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date: 01 December 2022

African Biography and Historiographyfree

African Biography and Historiographyfree

  • Heather HughesHeather HughesSchool of History and Heritage, University of Lincoln


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.


  • Historiography and Methods
  • Intellectual History
  • Invention of Tradition

Writing Biographies of African Subjects

Since the 1970s, biography writing in an African context has come of age. In order to understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to trace the forms it has taken, as well as the themes and preoccupations it has been concerned with.1 Explored here is the political significance of collective biography, from anthologies of relatively brief biographies (or microbiographies) to more extended treatments, such as the members of one family or representatives of a profession. Also addressed is the range of individuals who have attracted biographical attention, from the very famous such as Nelson Mandela, to the almost forgotten: iron smelters, sharecroppers, and migrant workers. Even within the restricted purview of social and political biography, a wealth of material has been published since the 1970s, of which only a small selection can be included. While an attempt has been made to draw examples from all regions of sub-Saharan Africa, a strong English-medium and southern African bias is evident.

There are some matters that preoccupy biographers everywhere, such as the relationship between writer and subject, not to mention the larger relationship between biography and history. These have a specific resonance in the African case. Indeed, students can enrich their appreciation of African history by sampling the range of biographies written about African subjects.

Each African country will have its own national register of leading citizens across all the fields of human endeavor: politics, education, religion, sport, the arts, health care, business and so on. Prominent individuals from these walks of life will also feature in newspaper obituaries, one of the most ubiquitous forms of the brief biography. In each country, there is probably also a thriving trade in biographical narratives, spoken and written, and in many different languages. Not all of this activity can be covered, as it is simply too widespread. It would also be highly instructive to investigate biography from the perspective of readers and listeners rather than writers. However, discussion is confined to an attempt to highlight key trends in the writing of biography, applicable across a number of regions and beyond the continent itself.

In the 1970s, a series of biographies appeared—three iterations in all—that provide a convenient framework for discussing biography and historiography in African settings. They first came out in the Nigerian historical journal Tarikh, under the editorship of Obaro Ikime. In 1974, they were collected into a single volume, Leadership in 19th Century Africa, also edited by Ikime.2 Between 1971 and 1977, Ikime also oversaw the publication of a largely different selection of thirteen individual biographies. Apart from the fact that each was presented in a separate A5-size paperback, the format was similar to all the others.3 Altogether, this represents a body of nearly thirty biographies that was widely used in school and college courses. Each section of the essay that follows takes this collective biographical venture as the starting point for further exploration of the nature of biography in Africa.

The Expansion of Biography

The timing of Ikime’s biographies is significant. This was a period of dramatic expansion of African history into university and college courses in Europe, North America, and across independent Africa. In the post–Second World War period, it was an area of inquiry that had to push its way in. Not only did proponents have to demonstrate to their peers that researching and teaching Africa’s past were legitimate scholarly activities, they also had to challenge a more pervasive mindset that clung to a notion of African inferiority and passivity. These biographies were self-consciously presented as a means of asserting African agency in the making of a rich and long history. It is what African American scholars have long called “race vindication.”4 Ikime was explicit on this point: the 1974 collection was meant to demonstrate “the variety of types of leadership which Africa boasted even in a century which, until recently, used to be regarded as a century of European activity and African slumber.”5

Moreover, there was something deliberate about the geographical spread of the biographies. Although revealing a strong West African orientation, every part of the continent was represented, from the Mediterranean littoral to the southeastern seaboard. The message was clear: that across this expanse was a sense of a shared past and a common experience. While the threatened loss of autonomy and subjugation to European rule was a critical moment in African history, it was but one element in a complex interplay of forces stretching further back in time, such as state building and the desire for modernization and reform.

This was a time when a Pan-Africanist view of an essential African unity seemed a vital ingredient of decolonization, not only of territory but also of minds. In more recent decades, the origins of this idea have been questioned. Kwame Anthony Appiah has, for example, argued that it was a product of the European (not the African) imagination that “the cultures and societies of sub-Saharan Africa formed a single continuum” before becoming so deeply embedded in African thought.6

The Power of Collective Biography

There had long been a desire by educated, middle-class Africans and African Americans both to rescue from neglect and to highlight the talents, achievements, and autonomy of Africa’s people throughout its complex history; the vehicle of collective biography seemed entirely appropriate for this purpose. One remarkable example from the early 1930s is T. D. Mweli Skota’s The African Yearly Register, Being an Illustrated National Biographical Dictionary (Who’s Who) of Black Folks in Africa.7 It includes sections on both the living and the late; in the latter particularly, it contains entries from every region of the African continent: the “national” in the title has a distinctly Pan-African flavor. It sought to convey a sense of determined survival in the face of adversity and how individuals were attempting to avoid a white world of oppression by following “progressive” callings such as traders, lawyers, and pastors in independent churches. Sadly, despite the promise of its title, it seems to have appeared only two or three times. Johannesburg-based Skota sorely lacked sponsorship at a time when segregationist rule was being applied ever more harshly and it proved impossible to sustain his biographical dictionary.8

As early as the first decade of the 20th century, W. E. B. du Bois had been planning a collective biography along similar lines.9 His ambition was delayed until 1962, when Kwame Nkrumah invited him to an independent Ghana to realize the work, with the financial backing of the Ghana Academy of Sciences. Du Bois made clear his approach to compilation of his intended multivolume Encyclopaedia Africana: “While there should be included among its writers the best students of Africa in the world, I want the proposed Encyclopaedia to be written mainly from the African point of view by people who know and understand the history and culture of Africans.”10 Already in his nineties Du Bois did not survive long enough to see his vision into print; the first volume eventually appeared in 1977, followed by two more by 1995.11 In all, these covered some 650 individuals (the vast majority of whom were no longer alive) in eight countries. Yet another unrelated collective biography appeared in the 1970s, the Dictionary of African Historical Biography.12 Its cut-off date was 1960, thus serving once again to underline the depth and continuities of African history.

The 1990s saw the launch of a further large-scale biographical endeavor: the electronic/online Dictionary of African Christian Biography (DACB). Overseen by the Centre for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University School of Theology, its purpose is to gather the biographical detail of those who have shaped the character and growth of Christianity in Africa. Foreign missionaries may have brought Christianity to Africa, but Africans have been the main agency in its propagation; the resulting growth and variety constitute remarkable social phenomena. The DACB is notable for its methodology and goals. Oral as well as written sources are represented; although mainly in English, it is multilingual and covers the earliest times onward, over the whole continent. It works in partnership with universities and theological colleges, many of them in Africa, and crowdsourcing is encouraged, despite its acknowledged challenges:

While scholarly exactitude marks some of the entries, a large number have been contributed by persons who are neither scholars nor historians. The stories are non-proprietary, belonging to the people of Africa as a whole. Since this is a first generation tool, and on the assumption that some memory is better than total amnesia, the checkered quality of the entries has been tolerated and even welcomed.13

A recent addition to collective biography is the monumental Oxford Dictionary of African Biography (ODAB).14 The editors, eminent scholars Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, consciously place themselves in the tradition of Du Bois’s Encyclopaedia. In their preface, they claim for the ODAB

the most comprehensive continental coverage (including Africa north of the Sahara) available to date, a degree and depth of coverage that will dramatically increase our understanding of the lives and achievements of individual Africans who lived across the full range of continental Africa from ancient times to the present. The publication of such a reference work, we perceived, could have a transformative impact on teaching and research in African studies, narrating the full history of the African continent through the collective lives of the women and men who made that history.15

The print edition contains over two thousand entries, while entries will continue to be added to the online edition, eventually totaling some ten thousand.

