Bewitching Development: Witchcraft and the Reinvention of Development in Neoliberal Kenya

Bewitching Development: Witchcraft and the Reinvention of Development in Neoliberal Kenya

by James Howard Smith


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These days, development inspires scant trust in the West. For critics who condemn centralized efforts to plan African societies as latter day imperialism, such plans too closely reflect their roots in colonial rule and neoliberal economics. But proponents of this pessimistic view often ignore how significant this concept has become for Africans themselves. In Bewitching Development, James Howard Smith presents a close ethnographic account of how people in the Taita Hills of Kenya have appropriated and made sense of development thought and practice, focusing on the complex ways that development connects with changing understandings of witchcraft.

Similar to magic, development’s promise of a better world elicits both hope and suspicion from Wataita. Smith shows that the unforeseen changes wrought by development—greater wealth for some, dashed hopes for many more—foster moral debates that Taita people express in occult terms. By carefully chronicling the beliefs and actions of this diverse community—from frustrated youths to nostalgic seniors, duplicitous preachers to thought-provoking witch doctors—BewitchingDevelopment vividly depicts the social life of formerly foreign ideas and practices in postcolonial Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226764580
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/28/2008
Series: Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning Series
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

James Howard Smith is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis.

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Bewitching Development

Witchcraft and the Reinvention of Development in Neoliberal Kenya


Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-76458-0

Chapter One

Bewitching Development: The Disintegration and Reinvention of Development in Kenya

The idea of development stands like a ruin on the intellectual landscape.... Above all, the hopes and desires which made the idea fly, are now exhausted: development has grown obsolete. —Wolfgang Sachs, The Development Dictionary

The problem with you Wataita is that you hate development! —Maji Marefu, a Tanzanian witch-hunter, to an impassioned crowd of spectators in the Taita Hills, upon extracting what appeared to be a human arm bone from near the foundation of a primary school, 1998

Discourse—the mere fact of speaking, of employing words, of using the words of others (even if it means returning them), words that the others understand and accept (and, possibly, return from their side)—this fact is in itself a force. Discourse is, with respect to the relation of forces, not merely a surface of inscription, but something that brings about effects. —Michel Foucault, "Society Must be Defended"

In this era of post-everythings, we are often told that development is dead, despite the fact that the business of international development continues—still largely with a view to reshaping the world in accordance to the "natural" logic of the liberated market. Indeed, the matrix of international institutions that provide interest-bearing loans and aid, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (or, as Kenyans put it, the International Mother and Father), exercise unprecedented control over the legal and economic systems of nation-states in the global South. But the idea that the West (or these days, the East) can bring development to the rest, in terms of global equity or sustainable improvement of living conditions, has been largely abandoned by many of its former proponents (see also Leys 1996). As Andre Gunder Frank put it, "Most development for one group ... comes at the expense of antidevelopment for others.... That is what real world development really means" (Frank 1991, 58–60). Moreover, such highmodernist staples as rationalized scientific planning from "above" and the attendant ideology of unilinear progress are now widely understood to be philosophically and morally moribund instruments of imperial control (Mitchell 2002; Scott 1998; Escobar 1995; Ferguson 1994; etc.). Now that many have judged the idea of top-down economic development to have rested on a misplaced and false understanding of particular moments in European history (e.g., the idea of rapid industrial "takeoff"), development has become an intellectual embarrassment that bears the weight of all the criticism directed at high modernism in its totality (cf. Scott 1998). And unlikely players jump on board this critique: even former chief economist of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz has argued that the guiding principle of the new world order—the market unfettered—is a chimerical product of the secular imagination (Stiglitz 2002).

Much more than a critique of states and global lending institutions is at stake in the deconstruction of development. In this postdialectical, neoliberal world (which Fukuyama [1992] famously referred to as "the end of history"), many have come to think of the idea of unilinear progress as an illusion. Baudrillard put it even more dramatically, arguing that history's spectacular self-realization exploded linear progression and put an end to history: "[History] has become its own dustbin, just as the planet has become its own dustbin" (Baudrillard 1992, 26). And so development, with its explicitly teleological trappings, is left standing awkwardly alone and out of fashion at an angry global rave party where the tempo goes nowhere in particular. But, in this moment of state transformation, high modernist retreat, and global interconnection, history—or better said, historicity (the concept of history and historical unfolding)—is a site of profound meaning making and political struggle throughout the world. And the concept and practice of development is particularly fecund ground for people trying to reinvent their future around changing understandings of their history.

