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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