is the law-­making process, of which the coin is an objectification, that Goux is alluding to in comparing other “general equivalents” to the money form. 5. See “Central Bank: Kenya Forced to Go It Alone,” Daily Nation, 2 March 1966. 6. Two more recent examples of such ethnic big men come to mind from the Kenyan political scene: the late Embakasi MP David Mwenje and the former Westlands MP Fred Gumo, both of whom came to be associated with use of ethnically based youth militias mentioned in the introduction, the majeshi ya wazee, or “the armies of the old men” in Kiswahili. 7. It is perhaps interesting to note that President Moi made himself the chancellor of all universities in Kenya (despite his roughly tenth grade education) and would personally hand over all of the diplomas to graduates at Kenya’s major universities. He would also occasionally refer to himself as the Profesa wa Siasa, “professor of politics.” 8. A particular wedding that I have in mind was that of a friend’s sister to a prominent local Pentecostal pastor. The groom had hired the Salvation Army marching band to play while he and his bride,


Notes to Chapter 5

surrounded by no fewer than six off-­duty police officers dressed like “men in black,” processed to the wedding dais. Rather than wear a suit, the groom wore a rather elaborate approximation of a sultan’s robe and headdress. 9. By “segmentary,” I simply mean the capacity for multiplication of likeness. chapter 5

1. See “Destroy This Army of Forgers,” Daily Nation, 12 May 2002. 2. See “Kirima Alleges Devil Worship a Foreign Ploy,” Daily Nation, 15 August 1999. 3. See “I Worshipped Satan,” Daily Nation, 9 July 1999. 4. Stephen Ellis and Gerrie Ter Haar have also mentioned descriptions of elaborate parallel worlds frequented by witches and sorcerers in the religious tracts available in sub-­Saharan Africa. For instance, in the writings of one Congolese preacher, “Mukendi,” the details of his former nocturnal meanderings involve morally inverted modern institutions existing underground. These include witchcraft universities, demonic airports, even devil worship conference centers. Similarly, the authors encourage Western analysts to take such narratives seriously as African-­style discourses on the nature of evil and the problematic form of contemporary political power (Ellis and Ter Haar 1998). 5. The phrase “the politics of the belly” risks being too metaphorical here. Bodies of specific politicians are often the repositories of social and individual power much like contracts are in “strong states.” For example, during the 2002 election campaign, propagandists for the ruling party kanu printed posters that equated the youthful bodily integrity of their candidate Uhuru Kenyatta with an increased capacity to rule when compared to the old, decrepit body of opposition candidate and current president Mwai Kibaki, who was injured in an automobile accident just before the elections. kanu enthusiasts, mostly Kikuyu men of Kenyatta’s age who traced their ancestry to Kiambu (Kenyatta’s home area), justified their vote for the ruling party candidate exactly because he was from one of the wealthiest families in Kenya and thus not bothered by the hunger pangs (greed) usually attributed to corrupt politicians whose hunger caused them to “eat” excessively. 6. Lavington is a posh suburb of Nairobi where wealthy expatriates and politicians live in houses that are palatial by Kenyan standards.

