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For Money and Elders

Ritual, Sovereignty, and the Sacred in Kenya

Many observers of Kenya’s complicated history see causes for concern, from the use of public office for private gain to a constitutional structure historically lopsided towards the executive branch. Yet efforts from critics and academics to diagnose the country’s problems do not often consider what these fiscal and political issues mean to ordinary Kenyans. How do Kenyans express their own political understanding, make sense of governance, and articulate what they expect from their leaders?
In For Money and Elders, Robert W. Blunt addresses these questions by turning to the political, economic, and religious signs in circulation in Kenya today. He examines how Kenyans attempt to make sense of political instability caused by the uncertainty of authority behind everything from currency to title deeds. When the symbolic order of a society is up for grabs, he shows, violence may seem like an expedient way to enforce the authority of signs. Drawing on fertile concepts of sovereignty, elderhood, counterfeiting, acephaly, and more, Blunt explores phenomena as diverse as the destabilization of ritual “oaths,” public anxieties about Satanism with the advent of democratic reform, and mistrust of official signs. The result is a fascinating glimpse into Kenya’s past and present and a penetrating reflection on meanings of violence in African politics.

216 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2020

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: African History

Religion: Religion and Society


“This book is the anthropology of African politics for a new generation. As students of African states are slowly beginning to realize that their toolkit of analytic concepts is not only inadequate to explain the realities of political life on the continent but bordering on racist, Blunt brings us a penetrating analysis of how the powers backing political authority actually form, are contested, and are hollowed out over a long span of Kenyan history. Anchored in a deep connection over many years with the people of whom he writes, facilitated by the mastery of their language, and respectful of the ancestors in the discipline who opened the way, For Money and Elders will be a book for the ages.”

Adam Ashforth, author of The Trials of Mrs. K.

For Money and Elders is a first-rate work of scholarship that offers a strikingly original and compelling account of the role of the Kikuyu in Kenya’s colonial history, focusing on the complex ways in which crucial ritual, religious, and political dynamics from the pre-colonial and colonial period have played out in the post-Kenyatta era. Blunt masterfully combines an acute understanding of long-term cultural and institutional dynamics with brilliant, finely-grained readings of local cosmologies and ritual practices to develop an important and exciting new political anthropology of the Kenyan state and postcolonial governance.”

Ruth Marshall, University of Toronto

“What happens when political elites and elders turn out to be dishonest and self-dealing rather than the ritual and political guarantors of truth they are meant to be? Blunt shows how in Kikuyu and Kenyan societies, such failures have led to attempts by ordinary people to impose certainty through often violent means. For Money and Elders provides the means to understand how money, seniority, religion, and violence all combine to create toxic political cultures that nonetheless have the ability to perpetuate themselves. Though argued through fine-grained ethnographic material from Kenya, his important work is equally applicable to contemporary realities in the US and many other parts of the world.”

Mike McGovern, author of A Socialist Peace?

Table of Contents

1 Introduction
2 Kenyatta’s Lament: The Transformation of Ritual Ideologies in Colonial Kenya
3 Inflationary Rituals: The Mau Mau Rebellion
4 Old Age and Money: The General Numismatics of Independent Kenya
5 “Satan Is an Imitator”: Kenya’s Recent Cosmology of Corruption
6 Corruptus Interruptus: The Limits of Transactional Imaginaries of Moi’s Kenya
7 (Not) Seeing is Believing: Ethnicity, Trauma, and the Senses in Kenya’s 2007 Postelection Violence


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