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Abstract

This dissertation is an historical ethnography of occult ritual and rumor among the Mijikenda peoples of the southern Kenyan coast from the nineteenth century to the present. Taking “occult” in the etymological sense of “hidden from view,” I analyze ritual and rumor as modes of rendering visible or tangible forces that cannot themselves be observed, but whose effects are keenly felt. Because of the secretive, proprietary, or exclusionary (and thus also “occult”) nature of the rituals and rumors involved, however, Mijikenda models and theories of politics and society are characterized by what I call a “vernacular hermeneutic of suspicion.” The dissertation identifies an associational nexus of images or motifs—paths and roads as spaces of danger, child sacrifice, predatory patrons, and control of the rain—mediating speculation into the nature of power and those who seem to possess it. Tracing the outlines of key “constellations” that these elements have assumed over the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods, I show how a Mijikenda repertoire of practices for the identification and interpretation of the occult forces presumed to ground power and authority developed in dialectical relationship with those of coastal Arab or Swahili sovereigns, European missionaries and colonial administrators, and the independent Kenyan state.

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