Notes to Chapter 5 213

7. I will discuss the significance of the Pajero as an icon of inverted value more below. 8. Luise White has also noted how the skilled labor of colonial firemen was perceived to violate the normative spatiotemporal constraints of unskilled labor. The association of vampire stories with the specialized work of colonial firemen, or wazimamoto, exemplifies how colonized and increasingly urbanized colonial African subjects expressed profound moral apprehensiveness regarding “specific skills and the alliances made through on the job training, hierarchy, and an extended working day” (White 2000, 125). Omino’s story differs in that it depicts how even unskilled labor has become implicated in immoral labor. Interestingly, in Omino’s narrative, night is the only time when the moral status of Omino’s labor becomes clear, suggesting that nocturnal, hidden labor has come to be the norm, hidden rather than revealed by daylight. The popular Kenyan euphemism for transparency (daylight) is now implicated in practices of concealment rather than revelation. 9. James Smith has suggested that rumors about majini, spirit familiars historically bought and sold by Swahili and Arab traders, memorialize an earlier history of the commodification of human life by the Omani Arab slave trade. This brutal history is symbolized by the jinni’s thirst for human blood that must be sated so that the jinni will continue to produce money for its procurers without visible expenditure of labor (see Smith 2004). Rosalind Shaw has also shown how memories of the slave trade live on in the contemporary ritual practices and occult beliefs of Sierra Leone (Shaw 2002). 10. One example of Moi’s attempt to boost the prestige of western Kenya and demonstrate his clear favoring of Kalenjin and Luhya constituents was to construct Moi International Airport in the somewhat sleepy town of El Doret. Those from Central Province (predominantly Kikuyus) often joked that the airport was Moi’s “escape route” in anticipation of the time when the Kikuyus would finally return to power. 11. Kenya was the number one recipient of US aid in sub-­Saharan Africa in 1990. Between 1990 and 1992 half of Kenya’s 1990 total funding level was cut by donors (see page 202, footnote 15 in Haugerud 1997). 12. Haugerud notes that prior to structural adjustment, the Kenyan state was the largest employer in Kenya, and its patronage spending has been one of its key modalities of power and “social control” (Haugerud 1997, 35).


Notes to Chapter 7

13. “Put out a little something”; see chapter 3. 14. See “What Is the Mystery Behind Train Disasters,” Money Up­ date, no. 70, 22 August 1999. The upcoming elections referred to here are the 2002 general elections. 15. “Train wreck” is not an arbitrarily selected metaphor. Train accidents, like road accidents, have become all too common as the dilapidated tracks of Kenya Railways attest to widespread neglect of one of the few public transportation systems in Kenya. 16. See “Sh500 Lure for Devil’s Disciples,” Daily Nation, 7 August 1999. chapter 6

1. These included, prototypically, guaranteed civil service employment or highly personalized rituals of redistribution, like harambees, the ubiquitous fundraising events Kenyans hold to raise money for various local initiatives. 2. Although I use the past tense, many of the factors I discuss here still exist. 3. Members of Parliament often have little to none of their salaries left at the end of each month due to the intense social pressure to redistribute their wealth as an ongoing condition of their electability. See Kenya National Commission on Human Rights 2006. chapter 7

1. As Gabrielle Lynch has shown, the recent emergence of the “Kalenjin” ethnic category (under Moi) as a confederation of different groups speaking similar languages has not really entailed an easy solidarity. Rather, ethnic unity amongst different Kalenjin “subtribes” has been carefully negotiated and renegotiated in relation to flows of state patronage and the perceived inequalities between different Kalenjin groups (Lynch 2011). 2. Sarah Jenkins has similarly explored “immigrant-­guest metaphors” at play in Kenya’s ethnic violence ( Jenkins 2012). 3. Kevin J. Kelley, “US-­Funded Exit Poll Says Raila Won Elections,” Daily Nation, 11 July 2008. 4. In the settlement schemes where we visited, Kikuyu and Kalenjin families literally lived next door to one another and were not divided in larger, ethnically distinct spaces. The eerie topography of the violence

Notes to Chapter 7 215

was such that three Kalenjin houses would still be standing and occupied, but just over the hedgerow would be a burned-­out structure often littered with bits of children’s schoolwork, shoes, combs, and other such artifacts of domestic life. Pilfered roofing materials were stacked openly in different Kalenjin yards. The absence of any attempt to conceal such spoils of war, like building materials and stolen livestock, indexed the general acceptance of the violence amongst Kalenjin neighbors. 5. This would prove to be true as Odinga and other members of odm later sought to distance themselves from Kalenjin violence, epit­ omized in the newly pariah figure of William Ruto, the main Kalenjin member of odm’s coterie of big men and one of the suspects in the Hague’s investigation into the postelection violence of 2007–­2008. Even more ironically, Ruto would later align with his opponent in the 2008 violence, Uhuru Kenyatta, to defeat Raila Odinga and his party in 2013 and become deputy president. 6. See, for instance, Freud’s account of his own “uncanny” experience of seeing his reflection in the window of a train car (Freud 1919).

