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Oracles, Trauma, and the Limits of Contextualization: Naming the Witch in Contemporary Kenya

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Abstract This article revisits Terence Ranger’s call for scholars of the occult in Africa to better historicize, contextualize, and disaggregate the subject. I argue that Ranger’s imperative fails to define what type of object of study the occult is and take seriously the ‘aggregation’ of the occult as an empirical ethnographic fact. I suggest that ‘the occult’ is often experienced as both a proliferating series of oracular institutions for contending with feelings of affliction, and as invisible forces whose origin and nature are compound. I turn to James Siegel’s work on witchcraft to bring attention to the experiential dimension of the occult, and provide an extended ethnographic account of a moment in which the source, nature, and means of redress of an individual’s occult affliction cannot be determined. I argue, in line with Siegel, that historicization and contextualization, while important, risk denaturing the occult and impairing our understanding of its persistence.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Religious Studies Lafayette College Pardee 324, Easton PA 18042


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