The quintessential form of collective biography is thus the biographical dictionary, presenting a number of microbiographies based on a common theme. Such themes might include eminence or belonging, which provide a criterion for appreciating the collection as a whole.16 In the context of Africa, this form has been powerfully deployed as a practical expression of solidarity, a rejection of foreign oppression, a declaration of unity of purpose, an assertion of pride—nothing less, in sum, than a rehumanization of the subject.

Biography as Instruction

There is a further dimension of biography that threads its way from Ikime’s collection to the ODAB: a didactic/instructional purpose. Although intended for a wide readership, adult as well as child, Ikime’s biographies were envisioned as particularly suitable for classrooms. As such, they represent an attempt to produce patriotic historical narratives, showcasing real individuals whose achievements would instruct as well as inspire the young. All over the continent, the tradition of biographical series—inherently or explicitly collective, for both children and adults—has continued. Examples include the Kenyan Sasa Sema series, They Fought for Freedom series (mostly South African subjects), UNESCO’s series Women in African History, the Voices of Liberation series published by South Africa’s HSRC Press (South African and African figures) and the volume African Leaders of the Twentieth Century, a compilation of four titles from Ohio University Press’ Short Histories of Africa series.17

The series Panaf Great Lives focused on leaders of liberation movements who supported the radical transformation of African society. Kwame Nkrumah had founded Panaf Books in 1968, following the coup in Ghana and the refusal of his London publishers to handle his books thereafter. Panaf Books was based in London and managed by June Milne, who had been Nkrumah’s research assistant since the late 1950s. Its main business was to continue to publish and promote Nkrumah’s works. It also issued Panaf Great Lives, which were extended, anonymously-authored biographies cast in a heroic mold, of revolutionary leaders such as Eduardo Mondlane, Patrice Lumumba, Frantz Fanon, Sékou Touré, and Nkrumah himself. They appeared throughout the 1970s.18 Nkrumah’s biography seems to have been the only one also to be published in the format of a schools edition.19

Leaders and Followers, Men and Women

African biographies, according to one scholar, tend to be divided into two types: those about individuals deemed to be significant for some reason—the leaders—and those of “ordinary” people.20 This may help to identify certain biographical characteristics, such as that leaders’ stories emphasize the exceptional and unusual, whereas those of the ordinary are assumed to be representative of many experiences: of slaves, peasants, urban workers, market women, or miners. Yet it also presents the difficulty of knowing where to draw the line between them, or to understand features they share in common; some “ordinary” lives turn out to be anything but. For this reason, it is preferable to place biographical stories along a continuum, from well-known to little-known subjects, rather than into either/or types.


The biographical subjects of Ikime’s collections were chosen for one quality: leadership. Many became kings or chiefs “in times of crisis . . . by appealing directly to the populace over the heads of the traditional king-maker class.”21 Control over trade, not least in slaves, was often a vital ingredient. Most had to confront the pressures of colonial advances on their territories. Together, they demonstrated many creative responses to the challenges facing them. It was their public deeds that mattered and that had made them powerful, exemplary, or exceptional on the historical stage.

They were also all male; either there was insufficient knowledge at the time about women who had played significant leadership roles, or they had not been considered significant enough for inclusion. In any case, in the 1970s overwhelming maleness dominated scholarship, as well as understandings of African leadership. It took until 1984 for Heinemann, the publisher of one of Ikime’s series, to bring out a volume entitled Women Leaders in African History to redress this imbalance.22 The most ancient of the twelve leaders featured was 15th-century bce Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt; the most recent was Nehanda of Zimbabwe, who lived toward the end of the 19th century. Like their male counterparts, they were somehow extraordinary, perhaps even doubly so, given the subjugation of women in many of the societies represented.

Herbert Macaulay’s story was alone among the Ikime biographies as someone who had risen to leadership by virtue of his Western education and involvement not in armed resistance to colonial rule but in the growth of nationalism as an oppositional force. Macaulay established the Nigeria National Democratic Party in the early 1920s and dominated Lagos politics for the following two decades. He is regarded by many as the founder of Nigerian nationalism. His solitude in the collections seems to suggest that it was conceptually difficult to fit “new Africans” into a historical framework that stressed continuity and indigenous response to change.23 After all, they embraced a religion and politics that were considered profoundly disruptive, as they themselves knew all too well. As a young Aina Moore mused:

Opinions vary with regard to the status of the so-called ‘educated African’. While some regard him as the greatest enemy of his country, from which he becomes detached, and for which he can only develop a sophisticated form of patriotism: others look upon him as the means of creating a link between two different countries of such different culture, with both of which he is acquainted.24

A 1979 addition to Heinemann’s African Historical Biographies series, Black Leaders in Southern African History slipped two further examples into a selection otherwise dominated by “traditional” leaders: Tiyo Soga, the first African to be ordained in South Africa, and John Tengo Jabavu, best known as a newspaper editor and politician.25

Biographically speaking, “new Africans” seemed to fit better into a framework that privileged modernity over tradition and the promise of an independent future over the reassurance of a continuous past. Probably the most famous “new African” of the first half of the 20th century was James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey (b. 1875–d. 1927). Born in the Gold Coast (later Ghana) and educated by Wesleyan missionaries, Aggrey traveled to the United States to complete his education. He attended Hood Theological Seminary and later Columbia University, where his abilities as an educationist and communicator were recognized. He supported the stirrings of African nationalism but also distanced himself from anti-white hostility and even from Gandhi’s passive resistance campaigns. His stance was most likely responsible for the invitation to join the Phelps-Stokes Commission to Africa—he traveled widely on the continent, attracting huge attention everywhere—as well as for Edwin Smith’s biography, which appeared in 1929.26

Other in-depth biographies of prominent figures appeared before the notable expansion of the 1970s. Reflecting the long engagement of Europe with the southern tip of the continent were a number of biographies of white South African politicians, such as the voluminous studies of Jan Smuts (the anti-colonial rebel who became a world statesman) and those of leading liberals such as Saul Solomon and Jan Hofmeyr.27

Since the 1970s, biographies of historic and contemporary African figures have increased greatly; women leaders especially have attracted more attention. In common with Smith’s study of Aggrey, there is something of a hagiographic, or saint-like, quality about many of them, especially since the subjects are portrayed as setting out to conquer tyranny or hardship in their quest for success or social justice.28 Autobiographical memoirs have likewise grown in volume, many of them the reflections of a first-generation nationalist leadership that had experienced mixed fortune.29 As the promises of nationalism have soured, a more critical strand of biography has also developed, in which leaders are treated as human rather than hero and as fallible as well as formidable.30 It is, needless to say, far less tricky to write in this vein about figures of the past than of the living. As Kirk-Greene remarked, “When we look for worthwhile biography of Africa’s current heads of state from an African scholar, the cupboard is exceedingly bare . . . wisely, and often well, African would-be biographers turn to fiction.”31

Mandela: Mortal or Miracle Maker?