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Index acephaly and acephalous societies, 18–­19, 29, 72, 175–­76, 210n6 adultery, incident and politics of, 45, 155–­57, 162 African Political Systems (Fortes and Evans-­Pritchard), 18, 190 Agamben, Giorgio, 18, 109, 149, 192 agricultural industry, 140, 210n1 Aguilar, Mario, 20 ahoi system, 63–­64, 65 Alexander, R. S., 111 “Anatomy of Mau Mau, The” (Worsley), 28–­29 Anglo-­Leasing Finance (ALF) scandal, 2–­3, 6, 177 Annan, Kofi, 182 anthropology of religion, 191–­94 antifraud infrastructure improvements, 2–­3. See also counterfeiting Anyieni, Z., 111 apocalyptic narratives, 118–­20. See also Satanism Appadurai, Arjun, 18, 173, 185–­86, 187–­88

Apter, Andrew: on Nigerian oil boom, 26, 150–­51; on official signs, 169–­70; politics of illusion, 145; on redistributive rituals, 159, 181; on signifiers of value, 16, 133; on spectacle, 94, 173 Arextaga, Begonia, 148 Asad, Talal, 191 aspirational kinship, 14, 23 Austen, Ralph, 185 autopsy, 187–­88 Awori, Moody, 3, 13 Bakhtin, Mikhail, 147 Banki Kuu ya Kenya. See Central Bank of Kenya Bantu Beliefs and Magic (Hobley), 45 Baring, Evelyn, 65, 66 Barnett, Donald, 77–­7 8 Bataille, Georges, 46 battalion oath. See warrior oath batuni, 75–­77 Bayart, Jean François, 20–­21, 112, 124 Beecher report, 83, 210n7 Biya, Paul, 147


Index bodily power, 21, 88, 116, 147, 157, 212n5. See also gerontocratic authority; politics of the belly Botswana, 20–­21 Branch, Daniel, 31, 89, 146 bribery, 9–­10, 163, 208n8 British colonialism. See colonial authority British pound sterling, 96, 97, 98, 107 Capital (Marx), 102 Carothers, J. C., 66 cash and carry system, 15, 165. See also monetary system Central Bank of Kenya, 95, 104, 105–­6, 108, 116–­17, 153 Christianity, anthropology of, 191–­94. See also religion and religious organizations civil war. See Mau Mau rebellion clipping, coin, 100 coins. See Kirucy coins; monetary system; numismatics collective action, 173–­76 colonial authority: of currency, 95–­ 101; on gerontocratic authority, 17–­20, 22; IBEA land grabs, 209n1; on Mau Mau rebellion, 62–­63, 65–­66, 89; on oathing, 17, 29–­30, 32–­33, 192; on racial hierarchy, 99–­100; settler capitalism, 35–­36; thahu incorporation and, 7–­8, 17, 19, 34, 36–­37, 49, 57–­58, 208n2. See also sovereignty, as concept Comaroff, Jean, 143, 150 Comaroff, John, 112, 143, 150 constitutions, 1–­2, 149–­50 consumerism and devil worship, 122, 126–­28. See also corpulence corpulence, 116, 157. See also politics of the belly

corruptus interruptus incident. See River Road incident (2002) cosmology, 33–­36. See also Kikuyu ritual practices “Could This Be Mungiki’s Secret Den?” (The Nation), 4–­5 counterfeiting: in Anglo-­Leasing scandal, 2–­3, 6, 177; of currency, 26, 93, 99, 100, 133–­34, 138; devil shillings, 140–­41, 142; in Goldenberg scandal, 16, 146; of ĩthathi, 55–­56, 57; in Jirongo scandal, 137–­39, 145; Locke on, 119–­20. See also monetary system counteroathing, 67. See also oathing Critique of  Violence (Benjamin), 148 currency. See monetary system Daily Nation, 111, 120, 123, 140 “Dead Certainty” (Appadurai), 173 deliverance narratives, 120–­21, 135–­36, 142–­43. See also Satanism Derrida, Jacques, 86, 102, 104, 148 de Sardan, Jean-­Paul Olivier, 170 devil worship. See Satanism diamonds, 146 Diop, Muhktar, 12 divine justice, 78–­79. See also violence dolls, 186, 187 donor aid. See foreign donor aid Durham, Deborah, 23 Durkheim, Emile, 87, 90 East African Currency Board (EACB), 95–­101, 105 East African rupee crisis, 96–­97 East African shilling, 98–­99, 105. See also monetary system eldership complex. See gerontocratic authority Eldoret, violence in, 178

