Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Breaking boundaries: shit and witchcraft in Kenya

In the ethnography Bewitching Development: Witchcraft and theReinvention of Development in Neoliberal Kenya, James Howard Smith makes a powerful ethnography on witchcraft and development are, in fact, flip-sides of each other in the imagination of the Kenyan group he studies. Reading this for a class, I was not expecting to find a passage on shit, but lo and behold:

“[The] Waitata [the group Smith studied] made sense of the [ambivalence of power] in their jokes about substances that seemed to contain both witchcraft and development within them. Feces were a recurring example. When used as an instrumental tool, feces were always destructive: witches used shit to bewitch people, and their inability to contain their bodies was part and parcel of their occult power. They chewed with their mouths open, neglected to wash their hands, left their feces on the floor of the pit latrine, and sometimes wrote their names, in shit, on the walls” (2008: 97).

Amongst many groups and many different cultures, the body is simultaneously powerful and dangerous. “Sealing” the body helps to maintain clear boundaries between us and environment and to contain that power. This plays into how people are uncomfortable with reminders that our body, is not, in fact, sealed at all. This blends into our discomfort with women’s body hair, menstrual cycles (this desire for a “sealed” body differentially impacts women), sweat, spit, vomit, urine, semen, and, of course, feces. Breaking boundaries can be dangerous by threatening the boundaries with which we define every day society.

Witches, in this example, violate boundaries. They violate the boundaries between people (by acquiring other people’s shit), between body and waste (by coming into contact with the waste), and between proper space for shit and improper space (in the latrine vs. on the walls). Violating boundaries is a scary and powerful thing. Think in every day life or in history. Gandhi and the civil disobedience, for example, violates boundaries (the law), and subsequently creates power. The guy who starts shouting in a library violates boundaries and is simultaneously powerful and perceived as being dangerous. By demonstrating an ability to ignore boundaries, one demonstrates powers over them and thus brings power to one’s self. Looking at shit allows one to exam interesting boundaries and how they are treated.

            More anecdotally, fear of having one’s feces used by witches has been cited as a reason for reluctance on the part of some people of using a latrine. Ironically, then, by violating boundaries themselves (ie, not defecating in “proper” spaces), they are protecting themselves from those who would violate boundaries even further by acquiring their shit (the witches).

            So in working towards better sanitation and the creation of better sanitation facilities, it is important to exam the most important boundaries in the lives of those who are using the facility and examining whether the boundaries in a particular program are strong enough to satisfy. Pit latrines, for example, where one can see all of the shit, may not be enough of a boundary. (Particularly if there is a smell, as smell is somewhat notable for being able to transgress many boundaries by being a very ‘interior’ sense.) Having one’s own shit mix with others may not be enough of a boundary. It’s important, too, to realize that shit has many meanings for different people, and not just to assume that it’s a universal yucky.

But more on that later.

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