The case of Nelson Mandela reveals the reverential as well as the critical possibilities of writing about a living subject. Because he became a world, and not just a South African or even African, figure (“the most celebrated leader so far to have emerged from the African continent,”) a veritable biography industry grew up around him, which shows little sign of shrinking, despite his death in 2013.32 Mandela was imprisoned from August 1962 to February 1990, a period Coetzee has called “the years of silence and facelessness.”33 Nothing circulated inside South Africa and little about him surfaced elsewhere, beyond a collection of his speeches and writings that came out in 1965, No Easy Walk to Freedom, and the stories of those who visited him in jail.34 After all, he had no formal leadership role, and Oliver Tambo (also the subject of an acclaimed biography) was the ANC’s most senior representative in exile.35 It was a matter of only four years before his release—though of course no one was to know that at the time—that a major biography affirming his stature appeared in 1986, followed two years later by an authorized biography with a similar purpose. Authors Mary Benson and Fatima Meer had known Mandela since the 1950s.36 Both biographies became source books for the worldwide campaign to release Mandela, thus playing a crucial role in boosting his stature as a worthy statesman-in-waiting.

Mandela’s presidency of the Republic of South Africa was bracketed by two major life-writing events. In 1994, as he assumed office, he published an autobiography co-written with Time editor Richard Stengel: Long Walk to Freedom.37 It offered an opportunity to cast both himself and the African National Congress as having moved beyond a bruising liberation struggle to readying themselves as a responsible and visionary future government.38 Anthony Sampson’s huge Mandela: The Authorised Biography was published in 1999, as Mandela vacated the presidency.39 It became—and remains—one of the most respected Mandela biographies. Sampson, too, had known Mandela since the 1950s and had helped him to draft his statement from the dock during the Rivonia trials. By the time his book came out, Mandela had been lionized—the only figure who could and did save South Africa from civil war, the figure who stood for conciliation in conflict-ridden trouble spots everywhere, and one of the most famous people on the planet. Like the Benson and Meer biographies, Sampson reveals a deep admiration for his subject. However, he grounds Mandela as a shrewd politician, too: “He would sometimes change his clothes three or four times a day – from a suit for a business breakfast, to an open shirt for a crowd, to a woolly cardigan for a visit to old people. He even appeared in camouflage battle-dress . . . to appeal to guerrilla voters.”40 Sampson also presents a frank account of Mandela’s dysfunctional family life, which had in any case been regularly aired in the popular media.

Stengel later wrote his own Mandela’s Way, notable mainly for the way in which a figure like Mandela could be used to generate another kind of literary industry.41 Each of its fifteen “lessons” begins with a stylized biographical anecdote, which sets the scene for a Mandela saying, or piece of advice, on how to live a life of goodness. It also claims to present Mandela’s innermost attitudes to other prominent figures, such as murdered South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani. Appearing after Mandela’s retirement from public life, it was difficult for its claims to be confirmed. Nevertheless, Mandela’s Way attracted the admiration of the likes of Bill Clinton, Henry Louis Gates, and Richard Branson and helped to stimulate an extensive Mandela-themed self-help literature, particularly in the United States.42

Tom Lodge’s biographical treatment of Mandela sets out to understand a complex human subject—one, he argues, who had been deeply complicit in the making of the saintly, larger-than-life image that came to define him.43 It focuses on key phases of Mandela’s life and how these shaped elements of his character. For example, Lodge attributes his poise and emotional self-sufficiency (even vanity) to his secure, privileged childhood and his respect for order and discipline to the years spent at boarding school. Lodge also tries to get at what he calls the “interior thinking and intimate voices” that were deliberately suppressed, or deemed unimportant, in other Mandela biographies.44 When the contents of Mandela’s letters from prison are set alongside what is known of the wider evidence, his acute feelings of powerlessness as a husband and father are revealed, just as his family is becoming increasingly unruly. Although subtitled A Critical Life, Lodge commends Mandela on several points, including his consolidation of representative institutions while in power and his dignified exit from office. Yet what makes this an important study is his insistence that the preoccupations of an individual’s private life and thoughts are fundamental to an appreciation of the public celebrity; above all, this rescues the biographical subject from over-representation.45

Ordinary Lives?

Precisely because of their everyday-ness, the public and private lives of the less famous may be constituted rather differently, at least for purposes of biography: in some cases, the “private” is their story.46 Ikime in any event was not concerned with them; yet it is arguably in this sphere that some of the most original approaches to biography in Africa have emerged, some of them predating the rise of African history. A much-admired and enduring example is Mary Smith’s Baba of Karo, first published in 1954 and re-issued several times thereafter. Smith, an anthropologist, was researching the secluded lives of Muslim women among the Hausa of northern Nigeria. The result, focusing on one woman, Baba, was explicitly intended to be representative of Muslim women in general, although the individual character of Baba is evident throughout the narrative (and she sometimes contradicts what the introduction announces as the general lot of Muslim women). Baba related her story to Smith, who then arranged the study as a life account, starting with Baba’s childhood and adolescence and continuing through her marriages, childbirth, and widowhood.47

Wright has used life histories in a similar way, to explore the extent to which an individual woman’s life “can be taken to dramatise or generate hypotheses about elements in the experience of women more generally.”48 Her aim in focusing on the life of master iron smelter Mzee Stefano Malimbo in Ufipa, Tanzania was, however, to resist portraying him as representative—“the erasure of the identity of individuals, who are subsumed into categories of craftsmen and ritualists rather than men with choices and activities beyond iron-working.”49 Through Stefano’s story, she showed that what kept smelting alive in Ufipa, long after it had collapsed elsewhere, was a distinct moral economy that supported this important local craft.

Other studies throw light on the extraordinary quality of the lives not only of the lesser known but often largely forgotten. Shepperson and Price’s classic study, Independent African, traces the life and career of John Chilembwe, the unlikely leader of a short-lived insurrection against colonial rule and white settlement in Nyasaland in 1915.50 Henry Muoria, press secretary to Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta, spent most of his career in exile working on the London underground; his life and prolific works show what an extensive contribution he made to Kenya’s print culture.51 Lisa Lindsay has pieced together the remarkable career of James Churchwill Vaughan, born to a freed slave in South Carolina. In the 1850s, Vaughan migrated to Liberia but disliked it intensely and took a post with a white American mission among the Yoruba. He escaped enslavement himself in a local civil war, and after further serious setbacks finally set himself up in business in Lagos. By the time of his death in 1893, his family was far more prosperous than the Vaughan relatives he had left behind in America.52

Closer to contemporary times, and probably as close one can get to the other end of the range of biographical narrative, is van Onselen’s minutely detailed study of the life of Kas Maine, an African sharecropper in South Africa. For, as he points out at the start, “this is a biography of a man who, if one went by the official record alone, never was.”53 Yet through years of collecting oral testimony and filling out the social history of the Highveld, van Onselen was able to track the wanderings of a poor but proud and endlessly resourceful family who were pushed from one white farm to another and then into a “homeland.” One knows that this is the story of so many countless black farming communities; yet the strength of the study is its rare emphasis on the everyday details of just one man’s life—the preoccupations of raising crops and livestock, the skills of negotiating with brusque white landowners and storekeepers, the difficulties of moving possessions from one tenuous arrangement to the next, the tensions between generations as the young fell out with the elders, the need to hone arts such as cobbling and herbalism to keep body and soul together during hungry times.

