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Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya

Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya
    Book Description:

    The Samburu of northern Kenya struggle to maintain their pastoral way of life as drought and the side effects of globalization threaten both their livestock and their livelihood. Mirroring this divide between survival and ruin are the lines between the self and the other, the living and the dead, "this side" and inia bata, "that side." Cultural anthropologist Bilinda Straight, who has lived with the Samburu for extended periods since the 1990s, bears witness to Samburu life and death in Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya. Written mostly in the field, Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya is the first book-length ethnography completely devoted to Samburu divinity and belief. Here, child prophets recount their travels to heaven and back. Others report transformations between persons and inanimate objects. Spirit turns into action and back again. The miraculous is interwoven with the mundane as the Samburu continue their day-to-day twenty-first-century existence. Straight describes these fantastic movements inside the cultural logic that makes them possible; thus she calls into question how we experience, how we feel, and how anthropologists and their readers can best engage with the improbable. In her detailed and precise accounts, Straight writes beyond traditional ethnography, exploring the limits of science and her own limits as a human being, to convey the significance of her time with the Samburu as they recount their fantastic yet authentic experiences in the physical and metaphysical spaces of their culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0937-2
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Author’s Note
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Part One: Framing Extraordinary Experience:: Roving Agencies

    • Chapter 1 Experience
      (pp. 3-13)

      July 10, 2003 Reflecting Back. It was December 1993, and we were returning through Swari to our Wamba home. The nurse at the little Swari clinic stopped our vehicle emphatically, asking me to come and see this patient of his, although maybe it was too late. I went inside, past the waiting room, into the simple interior with its plain table. She was there, a tiny girl, maybe eight years old, struggling for breath while her father squeezed a bellows furiously to pump more air into her fragile throat. No oxygen, just a bellows, like fueling a fire. No, perhaps...

    • Chapter 2 Signs
      (pp. 14-36)

      Let me catch you unaware like a clairvoyant dream that appears in quiet languages. The gazelles shake their heads, shake them this way and again—and you know something. The cows shuffle in the rose-gray light of dawn—and you know something. Even the birds have ways you recognize. And the beetles chirrup a signifying rhythm as you lie sleeping, just preparing to dream. This is the way of Nkai (divinity). This is one way of sensing the life of the universe.

      November 9, 2001. I am with Rereita Lemeteki, a prominent Samburu loiboni.¹ I am awed by him, by...

    • Chapter 3 Nkai
      (pp. 37-66)

      For most Samburu, Nkai (divinity) continues to be present in the world, occasionally appearing to people in various shapes, including human.¹ Sometimes, these appearances take on a more fantastic dimension, as children and young people disappear for hours or days and return to describe one of Nkai’s own dwelling places. Hearing of a somewhat recent example—of a child prophet whose family had no clear lineage connection to naibon²—in May 2002 I paid a personal visit to the home of a young girl named Remeta.

      Remeta was herding goats far from her settlement, so we wandered across the plain...

  5. Part Two: Fragile Borders

    • Chapter 4 Latukuny
      (pp. 69-93)

      In stealing the mporoi (clotted blood) associated with the birth of Ŋoto Malapen’s daughter, a transient woman nearly succeeded in killing both this child and all of Ŋoto Malapen’s future children.² Luckily for Ŋoto Malapen, a close friend (one with whom she had exchanged cow gifts) intervened. Her husband publicly cursed the woman for this grave offense, and by this act prompted her to exhume the mporoi and return it. After it had been blessed with curdled milk and fragrant incense, Ŋoto Malapen’s daughter, Malapen, lived and Ŋoto Malapen herself succeeded in becoming pregnant again. However, this was not the...

    • Chapter 5 Ŋoki
      (pp. 94-114)

      Understanding how a Samburu woman can give birth to a “cat” will take us to the core of a Samburu personhood that radically includes others, of forms of subjectivity by which the effects of behavior can manifest themselves in potentially startling ways across persons and generations. Certainly, intimations of a critically understood, fragmented self—a self that might even include aspects of divinity—have long been with us. Classical Greek philosophy already suggested a break between certain elements of human subjectivity (material) and others (spiritual). Freud went farther and offered us an inspiring myth to explain a similar duality (and...

    • Chapter 6 Death
      (pp. 115-128)

      Death—like ŋoki—like all aspects of Being (where we experientially meet reality)—is a tangible, slippery changeling, transmuting across cultural and temporal contexts to the point of appearing almost unrecognizable. Almost. Like the death of the little girl I opened this book with, death as more than sign is always extraordinary. Indeed, the witnessing of death is the quintessential occurrence of expansive experience, perhaps because it finally and terrifyingly becomes a conversation with an absent interlocutor, a breach of signifying etiquette, a socially hazardous (non)relation.¹ Not surprisingly, for the Samburu, the break from the living must be handled very...

    • Chapter 7 Resurrection
      (pp. 129-152)

      As I sat on a stool with friends and neighbors near my home in the Samburu highlands, two old men engaged in a spirited dialogue, each trying to outdo the other in his knowledge of Samburu recent and historical events. One was my neighbor, Leyielo, while the other was a friend of his visiting from the lowlands. By this time, I had talked formally and informally to dozens of people claiming first- or second-hand knowledge of apiu—resurrection from death.¹ Thus, I was amused that Leyielo was confused when queried about incidences of apiu, while his friend triumphantly took the...

    • Chapter 8 Loip
      (pp. 153-176)

      Have you ever stood outside in a place so distant from roads and cities that the countryside surrounded you in a circle whose edges met the horizon at the place where the world falls into space? At dusk the colors curl down, sneaking slowly behind the curtain of the universe and letting the stars escape to fill the dome that holds us in. We can’t touch the edges, but we can see them out there where the colors merge and the night comes up—the black membrane that Leropili once told me we cannot pass beyond. We cannot leave our...

  6. Conclusion: Immediacies
    (pp. 177-194)

    I first went to work in northern Kenya with Samburu pastoralists in July 1992, with my eight-year-old son Jesse, and my six-year old son Jen. I settled in the Samburu lowlands to do a multisited project about gender, Christian missions, and development in three areas of varying accessibility to roads and social services. In a very short time my sons and I settled in to this beautiful but harsh countryside, where the bare needs of survival dictated the pace, activities, and texture of life. This was true throughout the lowlands but especially so in the site I chose as farthest...

  7. Appendix 1. From the Derridean Gap to Theorizations of Consciousness and Forgetting: Defending Expansive Experience Within the Play of Signs
    (pp. 195-214)
  8. Appendix 2. The “I” Verb Stem
    (pp. 215-218)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 219-246)
  10. Glossary
    (pp. 247-252)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 253-270)
  12. Index
    (pp. 271-275)