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Urban Africa Under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities

6 min read.

As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.

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Research on economic pressure in Africa has been approached from diverse vantage points. While economists frame ‘pressure’ as a consequence of market failures, or as a by-product of macro-economic measures such as structural adjustment reforms or technological and political change, anthropologists who zoom in on the economic pressures individuals face in their everyday lives, i.e. the lived experiences of those who are ‘under pressure’ have focused more on topics such as uncertainty and precarity. Alternatively, economic psychologists tend to naturalise pressure as an individual response to an adverse financial situation, eclipsing the varied ways pressure is intertwined with and shaped by broader societal transformations, power structures, social relations and obligations, and webs of exchange. There are currently no studies we are aware of that focus on the multi-faceted societal constitution of economic pressure in capitalist Africa, or that compare how pressure is experienced across gender, generation or socioeconomic groups.

How do we study pressure?

Our review of existing literature on economic pressure has identified two main gaps. On the one hand, most ethnographic studies focus on a particular group/community (e.g. female gig workers, urban poor, farmers, security guards, an extended family or even a few individuals). How the experiences and drivers of pressure differ across groups according to class, income, gender, geography, profession etc., is largely absent from the literature. On the other hand, studies tend to frame pressure in the context of one specific driver (e.g. agrarian change, consumer credit, financial inclusion, changes in the structure of work, unemployment, supply chain dynamics, etc.), often in a broader context of neoliberalism, commercialisation, and globalisation.

Our blog series aims to address these gaps by exploring economic pressure in a more situational and practice-oriented way, in which pressure is understood as an affect produced in and through specific geographies, temporalities, and social and economic relations. This allows us to apprehend how specific geographies such as neighbourhoods, estates, markets or cities are pressure inducing or “under pressure”. We frame economic pressure as a multi-causal and highly localized phenomenon shaped by broader geographic, social, cultural, economic and political environments, while, at the same time, acknowledging the value of a comparative approach that captures the experience of pressure across social and economic classes.

Correspondingly, our intervention – in this blog series and beyond – aims to critically engage with and counter two main positions in the literature and policy debates. First, we argue that as a social experience, economic pressure and stress are not confined to the urban poor. By widening the categories of actors (e.g. ultra-poor, poor, middle-class, rich and super rich), our analysis and debate expands the portrayal of pressure as an experience that solely affects the poor; whether it be the “hustler” striving to make ends meet on the streets of Nairobi or families using food banks in Johannesburg. Understanding the cross-class characteristics of pressure is key to understanding how it has become an ubiquitous phenomenon constitutive of capitalist society and everyday life.

Second, we question the assumptions regarding the power of individual action and choice prevalent among psychologists, behavioural economists and other social scientists working on the productive potential of hope, aspirations and self-efficacy (e.g. the work of behavioural economists such as Johannes Haushofer as well as anthropologists such as Arjun Appadurai). Instead, we take the position that economic pressure is produced through the intersection of overarching ideologies, economic structures, social webs of exchange, and the dynamics of capitalism that shape the lives of all classes in the urban population. Based on our review of existing literature and preliminary qualitative interviews conducted in Nairobi, we suggest that economic pressure is an emotional state engendered by a cognitive assessment of a real/imagined disbalance between real/imagined economic demands and the real/imagined ability to fulfil them. Crucially, the existence of economic pressure does not necessarily entail an actual disparity between demands and abilities; rather, it is a (inter)subjective experience produced by changes in an actor’s social and material environment that suggests to him or her that such a disbalance exists and is relevant, significant and urgent. Hence, we do not conceptualise economic pressure as a quantitatively measurable individual feeling, but as an affect whose constitution, magnitude and presence are a function of atmospheric changes in one’s environment. Economic pressure is thus better grasped by local idioms such as piny pek (Dholuo, “the world weighs heavy”) or ngori (Sheng, “trouble”) than through a set of objective criteria.

Where do we study pressure?

Our focus is the capitalist and especially neoliberal city. The effects of neoliberal restructuring and regimes of accumulation have been particularly inimical in African cities, which face ever deepening informalisation, inequality, insecurity, economic uncertainty and attendant excessive policing, yet continue to pulsate with the promise of possibilities. African cities are particularly fertile sites in which to examine pressure as they are agglomerations of rapid and often turbulent social, cultural and economic change triggered by late capitalism, and are home to a range of interconnected actors who experience and manage, as well as co-produce and co-intensify, pressure across class and other divides. City dwellers also experience a constellation of conditions that are distinct from their rural counterparts: they have more business opportunities and risks; face a range of infrastructural constraints, from rising housing and transport expenses to a shortage of affordable housing, water and sanitation; experience high levels of poverty, widespread under-/un-employment, and intense competition for jobs with concomitant downward pressure on wages in the context of increasing rural urban migration; are more vulnerable to urban criminals or state agents (police etc.) that rob them of their earnings or assets, and their financial demands are not fixed, but ever-changing, often with an accelerated speed, and abetted by mobile technology, the self-help industry, and loan apps that encourage financial action. In addition, urban residents are more plugged into the circuits of global capitalist culture (technological connections, media, music, wealth, digital work, etc.) and the latter’s imaginaries of prosperity contribute to the trend of restless and calculative agency.