The range of women’s stories is no less remarkable. McCord’s account of the life of Katie Makhanya reveals an accomplished singer from the Eastern Cape whose high point had been an overseas tour with an African choir in the 1890s; they sang for Queen Victoria.54 Edgar and Sapire reconstruct the life of Nontheto Nkwenkwe, a prophetess whose following was so extensive in the Ciskei region of South Africa that the authorities became alarmed at her ability to unite Africans in common cause against injustice. She was arrested in 1922 and spent her remaining years in isolation in a mental asylum. Though incarcerated 600 miles from home, her supporters attempted to visit her several times but were turned back.55 A near contemporary of Nkwenkwe, Christina Sibiya was one of the wives of the Zulu king, Solomon kaDinuzulu, in the 1920s. Brought up a Christian, she was pressured into marriage and endured much abuse before escaping the royal court and struggling to maintain a livelihood. She regained some social status when her son, Cyprian, succeeded to the Zulu kingship on Solomon’s death.56

Insightful use has been made of extended collective biography, too. An early example is Margery Perham’s Ten Africans, appearing in 1936. Perham explained in her introduction that the context was “the peculiar condition of empire under which we control the destinies of people we do not understand.”57 Her task was therefore to acquaint readers with the variety of African lives so they might understand them better within the framework of a benign trusteeship. Six of the stories were told to interlocutors, and four were provided by the informants themselves. Perham warned her readers that some of the contributors had harsh things to say about their encounters with colonial rule. It was rare then for Africans to give voice to their conditions of life in biographical or autobiographical form and as such, the accounts of these eight men and two women are a valuable snapshot of life in “British” Africa in the 1930s.

Collective biography has been employed in more recent times as a means for deepening understanding of social history. Iliffe’s study of East African doctors explores the ambiguities of medical professionalism in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania and the determined efforts of doctors to look to the interests of their patients against great odds.58 Also in East Africa, Geiger has shown how a focus on the biographies of Tanganyikan African National Union (TANU) women challenges many of the received wisdoms about the contribution they have made to nationalist movements. Women moved between kin groups on marriage, which gave them a more expansive, “trans-ethnic” perspective than men. Thus, far from a nationalist organization like TANU “teaching” them nationalism, they were able to help create it in various ways, such as through their dance groups, which were fundamental in building mass organization.59

In southern Africa, Bozzoli and Nkotsoe studied a group of twenty-two elderly women in order to understand how gender had affected their lives, choices, and consciousness. Most had been born into moderately well-off peasant families in the early 20th century; in the post–First World War period, they were among the first generation of BaFokeng women to have gone out to work, predominantly as domestic workers in the white homes of Pretoria and Johannesburg. Nearly all of them married and revealed the novel approaches to the relationship they had developed, such as “bringing something into the marriage themselves” from their earnings—their choice was furniture.60 In later life, most returned to Phokeng to look after grandchildren, as their own children were by now locked into the same oscillating pattern of migrant labor.

In what he calls a “social biography,” Werbner traces the history of several generations of the Lupondo family of Matabeleland. It stretches from the time when their chiefdom was incorporated into Southern Rhodesia, through the armed struggle that brought independence to the renamed Zimbabwe and the subsequent vicious civil war between rival nationalist organizations. To survive was to endure physical as well as psychological dislocation: eviction and resettlement, bitterness and disillusionment. Personal loyalties became as important as struggles over land. What makes this “social” is not merely the large cast of characters involved; it is also the way in which Werbner weaves together the perspectives of different family members: “the history of a family, seen from within, can never be a single account.”61

Which lives might be considered “representative,” and which “exceptional,” is never a fixed matter. For one thing, scholarly conceptions about the relationship between individual and society are dynamic: “self” and “identity” have become ubiquitous concepts with obvious implications for the way in which individual agency is portrayed; this was not the case in the 1970s. For another, individual lives, as well as biographical studies about them, grow and recede in importance according to the preoccupations of the times.

Biography and the Production of African History

An attempt has been made to identify the most prominent characteristics of biographical writing in an African setting and to convey something of the richness of the characters who have become biographical subjects. Some of the broader issues for the study of biography include: what its relationship to history is; how one defines biography; and hence how one conceives the relationship between writer and subject.

The Relationship Between Biography and History

Ikime’s purpose in releasing his biographical collections in the 1970s was clear: to underline “the essential factor of continuity in African history.”62 Biography, then, was being harnessed to historical purpose. In a similar vein, one of the editors of the Dictionary of African Historical Biography explained that it had been intended as an entry point into African history. Biography was the chosen mode because “individual biographies are units to which any person can relate, and that they serve as useful foundations upon which to build broader historical understanding.”63

These two examples demonstrate something unusual about history and biography in Africa. The hostility that historians of other places have until recently displayed toward biography—“the profession’s unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff”—never took hold in this context, where history writing and biography have always tended to enjoy a mutually supportive relationship.64 Rotberg has expressed probably the most extreme position on the matter: “Biography is history, depends on history, and strengthens and enriches history. In turn, all history is biography.”65

In part, this support can be attributed to a more open and interdisciplinary approach to history writing, drawing liberally on archaeology, linguistics, literary forms, and anthropology, for example. It may also be due to the strength of a narrative tradition in African historiography: that “all human enterprise necessarily rests on a narrative sense of its actors’ place in a fruitfully linear, or redemptively recursive, sense of time.”66 Much biography writing shares these narrative assumptions. Like scholarly history and biography themselves, narrative largely originated outside of Africa; and, in fact, a substantial portion of biographical and historical production about Africa still occurs outside the continent. Yet, like history and biography, narrative has been extensively indigenized. This indigenization was evident in the Ikime biographies but is also a characteristic of much history writing on the continent. It also fed into a thriving literary tradition.

Narrative is not the only quality that draws biography and history together. Biography works on a conceptual level, too: it enables emotional connection with historical subjects and makes links between phenomena that may otherwise remain isolated. When subjects travel widely—even crossing oceans—the biographer is forced to follow. As Lindsay noted of her appropriately named Atlantic Bonds, pursuing “Church” Vaughan and his family enabled her to connect what had previously been disconnected histories, unfolding simultaneously in the American South and in West Africa. It also meant giving a history to the rather static concept of “the African diaspora,” so that its changing meaning over time and place could be understood.67 In similar vein, the point was recently made that biography

offers a particularly useful approach to the examination of practices and experiences of boundary crossing in imperial and colonial history. Biographies can alert us to how ‘ordinary’ individuals and groups commuted between different spaces, jurisdictions, milieus, identities and even temporalities . . . into which they were categorised according to the ideologies and rules of well-ordered colonial worlds.68

It is this capacity to “connect the disconnected” that led van Onselen to call biography “history without boundaries.”69

What, Then, Is Biography?