Index Elementary Forms (Durkheim), 87 Ellis, Stephen, 212n4 ethics of illegality, 21 ethnicity: deed acquisition and, 174–­76, 208n3; “immigrant-­ guest” rhetoric, 214n2 (chap. 7); Kalenjin subgroups, 214n1 (chap. 7); Kikuyu–­Kalenjin relations, 171–­76, 179–­82; patriotism and traditionalism, 193; tribalism and political interpretations, 21–­22, 111–­12, 171–­76. See also Mungiki Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival (Peterson), 193 Evans-­Pritchard, E. E., 18, 35, 143, 176, 190 evil magic. See occult magic; Satanism; witchcraft exchange value, 16–­17. See also monetary system Facing Mount Kenya (Kenyatta), 35, 43–­44, 193 fetishism, 66, 101–­4, 153, 208n1. See also symbols fiat currency, 101, 106, 108, 109, 111. See also monetary system florin, 98 forced removal, 72–­73 “Force of Law” (Derrida), 148 foreign donor aid: criticism of Kenyan governance by, 131–­32; cutbacks in, 10, 120, 132, 145, 152, 159; ethnicity and, 179; Kenyatta and, 94; statistics on, 213n11. See also patronage system forensic laboratories, 2–­3 Fortes, Meyer, 18, 190 Fragile States Index, The, 207n2 Frazer, James, 46 Freud, Sigmund, 173, 186–­87, 215n6

Galaty, John, 165–­66 Geertz, Clifford, 104, 116, 191 gender differences in ritual ceremonies, 77, 80, 83 gerontocratic authority, 6, 17–­23; bodily power of, 21, 88, 116, 147, 157, 212n5; harambees and, 114–­15, 166, 214n1 (chap. 6); of ĩthathi, 33–­34; Kenyatta’s authority within, 24, 107–­13, 114; kiama, 36; modern understanding of, 113, 116–­17; monetary system and, 10–­17, 92–­93, 92–­94, 136–­41; politics of the belly, 21, 124, 132, 169, 212n5; Satanism and, 121–­24; symbols of, 42, 43–­44, 54, 58; terminology of, 2, 3, 15, 23, 93 Gertzel, Cherry, 110 Gichuru, James, 108 gĩthathi. See ĩthathi Githige, Rennison, 68, 79 Githongo, John, 3 Gluckman, Max, 22, 25, 28, 32, 85 Going Down River Road (Mwangi), 155 gold, 16, 44, 102, 146 Goldenberg International, 146 Goldenberg scandal, 16, 146 gold standard, 96–­97, 98 Goux, Jean-­Joseph, 44, 101–­2, 103–­4, 211n4 Grace Glory Times, 134 Graeber, David, 153 Green, Maia, 80–­82 Gumo, Fred, 211n6 Guyer, Jane, 15, 165 Hansen, Thomas Blom, 88, 89–­90 harambees, 114–­15, 166, 214n1 (chap. 6). See also monetary system Hart, Keith, 16, 106 Haugerud, Angelique, 130, 213n12 Hegel, Georg, 185



Index Hibou, Beatrice, 138 Hobbes, Thomas, 30 Hobley, C. W., 45 Holden, Philip, 193 Homo sacer project, 18–­19 housing project, 160 ideology of oathing, 86–­87. See also oathing Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA), 209n1 Indian rupee, 96–­97 international aid. See foreign donor aid International Criminal Court, 179 International Monetary Fund (IMF), 131, 132, 146 International Review of Missions (Smith), 45–­46 Islam, 126, 191–­92 ithaka na wiathi, 81 ĩthathi, 33; authenticity of, 24, 37–­39, 56–­57; excess power of, 42–­43, 50, 57–­58; gerontocratic authority of, 33–­34; kũhohoria gĩthathi, 42–­43; kuringa gĩthathi, 36, 40–­41; Leakey on, 39–­40; production of, 209n5; proliferation of, 49–­50, 55–­57; used for land disputes, 36–­37, 51–­52, 53–­54, 58–­59. See also oathing; thahu It’s Our Turn to Eat (Wrong), 3–­4 Jackson, Robert, 91, 111 Jenkins, Sarah, 214n2 (chap. 7) jinni, 213n9 Jirongo, Cyrus, 137, 145 Jirongo currency and scandal, 137–­39, 145 Kalanga, 20–­21 Kalenjins: –­Kikuyu relations, 27, 171–­76, 179–­82, 188, 214n4 (chap.

