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Death by a Thousand Small Cuts: The Problem with Low Quality Oppression

7 min read.

The problem with this low-quality oppression is the way it clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems.



Death by a Thousand Small Cuts: The Problem with Low Quality Oppression
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In 1961, in the year he died aged just 36, the philosopher Frantz Fanon published The Wretched of the Earth. It is a text that is as searing as it was prescient. With the clarity of an ancient prophet, Fanon expertly diagnosed the intellectual laziness, moral vacuity and spiritual penury of what he called the “national bourgeoisie”, the class of wheeler-dealers that was left in charge of African nations with the departure of colonisers.

Fanon wrote of a class that was bereft of ideas, that was caught up in “activities of the intermediary type”, scheming and hustling, but firmly entrenched in the role of business agent of more powerful, former colonial powers. The national bourgeoisie, he said, was already senile before it ever came to maturity. Its members were following their Western masters along the path of negation and decadence “without ever having emulated it in its first stages of exploration and invention”.

Fanon’s treatise came to mind when a few weeks ago, a Nairobi driver was pushed off the road by a convoy of siren-blaring “escorts” of an Important Person who made her, the driver, veer into a ditch and then drove away. It later turned out that the car belonged to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). It is ironic that a driver of such a high-ranking judicial office could behave in such a thuggish way. Or is it?

This “colonial mental disorder”, as Fanon would call it, is in our view, a broader problem that we call “low quality oppression”, whose insidious effects are more serious than you might imagine. And yes, it’s odd that we have reached the stage where we can rank and rate oppression the same way we give stars to online products.

This was by no means an isolated incident. Siren-blaring road bullies seem to be everywhere, flagrantly taking to the opposite side of the road to escape traffic, and seriously endangering other road users. Drivers may grudgingly give way, or refuse to do so as a small act of resistance. And why can’t the Important Person leave home early like the rest of us? What are they rushing to do? Is it to “network” or “benchmark” something or other?

You see, in this part of the world, it is common for extremely important but low-level government services to get stuck in a bureaucratic process because “mkubwa hayuko” (the Important Person is not around).

This “colonial mental disorder”, as Fanon would call it, is in our view, a broader problem that we call “low quality oppression”, whose insidious effects are more serious than you might imagine. And yes, it’s odd that we have reached the stage where we can rank and rate oppression the same way we give stars to online products. But this is the reality of living in this country at this time. Our reality can be so dire sometimes, that with all manner of oppression attacking from all sides, we must prioritise. Do we first deal with nepotism, profligate spending and outright theft in government, or do we pause a little and first push through the application for a birth certificate?

You see, in this part of the world, it is common for extremely important but low-level government services to get stuck in a bureaucratic process because “mkubwa hayuko” (the Important Person is not around).

Let us analyse this for a minute. Imagine that a dearly beloved family member passes away peacefully in her sleep while in her hut (in what we call home squared). In order to move the body and to begin burial preparations, we need to get documentation from the local area chief. This is now our mkubwa. Now, the mkubwa might not have anything against you personally. He may not even know you. The mkubwa might even be willing to sign or stamp whatever it is you need signed or stamped. But somehow, going by how the system works, the entire process hinges on his physical presence at his desk. Without this, the whole process grinds to an unfortunate halt.

For instance, what do we do if the death occurs on a Friday and our mkubwa has left early so that he can visit his family in a different town (because such officials are usually not locals, which presents another unnecessary obstacle as they cannot be located once they have gone “home”)?

There might even be people in that office whose main task is to tell you, “I’m so sorry, mkubwa hayuko.” There’s nothing else they really do at work other than creatively manage the frustration levels of people like you.

The problem here is that you, the frustrated party, cannot really think your way around this obstacle. You could demand to be served, invoking your rights as a citizen or customer. You could walk away angrily, and resolve to come back another day, earlier this time. Maybe if you are first in line at 8am this will be sorted. You could write a screed, maybe on Twitter, about how people should be at their desks and it is wrong to keep someone waiting like this.

In this scenario, there is little you can say substantively after angrily sputtering about it. There is no nefarious genius here, no diabolical mastermind with a plan to subjugate your entire country, no systematised thinking to grapple with, just a kind of low-grade, repetitive, diffuse dysfunction. It is death by a thousand small cuts.

But when you are done, it’s deflating, because it is stating the obvious.

There is no ideological meat here. There is nothing to wrestle with intellectually. It is petty, and ridiculous, but mostly petty.

In this scenario, there is little you can say substantively after angrily sputtering about it. There is no nefarious genius here, no diabolical mastermind with a plan to subjugate your entire country, no systematised thinking to grapple with, just a kind of low-grade, repetitive, diffuse dysfunction. It is death by a thousand small cuts.