It is some years since Hilda Kuper, a leading anthropologist of her generation, defined biography as “stories about someone by someone else.”70 This formulation posits a clear distinction between the “about” and the “by”; many examples of biography writing fit such a description. Yet Kuper was also aware that biography is a highly mediated affair, involving as it does a relationship of power between writer and subject, particularly in cases where the subject is living and complicit in the undertaking. Someone’s life history, which is a portrayal of self, akin to autobiography, is recorded, translated, reorganized, and interpreted by someone else as biography.71 This has been an issue for as long as biographies—especially those based on oral testimony—have been written. Yet awareness of authorial position in relation to a subject’s life has been a characteristic of biography writing only in more recent times.72

Although in the 1930s Rebecca Reyher felt great empathy with her subject, Christina Sibiya, both were immersed in a racial and social hierarchy that assumed white power and black subservience. Reyher was a temporary American visitor in Zululand, dependent on a white male interpreter to collect Sibiya’s testimony. The result, she declared, was that “I have recorded it as she told it.”73 Reyher also employed the novelistic device of first-person dialogue to tell Christina’s story. McCord did the same for Katie Makhanya—both authors were accomplished storytellers—although McCord was a Zulu speaker and had a long family connection to Makhanya, thus altering the balance between interlocutor and subject.74 Moreover, McCord problematized her role as the writer of Makhanya’s story in ways that Reyher was unable to do. Nevertheless, this form of expression prompted a debate about the limits to the use of evidence, in the context of relations of power and powerlessness across cultural, racial, and linguistic divides.75

The question of authorial responsibility is not restricted to the use of oral testimony. A study of what are called “tin trunk texts”—letters, diaries, and notebooks kept safe by their owners long after they were produced—reveals “the imagining of new kinds of personhood” all over colonial Africa.76 Their subjectivity strongly suggests that these are autobiographical texts. Yet their presentation is mediated by the scholars who have combed through them and in some cases have interviewed their prolific authors. These complications have led some to elide the categories of biography and autobiography as auto/biography, which is a reminder of the messiness that always seems to characterize the space between writer and subject.77

Whatever sources have been used in the construction of biography, this discussion assumes that the products take written form. Rathbone argues that written biography and autobiography are comparatively recent imperatives in Africa, “a direct consequence of the arrival and expansion of Western Christianity and especially that of Protestant Christianity from the end of the eighteenth century.”78 This is possibly more a reflection of the state of knowledge than of the production of biography; research on the older indigenous literate cultures is already changing this view. Several biographies of African women, written by Africans, were produced before the 19th century. One of these, on the life of 17th-century Ethiopian woman Walatta Petros, was originally written in Ge’ez and has recently been translated into English.79 There is also a case for taking a broader view of what biography and autobiography mean in Africa—whether oral traditions that perpetuate the memories of notable figures ought to be included in autobiographical traditions—although this debate is beyond the scope of this article. As an example, Fall recounts a project in Senegal that valorizes oral/life testimony as a form of autobiography in its own right, rather than serving only as a source for written works.80

In her Biography: A Very Short Introduction, Lee sets out ten rules for biography. Starting with the basic requirements of nonfiction (everything relevant should be included, and everything should be evidenced), she ends with the tenth rule: “there are no rules for biography.”81 She is referring to the shape-shifting, provisional nature of the form. There is one “rule” she omits that in an African setting is particularly relevant. In fact it seems so obvious that it has gone unmentioned by virtually every writer on the subject of biography: one’s subject must be named. Even if one chooses to preserve that subject’s anonymity, one must have been able to identify that subject and trace them back through the archival record. It is (for example) what allowed Iliffe to produce his study of African doctors, so that, in the words of one reviewer, “We can no longer imagine the medical history of East Africa as the story of named European doctors and anonymous African assistants.”82

The reason this is such a pressing matter in ex-colonial settings is that it is remarkable how infrequently administrators, missionaries, and the like actually named individual Africans, unless for official purposes such as tax collection or court appearance. Letters, diaries, and published and unpublished reports far more often referred to “a native pastor nearby,” or “our most outstanding native pupil,” and so on. For complex reasons, few Africans have left collections of papers neatly lodged in libraries and archives. Pursuing a subject therefore also involves pursuing their fragmentary traces across vastly scattered repositories; when potential subjects are not named, the task is rendered even more challenging. There are related sensitivities with regard to naming, or more specifically name-changing, as a tool of colonial and missionary control, which have implications for biographical practice in Africa.83

The Promise of African Biography

In common with its phenomenal growth elsewhere, Africa-related biography is alive and well. While there are well-established traditions of biography writing in some parts of the continent, much biography continues to be produced outside it. This observation requires some qualification, however. For one thing, it is based only on English-language sources, extensive though these are. Knowledge of indigenous forms of biography is, as yet, incomplete; one feels that the study of biography in Africa has only just begun. The centuries-old Ge’ez biographies of women’s lives anticipate even more remarkable discoveries to come. “Tin trunk” archivy will, if scholars are receptive to its possibilities, reveal treasures of personal memoir that challenge current generalizations.

The supportive association struck up between history and biography will continue to enrich both. As more biographies appear, more individuals will find a mention in historical narratives, which will stimulate more research on individual lives. Only by keeping close company can practitioners of biography and history continue to debate the extent to which individuals make history and history makes individuals.

Discussion of the Literature

The field of biographical writing in Africa is dominated by actual biographies of individuals or groups. Much of this work has been contributed by scholars based in Europe and North America, most of whom are not themselves African. This observation is not meant in any way to invalidate their work. On the contrary, it is to acknowledge the contributions they have made toward uncovering the lives of important African figures, both in the past and the present and whether famous and forgotten. At the same time, it is possible to identify well-established traditions on biography writing on the continent, such as in South Africa and Ethiopia.

Much biographical writing in English dates from the 1970s, although a few examples, now considered “classics,” were published before that. Examples of these earlier texts include Shepperson and Price’s Independent African and Perham’s Ten Africans. These examples indicate two strong characteristics that developed in later work: individual and collective biography. The possibilities of individual biography are demonstrated in Africa’s most famous figure, Nelson Mandela. Collective biography has taken multiple forms, from microbiography to the study of social history.

Examples of microbiography include the Dictionary of African Christian Biography (DACB) and the Oxford Dictionary of African Biography (ODAB). The DACB is an initiative of the Centre for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University School of Theology. Its purpose is to gather the biographical details of those who have shaped the character and growth of Christianity in Africa. The ODAB, the most ambitious collective biographical project on Africa to date, aims to collect ten thousand entries for its online edition, covering the whole of Africa and through all historical times. Examples of the use of collective biography in writing social history include Iliffe’s East African Doctors and Werbner’s Tears of the Dead.

Since the 1970s, biographical studies of African subjects have multiplied. Probably the most famous subject has been Nelson Mandela, around whom a biographical “industry” has developed. Two of the best-known biographies are those by Anthony Sampson and Tom Lodge. Many “ordinary” people have also been the subjects of biography.

Women have received less biographical attention than men, although they have been active in writing autobiographical memoir. One of the more famous is Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai.

It is generally believed that written biography is a recent development in Africa and a product of missionary and colonial conquest. However, evidence is emerging of far older biographical traditions among Africa’s indigenous literate communities. The most celebrated to date is the 17th-century biography of Ethiopian Walatta Petros. A further point to consider is whether, in Africa, oral traditions that perpetuate the memories of notable figures ought also to be included in narrative auto/biographical traditions.

