Kenyatta’s lament: Oaths and the transformation of ritual ideologies in colonial Kenya

Robert W. Blunt


This article provides an ethnographically and historically grounded critique of Giorgio Agamben’s claim that oaths, like religion and law, reflect a universal experience of the failure of language to obligate people. I show how Agamben’s critique of the oath only becomes relevant in the colonial Kenyan context after missionaries and administrators had facilitated the “unmaking” of Kikuyu ideologies of ritual efficacy. Specifically, it tracks how colonial administrators and Kikuyu elders came to understand the customary nature of elder authority through the representational and regulatory capacity that objects known as ĩthathi were held to have. In the end, administrators and elders came to share an ideology linking ritual efficacy and elder authority, jointly participating in the naturalization of that relationship while failing to anticipate where it would lead.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.008