But most discussion of the topic remains wedded to "the development apparatus" normatively conceived. As Marc Edelman and Angelique Haugerud (2005) argue in their introduction to The Anthropology of Development and Globalization, two understandings of development dominate anthropology today. The first is deconstructionist, for lack of a better term, and argues that development theory, as it emerged through economic thought and the history of colonial and postcolonial governance, is an ideological instrument that ultimately produces dependency on the West. The most well-known proponents of this idea have been Arturo Escobar (1988, 1995) and James Ferguson (1994), who argued that "development" was never a real condition that existed somewhere, the rules for which could be imparted to "less developed" nations or people by economists, as both modernization theorists and Marxist-inspired dependency theorists in the post–World War II era implied (see also Grillo and Stirrat 1997; Arce and Long 2000). Rather, they have argued, development is an imaginary telos entrenched with ethnocentric cultural assumptions, such as the stage theory of historical progress and the notion that the sovereign Individual and the co-implicated sovereign Nation-State are the agents of this history. These assumptions are grist for a bureaucratic factory (the development apparatus) run by experts whose work allows the "First World" to believe it knows something about the "Third World," which lacks development by definition and is therefore characterized by the condition of needing something that experts may be capable of bestowing. In Africa in particular, development merges with a historically thick discourse about backwardness and savagery through which this continent, "the very figure of the strange," has come to be known, to the West, "under the sign of absence" (Mbembe 2001, 3–4).

Critics of the deconstructionist take on development from within anthropology have argued that the issues associated with development work and thought, such as increasing global inequality, widespread environmental crisis, the spread of virulent new (and old) diseases, and the transplantation of market logics and ideology into virtually every sphere (the "commodification of just about everything" [Graeber 2001]), are real and pressing, and should not be dismissed, especially by anthropologists (see Hoben 1982; Chambers 1983; Gledhill 2001; Rahnema 1997; Rao and Walton 2004; Edelman and Haugerud 2005; de Sardan 2005, to name but a few). These scholars argue persuasively that the world would benefit from ethnographic analyses of existing global development institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF, as well as transnational social movements and global religious movements aimed at generating development (Bornstein 2005; Finnemore 1997; Fox 2003; Harper 2000). Part of their argument is that the deconstructionist critique that dominated anthropology in the 1980s and 1990s was aimed primarily at large state and international organizations and, tellingly, emerged at the same time as these institutions were being supplanted, from within and without, by transnational governing institutions and the dominant ideology of the free market. As if to prove the Marxian adage that humanity confronts only the social problems that it is capable of surmounting at any given historical moment, social theorists were subjecting centralized planning to critical deconstruction at the very moment when structural adjustment and economic deregulation were changing the rules of the game. Moreover, in criticizing the state, celebrating the power of the indigenous, and viewing global transnational flows as liberating, the deconstructionists gave intellectual voice to neoliberal ideology while neglecting the fact that small institutions, such as grassroots nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), can be as destructive and imperious as large ones (Edelman and Haugerud 2005; Cooke and Kothari 2001).

In this book, I push the discussion of development in a new direction by decisively not defining development as "the sum total of the social processes induced by voluntaristic acts aimed at transforming a social milieu, instigated by institutions or actors who do not belong to the milieu in question, but who seek to mobilize the milieu" (de Sardan 2005, 27). Rather, I trace Africans' actions on the ground as they work to transform the present, a process that also always involves envisioning and modeling the future based on conflicted and contradictory understandings of the past and of other places. Development is particularly interesting because it is a relational concept that entails comparing one's condition to an ideal representation of other places and times to explain and measure circumstances and actions. In particular, I focus on how development becomes a prism for reimagining order and progress when established mechanisms for achieving development—such as state patronage and formal employment—have been thrown asunder. In Swahili, development is translated as maendeleo and literally means moving forward toward a specific goal (from kuenda, to go, and kuendelea, to go on or continue), both in space (expansion over terrain and bringing back things from foreign places) and in time (progressing toward the future). I argue that, beyond this spatiotemporal reference, "maendeleo" is also the name that Kenyans have given to creative energy that manifests for the public good, and that this energy is being put to work in a variety of religious and secular registers with a view to fundamentally changing the world. These new understandings of development have erupted from the fissures of the patronage state, whose mostly simulacral rhetoric of development implied a sustainable future for youth who now reinvent development with themselves at the center (Diouf 2003). Focusing on the Taita Hills of southeastern Kenya, I examine some of the various manners in which development discourse has been used and implemented and how it becomes meaningful in contrast to witchcraft; how different discursive threads, both religious and secular, have merged to produce a distinctive "political imaginaire" (Bayart 2005); and the ways in which the location and directionality of development discourse and practice have changed. When I do refer to recognizable "development projects," I focus on how they have allowed particular groups of people to realize their ambitions in a new historical context, by appropriating things and procedures locally associated with withheld powers (such as that of the state bureaucracy) for themselves.