It is important to keep in mind that writing biography involves a relationship of power between writer and subject and that biography and autobiography may have many of the same characteristics. This is especially the case when oral testimony (a form of autobiography) is used to gather evidence from living subjects.

Biography in Africa has enjoyed a close relationship with history writing. In addition, there is a growing critical literature on biography.

Primary Sources

There are no “natural” repositories of African biography; on the contrary, because few African figures have bequeathed their papers to collections, biographers of particular subjects will more often relate the challenges of searching across regions and continents for the odd fragment of information. Such is the nature of the “archive” for African biography. Having noted the difficulties, it is also necessary to mention the rewards: these are very great, when one is able—with enough perseverance—to piece together bits of a jigsaw that no one had bothered to try assembling before. The length of lists of archival and other sources in most African biographies will provide an indication of what is involved.


The writer would like to thank Brian Willan and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Gälawdewos. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman (Trans. W. L Belcher and M. Kleiner). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
  • Ikime, Obaro. ed. Leadership in 19th Century Africa. Essays from Tarikh. London, UK: Longman, for the Historical Society of Nigeria, 1974.
  • Iliffe, John. East African Doctors: History of a Modern Profession. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Lindsay, Lisa. Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
  • Lodge, Tom. Mandela: A Critical Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Mathaai, Wangari. Unbowed: One Woman’s Story. London, UK: Arrow, 2008.
  • Perham, Margery. ed. Ten Africans. London: Faber & Faber, 1936.
  • Smith, Mary. Baba of Karo: A Woman of the Muslim Hausa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.
  • Van Onselen, Charles. The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper 1894–1985. Cape Town: David Philip, 1995.
  • Werbner, Richard. Tears of the Dead: The Social Biography of an African Family. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press for the International African Institute, London, 1991.


  • 1. One of the earliest means by which Africans were introduced to western audiences was the slave, or ex-slave, narrative, telling the experiences of individual lives. In many ways these form a separate genre on which there is an extensive literature, and for that reason are not covered in the present article. See for example William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates, eds., Slave Narratives (New York: Library of America, 2000).

  • 2. Obaro Ikime, ed., Leadership in 19th Century Africa: Essays from Tarikh (London: Longman, for the Historical Society of Nigeria, 1974). The three sections of the volume, together with the chapters in each section, are as follows: state and empire builders, John D. Omer-Cooper, “Shaka and the Rise of the Zulu”; John D. Omer-Cooper, “Moshesh and the Creation of the Basuto Nation—the First Phase”; G. O. Ekemode, “Kimweri the Great: Kilindi King of Vuga”; Charlotte A. Quinn, “Maba Diakhou Ba: Scholar-Warrior of the Senegambia”; R. Griffeth, “Samori Toure,” in Reformers and Modernisers; R. T. Tignor, “Muhammed Ali, Moderniser of Egypt”; R. Pankhurst, “Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia”; G. M. Uzoigwe, “Kabalega and the Making of a New Kitara,” in Resisters and Collaborators; J. D. Omer-Cooper, “Moshesh and the Survival of the Basuto Nation—the Second Phase”; C. C. Wrigley, “Apolo Kagwa: Katikkiro of Buganda”; E. A. Ayandele, “Abdel Kader and the French Occupation of Algeria, 1830–1847”; Ian Henderson, “Lobengula: Achievement and Tragedy’”; E. J. Alagoa, “Koko: Amanyanabo of Nembe”; and Philip Igbafe, “Oba Ovonramwen and the Fall of Benin.”

  • 3. The African Historical Biographies were published by Heinemann Educational Books, London, under the general editorship of Obaro Ikime. The author, title, and date of each volume are as follows: R. H. Kofi Darkwah, Menelik of Ethiopia (1972); Anthony J. Dachs, Khama of Botswana (1971); Obaro Ikime, Nana of the Niger Delta (1972); Peter Sanders, Moshweshwe of Lesotho (1971); Philip Aigbona Igbafe, Obaseki of Benin (1972); K. Yeboa Daaku, Osei Tutu of Asante (1976); Tekana N. Tamuno, Herbert Macaulay: Nigerian Patriot (1976); Obaro Ikime, Chief Dǫghǫ of Warri (1976); Adeleye Ijagbemi Naimbana of Sierra Leone (1976); E. J. Alagoa, King Boy of Brass (1975); Ngwabi Bhebe, Lobengula of Zimbabwe (1977); A. C. Unomah, Mirambo of Tanzania (1977); and R. Kent Rasmussen, Mzilikazi of the Ndebele (1977).

  • 4. V. P. Franklin and Bettye Collier-Thomas, “Biography, Race Vindication and African American Intellectuals,” Journal of African American History 87 (2002): 160–174.

  • 5. Ikime, “Introduction” to Leadership in 19th Century Africa, xvi.

  • 6. Kwame Anthony Appiah, cited in Cheryl-Ann Michael, “African Biography: Hagiography or Demonization?” Social Dynamics 30, no. 1 (2004): 3.

  • 7. T. D. Mweli Skota, The African Yearly Register: Being an Illustrated National Biographical Dictionary (Who’s Who) of Black Folks in Africa (Johannesburg: Orange, 1932).

  • 8. Tim Couzens, The New African: A Study of the Life and Work of H. I. E. Dhlomo (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1985).

  • 9. See Jonathan Fenderman, “Evolving Conceptions of Pan-African Scholarship: W. E. B. du Bois, Carter G. Woodson and the ‘Encyclopedia Africana,’ 1909–1963,” Journal of African American History 95, no. 1 (2010): 71–91.

  • 10. William Edward Burghardt du Bois, “A Statement Concerning the Encyclopaedia Africana Project, 1 April 1962.” In fact this had been a feature of Ikime’s collective biographies as well, with African authors (only just) outnumbering non-African ones.

  • 11. Lawrence Henry Ofosu-Appiah, ed., The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography: Volume 1, Ethiopia-Ghana (New York: Reference Publications, 1977); Lawrence Henry Ofosu-Appiah, ed., The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography: Volume 2, Sierra Leone-Zaire (Algonac, MI: Reference Publications, 1979); and Keith Irvine, ed., The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography: Volume 3, South Africa—Botswana-Lesotho-Swaziland (Algonac, MI: Reference Publications, 1995).

  • 12. Mark Lipschutz and R. Kent Rasmussen, Dictionary of African Historical Biography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978). Mention should also be made of the African Biographical Archive: Victor Herrero Mediavilla, ed., African Biographical Archive/Afrikanisches Biographisches Archiv (Munich: K.G. Saur Verlag, 1995–1999). Many English, French, and German publications were searched, resulting in a biographical compilation of many thousand entries. Sheldon’s more recent dictionary, although not confined to biography, contains a wide range of women’s microbiographies. See Kathleen E. Sheldon, Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005).

  • 13. Dr. Jonathan Bonk, project director.

  • 14. Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of African Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • 15. Preface to the Oxford Dictionary of African Biography.

