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RUMOR AND HISTORY REVISITED: ‘MUMIANI’ IN COASTAL KENYA, 1945

  • ZEBULON DINGLEY (a1)

Abstract

This article analyzes an instance of collective panic about gangs of killers called Watu wa Mumiani (‘Mumiani People’) in Digo District, Kenya in 1945. Popularly believed to work for the colonial government, Watu wa Mumiani were said to abduct Africans from roads and kill them for their blood. I offer an interpretation of this episode in terms of the history of a medicine called Mumia, a nineteenth-century ritual called Mung'aro, regional strategies for surviving famine (including ‘pawning’ kin), and a wartime labor conscription campaign. Rather than emphasize the alterity of ‘vampires’ like Watu wa Mumiani, I show how the 1945 panic articulates concerns about powerful intermediaries, arguing that the stories told about them encode a history of concerns about predatory patrons, especially under conditions of ecological distress.

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Research for this article was supported by a Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship, and by grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Nicholson Center for British Studies at the University of Chicago. Earlier versions were presented at the W. E. B. Du Bois Fellows Colloquium at Harvard University and the African Studies Workshop at the University of Chicago. I would like to thank Ralph Austen, Zoë Berman, Robert Blunt, Jean Comaroff, John Comaroff, Matthew Knisley, Emily Osborn, Myles Osborne, Pauline Peters, and Rosalind Stever for their helpful comments on earlier drafts, and to acknowledge the invaluable research assistance of Mohamed Swaleh Chiryauta. I also wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their perceptive readings and detailed suggestions. For Moishe Postone. Author's email: zdingley@ur.rochester.edu

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1 Digo District was the southernmost administrative district of the Kenya Colony and Protectorate. It became Kwale District in 1948, which became Kwale County under Kenya's new constitution.

2 Kenya National Archives, Nairobi (KNA) CC1/3/26, N. F. Kennaway, ‘Digo District annual report, 1945’. I return to the significance of Kennaway's apparent non-sequitur about the ‘Boran and Abyssinian fashion’ of the mutilation below.

3 Pels, P., ‘Mumiani: the white vampire: a neo-diffusionist analysis of rumour’, Etnofoor, 5:1/2 (1992), 165–87.

4 White, L., Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in East Africa (Berkeley, 2000), 50.

5 Ibid. 82.

6 Ibid. 89; Hunt, N. R., A Colonial Lexicon: Of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo (Durham, NC, 1999), 11.

7 White, Speaking with Vampires, 82. On the ‘vocabulary’ of rumor, see Ibid., 85.

8 Brennan, J., ‘Destroying Mumiani: cause, context, and violence in late colonial Dar es Salaam’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 2:1 (2008), 96.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid. 103.

11 I stress that these are potential risks that I see in their respective methodologies, not a characterization of their actual scholarship.

12 White, Speaking with Vampires, 5, xii.

13 Ibid, 122, 41, 43. Emphasis added. Brennan similarly asserts that ‘Mumiani of course do not exist’. Brennan, ‘Destroying Mumiani’, 96.

14 White, Speaking with Vampires, 89; Brennan, ‘Destroying Mumiani’, 96.

15 Ibid. 82. Mumiani is, however, the only term used to refer to these figures in the archival record for Kwale County and was the only one that I encountered in two and a half years of fieldwork between January 2013 and July 2015.

16 Pettigrew, T. J., A History of Egyptian Mummies (London, 1834), 1.

17 Dannenfeldt, K. H., ‘Egyptian Mumia: the sixteenth century experience and debate’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 16:2 (1986), 163–80.

18 Cunningham, A., Ladák (London, 1854), 237.

19 R. Sivaprasad, A History of Hindustan, Volume III, trans. B. Joshi (Benares, 1874), 26n1.

20 G. A. Grierson, Bihar Peasant Life (London, 1885), 409.

21 J. L. Krapf, A Dictionary of the Suaheli Language (London, 1882), 266–7. Although not published until 1882, the Krapf's dictionary was mostly completed decades earlier. Johannes Rebmann, Krapf's fellow missionary, made a copy in 1850 that contains the following entry: ‘Mumiáni: eine fabelhafte Arznei der Wasungu, aus dem Blute eines Menschen bereitet’ (‘a fabulous medicine of the Europeans, prepared from human blood’). Church Missionary Society Archives, University of Birmingham (CMS) CMS/MS 9, ‘Sparshott Manuscripts’.