7); Moi’s favoritism of, 213n10; subgroups of, 214n1 (chap. 7) Kambas, 155–­56 Kamjesh massacre, 8–­9 Karanja, J., 58–­59 Kariobangi massacre, 8–­9 Kariuki, Mary Mbaire, 72–­73, 75, 77, 80 Keane, Webb, 32, 43 Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), 112–­13 Kenya African National Union (KANU), 1, 110, 130, 159, 179, 212n5 Kenya African Union (KAU), 65, 210n3. See also Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) Kenya Land and Freedom Army. See Mau Mau rebellion Kenyan shilling, 3, 10–­17, 93–­94, 105–­9, 137–­38 Kenyan studies, as discipline, 193 Kenyatta, Jomo, 2; arrest and conviction of, 65–­66; elder authority of, 24, 109–­13, 114; ethnic policies of, 174, 175; on excess power of ĩthathi, 42–­43, 50, 58; Facing Mount Kenya, 35, 43–­44, 193; as KCA member, 64; on Kikuyu elders, 35–­36, 43, 92; on land disputes and gĩthathi authenticity, 36–­39; land ownership of, 211n1; monetary system and Central Bank under, 11, 35, 93–­95, 101–­9, 116–­17, 153; personal contradictions of, 91–­92; response to Mau Mau rebellion by, 92, 107–­8 Kenyatta, Uhuru, 1, 9, 168–­69, 176, 212n5 Kenya Uganda railway, 210n1, 214n15 kiama, 36 Kiambu Local Native Tribunal, 36 kiapo, 40

Index Kibaki, Lucy, 12–­13 Kibaki, Mwai: constitutional proposals by, 1–­2; currency and, 10–­17, 111; election of, 1, 27, 158, 176–­79; on Mau Forest, 174; postelection violence, 179–­82; public persona of, 13, 14–­15 Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), 31, 64–­65, 82–­83, 210n3. See also Kenya African Union (KAU) Kikuyu–­Kalenjin relations, 27, 171–­76, 179–­82, 188, 214n4 (chap. 7) Kikuyu ritual practices: ambiguity and efficacy of, 60–­62, 70–­71, 80, 84–­90, 210n6; authenticity in, 24; colonial transformation and eldership in, 17–­19; confusion of, 72–­7 7; cosmology of, 33–­36; history of, 5–­7; inflation of, 60, 69, 71–­72, 78, 84–­90; Kalenjins on, 172, 182–­85, 188; violence in, 76–­84. See also Mau Mau rebellion; oathing; Pentecostalism; thahu kipande, 209n3 Kirucy coins, 10–­17. See also monetary system Klopp, Jacqueline, 208n6 kũhohoria gĩthathi, 42–­43 kũringa gĩthathi, 36, 40–­41 labor economy transformations, 36, 63–­64, 67, 213n8 Lambert, J. E. H., 49 land ownership: deed forgeries and land grabs, 139, 165–­66, 169, 180, 208n6, 209n1; disputes of, 36–­37, 50–­51, 58–­59, 72–­73; ethnicity and deed acquisition, 174–­76, 208n3; of Kenyatta, 211n1 Lavington, 125, 212n6 law enforcement: bribe market of, 9–­10, 163–­64; function and tradition

