Biography in the African context can take many forms, from brief entries in a biographical dictionary or obituary in a newspaper to multivolume studies of single individuals. It can encompass one or many subjects and serves both to celebrate the famous and illuminate obscure lives. Biographies can be instructional as well as inspirational. Sometimes, it is hard to draw a line between biography and autobiography because of the way a work has been compiled. An attempt is made to understand this vast range of forms, with reference to social and political biography. The main focus is on work produced since the 1970s, with examples drawn from all regions of sub-Saharan Africa (although Southern Africa is better represented than others, as is English-medium material). Matters that preoccupy biographers everywhere, such as the relationship between writer and subject and the larger relationship between biography and history, are raised. Biography can be an excellent entry point into the complexities of African history.
ʿAlī Eisami Gazirmabe, later known as William Harding, was one of an estimated 99,752 “Liberated Africans” intercepted by the British Royal Navy from slave ships at sea and taken to the colony of Sierra Leone as part of Britain’s 19th-century campaign against the transatlantic slave trade. Eisami was born in the metropolitan district of Borno. He was enslaved c. 1812–1813 during the jihād waged by Hausa-Fulani jihadists against Borno. He was taken westward through the nascent Sokoto Caliphate and eventually to Oyo Ile, the capital of the Oyo Empire. For four or five years he was enslaved to a member of the Oyo aristocracy. In 1817, a Muslim uprising at Ilorin prompted his enslaver to sell Eisami to European slave traders on the coast. British naval forces captured Eisami’s slave vessel at sea, transporting him to the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone. In Freetown, ʿAlī Eisami took up the name William Harding. In extensive interviews with the missionary linguist Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle from 1848 to 1852, he provided detailed accounts of his native Borno. This included stories, historical accounts, and poetry in his native Kanuri, as well as a substantial narrative of his enslavement. Harding’s linguistic work with Koelle represented an important step in the study of the Kanuri language, while his “Biographical Sketch,” as published by Koelle in 1854, has become a canonical account of enslavement in Africa. Eisami’s eyewitness accounts are important sources on the 19th-century jihād movement, experiences of enslavement in Africa and the transatlantic slave trade in its final half-century of existence, and the experience of being a Liberated African in Sierra Leone.
A portrait of several generations of the Namibian Getzen-Kerina family reveals multicultural and cosmopolitan lives in this former German and South African colony of South West Africa. The lives and struggles of, in particular, Ida Getzen-Leinhos (alias Kaera, 1863–1926), Magdalena Getzen (alias Kasondoro, 1905–1977), and William Erich Getzen (alias Mburumba Kerina, b. 1932) provide a way to consider the complexity of central themes in Namibian history. With its strong roots in Herero society on the one hand and multicultural entanglements across the racial and ethnic divisions of segregated settler and apartheid society on the other hand, the Getzen-Kerina family history reflects subaltern experiences, networks, and worldviews that have shaped many Namibian families and influenced—often discretely—trajectories of defiance, antiracism, as well as anticolonial and antiapartheid resistance and liberation politics.
Biographical portrayals of Mandela have been strongly influenced by his own self-representations, beginning with his trial testimonies in 1962 and 1964. Authorized narratives about his life that were consolidated during the 1990s reflected Mandela’s political priorities at that time. In the unitary subject that these stories project—in the “unchanging man” whose story they told—their protagonist is a patrician-born aristocrat whose values and codes of behavior are shaped by his upbringing in the culture of a royal court. In important respects, though, this understanding of Mandela is at odds with earlier treatments of his life for which he had been a willing collaborator. Several of the biographical interpretations written in the early 21st-century draw upon archival evidence and prompt serious revisions of established or conventional understandings of Mandela’s life, particularly in terms of the validity of biographical investigations that emphasize consistency and order. Questions persist in the early 21st century as to whether Mandela’s experiences as a political prisoner and his role in constitutional negotiations will be subjected to such archive-based research, and whether the final stages of his public life will undergo an assessment.