edited by: Anaïs Angelo
London, Routledge, 2023, ISBN: 9780367679408; 240pp.; Price: £38.99
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Date accessed: 4 March, 2024
Anaïs Angelo’s new edited collection, The Politics of Biography in Africa: Borders, Margins, and Alternative Histories of Power, explores themes within, and approaches to, writing and using biography in the pan-African context. It sits within an increasing amount of scholarship using biography as both method and mode of African history. Following calls in the early 2010s for an increase in professional rather than popular historical biographies of African leaders and groups, and desires to bring a more critical lens to the writing of African biographies, this volume is part of a newer scholarship of African biography.(1) This scholarship is moving away from traditional positivist, chronological, and nationalist writing of biographies to consider how biography might be used to cross national borders or as a tool for understanding the (self-) construction of an image or narrative. Following Klaas van Walraven’s recent edited collection on The Individual in African History, this volume explores additional elements of this ongoing historiographical conversation around (auto)biography in African history.(2)
As Heather Hughes has highlighted, biography has held a special place in African historiography since the early 20th century, as a tool both for disrupting narratives about African inferiority and for building a pan-African consciousness.(3) This present volume continues these goals with a modern twist. It includes figures from across the whole continent, not delineating between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa as is often done in the historiography. It also emphasises the success and importance of African feminist approaches to political power, approaches which have historically been excluded from western-dominated feminism.
This collection is split into three complementary parts. The first addresses important questions and topics in the history of biography more generally, through examples from the African context, including internationalism, history from below, and the western nature of biography as a tool. The second takes a more traditional approach to (auto)biographies, looking at them as constructs produced to foster or maintain political power. The third and final part focusses solely on women’s biographies, although women are also represented as key figures in the earlier sections.
The volume begins with an important look at the transnational boundary-breaking power of biography as a historiographical lens. In chapter one, Martin Mourre, Ophélie Rillon, and Alexis Roy consider the work of the Biographical Dictionary of African Mobilizations and Protests and the ‘Maitron Afrique’ group. The authors outline some of the biases of the Dictionary, influenced by both the (colonial, political, male) archival sources on which it is based and the European conceptualisation of the role of labour movements in political struggle, noting that ‘the working class constitutes a tiny part of African societies, which are overwhelmingly rural’ (p.24). They question the temporal, geographical, and personal limitations of African biographical history, suggesting not only a broader temporal and geographical approach but also the inclusion of groups and movements under the remit of biography. This latter approach is modelled by Sakiko Nakao in chapter three in a history of the pan-African Mouvement de Libération Nationale. Nakao demonstrates the success of the biographical approach in challenging national siloes within African anti- and post-colonial history and also in constructing more nuanced understandings of the internal negotiations within political movements, often presented as homogenous institutions. In between these, the second chapter by Catherine Cymone Fourshey and Marla L. Jaksch uses the narrative of Bibi Titi Mohamed to demonstrate the power of biography in understanding dissonance and dissent within organisations and movements that collective biographies have previously portrayed as unified and homogenous. This strong start does much to recommend biography as a mode of investigation for the historian, particularly the colonial and post-colonial historian.
Chapters four to six address the shaping of self-image and memorialisation that occur through the writing of (auto)biographies, and particularly how discrepancies between biography and historical evidence ‘point to the politics of memory about national liberation and independence’ (p.98). Marciana Nafule Were considers how Janet Kainembabazi Kataaha Museveni leveraged Ugandan oral tradition and Nkore communal memory in her autobiography to link her personal story to that of the nation, thereby presenting herself as a natural leader. Víctor Barros then looks at the material culture of memory in conjunction with the biography of Amílcar Cabral to demonstrate the erasures that have contributed to the construction of Cabral’s narrative and, by extension, Guinean and Cabo Verdean nation building. Finally, Birgit Englert explores the writings of Ronnie Kasrils, which ‘blur the already porous lines between autobiography and biography’ (p.118), arguing again for the utility of (auto)biographies when placed in the context of the rest of the authors’ repertoire. This central section links the first and last parts of the book. Birgit Englert’s chapter on Ronnie Kasrils could have sat easily in the first part of the volume, given Kasrils’ geographical movement throughout his life. Janet Museveni could have easily joined the women in part three. These interconnections give the book a sense of cohesion across the three themes.
The last section includes chapters on a range of female African political figures; Frieda von Bülow, Bibi Titi Mohammed (also discussed in chapter two), Doria Shafik, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Wangari Maathai, and Leymah Gbowee. Although each of these individuals, and individual chapters, have unique narratives, this section forms a coherent picture of women’s power struggles across Africa through the lens and study of biography. This section addresses hidden figures in the history of African feminism and biography, as well as those more well-known individuals who held, at one point at least, substantial power and status before losing these positions for a variety of (often gendered) reasons. In chapter seven, Diana M. Natermann draws out the connections between two unlikely figures, one a ‘white, Protestant, noble-born, and well-educated woman’ (Frieda von Bülow) and the other a ‘non-white, Muslim woman with basic education and from a low-income family’ (Bibi Titi Mohammed) comparing the ways in which they gained and lost public support and power during their careers, reflecting on gendered obstacles and resilience (p.139). Chapter eight focusses on the little-known Egyptian feminist Doria Shafik, with Nada Halloway situating her biography in the wider context of Egyptian independence and religious expression. In chapter nine, Marianne Séverin demonstrates the individual agency of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma within the structures of the ANC and the ANC’s women’s league and in the ‘politico-family dynasty’ of the Zuma ex-couple (p. 183).
