A Self-Evident Death? Reading Water and Witchcraft in the News of a Kenya MP's DeathSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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In Kenya, four topics can be consistently counted on to make the news: road accidents, floods, deaths of prominent politicians, and witchcraft. Over two weeks in May 2003, the Daily Nation, Nairobi's most highly circulated English-language daily newspaper and one of the most internationally well regarded news journals in East Africa, carried a spate of articles which integrated these typically unrelated issues. These articles on Yatta MP James Mutiso's death in a car wreck and the rumors of witchcraft it produced were part of a larger, ongoing series on the catastrophic flooding in Ukamba Province precipitated by the annual March through May long rains.
The first Nation article specifically about the MP's death provided a narrative account of Mutiso's car accident and subsequent drowning in the seasonal Mbakoni river. The last piece described pledges made at Mutiso's funeral by the ministers of the newly elected NARC government to rehabilitate the neglected road crossing the river and to build a bridge named in the MP's honor at the site of the drowning. The intervening article reported the rumors of and gossip about witchcraft swirling around the death of the MP.
While such an article about witchcraft might initially jar Westerners unaccustomed to reading about occult claims in a journal-of-record, neither the Nation's article about the purported role of witchcraft in Mutiso's drowning nor the content of the rumors and gossip that the piece addressed would have struck the majority of the newspaper's readers as unusual. Why is this the case? First, rumors of and gossip about witchcraft are regularly covered by the newspaper. Recent Nation headlines include, "Man lynched on claims he is sorcerer," and "Woman homeless after witchcraft allegations." Second, discussions of witchcraft form an integral part of popular discourse, understanding and experience in contemporary Kenya, and within this frame sudden deaths and "natural" disasters are often attributed to witchcraft. Third, in postcolonial Kenya the deaths of "Big Men"—powerful actors inside and outside the country's political establishment—invariably create controversy and often produce allegations of foul play enacted through material and/or supernatural means.
The newspaper's decision to cover the witchcraft rumors and gossip about Mutiso's drowning, together with the language journalists employed, suggests that witchcraft (along with other occult categories) does explanatory work in Kenya. For numerous Kenyans—irrespective of ethnic group, age, educational background, religious affiliation or socioeconomic status—witchcraft works to explain personal and public distress. Witchcraft is both a social fact and a common experience. But from the point of view of "modern" institutions like the press concerned with verifiable evidence, witchcraft is an imaginary, albeit it one so pervasive that it can be discounted but not ignored. Rather than reducing witchcraft's sway in imagination and experience, policies of officially treating witchcraft as simultaneously real and imagined, instead, reinforce its hold.
Contextualizing Witchcraft in Kenya
So what is witchcraft in the historical and present-day contexts of Kenya? Among Kenya's numerous ethnic groups, a range of supernatural practices and beliefs abound. These practices and beliefs are differentiated in local languages by highly specific terminology and encompass specialized knowledge. These particularized definitions of supernatural beliefs and practices are accessible both through anthropological texts dating back to the colonial period and in contemporary discourses of everyday life.
"Witchcraft"—as a catch-all category for supernatural harm entailing speech, substances and sentiments—was established by colonial anti-witchcraft laws which sought simultaneously to discipline and deny the efficacy of supernatural practices and beliefs. These laws described a range of witchcraft offenses centered around pretense to supernatural powers targeted "to cause fear, annoyance or injury." Short titles of the 1925 Witchcraft Ordinance, from which the current law is derived, subsumed the following activities under the rubric of witchcraft offenses: using charms, using "witch medicine" with intent to injure, advising on how to bewitch or to injure by supernatural means, supplying purported articles of witchcraft, accusing persons with witchcraft, and attempting to discover crimes by witchcraft. But at the same moment, the ordinance identified witchcraft as not real. According to the ordinance, "so-called witchcraft" was pretending to "exercise supernatural power" or the actions of a person "holding himself out to be a witchdoctor." This colonial construct continues to inform the institutionalized disbelief apparent today in the attitudes and discourse of "modern" institutions like the press and is reflected in the Nation's handling of the witchcraft rumors and gossip about Mutiso's death.
Closely Reading Coverage of the MP's Case
The Nation's coverage of the Ukambani floods, along with that related to Mutiso's death, adhered to journalistic genres identifiable not only in the Nation, but in newspapers in general. Stories carried alongside those on the MP's drowning offered "public service" messages about safe driving during the long rains. An article titled "Caution is key to survival on flooded roads" provided such tips as, "...the water finds it way into the stuck vehicle's engine through the air cleaner or is sucked in through the exhaust." Another piece, "His last working days recalled," eulogized the MP and described his final day of doing the business of the nation, and "How I cheated death, by councillor," offered readers a sensational account of the events surrounding the drowning.
A preliminary perusal of these headlines would suggest that "How I cheated death" would be the article to contain the most pronounced dramaturgical flair. But the topics addressed by the articles—finding oneself trapped in a sinking car, the drowning death of a "big man," and the escape from drowning by another (relatively smaller) one—are themselves inherently dramatic. This quality is reflected in the modes used to narrate them. After all, being stuck in a sinking car is "...akin to being on death row, waiting for that dreaded call from the hangman." And, little did Mutiso know as he distributed invitations to his electoral victory party and went about his last working day's business, that by midnight he would be dead and his colleague, Councillor Nahashon Kinyua, would have "...stared death in the face..." and seen "...the monster snatch his MP."