  • 16. Joseba Agirreazkuenaga and Mikel Urquijo, “Collective Biography and Europe’s Cultural Legacy,” The European Legacy 20, no. 4 (2015): 373–388. On collective biography as method, see also Angela Jones, “Lessons from the Niagara Movement: Prosopography and Discursive Protest,” Sociological Focus 49 (2016): 63–83.

  • 17. Columba Kaburi Muriungi, “Let’s Sing Our Heroes: A Comparison of Biographical Series for Children in Kenya and South Africa,” Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, Comparative Linguistics and Literary Studies 25, no. 3 (2004): 181–197. “They Fought For Freedom” was published in the 1990s by Maskew Miller Longman under the general editorship of John Pampallis; the UNESCO Women in African History series is published jointly by UNESCO and HarperCollins; titles in the Voices of Liberation series include Albert Luthuli, Ruth First, and Patrice Lumumba (Pretoria, South Africa: HSRC); and African Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015) include Steve Biko, Emperor Haile Selassie, Patrice Lumumba, and Thomas Sankara. These have also been published in the Pocket Biographies series by Johannesburg-based Jacana Media.

  • 18. Information obtained from Panaf Books (regrettably this website is no longer available) and personal communication with R. Molteno, London.

  • 19. Editors of Panaf Books, Forward Ever: The Life of Kwame Nkrumah (London: Panaf, 2006).

  • 20. Susan Geiger, “Tanganyikan Nationalism as ‘Women’s Work’: Life Histories, Collective Biography and Changing Historiography,” The Journal of African History 37, no. 3 (1996): 466.

  • 21. J. B. Webster, “Preface” in Leadership in 19th century Africa, ed. Ikime, viii.

  • 22. David Sweetman, Women Leaders in African History (London, UK: Heinemann Educational, 1984).

  • 23. The term “new African” was coined by South African writer Herbert Dhlomo in the 1940s and has been popularized by the work of Ntongela Masilela through his New African Movement website. It has a clear South African focus, although the attributes that Masilela identifies in his subjects are much more widely dispersed on the continent. The term is introduced to succinctly express the alternative source of leadership that became available with the spread of missionary activity and Western education. It makes no assumptions about the way in which such individuals related to broader African (and indeed international) society.

  • 24. “The story of Kofoworola Aina Moore, of the Yoruba Tribe, Nigeria,” written by herself, in Margery Perham, ed., Ten Africans (London, UK: Faber & Faber, 1936), 323. This memoir was written at the end of Moore’s studies at Oxford. On her return to Nigeria, she became a prominent educationist and was active in the women’s movement and various other civic organizations. She married Sir Adetokunbo Adegboyega Ademola, later Chief Justice of the Nigerian Supreme Court. Her period at Oxford is remembered on the TORCH website.

  • 25. Donovan Williams, “Tiyo Soga 1829–71,” in Black Leaders in Southern African History, ed. Christopher Saunders (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1979), 127–141; and L. D. Ngcongco, “John Tengo Jabavu,” in Black Leaders, ed. Saunders (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1979), 142–156. Williams had published a more extended biography two years earlier: Donovan Williams, Umfundisi: A Biography of Tiyo Soga, 1829–1871 (Alice, [South Africa]: Lovedale, 1978).

  • 26. Edwin Smith, Aggrey of Africa: A Study in Black and White (London: Student Christian Movement, 1929).

  • 27. H. C. Armstrong, Grey Steel (J.C. Smuts) (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1939); F. S. Crafford, Jan Smuts: A Biography (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1946); William Keith Hancock, Smuts: The Sanguine Years, 1870–1919, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1962); William Keith Hancock, The Fields of Force, 1919–1950, Vol. 2 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1962); W. E. G. Solomon, Saul Solomon: The Member for Cape Town (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1948); and Alan Paton, South African Tragedy: The Life and Times of Jan Hofmeyr (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965).

  • 28. On hagiography, see Michael, “African Biography.” Examples include William Edgett Smith, Nyerere of Tanzania (London, UK: Victor Gollancz, 1973); Basil Davidson, Black Star: A View of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah (New York, NY: Praeger, 1974); and Thomas Tlou, Neil Parsons, and Willie Henderson, Seretse Khama 1921–1980 (Johannesburg: Macmillan, 1995). Probably because theirs was the longest struggle for freedom on the continent and attracted such a high degree of international attention, the biographical representation of African nationalist and freedom fighter figures from South Africa is extensive. See, as examples, Brian Willan, Sol Plaatje: A Biography (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1984); Bongani Ngqulunga, The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley kaIsaka Seme (Cape Town: Penguin, 2017); Benjamin Pogrund, How Can Man Die Better: The Life of Robert Sobukwe (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1990); Donald Woods, Biko (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1987); and Alan Wieder, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2013). Women’s biographies include Marieke Faber Clarke with Nyathi Pathisa, Lozikeyi Dlodlo Queen of the Ndebele (Bulawayo [Zimbabwe]: Amagugu, 2010); Nwando Achebe, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria, Ahebi Ugbabe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011); Linda Heywood, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); and Helen Cooper, Madame President. The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017).

  • 29. Examples of autobiographical memoirs include Nnamdi Azikiwe, My Odyssey (New York, NY: Praeger, 1970); Oginga Odinga, Not Yet Uhuru (London, UK: Heinemann, 1967); Mamphela Ramphele, A Life (Cape Town: David Philip, 1995); Wangari Mathaai, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story (London, UK: Arrow, 2008). Emperor Haile Sellassie’s autobiography, originally published in Amharic, appeared in English in two volumes, each with a different translator/editor: The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Sellassie I “My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress” 1892–1937, ed. and trans. Edward Ullendorff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976); My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress: Haile Sellassie I, King of Ethiopia, ed. and trans. Harold Marcus with Ezekiel Gebissa and Tibebe Eshete (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994).

  • 30. Janet G. Vaillant, Black, French and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990); and Heather Hughes, First President: A Life of John L. Dube, Founding President of the ANC (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2011). For an example that demonstrates the exceedingly complex and painful engagement with the vagaries of nationalist movements, see Jocelyn Alexander, “Loyalty and Liberation: The Political Life of Zephaniah Moyo,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 11, no. 1 (2017): 166–187.

  • 31. Anthony Kirk-Greene, “His Eternity, His Eccentricity, or His Exemplarity? A Further Contribution to the Study of H.E. the African Head of State,” African Affairs 90, no. 359 (1991): 166. Although the remark was meant to underline the dangers of writing about the living, one might add that biographers (Africans and others) based in better-resourced institutions in North America and Europe, tend to dominate the field of subjects, alive and dead, because researching and writing biography is often a long and costly task. For a notable critical treatment of a living subject, which possibly confirms Kirk-Greene’s point, see John Iliffe, Obasanjo, Nigeria and the World (Woodbridge, UK: James Currey, 2011).

  • 32. Urther Rwafa, “Theorising Mandela,” Journal of Literary Studies 33, no. 4 (2017): 90.

  • 33. Carli Coetzee, “Mandela’s Meanings: A Translated and Adapted Life,” Altre Modernità 12, no. 11 (2014): 15–28.

  • 34. Nelson Mandela, No Easy Walk to Freedom (London, UK: Heinemann, 1965).