Of particular note is the final chapter by Lanoi Maloiy, which engages with sisterhood and motherhood as forms of alternative power, reconceptualising leadership through the lens of African feminism. In this chapter, Maloiy positions sisterhood and motherhood as key elements of women’s leadership in Africa, which challenge traditional patriarchal leadership structures and norms. Maloiy shows us how these relationships were consciously and effectively employed by Johnson-Sirleaf, Maathai, and Gbowee to both gain and maintain power, highlighting the power and empowerment that can be found in these feminine roles and modes of leadership.
As with all works on life stories and biography, there are individuals and groups who have not made it into this collection, and some may use this to nit-pick. However, the examples chosen are apt for their purpose and the themes explored; the necessary and inevitable selection of individuals to focus on does not detract from the contribution of the collection to scholarship on this important subject. Unlike many works on biography, an important feature of this volume is that more than half of the individuals featured are women. This predominance of women is, as Fourshey and Jaksch point out in chapter two, sharply at odds with the presentation of important individuals within African history—and particularly post-colonial and decolonial histories—in cultural institutions such as the National Museum and House of Cultural Heritage in Tanzania today, from which women are ‘mostly absent’ (p.35). In this volume, historiography continues to follow ‘the tide of history’ both in its inclusion of women’s voices and its focus on hidden histories and history from below (p.2).
Meanwhile, several chapters do not shy away from addressing controversial figures within the history of African politics, exploring the grey spaces that these individuals—or those who interacted with them—can occupy. In chapter four, Were addresses Janet Museveni’s role in her husband’s controversial government of Uganda and particularly how she presents her own relationship to the election malpractice accusations levelled against him. Chapter six explores Ronnie Kasrils’ changing relationship with Jacob Zuma, whilst chapter nine considers Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s role within her ex-husband’s government and the role of personal and familial networks in the gaining and maintenance of political power. These authors offer excellent examples of how to approach controversial figures both critically and within context.
I find the book’s overall claim that biography requires rehabilitation as both a mode and topic of investigation for the historian to be somewhat overstated. Biography has long been both a tool and a focus of those seeking to uncover histories of historically marginalised populations; from the History Workshop Movement to the Subaltern Studies Group, histories from below have often utilised biography as both a methodological tool and a topic of interest.(4) However, although this volume is not reinventing the wheel here, it is an extremely important addition to this ongoing conversation, bringing to the fore issues around the westernisation of biography as a format and the role of African feminism in our understanding and use of biography. The volume successfully grapples with issues that plague the study of biography in Africa specifically, while offering lessons that might be taken from African biography into wider (auto)biographical studies.
Equally, numerous chapters’ discussion of the bias, ambition, and (self-)construction of (auto)biographies do not necessarily offer anything novel to the historian who is used to treating biographical sources as constructed semi-fictions. However, the book does make some important additions to the methodological approach to biography of which historians should be aware. For example, Birgit Englert in chapter six makes an excellent case for the greater contextualisation of (auto)biographies as source material, placing them within the wider body of work produced by the author. The volume also demonstrates the use of biography in opening a more transnational history of African decolonisation that focusses on the individual or group in a way that moves beyond histories of pan-African, multigovernmental, or international agencies, particularly evident in part one. This is an important use of biography that could be applied both within and beyond the African continent to think about individuals as creators of international narratives.
Although an edited volume necessarily will include variations in writing style and approach, this volume has an excellent coherence, and the volume editor has successfully grouped the contributions to form an overarching narrative with complementary styles. For the uninitiated, it is an excellent, interesting, and engaging opener to the world of African (auto)biography. Other pieces not already cited above which could be read in tandem with this volume include Maurice Taonezvi Vambe and Katy Khan’s work on reading the Zimbabwean national anthem as a piece of national biography writing, Susan Geiger’s writing on women in the Tanganyika African National Union, and Nancy J. Jacobs and Andrew Bank’s special issue on ‘Awkward Biographies’ in South Africa.(5) For the expert, this is an important collection of additional methods and approaches to (auto)biography, applicable to both African and non-African scholarship, that should be included in the historian’s toolbox.
- F. A. Mouton, “‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ : Professional Historians and Political Biography of South African Parliamentary Politics, 1910-1990,” Journal for Contemporary History 36, no. 1 (June 2011), pp. 57–74; Ciraj Rassool, “Rethinking Documentary History and South African Political Biography,” South African Review of Sociology 41, no. 1 (April 1, 2010), pp. 28–55; Ciraj Rassool, “The Challenges of Rethinking South African Political Biography: A Reply to Jonathan Hyslop,” South African Review of Sociology 41, no. 2 (June 1, 2010), pp. 116–20; Jonathan Hyslop, “On Biography: A Response to Ciraj Rassool,” South African Review of Sociology 41, no. 2 (June 1, 2010), pp. 104–15.Back to (1)
- Klaas van Walraven, ed., The Individual in African History (Brill, 2020).Back to (2)
- Heather Hughes, “African Biography and Historiography,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History, August 28, 2018.Back to (3)
-  For further discussion of this long historiography see Lisa A. Lindsay, “Biography in African History,” History in Africa 44 (June 2017), pp. 11–26 and Hughes, “African Biography and Historiography”, Ibid.Back to (4)
-  Maurice Taonezvi Vambe and Katy Khan, “Reading the Zimbabwean National Anthem as Political Biography in the Context of Crisis,” Journal of Literary Studies 25, no. 2 (June 1, 2009), pp. 25–39; Susan Geiger, “Tanganyikan Nationalism as ‘Women’s Work’: Life Histories, Collective Biography and Changing Historiography,” The Journal of African History 37, no. 3 (November 1996), pp. 465–78; Nancy J. Jacobs and Andrew Bank, “Special Issue - Awkward Biographies: Unsettled Stories of Southern African Lives,” African Studies 78, no. 2 (April 3, 2019).Back to (5)
Additional image on cover page: Bibi Titi Mohammed