22 E. Steere, A Handbook of the Swahili Language as Spoken at Zanzibar (London, 1870), 97; C. Sacleux, Dictionnaire Français-Swahili (Zanzibar, 1891), 631.

23 C. Sacleux, Dictionnaire Swahili-Français (Paris, 1939), 625. Author's translation.

24 F. Johnson, Standard Swahili-English Dictionary (Oxford, 1939), 314. See also D. H. Gordon, ‘Momiyai’, Man, 29 (1929), 203–5; E. C. Baker, ‘Mumiani’, Man, 30 (1930), 73; D. H. Gordon, ‘Some further notes on Momiyai’, Man, 33 (1933), 155–6; G. W. B. Huntingford, ‘Momiyai’, Man, 34 (1934), 16; D. H. Gordon, ‘Momiyai and Silajit’, Man, 34 (1934), 64.

25 Johnson, Swahili-English Dictionary, 314.

26 Pels, ‘Mumiani’, 167.

27 Ibid. D. Arnold, ‘Touching the body: perspectives on the Indian Plague, 1896–1900’, in R. Guha and G. C. Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies (Oxford, 1988), 406–7.

28 White, Speaking with Vampires, 82.

29 ‘Murdered and mutilated’, Mombasa Times (Mombasa), 24 Sept. 1945. Mikindani is in Mombasa District, but the victim was later ‘identified by his fingerprints as … a Giriama from Kilifi’. ‘Identified’, Mombasa Times (Mombasa), 2 Oct. 1945.

30 Note the futility in this instance of trying to draw a clear analytic line between events that did and did not ‘really happen’, or to say for certain what kinds of killers do or do not ‘really exist’. White, Speaking with Vampires, 89; Brennan, ‘Destroying Mumiani’, 96.

31 KNA CA/16/71, ‘Kilifi District monthly intelligence report for September’, 3 Oct. 1945. Kaloleni is an electoral constituency in what is now Kilifi County, located approximately thirty kilometers north of Mombasa.

32 Ibid.

33 Mutilation of corpses in precisely this manner does become characteristic of Mumiani stories in later twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century iterations, however. On twenty-first-century Mumiani panics in Kwale County, see Z. Dingley, ‘Politics by night: a vernacular hermeneutic of suspicion in South Coast, Kenya’. Paper presented at the ‘On Suspicion and the Contemporary’ conference, University of the Witwatersrand Institute for Social and Economic Research, Johannesburg, South Africa, 18–20 April 2018.

34 Wheatley, P., ‘Analecta sino-africana recensa’, in Chittick, H. N. and Rotberg, R. I. (eds.), East Africa and the Orient (New York, 1975), 97; Santos, J. Dos, Aethiopia Oriental (Evora, 1609), quoted in Gray, J. M., ‘Portuguese records relating to the Wasegeju’, Tanganyika Notes and Records, 29 (1950), 86–8. ‘Galla’ is considered derogatory by the Oromo, and I use it here only when quoting others.

35 CMS CA5/O17, J. A. Lamb to Church Missionary Society Secretaries, 19 May 1877. The term ‘Wanika’ (or ‘Wanyika’, etc.), refers approximately to the peoples now called Mijikenda, including the Digo and Duruma with whom this article is primarily concerned. Like ‘Galla’, it is considered derogatory and is used here only in quotations.

36 Krapf, J. L., Travels, Researches, and Missionary Labors During and Eighteen Years’ Residence in Eastern Africa (Boston, 1860), 120–1.

37 Krapf, J. L., ‘Account of the Wonicas of Eastern Africa, and of the Wagnaro, an absurd and atrocious custom among them’, Church Missionary Gleaner, 6:4 (1846), 42–3.

38 Ibid.

39 Griffiths, J. B., ‘Glimpses of a Nyika tribe (Waduruma)’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 65 (1935), 293–4.

