“Most of the rooms I got serviced in permanently smelled of fresh cum and kerosene smoke. The woman would throw herself on the bed, legs wide open and ready to fuck. There was no foreplay, no kissing, no nothing. I had read novels where a guy would drive a woman nuts with desire by just playing with her erogenous zones. But this was like jerking off inside a goddamn closet. The only difference was that this ‘closet’ was always drippy with cum from the previous customers and it could talk back to me. After I was done with the woman, she would yank out a dank, moldy rag from under the mattress and wipe my tool.” – An email from Ngeti Mwadime, recounting his visits to Mombasa brothels while still at school.
It is an occupational hazard for Africanists. On a field trip, you stumble across someone, somewhere, that makes you want to stop, abandon what you are doing, and bring them and their life to the attention of the outside world. It last happened to me in September on the Mukuku bridge that spans the Luapula River in Zambia. We were busy negotiating to buy some fish from a group of semi-nomadic fisherwomen. They lived in the swamp in temporary shelters, surviving as generations had done before them. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a beautiful young woman in a long bright blue and red dress walked towards us with the cutest baby on her back. She wore a large turban with a metal pan balanced on top. She stopped, carefully removed the dish and began slowly to uncoil her turban. As she did, she produced a large eel and two flatfish, so freshly caught they twitched and twisted in the sunlight.
This book is fascinating, shocking, touching, disturbing and not entirely satisfactory. I couldn’t put it down
The urge is often to want to strike up a friendship, to return and tell “their story”. But you resist it, sensibly, and leave them in peace knowing that it could only end in tears: their life would be dissected and displayed, cruelly and insensitively, smart-arse reviewers homing in on the sensational and lurid, as this reviewer has done above.
Anthropologist James Smith, as this thoroughly compelling achievement attests, did not resist. He has compiled, edited and historicised emails (along with journal extracts and recorded conversations) with Ngeti Mwadime, his research assistant and friend from the Taita Hills in Kenya. “It is our book about what it is like to be him,” Smith insists. The results are fascinating, shocking, touching, disturbing and not entirely satisfactory. I couldn’t put it down.
“Mzungu! [White man!] Where in Zeus’s butt-hole are you?” is how the email exchanges began in 2002. The book takes us through Mwadime’s life as he recounts his journey from boyhood to adulthood. He draws us into his family life, work projects, financial pressures, boredom and self-analysis. Smith is there throughout, contextualising and offering interpretations of these complex, sometimes harrowing accounts. However, as much as this book is about Mwadime’s internal suffering, material anguish and failures, the message Smith wants to get across is an uplifting tribute to the intelligence, creativity, invention, improvisation and survivability of his cheeky, likeable friend.
Certainly, Mwadime’s ability to move between cultures and languages is extraordinary. We start off with a defensive explanation of his love of the English language. It’s presented not as post-colonial cultural imperialism but as a strategy of empowerment and enjoyment. Mwadime relishes entertaining his American buddy with lavish descriptions of local myths about the coming of the white man, his Kenyan perspective on Osama bin Laden and his analysis of US elections. He believes, because he is an observer from the global South, that he sees Americans far better than they can see themselves.
Smith is captivated by what he identifies as transgressive in Mwadime’s “dialogic” and “multigeneric” language. It moves between urban slang, Swahili, American-English and local dialects. “I like to mix it up,” Mwadime proudly writes, “the high and the low, the motherfuckers and the corpus delectis!”
However, a cruel paradox is at work here. The Taita Hills is one of the most cosmopolitan places to live in the world, Smith insists, because, as Mwadime shows, “people there look outward to a world beyond limited territorial confines. That world may exist for them as an idea or perhaps a dream, partly mediated by imagery garnered from CNN or Kung Fu Panda or Stephen King, but it has substance nonetheless”. But that world is more distant and out of reach, materially, for Mwadime and his generation, than for his parents. Prior to the structural adjustment programmes and the withdrawal of the developmental state starting in the 1980s, Mwadime’s family lived well, in a large house, and his mother was a powerful figure in the community.
The big problem for Mwadime is that he is drawn into seeing his frustrated ambitions as the result of being dragged down by the far more proximal world where “historical malevolence” holds sway. Ritual, superstition, the occult and witchcraft have, as the confessional-autobiographical soliloquies presented here show, consumed a massive amount of Mwadime’s time and energy. And so did born-again Christianity, in the form of a charismatic Pentecostal preacher, Patroba.
“I am trying to render asunder the diaphanous veil that prevents us from exploring the unknown,” is Mwadime’s verdict on his accounts of visits to various witch doctors as a teenager in 2002. His strongly Catholic parents had become troubled by sounds at night and door handles that turned mysteriously. These events were interpreted as evidence of naked “night-runners” or malevolent forces that were visiting their compound because there were people who wished ill on them. As their fortunes dipped and their beloved son stopped working at school, they sought remedies from increasingly powerful “bush doctors” while outwardly remaining good Catholics. One female “messiah” to whom Mwadime was sent sat inside a smoke-filled mud hut, communicating with his ancestors. They advised removing objects from his head and body sent there by a jealous step-grandmother: the old woman “reached for my head and took it in her hands and she brought her mouth to my scalp, and she bit a fair chunk of my cranium and pulled her mouth away…”
Yet it is because Mwadime is not straitjacketed by local traditions and customs that he seeks explanations and solutions from ritual and witchcraft, suggests Smith. Rather it is “the product of a thwarted relationship with an imaginary outside world through which [Ngeti] struggles to realise himself as an autonomous being” that renders him willing to try out a range of possible remedies. He is a citizen of a borderless world where subjectivity and identity are in a constant state of flux and movement; a situation that many of us in the West, Smith points out, will increasingly have to come to terms with.
As much as Smith insists that this is a joint project and their story, and shows us how much he has tried to help Mwadime over the course of their long and genuine friendship, the inequality inherent in their relationship, and this book project, is troubling. It is Mwadime who is exposed; his most personal, shocking and intimate life experiences are being disseminated. Smith has genuinely lost some of his email replies to Mwadime; perhaps publishers and readers would not find his own inner journey as attractive a prospect as that of his Kenyan friend. But what will be the impact on Mwadime’s close relationships or his standing in his community of these revelations? How different is this from early Victorian encounters between explorer and servant, such as Henry Morton Stanley’s sentimental attachment to his servants Susi and Chuma, whom he made famous? Of course Smith hasn’t undertaken this collaboration to exploit Mwadime, but will it be unequal and exploitative nevertheless?
One of the hidden insights in Email from Ngeti is the way these emails/male narratives speak of the greater struggles that African women have. Often excluded from the potential empowerment of new technologies, they are nevertheless subjected to the degradation of female sexuality by it, particularly male obsessions with internet porn. The irrational fear and loathing of powerful women that men can carry led to the maligning of Mwadime’s incredibly resourceful and influential mother, Monica. In his final conversational-psychoanalytical retrospective with Smith, Mwadime concedes that she wasn’t a witch, but someone so talented that she managed to escape the confines of her sex and circumstances. Smith reveals that Mwadime’s sister typed up most of the emails for him; likewise he thanks his female research assistant who helped to collate the material for him. Maybe they will co-write the sequel.
Email from Ngeti: An Ethnography of Sorcery, Redemption, and Friendship in Global Africa
By James H. Smith and Ngeti Mwadime
University of California Press, 240pp, £44.95 and £19.95
ISBN 9780520281103, 02811 and 0959408 (e-book)
Published 6 October 2014
James H. Smith (left) is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Ngeti Mwadime (right) lives, works and looks for opportunities in the Taita Hills and Mombasa, Kenya.