of, 161–­65; on matatus, 4–­5; policing and patrimonial state and, 26, 144–­47, 152–­54, 160–­61, 169; raids on Mungiki, 5–­6; sovereign violence by, 147–­50, 170; at weddings, 164, 211n8 Lawrence, T. E., 3–­4 Leakey, Louis, 35, 39–­44 Leys, Colin, 115 Liberal Democratic Party, 1 Listener, The, 28 literacy and power, 66 “little coin.” See monetary system Local Native Councils (LNCs), 36 Local Native Tribunals (LNTs), 36 Locke, John, 100–­101, 116, 119 Lonsdale, John: on harambees, 115; on Kenyatta, 91, 92, 109; on Mau Mau, 30, 64, 210n2; on oathing, 80, 82–­84; on political tribalism, 184 loyalty oath (KCA), 82–­83 Luhyas, 177, 213n10 Luos, 8–­9, 130, 140, 141, 178 “Magic of Despair, The” (Gluckman), 28 magongona, 47 Mahadev, Neena, 194 majeshi, as term, 8–­9. See also Mungiki majeshi ya wazee, as term, 9 majini, 126, 134, 213n9 male authority, 77 Malinowski, Bronislaw, 35 Maloba, W. O., 65–­66 mana, 18 marriage, 63, 125, 126 Marshall, Ruth, 29–­30, 194 Marx, Karl, 101–­2 Masco, Joseph, 186 Matatu Owners Association, 159–­60



Index matatus: currency for, 10–­17; police cooperation with, 166–­67; regulation of, 159; taxation of, 4–­6. See also Mungiki; River Road incident (2002) Mathiu, Mutuma, 120 Mau Forest, 72, 174, 180 Mau Mau, as term, 64 Mau Mau rebellion, 7–­8, 31; conclusion of, 90; core conflicts in, 62–­65; currency defacement during, 99–­100; historiography of, 67–­72; Kenyatta’s authority on, 92, 104, 107–­8; oathing during, 19, 28–­31, 66–­67; rise of secret society, 65–­67; ritual violence in, 76–­84, 87–­88; slogan of, 210n2; symbol efficacy and ritual inflation in, 84–­90, 152–­53; use of colonial fetishes by, 66, 153, 208n1; warrior oath during, 75–­77, 80–­81. See also Kikuyu ritual practices Maurer, Bill, 103 Mazzarella, William, 18 mbari, 62–­64 Mbembe, Achille, 10, 23, 147–­50, 153–­ 54, 169, 190 mbenzi, as term, 127 McGovern, Mike, 23 media, Moi on, 134 Meyer, Birgit, 123–­24 Mieu, George-­Paul, 23–­24 Migwi, Paul, 123 minibus industry. See matatus Moi, Daniel arap: Anglo-­Leasing scandal of, 2–­3, 177; criminal activities of, 7; currency under, 11, 14, 15–­16, 137–­38; development projects of, 134–­35; as educational chancellor, 211n7; election and transitional leadership of, 118, 130–­31; ethnic policies of, 174, 175,

179; policing and patrimonial state of, 26, 144–­47, 152–­54, 160–­ 61; presidential legacy of, 1, 180, 181; support of Uhuru Kenyatta by, 9, 168, 176; on Western Province, 213n10 monetary system: antifraud infrastructure for, 2–­3; bribery and, 9–­10, 163, 208n8; cash and carry system, 15, 165; coin clipping, 100; colonial authority on, 95–­101; criminalization and imitation in, 119–­20; currency board, 95–­101, 105, 211n2; fiat currency, 101, 106, 108, 109, 111; gerontocracy and, 10–­17, 92–­94, 136–­41; harambees, 114–­15, 166, 214n1 (chap. 6); under Kenyatta, 11, 35, 93–­95, 101–­9, 116–­17; under Moi, 11, 14, 15–­16, 137–­38; numismatics, 101–­5, 211n4; oathing and, 55–­56, 71. See also counterfeiting; harambees “money consciousness,” 127–­28 Money Update, 134 moral ethnicity, 184–­85 Muchona the Hornet, 72 muhoi, 63 Mukendi, 212n4 multiparty system, 1, 16, 120, 130–­31, 137, 138, 145, 178–­79 muma wa ngero, 75–­7 7, 80–­81, 82, 83, 86 muma wa uiguano, 73–­75 Mungiki, 4–­10, 69, 208nn8–­9 Murungaru, Chris, 3 Musyimi, Francis, 12 Mwangi, Meja, 155 Mwangi, Wambui, 95–­96, 97–­98 Mwango, King’ori, 5 Mwenje, David, 211n6 Mzee, as term, 2, 15, 23, 93. See also gerontocratic authority