40 CMS CA5/O5, G. David, ‘Ugnaro’, 24 Apr. 1879; KNA CC1/3/26, N. F. Kennaway, ‘Digo District Annual Report, 1945’.

41 Krapf, Travels, 121; CMS CA5/O6, George David, ‘Ugnaro’, 24 Apr. 1879; Krapf, ‘Account of the Wonicas’, 43; Burton, R. F., Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast, Volume II (London, 1872), 90–1; Griffiths, ‘Glimpses’, 293.

42 CMS CA5/O17, J. A. Lamb to the Secretaries of the Church Missionary Society, 19 May 1877.

43 Ibid.

44 Cooper, F., Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa (New Haven, 1977); Willis, J. and Miers, S., ‘Becoming a child of the house: incorporation, authority and resistance in Giryama society’, The Journal of African History, 38:3 (1997), 479–95; Sheriff, A., Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar (Athens, OH, 1987); Austen, R. A., ‘The 19th century Islamic slave trade from East Africa (Swahili and Red Sea coasts): a tentative census’, in Clarence-Smith, W. G. (ed.), The Economics of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1989), 2144.

45 Cooper, Plantation Slavery, 122–30; Willis and Miers, ‘Becoming a Child’, 487–8; Sheriff, Slaves, 29.

46 Cooper, Plantation Slavery, 128–9; J. Willis, Mombasa, the Swahili, and the Making of the Mijikenda (Oxford, 1993), 74; E. A. Alpers, ‘Debt, pawnship and slavery in nineteenth-century East Africa’, in G. Campbell and A. Stanziani (eds.), Bonded Labour and Debt in the Indian Ocean World (London, 2013), 36.

47 Cooper, Plantation Slavery, 126; J. L. Giblin, ‘Famine and social change during the transition to colonial rule in northeastern Tanzania, 1880–1896’, African Economic History, 15 (1986), 85–105.

48 Cooper, Plantation Slavery, 128.

49 T. J. Herlehy, ‘An economic history of the Kenya coast: the Mijikenda coconut palm economy, ca. 1800–1980’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Boston University, 1985), 328–31.

50 Morton, R. F., ‘Small change: children in the nineteenth-century East African slave trade’, in Campbell, G., Miers, S., and Miller, J. C. (eds.), Children in Slavery through the Ages (Athens, OH, 2009), 5570.

51 Willis and Miers, ‘Becoming a Child’, 481.

52 Giblin, J. L., ‘Pawning, politics, and matriliny in northeastern Tanzania’, in Falola, T. and Lovejoy, P. E. (eds.), Pawnship in Africa: Debt Bondage in Historical Perspective (Boulder, 1994), 4354; Giblin, ‘Famine’, 88–90; Willis and Miers, ‘Becoming a Child’, passim; R. F. Morton, ‘Pawning and slavery on the Kenya coast: The Miji Kenda case’, in Falola and Lovejoy (eds.), Pawnship, 27–42; Kopytoff, I. and Miers, S., ‘African slavery: An institution of marginality’, in Miers, S. and Kopytoff, I. (eds.), African Slavery: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (Madison, 1977), 381.

53 In northern Mijikenda dialects this is rendered ‘kambi’ and seems to have referred to a differently structured (but still age-based) body of elder men. Griffiths, ‘Glimpses’, 292–3; Brantley, C., ‘Gerontocratic government: age-sets in pre-colonial Giriama’, Africa, 48:3 (1978), 248–64; Spear, T. T., The Kaya Complex: A History of the Mijikenda Peoples of the Kenya Coast to 1900 (Nairobi, 1978), 5865; Willis, Mombasa, 42–3.

54 Playfair, R. L., ‘Visit to the Wanika country in the vicinity of Mombassa, and the progress made by the Christian missionaries at that place’, Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society, 17 (1863/4), 274–5; Burton, R. F., Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast, Volume Two (London, 1872), 90–1; New, C., Life, Wanderings and Labours in Eastern Africa (London, 1873), 106–7; Griffiths, ‘Glimpses’, 292–3. There is some disagreement among nineteenth-century sources over the nature and significance of the statuses or cohorts into which men were initiated on the one hand, and the rituals by which they were initiated on the other. For a detailed review and analysis, see Z. Dingley, ‘Kinship, capital, and the occult on the South Coast of Kenya’, (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Chicago, 2018).

