Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya

Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya

Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya

Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya


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.


Death is never experienced as such, is it—it is never real. Man is only ever
afraid of an imaginary fear

—Jacques Lacan

July 10, 2003 Reflecting Back. It was December 1993, and we were returning through Swari to our Wamba home. the nurse at the little Swari clinic stopped our vehicle emphatically, asking me to come and see this patient of his, although maybe it was too late. I went inside, past the waiting room, into the simple interior with its plain table. She was there, a tiny girl, maybe eight years old, struggling for breath while her father squeezed a bellows furiously to pump more air into her fragile throat. No oxygen, just a bellows, like fueling a fire. No, perhaps it is too late, the nurse thought now—now that I was staring helplessly at this little father’s darling, her mother outside, holding her breath in the comforting arms of kinswomen. No, I said, it can’t be too late. Wamba Catholic Mission Hospital was forty minutes away, she had to hold on that long.

The nurse accompanied us outside, his head demonstrating his uncertainty. We seated the father in the rear driver’s side seat with his little girl on his lap. Now my four-passenger Suzuki was more than full, with two of my research assistants, one of my sons, myself, and this man with his daughter. Yet a trip to Wamba from here was broadly enticing, and people tried to crowd in as I sat in disbelief—couldn’t they see that this little girl was dying, that she needed space, that we needed to get away? No, they couldn’t, they crowded in noisily, while the little girl’s mother stood by, also wanting to get in though her husband refused her. the moment was loud, terrible, insane, and I wanted to drive away with the door open. I wanted to get away from all those pleading hands.

At last we drove away. We managed a thousand feet, I guess, and then someone told me to stop the car. As soon as the car stopped I could hear the screams and ululations of the little girl’s mother and kinswomen . . .

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