Index Nairobi Post Office, 160 Nation, The, 4–­5 National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC), 1, 159, 176 National Youth Service, 160 Nation Media Group raid, 12 native reserves, 24, 36–­37, 175, 208n3 neoliberalism, 118–­21 New Reasoner, The, 29 Ngai, 48 Nigeria, 26, 94, 133, 150, 169–­70 Njama, Karari, 73, 74–­75, 77–­78, 86 Nuers, 35 numismatics, 101–­5, 211n4. See also Kirucy coins nyayo, 134–­35, 193 oathing: authenticity and violence in, 34–­35, 210n6; Christian tradition of, 193–­94; colonial transformation of, 17, 29–­30, 32–­33, 192; counteroathing, 67; ideology of, 86–­87; of KCA, 31, 64–­65, 82–­83; Leakey on, 39–­42; lexicon of, 40; during Mau Mau rebellion, 19, 28–­31, 66–­67; monetary system and, 55–­56, 71; of Mungiki, 5, 7–­8, 9, 10; significata in, 31–­32, 60, 80–­ 81, 84, 86, 130; standardization of, 50–­53; symbols in (see symbols); tradition of, 7; unity oath, 73–­75, 78; use in land disputes, 36–­37, 51–­52, 53–­54, 58–­59; violence and, 76–­84, 87–­88, 211n8 (chap. 3); warrior oath, 75–­7 7, 80–­81, 82. See also ĩthathi; Kikuyu ritual practices; thahu oathing stones. See ĩthathi occult economies, 150–­51 occult magic, 155–­56. See also Kikuyu ritual practices; Pentecostalism; witchcraft

Ocobock, Paul, 21–­22, 193 Odinga, Raila, 1, 2, 177, 182, 215n5 Oginga-­Odinga, Jaramogi, 95 oil industry, 26, 94, 133, 150–­51, 169–­70 Olenguruone settlement, 72–­73 Omino, John, 124–­30, 139–­40, 213n8 Operation Jock Scott, 65 Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), 2, 177, 178, 207n1, 215n5 Pajero (automobile), 15, 126, 137 Pajero (currency), 15, 137 Party of National Unity (PNU), 177–­78 passport system, 2–­3 paternalist authority, 22. See also gerontocratic authority patrimonial state, 144–­47 patronage system, 130–­35. See also foreign donor aid; gerontocratic authority Pentecostalism, 26, 29, 120, 122–­23, 129, 135–­36. See also Kikuyu ritual practices; Satanism Peterson, Derek, 46–­47, 48, 193–­94 policing. See law enforcement Politics of Age and Gerontocracy in Africa, The (Aguilar), 20 politics of the belly, 21, 124, 132, 169, 212n5 postcolonial master code, 23, 148–­49, 153–­54 pound sterling, 96, 97, 98, 107 Protestantism, 34, 48, 192 public hangings, 89 railways, 210n1, 214n15 Ramp, William, 87 Reasonable Radicals and Citizenship in Botswana (Werbner), 20–­21 religion and religious organizations: anthropology of, 191–­94; Islam,



Index religion and religious organizations (cont.) 126, 191–­92; Mungiki, 4–­10, 69; Pentecostalism, 26, 29, 120, 122–­ 23, 129, 135–­36; Protestantism, 34, 48, 192. See also Kikuyu ritual practices; Satanism rent-­seeking activities, 4, 145, 154, 207n3 Rhino Squad, 208n9 Rift Valley land ownership, 171–­76, 188 riika, 64 ritual inflation, 60, 69, 71–­72, 78, 84–­ 90, 158–­59. See also Kikuyu ritual practices River Road incident (2002), 154–­59, 162–­68 road conditions and infrastructure projects, 160, 162–­63 Roitman, Janet, 21 Rosberg, Carl, 91, 111 rungu, 134 rupee, 95–­96 Ruto, William, 215n5 Sahlins, Marshall, 71 Said, Seyyid, 209n1 Samburu and sex tourism, 23–­24 Satanism, 19, 120–­30, 134, 140–­42, 146. See also occult magic; Pentecostalism; witchcraft Satanism: How the Devil Is Trapping God’s People (Anonymous), 124–­25 savagery, 32, 69 Schmitt, Carl, 19, 30 security improvements, 2–­3 settler capitalism, 35–­36 sex tourism, 23–­24 Shaw, Rosalind, 213n9 Shell, Marc, 101 shilling, 11, 93–­94, 105, 137. See also monetary system

