A religious studies major at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, Robert Blunt needed to fulfill a science requirement, so he signed up for a study abroad program in Kenya.
The course was on grassland ecology, but it was the people of the region that captured his interest.
“I spent a lot of time with the Maasai,” cattle-herders whose lives revolve around the animals they tend, says Blunt. “There’s nothing like waking up in the middle of cattle camp.”
The experience was the beginning of a series of “intellectual epiphanies” that eventually led to a master’s in biblical languages from Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, Calif., and both a master’s in social sciences and a Ph.D. in anthropology from University of Chicago.
Hired by Lafayette last fall as assistant professor of religious studies, Blunt says he brings a “different intellectual genealogy” to the department, citing differences in the ways anthropologists and scholars of religion historically came to think about and generate data. In many parts of the world where anthropologists initially went to conduct field research, there often were no written languages.
“Religious scholars, who were often associated with European seminaries, learned ancient languages and developed the field of comparative philology to produce their particular type of knowledge, which was often historical in nature,” he says. (Philology is the study of language in written historical sources.)
The study of biblical languages is necessary for the academic study of the bible, and Blunt is proficient in Biblical Hebrew and Attic Greek and fluent in Kiswahili.
Kiswahili is the working language of East Africa and Blunt spoke it almost exclusively in 2005 when he was conducting field research on contemporary religious movements in Kenya for his Ph.D.
During this stint in Kenya, a charge of witchcraft was leveled against him by Daniel, a staff gardener of the compound where Blunt lived. Before the charge, the two had been friends, getting to know one another through conversations about apostolic doctrine and biblical interpretation. But their relationship mattered little after Daniel suffered his own accusation of witchcraft in front of his apostolic congregation while presiding over a baptism.
Daniel, well known as a gifted preacher, was delivering the liturgy when he began stammering. From the pulpit, the head evangelist accused Daniel of having dabbled in the occult to enhance his uncommon preaching abilities, which for some reason that Sunday failed him.
Humiliated and terrified that he was now outside the Lord’s protection and open to mystical attack, Daniel fled to Blunt’s home. He was worried that he might have been cursed by the rumored occult potency of a foreigner able to afford powerful forms of magic unavailable in Kenya.
Grabbing Blunt by the ears, Daniel asked him in Kiswahili, “Kwanini untaka kuniua Mzee,” or “Why do you want to kill me, old man?”
Although he’s still haunted by the episode, Blunt uses it in class to demonstrate the social complexities of studying religion in Kenya, a country challenged by structural adjustment, the complicated legacies of colonial rule, and the rapid rise of new global theologies like Pentecostalism.
It would be easy to chalk up the unfortunate episode to a superstitious traditional belief system trying to come to terms with modern transformations of society and economy, but Blunt tries to dispel such thinking in his students, pointing out that similar social dynamics and anxieties permeate almost all social milieus, especially ones that suffer from political and economic volatility.
The year he met Daniel, Blunt had been in Kenya researching the Mungiki, a neo-traditional religious movement and transport cartel, and their practice of oath swearing by a younger generation dissatisfied with Christianity and their elders. As a way of observing the Mungiki, Blunt acted as chauffeur to their former national coordinator, who became a Pentecostal minister and preacher.
“I would drive him around to his evangelical crusades in a 1985 Toyota Hi-lux,” says Blunt. “Its suspension was completely blown out.”
Blunt spent 16 months doing research on Mungiki and inter-generational conflict in Kenya, and has authored and presented numerous papers on the topic as a means of illustrating the complex intersection of religious and political power in Kenya.
“Africa’s problems are not unique, but many of its contributions to the world are,” he says. Coltan, a mineral used for high-tech manufacturing, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as are other useful and precious minerals and stones. These raw materials are often procured in ways that flout global human rights standards, but which companies and consumers all over the world depend on.
Unfortunately, many TV news shows only depict Africa in an unfavorable light, focusing on war and famine without portraying the warmth, intelligence, and creative energy of its population, Blunt says.
“I want students to understand that Africa has been connected to the rise of modernity for a long time through the extraction of labor and resources,” says Blunt. “Africa plays a role in many things in our lives, even if we don’t realize this. I hope to convey a fascination and enthusiasm for the study of the continent.”