55 Willis and Miers, ‘Becoming a Child’, 488.

56 Ibid.

57 The Village Headmen Ordinance of 1902 recognized these figures as administrators and gave them legal powers to compel labor ‘for the upkeep of any public road adjacent to their village’. The Native Authorities Act of 1912 made chiefs and headmen entitled to 24 days of unpaid labor from each ‘able-bodied’ man in their village annually and empowered them to fine those who failed to comply. A 1920 amendment included payment but increased the annual requirement from 24 days to 60, with exemptions available to those otherwise employed for three of the previous twelve months. Okia, O., Communal Labor in Colonial Kenya: The Legitimization of Coercion, 1912–1930 (New York, 2012), 24; ‘The native authority ordinance, 1912’, The Official Gazette of the East Africa Protectorate 14: 312 (1912), 743–4; ‘The native authority amendment ordinance, 1920’, The Official Gazette of the East Africa Protectorate, 22: 695 (1920), 93.

58 Willis, Mombasa, 81–94. See also Cooper, F., From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya 1890–1925 (New Haven, 1981), 176–91, 215–32.

59 The National Archives of the United Kingdom, Kew (UKNA) CO 533/531/10, K. Gandar Dower, ‘The aims and methods of native administration in the reserves. No. 2. First steps in British democracy’, 1943; KNA PC/COAST/1/9/52, H. E. Lambert, ‘Memorandum on labour recruiting’, 5 Oct. 1918.

60 ‘Taveta’ is an electoral constituency in what is now Taita-Taveta County. Interviews on Mwaka wa Taveta were conducted by the author in April and May 2015, and are cited as ‘INT 1b’, ‘INT 2a’, etc., with ‘1’, ‘2’, etc., indicating the anonymized informant and ‘a’, ‘b’, etc. indicating the first, second, etc. interview with that person. INT 1d, INT 2c, INT 28b, INT 39a-b, INT 40, INT 41a, INT 42a, INT 43a, INT 45, INT 49, INT 50, INT 52, INT 53.

61 KNA CA/16/66, ‘Monthly intelligence reports, Digo District’, Jun. 1944 to Oct. 1945.

62 Ibid.; INT 1d, INT 2c, INT 28b, INT 39b, INT 40, INT 41, INT 42a, INT 43a, INT 45, INT 49, INT 50, INT 52, INT 53.

63 INT 2c, INT 39a, INT 41a, INT 43a, INT 45, INT 49, INT 52.

64 During an elicitation of a famine chronology, for instance, one of Willis's informants turned the discussion to ‘forced labour, and labour done for food aid.’ The link between conscription and food aid was explicit: ‘wazee wanaandamwa kutoa watoto … halafu unakwenda kwenye mahindi, unakwenda kupima pishi moja’ [‘old men are ordered to provide children … then you go to the place with maize, you go to measure out one pishi [about one half gallon]’] … Stressed that elders pressured to produce watoto [‘children’] for public works like the road to Lunga Lunga’. Transcripts of Willis's ‘Mombasa Interviews’ are available in the Oral History Archive at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi (BIEA). Willis Interview 19a. Author's translation.

65 INT 2c, INT 40, INT 41a, INT 42a, INT 45, INT 52, and INT 53 favored the mother's brother. See also Willis Int. 60a, BIEA. INT 28b, INT 39a and INT 43a favored the father. INT 49 and INT 50 emphasized argument and agreement over the arbitrary power of either figure.

66 In an interview with Suzanne Miers, for example, one man claimed to have seen young men taken from each household in Kilifi District, tied to one another by a rope around their waists ‘like you were going to be killed’, after having been sought out by local sub-chiefs. S. Miers, Interview, Katoi wa Kithi, 28 Sept. 1972. Author's translation. Transcripts of Miers's interviews are available in the Oral History Archive at the BIEA in Nairobi.