  • 35. Luli Callinicos, Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains (Cape Town: David Philip, 2004).

  • 36. Mary Benson, Nelson Mandela: The Man and the Movement (London, UK: Penguin, 1986); and Fatima Meer, Higher than Hope: “Rolihlahla We Love You” (Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1988). Re-issued as Higher Than Hope: The Authorised Biography of Nelson Mandela (London, UK: Penguin, 1990).

  • 37. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (Randburg [South Africa]: Macdonald Purnell, 1994).

  • 38. Author Mandla Langa produced a kind of sequel to the 1994 autobiography by assembling Mandela’s notes from his time in office, as well as a draft memoir Mandela had been working on. Nelson Mandela and Mandla Langa, Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years (London, UK: Pan Macmillan, 2017).

  • 39. Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1999). This time, the study was endorsed directly by Mandela, rather than via Winnie Mandela, as had been the case with the Meer study; the couple divorced in 1996.

  • 40. Sampson, Mandela, 487–488.

  • 41. Richard Stengel, Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lesson on Life, Love and Courage (London, UK: Virgin, 2010).

  • 42. Steve Davis, “Struggle History and Self-Help: The Parallel Lives of Nelson Mandela in Conventional and Figurative Biography,” African Studies 73, no. 2 (2014): 169–191.

  • 43. Tom Lodge, Mandela: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

  • 44. Tom Lodge, “Secrets and Lies: South African Political Biography,” Journal of Southern African Studies 41, no. 3 (2015): 688.

  • 45. This is Boehmer’s criticism of Mandela’s treatment; see Elleke Boehmer, Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3–7. Other recent biographies of South African politicians have adopted this approach to great effect. See, for example, Lindie Koorts, D.F. Malan and the Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2014).

  • 46. Gunner argues that the public and private should be seen as “densely overlapping,” rather than separate spheres. Liz Gunner, “‘Let All the Stories Be Told’: Zulu Woman, Words and Silence.” Afterword to Rebecca Hourwich Reyher, Zulu Woman: The Life Story of Christina Sibiya (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1999), 199.

  • 47. Mary Smith, Baba of Karo: A Woman of the Muslim Hausa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981). Whether this counts as “biography” or “autobiography” is considered in the article.

  • 48. Wright, cited in Susan Geiger, “Women’s Life Histories: Method and Content,” Signs 11, no. 2 (1986): 339.

  • 49. Marcia Wright, “Life and Technology in Everyday Life: Reflections on the Career of Mzee Stefano, Master Smelter of Ufipa, Tanzania,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 15, no. 1 (2001): 18.

  • 50. George Shepperson and Thomas Price, Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Nyasaland Rising of 1915 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1958).

  • 51. Wangari Muoria-Sal, Bodil Folke Frederiksen, John Lonsdale, and Derek Peterson, eds., Writing for Kenya: The Life and Works of Henry Muoria. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic, 2009), 1–424.

  • 52. Lisa Lindsay, Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

  • 53. Charles van Onselen, The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine A South African Sharecropper 1894–1985 (Cape Town: David Philip, 1995), 3.

  • 54. Margaret McCord, The Calling of Katie Makhanya: A Memoir of South Africa (Cape Town: David Philip, 1995).

  • 55. Robert Edgar and Hilary Sapire, African Apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a Twentieth-Century South African Prophet (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999).

  • 56. Reyher, Zulu Woman.

  • 57. Margery Perham, ed., Ten Africans, 9.

  • 58. John Iliffe, East African Doctors: History of a Modern Profession (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

  • 59. Geiger, “Tanganyikan Nationalism as ‘Women’s Work’.”

  • 60. Belinda Bozzoli with Mmantho Nkotsoe, Women of Phokeng: Consciousness, Life Strategy and Migrancy in South Africa, 1900–1983 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational, 1991), 109. Previously, men would have exchanged bogadi (bridewealth cattle or equivalent) with a woman’s father before marriage; the woman herself would not have been expected to contribute a dowry.

  • 61. Richard Werbner, Tears of the Dead: The Social Biography of an African Family (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press for the International African Institute, London, 1991), 109. A further collective biography of note is Sandra Rowoldt Shell, Children of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo Slaves From Ethiopia to South Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2018).

  • 62. Ikime, Leadership in 19th Century Africa, xiv.

  • 63. R. Kent Rasmussen, “Foreword to the First Edition,” in Dictionary of African Historical Biography, ed. Mark Lipschutz and R. Kent Rasmussen (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987), vii.

  • 64. David Nasaw, “AHR Roundtable Historians and Biography; Introduction,” American Historical Review 114, no. 3 (June 2008): 573.

  • 65. Robert Rotberg, “Biography and Historiography: Mutual Evidentiary and Interdisciplinary Considerations,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 40, no. 3 (2001): 305. Among Rotberg’s several biographies, see The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

  • 66. John Lonsdale, “Agency in Tight Corners: Narrative and Initiative in African History,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 13, no. 1 (2000): 8.

  • 67. Lisa Lindsay in conversation with Peter Limb and Laura Fair, Episode 93 of Africa Past and Present: The Podcast About African History, Culture and Politics.

  • 68. Achim von Oppen and Silke Strickrodt, “Introduction: Biographies Between Spheres of Empire,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 44, no. 5 (2016): 718.

  • 69. van Onselen, The Seed is Mine, ix.

  • 70. Hilda Kuper, “Biography as Interpretation,” Eleventh Annual Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture, African Studies Programme, University of Indiana (April 21, 1980): 25.

  • 71. Kuper, “Biography as Interpretation,” 28.

  • 72. For a useful account of so-called positionality (albeit from a geographical perspective) see Kim V. L England. “Getting Personal: Reflexivity, Positionality and Feminist Research,” Professional Geographer 46, no. 1 (1994): 80–89.

  • 73. Reyher, Zulu Woman, 9.

  • 74. McCord recorded Makhanya’s story in 1954, although the book it was based on came out in 1995, when McCord herself was in her eighties.

  • 75. See, for example, Stephan Meyer, “Collaborative Auto-biography: Notes on an Interview with Margaret McCord on The Calling of Katie Makhanya: A Memoir of South Africa,” Oral Tradition 15, no. 2 (2000): 230–254.

  • 76. Karin Barber, “Introduction,” in Africa’s Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 3.

  • 77. See, for example, Judith Lutge Coullie, Stephan Meyer, Thengani Ngwenya, and Thomas Olver, eds., Selves in Question (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006).

  • 78. Richard Rathbone, “African Biography,” Contemporary Review 293, no. 1702 (2011): 339.

  • 79. Gälawdewos, The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman (W. L Belcher and M. Kleiner, Trans.). (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

  • 80. Babacar Fall, “Orality and Life Histories: Rethinking the Social and Political History of Senegal,” Africa Today 50, no. 2 (2003): 55–65.

  • 81. Hermione Lee, Biography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 18.

  • 82. Steven Feierman, “Collective Biography of African Doctors,” Journal of African History 41, no. 3 (2000): 516. Emphasis added.

  • 83. Meghan Healy and Eva Jackson, “Practices of Naming and the Possibilities of Home on American Zulu Mission Stations in Colonial Natal,” Journal of Natal and Zulu History 29, no. 1 (2011): 1–19.