The problem with this low quality oppression is the way it clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems, like the ever-expanding black hole of the mindless plunder of public funds – the mysterious disappearance of 51 million litres of aviation fuel worth Sh3.4 billion ($34 million) from the tanks of the Kenya Pipeline Company; the Sh180 billion unaccounted for at the power transmission firm KETRACO (which works out to 3,200 kilometres of power transmission lines never built), or the companies contracted to supply kitchenware and towels to build dams.

Where is the time to investigate and mobilise while you have to smuggle your departed relative’s remains out of the village to a morgue at night?


Vernacular (adj.) [of language] spoken as one’s mother tongue; not learned or imposed as a second language.

In the place of analytical precision, we have instead a deluge of what Keguro Macharia calls “political vernaculars” – terms that frame the conversation we can have without considering what they look like in practice, whose freedom they impinge and who is paying the cost for them. They are vernaculars because they come as easily as a mother tongue. They are not imposed as a second language; instead they form the primary frame of expressing our political issues.

“Corruption” is one such dominant political vernacular that houses all our collective anger and anxiety of living under a political system where outright theft is the order of the day. “Development” is another political vernacular that is the repository of all our dreams and what we want to be. These two act in concert with each other, disciplining our minds and tethering our freedom dreams, taking them down the same, predictable path.

“Development captures ­imaginations—one is not permitted to think beyond, against, or beside development,” Macharia writes. “But the failure of development projects – often through corruption – only leads to demands for more development projects, and quite often the same ones.”

These terms – “corruption”, “development”, “tribalism”, “negative ethnicity” – seem self-explanatory but are actually very vague, and their enduring power is in creating habits of the mind and of speech. Produced by powerful yet shadowy forces, they determine what is thinkable. They are flimsy yet strong, like a spider’s silk enveloping us all in a garment of mediocrity.

As a result of this hollow phraseology, Kenyans are walking around in shambles and are unable to even describe the state of their own dishevelment, as John Githongo once said.

For all of the overt traumas that the African diaspora has experienced in the so-called New World, there is something to be said about how being in that space has created a tradition of intellectual clarity and radical truth-telling – parrhesia in Greek. This is perhaps why the writings of writers as diverse as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kiese Laymon are crisp and searing – these writers write out of a particular context that puts blackness in sharp relief. The contours of injustices that have been visited on the black body, in particular, are clear. Bodies have definitional clarity; they have shape and form; they occupy space and time, and so can be, so to speak, grappled with.

But in our context, our petty tyrants share physical qualities similar to ours, they invoke similar genealogies, and they bandy around slogans that we too want to believe in, like “independence”, “sovereignty” and “development”. They misappropriate the same terms we use to express our freedom dreams.

Even sacred texts are fair game for definitional hijack, perhaps more than any other kinds of literature. Kenyans, even church-going types, can hardly remember that the term Jubilee comes straight out of the Old Testament in Leviticus 25, in which every 50-year debts were to be cancelled, land returned to the original owners, and the gap between the rich and the poor in Israel leveled out.

However, in a kind of cruel joke, Jubilee (the political party) has presided over the swiftest racking up of debt in independent Kenya, and a systematic and comprehensive concentration of political power and business interests of the elite, specifically the Kenyatta family. Kenya celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013, but there would be no liberty to the captives or restoration of the indebted – in fact, just the opposite.

In the words of Kalundi Serumaga, we are hostages of this venal, idiotic class that harps on about sovereignty and independence because all they can do now is enclose us in these colonial borders. They have nothing left to offer; there is no originality.

“When this caste has vanished, devoured by its own contradictions, it will be seen that nothing new has happened since independence was proclaimed, and that everything must be started again from scratch.”

“It must not be said that the national bourgeoisie retards the country’s evolution, that it makes it lose time or that it threatens to lead the nation up blind alleys,” wrote Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, “… in fact, the bourgeois phase in the history of underdeveloped countries is a completely useless phase.”

“When this caste has vanished, devoured by its own contradictions, it will be seen that nothing new has happened since independence was proclaimed, and that everything must be started again from scratch.”

This is the space our petty tyrants are operating from as they push us out of the road with arms flailing out of four windows, mean looks, and sirens blazing.

Which oppression do we fight first? Is it the two-star one that makes people smuggle their relatives to mortuaries at night? Or is it the one where the entire public finance management system is razed to the ground in an inferno of brazen theft and worthless vanity projects? Is it possible to do both?

And most of all, where do we get new words?

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Christine Mungai is a Kenyan writer, journalist and Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Dan Aceda is a multi-talented award-winning artist, singer and songwriter based in Nairobi, Kenya.


Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.



Re-Reading History Without the Colour Line: When Egypt Was Black
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In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.

Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.

Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.

But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.

When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.

Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.

For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”

The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.

Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.

In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.

Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.

The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.

Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.



Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People
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“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”

Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.

When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?

Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.

It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.

And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.

Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role  in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.

So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.

Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.

And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?

Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.

The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.

And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement

The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.



Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement
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Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.

What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.

In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.

Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.

Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.

This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.

The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.

Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”

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