Sierra Leone, 213n9 significata, 31–­32, 60, 80–­81, 84, 86, 130. See also oathing; symbols silver, 96, 97, 98, 100–­101, 104. See also monetary system slave trade, 126, 213n9 Smith, Edwin W., 45–­46 Smith, James, 66, 152–­53, 208n1, 213n9 Sololo Outlets Holding Company, 145 Southern Kikuyu Before 1903, The (Leakey), 39 sovereignty, as concept, 109, 190, 192, 194–­95. See also colonial authority sovereign violence, 147–­50, 170. See also law enforcement Speaking with Vampires (White), 193 state, as term, 112 Stepputat, Finn, 88, 89–­90 structuralism, 103 Symbolic Economies (Goux), 101–­2 symbols: as analytic tool, 210nn4–­5; authenticity of, 79, 80; efficacy of, 72, 77–­7 8, 81–­86; elders as, 42, 43–­44, 54, 58; in oathing, 32, 47, 62, 70–­71, 74; of patrimonial state, 147–­48. See also fetishism; oathing; significata tahikio, 46–­47 Taifa Leo, 129 Tanganyika, 95 Tanzania, 15, 99 Tanzanian shilling, 137 Taussig-­Rubbo, Mateo, 149–­50 taxation, 4–­10 taxi industry. See matatus Ter Haar, Gerrie, 212n4 Thacker, R. S., 66 thahu: ambiguity of, 61–­62; Christian translation of, 48–­49; colonial incorporation of, 7–­8, 17, 19, 34,

Index 36–­37, 49, 57–­58, 208n2; description of, 208n2; Green on, 81–­82; Kenyatta on, 42; practices for avoidance and expulsion of, 44–­ 47. See also ĩthathi; Kikuyu ritual practices; oathing toa kitu kidogo (TKK), 132 total reciprocity, 153 touts, 11, 12, 166. See also matatus tribalism and political interpretations, 21–­22, 111–­12, 171–­76. See also ethnicity Trumpet Shall Sound, The (Worsley), 29 truth value, 16–­17 Tugen Kalenjins, 171–­73 Turner, Victor, 72, 87, 210n5 uchawi, 134, 155–­56, 187, 212n4. See also Kikuyu ritual practices Uganda, 95, 99, 210n1 uncanny, as analytic tool, 27, 173, 186–­ 87, 188, 215n6 Uncertain Age, An (Ocobock), 193 unity oath, 73–­75, 78 village development, 67 violence: 2007 postelection, 171–­73; Appadurai on, 173; intimacy and, 185–­89; Kikuyu–­Kalenjin fighting, 177–­84, 188; oathing and ritual, 76–­84, 87–­88; sovereign, 147–­50,

170. See also law enforcement; Mau Mau rebellion wabenzi, as term, 127 Wachanga, H. K., 75–­76 Wako, Amos, 2 Wambui, Mary, 12–­13 Wangui, Lucy, 134, 135, 136 warrior oath, 75–­7 7, 80–­81, 82, 83, 86 Waruinge, Ndura, 208n8 wazee, as term, 3 weddings, 23, 115, 125, 166, 211n8 (chap. 4) Weiss, Brad, 15, 137 Werbner, Richard, 20–­21 Western Province, 177, 213n10. See also Luhyas; Luos Westlands Market, 208n6 wheat industry, 36 White, Luise, 193, 213n8 wiathi, 210n2 Wirtz, Kristina, 80 witchcraft, 134, 155–­56, 187, 212n4. See also Kikuyu ritual practices World Bank, 131, 132, 146 Worsley, Peter, 28–­29, 31 Wrong, Michela, 3–­4 Youth for KANU, 137 Žižek, Slavoj, 87