67 INT 39b, INT 43a. On ‘the matrilineal puzzle’, see A. I. Richards, ‘Some types of family structure amongst the Central Bantu’, in A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and D. Forde (eds.), African Systems of Kinship and Marriage (London, 1950), 207–51.

68 INT 41a.

69 INT 2c, INT 39a, INT 43a, INT 45, INT 49, INT 52.

70 INT 28b, INT 40, INT 42a, INT 53.

71 UKNA CO 533/533/6, O. Stanley to Sir H. Moore, 5 Jun. 1944.

72 UKNA CO 533/533/6, G. F. Seel, 13 Jun. 1944; O. Stanley to E. R. Edmonds, 10 Jul. 1944.

73 Willis, Mombasa, 195.

74 Ibid.

75 Willis Int. 68a, BIEA. Author's translation.

76 Ibid. The term translated here as ‘mortgage’ when referring to land — ‘kuweka rahani’ — is the same as that translated earlier as ‘pawning’ in reference to the temporary transfer of rights in persons. It was not until after Muses's death that Willis's interlocutor was able to compel his son to relinquish the land, giving a sense of the multi-generational durability of these patron-client ties.

77 Ibid.

78 Ibid.

79 Ibid.

80 Willis Interview 73a, BIEA. Author's translation.

81 Ibid.

82 Ibid.

83 Ibid.

84 White, Speaking with Vampires, 47.

85 INT 49.

86 Ibid.

87 White, Speaking with Vampires, 83.

88 Pettigrew, E., ‘The heart of the matter: interpreting bloodsucking accusations in Mauritania’, The Journal of African History, 57:3 (2016), 417–35.

89 This statement was made during an informal, unrecorded conversation on 28 October 2013 during a Mumiani scare in Kwale County in October and November of that year. The reasoning of the woman in question was subsequently corroborated during several similarly difficult-to-cite interactions with others (author's fieldnotes, 31 Oct., 3 Nov., 13 Nov., and 16 Nov. 2013) of the sort that often yield an ethnographer's most important data. On the 2013 Mumiani scare, which accompanied a failure of the short rains and a local election, see Dingley, ‘Politics by night’.

90 Brennan, ‘Destroying Mumiani’, 96; White, Speaking with Vampires, 83.

91 Benjamin, W., ‘Convolute “N”: (on the theory of knowledge, theory of progress)’, in Tiedman, R. (ed.), The Arcades Project, trans. Eiland, H. and McLaughlin, K. (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 463.

92 White, Speaking with Vampires, 83.

93 In this sense my argument is also indebted to Shaw's, Rosalind Memories of the Slave Trade (Chicago, 2002), but taking rumor, rather than ritual, as its object. For another recent attempt to put Benjamin (via Michael Taussig) in conversation with Shaw's work, see Apter, A., ‘History in the dungeon: Atlantic slavery and the spirit of capitalism in Cape Coast Castle, Ghana’, American Historical Review, 122:1 (2017), 2354.

94 KNA CC1/3/26, Kennaway, ‘Digo District annual report, 1945’; Krapf, Dictionary, 266–7.

95 Cunningham, Ladák, 237; Grierson, Bihar, 409.

96 KNA CC1/3/26, Kennaway, ‘Digo District Annual Report, 1945’.

97 White, Speaking with Vampires, 82.

98 KNA CC1/3/26, Kennaway, ‘Digo District annual report, 1945’.

Research for this article was supported by a Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship, and by grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Nicholson Center for British Studies at the University of Chicago. Earlier versions were presented at the W. E. B. Du Bois Fellows Colloquium at Harvard University and the African Studies Workshop at the University of Chicago. I would like to thank Ralph Austen, Zoë Berman, Robert Blunt, Jean Comaroff, John Comaroff, Matthew Knisley, Emily Osborn, Myles Osborne, Pauline Peters, and Rosalind Stever for their helpful comments on earlier drafts, and to acknowledge the invaluable research assistance of Mohamed Swaleh Chiryauta. I also wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their perceptive readings and detailed suggestions. For Moishe Postone. Author's email:

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RUMOR AND HISTORY REVISITED: ‘MUMIANI’ IN COASTAL KENYA, 1945

  • ZEBULON DINGLEY (a1)

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