By writing about Kenyan understandings of development, I wish to demonstrate the power and pitfalls of hope in Kenyans' lives in an effort to palliate the Afro-fatalism that characterizes public, and much academic, discourse regarding the state of affairs on the continent. Rather than generalizing about ideal-typical kleptocratic states and necropolitical pseudostates, I assume that, in any specific African context, an intensity of moral debate and action exists, coupled by efforts to construct viable moral and social boundaries that can mitigate the impact of violence, greed, and death from within and without. I examine social history as well as the ethnographic present in a particular place, focusing on how people have lived on the ground, and how they have worked to make sense of and control the growth and decline of putatively rationalizing processes, such as state and market expansion. While these imaginative actions engage with national and global forces and idioms, they take local forms and are grounded in local practices. It is partly for this reason that I focus a great deal on witchcraft (see below); the concept of witchcraft locates badness in particular places, and in particular kinds of activities, and witchcraft beliefs always imply antiwitchcraft actions, or attempts to control witchcraft. In much of Kenya, ideas about witchcraft and development operate in tandem, as that which needs to be excluded for a particular idea of society and history to emerge is condensed in ideas about witchcraft, and in witchcraft accusations. Historically, these local ideas about witchcraft, grounded in localized social relations and understandings of the relations between means and ends, have been projected to the national level, just as the formerly expert discourse of development has come to permeate society, the two ideas coalescing to shape a distinctive social and political imaginary.

The Meanings of Development

In the West, people typically refer to development in three senses. The first is synonymous with progress and does not necessarily imply any intentional development intervention. The second posits and rationalizes a global status hierarchy, referring to the condition of possessing that which other people desire—that is, of being developed in relation to a developing world—or of lacking a certain set of things, and so being undeveloped or underdeveloped, and thus prompted by desire to acquire development. The third, related, usage, around which the entire development industry is built, refers to planned interventions aimed at generating improved standards of living in less developed parts of the world. Kenyans know about, and invoke, all of these meanings, in addition to a few others.

In Kenya, development is, as Ivan Karp has noted, "a fundamental feature of national and political discourse," which differs markedly from the "technocratic" discourse of development articulated by northern nationstates and international organizations (Karp 2002, 87). For example, Karp notes that the term can refer to the process of growing up (umendelea vizuri!, "you have developed well" in Swahili), and becoming a socially recognized adult. This usage has indigenous roots, but it also echoes the colonial regime's use of the word to imply that the entire African population was slowly "developing" into adult Europeans, and therefore still required careful tutelage (see below; see also Karp 2002). In this quotidian, intersubjective sense, the term has long had a masculine connotation, referring to a man developing or attaining development (amepata maendeleo in Swahili), a condition symbolized by a house of one's own, a wife and children, and perhaps a fattened physique. Because it implies spatial and temporal expansion, development runs parallel to witchcraft, which also allows for the extension and multiplication of the person—witches move rapidly from place to place unseen, through means that are secret and unknown. One major difference is that, in most understandings of the concept that I am familiar with, true maendeleo is supposed to harm no one and be open to public scrutiny and inspection; it is not supposed to be occult, or secret and remote, at least not for the people who imagine themselves to be included in the projected community envisioned in any specific use of the concept.

Linked to the idea of development as expansion is the notion that maendeleo consists in the adoption of innovations from other parts of the world. In a corollary sense, maendeleo implies inventiveness (potentially in anything from clothing to sex to cuisine to agriculture to electoral procedure) and the concomitant willingness to transgress social and political norms and mores (Wataita refer to such people as those who "love development"—wanapenda maendeleo sana); hence, something like progress. But central to the Kenyan idea of development is that, although people can realize this state through their actions—some more than others—there is, and probably will always be, more development elsewhere than in Kenya. Development, then, is imagined to exist in another place (another person, another village, another ethnic group, another country, another time), and African state officials have at times promised to give a taste of this thing development to the public as a gift in exchange for the equally enigmatic gift of loyalty. Thus it is that "maendeleo" can also refer to gifts that come unexpectedly, indeed seeming to drop from the sky, in much the same way that high-level witches bestow unexpected gifts in order to seduce desperate people into their cults (see chapter 3).


Excerpted from Bewitching Development by JAMES HOWARD SMITH Copyright © 2008 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One: Bewitching Development: The Disintegration and Reinvention of Development in Kenya

Chapter Two: I Still Exist! Taita Historicity

Chapter Three: Development’s Other: Witchcraft as Development through the Looking Glass

Chapter Four: “Each Household Is a Kingdom”: Development and Witchcraft at Home

Chapter Five: “Dot Com Will Die Seriously!” Spatiotemporal Miscommunication and Competing Sovereignties in Taita Thought and Ritual

Chapter Six: Development, Witchcraft, and the Sovereign Child

Chapter Seven: Democracy Victorious: Exorcising Witchcraft from Development

Chapter Eight: Conclusion: Tempopolitics, Or Why Development Should Not be Defined as the Improvement of Living Standards




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