This complex and shifting landscape of ‘pressure in the city’ demands an inter-disciplinary approach to apprehend how economic demands, obligations and constraints interweave with the social worlds and life experiences of city dwellers. This includes, on the one hand, examining the inter-relationship between available income (and saleable assets more widely) and the necessary and desired demands that actors (and their families, kin, and social networks) face. This income-demands gap (as distinguished from the income-expenditure gap) is a key catalyst of ‘pressure’. On the other hand, this requires tracking pressure across noneconomic registers – financial, cultural, social, psychological – and gaining a comprehensive picture of how these registers relate. For example, while pressure is associated with a number of common somatic symptoms such as sleeplessness, ulcers, lack of energy, depression, over-activity and burn-out, it may also create the conditions that prompt an array of actions such as gender-based violence, concealing or switching phones to avoid being observed or contacted, gambling and drinking, which can induce new psychological, financial and social pressures. Attaining a full picture of pressure — its drivers, symptoms and consequences — thus necessitates an inter-disciplinary and multi-methodological approach.

“One illness away from poverty”: Economic pressures and uncertainty in Nairobi

In the context of the pandemic, Nairobi continues to be a city of disparities. Against the looming local and global slow-down that the Covid-19 crisis has provoked, a recent poll shows that vast sections of the Kenyan population are now unable to pay for utilities (67%), rent, or medicine, can no longer remit money to dependants (79%), have defaulted on loans repayment (75%), and had to turn to food donations. Significantly, 81% of those surveyed are anxious and stressed, while 52% felt helpless and 33% angry. Indeed, the conditions urban residents face are stressful. With the large tracts of the promised Covid-19 stimulus package monies unaccounted for and seemingly never expended, the inconsistent food donations in poor communities tapering, and one million jobs lost in three months, daily life is now even more difficult to plan. But these pressures build on dynamics that existed before the pandemic. In February 2020, before the government implemented a lockdown, census data documented that 39% of youth (between the ages of 18-35) were unemployed. Likewise, over half of those employed in 2018 earned less than 10,000 Kenya shillings a month [less than $100], which is barely enough to cover basic necessities such as food, transport, housing and clothing. With privatization and the high cost of basic services such as rent, healthcare, water and, in many poor neighbourhoods, even sanitation facilities, meeting one’s every day needs is a significant financial strain. Even the middle-class are only “one illness away from poverty” due to the inordinate cost of private health care and similar shocks.

As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for these significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains off-staged/hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, the poorest and underemployed, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers (and often significant tithes) and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, railways, airports etc) rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.

It is against these realities, that, over the last few years, public discourse more and more features words such as “mental health” and “burnout.” It is not a coincidence that this vernacular is taken up at a time when most Kenyans, surveyed across geographies, genders and classes, reported that their financial status worsened between 2016 and 2019.Interestingly, during this same three year period, we observe increasing (neoliberal) efforts directed towards “financial inclusion” habitually channelled through “fintech.”

Certainly, Kenyans are finding it hard to juggle all their economic burdens, from extended families to basic necessities, let alone finance the personal and collective aspirations for home ownership, better education, cars etc. All around, across all demographics, there is personal and collective work directed towards lightening these loads, made by piny pek – a heavy world. There are bets hedged, some won and many lost; collective savings groups, gambling, debts, and other situated modes to narrativize and negotiate economic pressures. Future blog posts will detail these means of coping in more ethnographic depth, showcasing the fervent efforts people of all walks of life in Nairobi, a capitalist city, are making to ease the pressure.

This article was first published in the Developing Economics.

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Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, and Senior Research Associate, Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg. Catherine Dolan is Reader in Anthropology at SOAS, University of London, UK. Wangui Kimari is a Post-doc at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa. Mario Schmidt is a Postdoctoral researcher at Collaborative Research Centre “Future Rural Africa” and a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities, University of Cologne, Germany

Ideas

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.

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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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Ideas

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.

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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.

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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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