Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya

Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya

by Bilinda Straight

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An engaging, provocative intervention in cultural theory."—Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"Straight's . . . work reminds the reader of the important ways that theory and ethnography can mutually inform and illuminate, and the book is an important contribution to the existing literature for both area specialist and the theoretically inclined."—American Anthropologist

Product Details

University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date:
Contemporary Ethnography
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1 MB

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Author's Note

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all of the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy (Peirce 1958: 40).

What you are about to read is an extended meditation on human experience that is simultaneously philosophical and ethnographic. I wrote most of this book's early chapter drafts during a second extended (one year) field stay in 2001-2002. At that time, in the midst of partaking of Samburu experiences, I found myself meeting Samburu philosophical reflections with my own. And I returned, in my mind, to my earlier fieldwork (two years, from 1992-1994), when I first became overwhelmed by the daily grittiness, joys, and profound sufferings of others. Thus, those earlier experiences were seeping into these later ones, and my earlier thoughts, readings, and writings were as well. My first response in 2001 then, to being utterly surrounded and profoundly—as in, at the core of my being—affected by my Samburu friends' way of being in the world, was to return to my 1993 musings on magical realism and a dream:

I first discovered Borges in Kenya in 1993. In "The Aleph" Borges compressed the universe into a single point; in "The Book of Sand" he pressed infinity between the pages of an ancient book. In "The Writing of the God" he summed up the universe in forty syllables.

I understood these parables in a particular way because at the age of sixteen I had an oft-recurring dream in which the universe revealed itself to me. Omniscient, omnipresent, it told me everything at once. Afraid that I would lose the revelation upon waking, I had repeated the secret over and over, but all of a sudden it had gotten away before I'd realized. At first, it seemed retrievable, like it was on the tip of my tongue, as if I could re-conjure it with a word. But no, it had slipped away like a living thing, leaving just some fantastic feeling in its place.

Then, much later, the universe returned, this time in a dream of my own passing. I dreamed me in several places and times—one in the Middle Ages—and the near and distant in time and place converged in a single death. I dreamed the pain, the receding vision, the voices disappearing around me. And then, I dreamed myself moving toward a total becoming that I knew was total completion. I felt myself dissolving into each individual atom simultaneously, infinite particles carried somewhere, joining with every other in the universe. And in that joining I awoke, knowing that in that death, I would remember nothing and everything.

What I understood by 1993 was that, for my friends in the lowlands in particular, life was often experienced as being at risk of slipping away, and an understanding of the relationship between the living and the dead was at once necessary and occasionally horrifying. At the same time, I recognized what my dreams were telling me: that writing about Samburu experiences, or anyone's experiences including my own, was also about a slipping away, about conjuring something that had just been on the tip of my tongue. So I wrote most of this book in the field, putting stories in as soon as they happened, letting myself be driven along by the many points of wisdom of my Samburu friends, as they revealed them to me. And this animal of a book grew. As soon as I started it though, I knew that I could not separate myself from their experiences nor could I separate my thoughts from theirs. My thought as a scholar began to mature during those first two years of fieldwork, and there was no going back to a time when I could distinguish my Euro-American ideas from those of my Samburu friends. Do we ever start fieldwork with a clean philosophical and political slate? I do not believe so. What I have written here is a textual culmination of a joint project of illumination.

. . . . . . . .

About the Introduction and Appendix

For the sake of those who would like to get on with it, Chapter One includes a fairly brief introduction to the philosophical ideas I engage with in this book. For those of you who would like a more detailed exposition of my theoretical project, I have included an essay in Appendix One. I hope that many of you read it, and I apologize to anyone who feels I have buried my theoretical ideas at the back of this book. These ideas are no afterthought. Consider it dessert.

. . . I have used pseudonyms throughout this book with two exceptions: I have used the real names of my research assistants and of famous or well-known Samburu prophets.

Meet the Author

Bilinda Straight is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Western Michigan University and is the editor of Women on the Verge of Home. She has worked with the Samburu in northern Kenya off and on since 1992.

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