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The Possibilities of Failure

Personhood and Cognitive Disability in Urban Uganda

Tyler Zoanni

Keywords: Africa; care; Christianity; Meyer Fortes; therapeutics; voice

This article offers a person-centred analysis that closely attends to lives shaped by cognitive disability in Uganda. It reflects on the most widely used Ugandan term for disability, obulemu, which literally means ‘state of failure’. Ugandans with cognitive disabilities are often perceived as failed people (abalemu) insofar as they depart from dominant scripts for being human. Yet departures are also beginnings, and I attempt to think failure otherwise. Rather than understand these supposed failures in negative terms – as loss and diminishment of collective and personal possibilities – I focus on the possibilities of failure, tracing what arises around ‘failed people’ in terms of therapeutics, care and personhood. The article intervenes in a wider anthropological conversation about personhood. Rather than privileging cultural concepts of the person or the successful social realization of personhood, as much of that conversation does, the article takes inspiration from Meyer Fortes and makes ‘failures’ of personhood central.

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