But what of the rumors and gossip about the role witchcraft may have played in the death of the MP? Would not a topic so seemingly replete with dramatic possibility be reported in a similar vein? Yet the piece on these rumors, "Witchcraft riddle in MP's death?" is the least dramatic of all these articles. Why? In Kenya, witchcraft is more quotidian than flooding, drowning, or near-death experiences. And, as noted above, witchcraft in Kenya has also long been subject to an official discourse which has sought at the same moment to discipline and deny witchcraft, but above all to strip it of its cache.
If one reads more closely the initial front-page story specifically attending to the circumstances of Mutiso's drowning, "MP drowns in floods," the "riddle" of the MP's death begins to take shape. Mutiso, traveling from Nairobi to Ukambani—(in)famous for its witchcraft as well as for its propensity to flood—to finalize the arrangements for his electoral victory party, was not the only person who drowned. The other victim was a woman described as a "healer from Nairobi's Kayole estate whom Mr. Mutiso was taking home to help prepare traditional Kamba dishes for his guests."
In this first article, neither is the appellation "healer" elaborated nor is Mutiso's hiring of a "healer" to prepare "traditional" food for his celebration explained. Such absences are not oversights on the part the writer or editor, but instead an example of "culturally reasonable conjecture," an instance in which seemingly necessary information is left out of a story because the writer has assumed that readers would be able to fill in the blanks with the relevant cultural knowledge. For readers of the Nation, the threads of meaning wrapped up in the term of "healer" and in a "healer's" activities would be so taken-for-granted that the journalist could leave them unsaid.
Yet rumors of witchcraft circulating after the "...discovery of bizarre items concealed in a travelling bag..." belonging to the "healer" together with the revelation that she came from Kitui, the Ukambani location renowned for its powerful witchcraft practitioners, inspired such a popular furor that they were covered by the Nation in "Witchcraft riddle in MP's death." These "bizarre items," never enumerated but described in the same article as "witchcraft material" and "witchcraft tools," fueled contentions and gossip among residents in Mutiso's home location that malevolent witchcraft had played a role in the death of the MP.
The easy, posthumous shift in the woman's identity and activities—from
an unproblematic "healer" engaged to prepare "traditional," celebratory dishes to an (alleged) Kitui witch carrying concealed witchcraft material—reflects the ready and longstanding ambiguity of magical power in Kenya. In a range of cultures in Kenya the line between magic-for-harm and magic-for-healing has been historically treated as very fine and eminently crossable. The "witchcraft riddle" in the MP's death hints at some of the ways in which witchcraft, with all its multifarious meanings, continues to do work in contemporary Kenya.
The Nation, for its part, wrote off the claims "...among superstitious villagers" that the discovery of "witchcraft material" constituted "proof" that "evil spirits had been 'unleashed' to destroy their MP." The paper's treatment of witchcraft allegations in Mutiso's death is similar to the matter-of-factness with which the media in Kenya report the regularly occurring assaults, killings and property destruction incited by witchcraft beliefs and accusations. Such coverage evidences the incredulity with which "modern" institutions like the press handle rumors and gossip of witchcraft. At the same moment, it points to the paper's expectations about how its readers will approach and appreciate witchcraft.
Why take this particular approach of simultaneously reporting and dismissing witchcraft, of writing it in and writing it off? Witchcraft makes it into the news because it is both accessible and productive of the sorts of spectacles that sell. Witchcraft gets written off because it is incompatible with the disbelief through which "modern" public institutions labor. But the persistent strength of people's beliefs in witchcraft and the inefficacy of "modern" means in dealing with them (re)create destructive claims and cycles of violence. It is certainly no solution to suggest the problem of witchcraft is imagined. Until "modern" authority accepts the reality and purchase of people's witchcraft beliefs and practices, rumors like those in Mutiso's case will continue to run rampant and headlines about witchcraft will continue to appear in pages of the Nation.
So what of Mutiso, his "healer," and the water? The MP's death was deemed a tragic, but not unusual, rainy season accident. The discussion over the role of his "healer" was dropped. Nonetheless, there will remain a significant number of people in Ukambani who will insist, along the lines of a famous anthropologist's equally famous question, "Yes, but who sent the flood that drowned the MP?"
Katherine Luongo is a Ph.D. candidate in history at U-M.
Mburu Mwangi, "MP drowns in floods," Daily Nation, 2 May 2003. See also Victor Nzuma, "State pledge at Mutiso burial," Daily Nation, 11 May 2003; and "Witchcraft riddle in MP's death," Daily Nation, 3 May 2003.
For example, "devil worship." See Yvon Droz, "Si Dieu veut...ou suppôts de Satan. Inceritudes, millérnarisme et sorcellerie chez les migrants kikuyu," Cahiers D' Études Africaines 37.1(1997); and Hervé Maupeu, "Les Élections Comme Moment Prophétique. Narrations Kikuyu Des Élections Générales de 2002 (Kenya.)," Politique Africaine 9(Juin 2003).
Wambua Sammy, "Caution is key to survival on flooded roads," Daily Nation, 2 May 2003. "His last working days recalled," Daily Nation, 2 May 2003. Bob Odalo, "How I cheated death, by councilor," Daily Nation, 2 May 2003.