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.
Ângela Sofia Benoliel Coutinho
Born in Bissau in 1936, Carmen Pereira was the daughter of a Guinean lawyer (one of only two Guinean lawyers at the time). She studied at the primary school in Bissau, and married in that city in 1957. In 1961, following her husband’s flight to Senegal to avoid being arrested as a political agitator, Carmen joined the independence movement led by the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde), with three small children in her charge. Guinea-Bissau was then a Portuguese colony, with a far-right dictatorship based in the metropole. So-called Portuguese Guinea was about the size of Belgium or Haiti, and had a tropical, hot, and humid climate; most of its inhabitants, who belonged to more than twenty different peoples, were dedicated to agriculture. In the 1960s the majority of Guinea-Biassau’s inhabitants were Animists; there was also a significant Muslim population, and a few, like Carmen Pereira herself, were Catholics. The guerilla war began in Guinea-Bissau in 1963, and lasted until independence was declared in 1974. During this period Carmen travelled to the Soviet Union, where she studied to be a nurse. On her return to Africa she was given responsibility for the Health sector in the South region, where she also became the Political Commissioner for the areas controlled by the PAIGC, as a consequence of her proven leadership skills, and in accordance with the PAIGC’s policy of giving women equal opportunities and rights within the movement. Carmen Pereira is an important figure in African history, principally because she was the only woman to be elected a member of the Executive Committee (formerly the Political Bureau) of the PAIGC, which is itself significant as one of the few African movements for political liberation that led a successful war for independence. In the new state of Guinea-Bissau, Carmen Pereira was elected President of the Parliament, and appointed Health Minister, Minister for Social Affairs, and State Council member. She died in Bissau in June 2016.
Njinga a Mbande (1582–1663) is the most famous and controversial historical figure in the history of the West-Central Africa region during the 17th century, the region of present-day Angola. Her political trajectory contributes to the understanding of the troubled context of the Portuguese expansion in the region and the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade. The Ndongo state was at the very core of this struggle, a state mainly comprised of the Mbundu peoples. It was also the Queen’s original birthplace and a major area in the dispute for ensuring control of the trade routes between the inland and coastal regions. The Portuguese arrived in the region in 1575, and settled on the coast. Luanda was the first area of the Portuguese occupation. From there the Portuguese waged wars of conquest, moving toward the sertão (hinterland). On the Portuguese side, the action unfolded in the constant attempt to control the sobas, the local authorities, the construction of fortresses in the Mbundu territory, and the wars that were initially meant to obtain captives and form an African Army (Guerra Preta). The army would later serve Portuguese interests in controlling the routes and fairs (i.e., the hubs, or centers, of slave trade). On the Mbundu authorities’ side, even before the queen’s reign, and later on at her command, the struggles took many forms: the deterrence of the fairs’ functioning; the disorganization of the “tax” system, in which the Portuguese charged the sobas; and the welcoming of hundreds of escaped slaves, as well as other central actions such as wars and diplomatic negotiations. Njinga a Mbande took on the title Ngola (1624), the position of greatest authority and prestige in the Ndongo. In 1626, after a major campaign by Portuguese settlers, she was expelled from her territory. But by 1631 she re-emerged as a leader, now in another region, Matamba, an important base for her attacks on the areas controlled by the Portuguese. From this region, she made a peace agreement, governing until her natural death at the age of 82. In the 21st century, historiographical questions abound: how was the leadership of this female figure viewed in terms of legitimacy and gender identity within the power structures of the Ndongo, how was her image publicly projected throughout the region, how did she rise in prominence in European reports, and what was her fundamental impact on the oral tradition of different peoples of West-Central Africa. The presence of Queen Njinga crossed the Atlantic and figures in the imagery of popular and mythical narratives in the Americas.
Ousseina D. Alidou and Halimatou Hima
Nigerien women played important cultural, economic, and political leadership roles throughout history. Women across ethnicities contributed to the economic life in precolonial Nigerien societies and their public presence in indigenous markets have been recorded by both Arab chroniclers as well as European colonial explorers, authorities, and historians. Women also occupied important positions in the political sphere and played important roles within their indigenous religious traditions and pantheons. The advent of Islam in the region in the 11th century changed the nature of preexisting spaces. However, a syncretism between Islam and indigenous religions developed, and this created yet another space for women across Nigerien ethnic groups to continue the preservation of some practices tied to their indigenous culture. As predominantly Muslims, most Nigerien women and men have been exposed to Arabic and Qur’anic literacy, and women of clerical lineage and those married to Qur’anic teachers have played a major role in the propagation of Islamic literacy in Nigerien precolonial societies, and continue to do so in the postcolonial dispensation. Ethnic and regional diversity accounts for the degree of authority that women may enjoy within the family structure, and women from rural and urban areas experience patriarchal structures in distinct ways. In relation to contemporary participation in political leadership, the year 1991, with the historic women’s march, marked a turning point in the history of women’s political leadership. The democratization process opened the way for multiparty democracy and greater women’s participation; it also fostered a religious pluralism that has engendered manifestations with women playing distinctive roles in the religious moral economy, including in minority religions. However, democratic pluralism has inadvertently created the conditions for the growth of violent religious fundamentalist movements undermining the rights of girls and women. Unequal gendered and power relations continue to hinder Nigerien women’s emergence at high levels of public leadership, with consequences for economic development and women’s rights. While there has been a steady increase in women’s participation in parliament and high-level appointed positions in government owing to a quota law, which was revisited in 2019, Nigerien women still have some way to go to achieve representative parity not only in politics but also in other public and private sectors of employment and elective positions in society. In terms of human development, Niger continues to register poor development indicators, especially those relating to women’s and girls’ welfare and well-being in rural areas including high rates of child marriage as well as high infant mortality and maternal mortality rates. The status of women in Nigerien societies continues to experience major mutations as women consolidate their roles as a visible and vocal political force as well as one of the main drivers of economic development.
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.