Professor Mahmood Mamdani the good folks over at Africa is a Country (If you don’t know it, click this link now!) are running an unabashedly inconclusive poll of who might be named the most influential African intellectual alive. One name most of us probably know all too well, Mahmoud Mamdani, is leading the pack so far. With a few days remaining to vote, that may or may not change.
They’ve put together an interesting mix of names, all deserving a word or three. Here’s a brief rundown of the other front runners:
Samir Amin — Trained as an economist and best known for his southern-centered analysis of underdevelopment, de-linking theories of development, and engaged militant activism, this Egyptian intellectual has called Senegal home since the 1980’s. His prolific intellectual output on key political and economic issues is impressive and certainly warrants your attention. Check one of his recent review essays and his vision of the The World We Wish to See.
Most people have likely encountered Things Fall Apart in an undergraduate course on Africa or PoCo theory or perhaps discovered it through the classic Roots album with the same name. Either way, it has made Chinua Achebe, by default, the Big Man of African Literature. His lesser read book Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease fill out the The African Trilogy which follows several generations of Igbos in Nigeria as they struggle through successive encounters with colonization, modernity, and independence.
Achille Mbembe, as a critical theorist, dances across disciplinary divides despite his training in history and political science. With appointments at Duke University and Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, this Cameroonian writer is a continent hopper. He’s also been associated with Columbia University and recently with the Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism.
The Nobel Prize winning Wole Soyinka is a must-have on the list. After all, his name always raises the ire both in Nigerian government circles and around the MESAAS Colloquium table! His literary works range from the comedic to the tragic all while maintaining a confrontational engagement with what it means to be an African in the world.
Check out the poll, and let us know what you think about the nominations. What is your opinion of the whole concept of an internet poll that asks what is influential, what is an intellectual, and what it means to be an African?
Wendell Hassan Marsh is a graduate student in African Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is interested in the political economy of cultures in Africa, the Middle East and their diasporas. He has written for Reuters, AllAfrica.com, Viewpoint, and The Harvard Journal of African American Policy. Follow him on twitter @theafrabian.