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New Book Lists More Than 2,000 African Bios

Illustration for article titled New Book Lists More Than 2,000 African Bios

Below is the introduction to the Dictionary of African Biography, which was co-edited by The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr.


On November 18, 2011, Professors Emmanuel Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University launched their new Dictionary of African Biography at the African Studies Conference in Washington, DC. The DAB's 2129 entries are published in six volumes by Oxford University Press. Written and edited by leading scholars of Africa, the DAB constitutes the largest ever collection of African biographies to cover the entire continent and all time periods of history. An online edition of 10,000 entries will follow.

It is perhaps impossible to capture the full diversity of Africa — a continent of one billion people, and the most continuous site of the evolution of the human species on our planet — in 2000 biographies.


But the DAB provides arguably the most thorough sampling to date of the astonishing richness and variety of African lives over the past 5000 years. Indeed, the earliest figure to appear in the DAB, African Eve, takes us back even further, to the emergence of modern homo sapiens 200,000 years ago. That entry shows how modern DNA analysis has enabled us to reconstruct our Mitochondrial Eve, our most recent common matrilineal ancestor, and the metaphorical mother of the human race.

Early Women Rulers: Amerinas

The DAB provides a glimpse at the lives of the earliest female rulers—from 17th dynasty Queen Ahhotep, who reigned in Egypt in the 1500s BC, through the 18th dynasty's famous Nefertiti and Nefertari, to Queen Abar of Kush, Sophoniba of Carthage, and, of course, Cleopatra VII of Egypt. We also include mythical and semi-mythical mothers of Africa, such as Elissa or Dido of Carthage; Nehanda, the founding mother of Mutapa, and Makedda, better known in the West as the Queen of Sheba

Another fascinating character is Ameniras the Meroitic Queen of the ancient empire of Kush (fl. first century BC). She defended Kushite sovereignty against the Roman Emperor Augustus' s attempts to subjugate and annex the kingdom. Ameniras's stand against Rome's most powerful ruler, inaugurated a period of economic prosperity that encouraged the flourishing of trade, commerce, intercultural exchange between Kush and the Mediterranean world. This era is often called the Golden Age of Meroe, and it lasted until the middle of the fourth century AD. Monnica, a Christian Saint and the mother of Augustine of Hippo, is the earliest woman in the DAB, who was not a ruler. We know of her only through the writings of her son, who depicted her as an ideal and devout Christian mother. Other early women are the Christian martyrs Perpetua and Felicity.


The first female scholar of whom we have reasonably detailed and firm knowledge on the African continent was Hypatia of Alexandria, who lived in the 4th century. She was an astronomer and mathematician, and took a leading role in the civic affairs of Alexandria, delivering public lectures on philosophy. While her career alone was sufficient to accord her a pioneering role in African history, the lurid nature of her death would have done so as well. She died in AD 415, murdered by a crowd of Christian zealots who declared her a heretic, seized her, stripped her, and proceeded to dismember her, and then burned her mangled corpse. Christians were not the only martyrs in the early centuries after Christ.



The DAB shows the persistent theme of Africans' engagement with the outside world. It has always been a complex, two-way process. Take, for example, Kahina, the semi-legendary queen who in the 8th century led the Aures Mountain Berbers in a guerilla war against Arab efforts to conquer North Africa. Arab scholars portrayed her as a worthy and glmarous adversary, with a supernatural power to foresee the future, including an ability to outwit enemy forces by predicting their movements. For the Berbers, Kahina came to embody a pastoral ideal that contrasted with Arab plunder. Ultimately, however, Kahina could not outwit the superior forces of the Arabs, but chose death in battle rather than surrender. 


Tariq ibn Ziyad

In the century that followed, other North Africans made an accommodation with the Umayyads. Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Berber slave belonging to the Umayyad Governor rose to become his deputy governor. In 711 Tariq launched the Muslim conquest of Spain in 711. They landed first at the Rock of Gibraltar, which ever after would bear Tariq's name (Arabic: Jabal Tariq, corrupted by Europeans as "Gibraltar"). 


Scholars: Constantinus Africanus, al-Turtushi, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun

The Islamic conquest of North Africa and Iberia ushered in a golden age of trade, scientific discovery, intellectual curiosity, and literary innovation. In 11th century Tunis, Constantinus Africanus brought Arabic medical and scientific knowledge from North Africa to the European Mediterranean. Among his most popular works in Europe were his writings on sex and gynecology, which contained remedies for many sexual and reproductive ailments.


The Sunni scholar, Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Turtushi, wrote both a major treatise on Islamic government, and was gifted poet of erotic verse Ibn Rushd (Averroes), was probably the greatest polymath of his era, and famously stated that there was no inherent inconsistency between Greek rational thought and Islam.

The explorers and writers Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun are perhaps the most fascinating, for it is through their writings that we know most of what we know about the power and wealth of the great 14th century empires of Sunjata Keita and Mansa Musa.


African Explorers: Ibn Battuta and Tsega Ze'ab

Ibn Battuta also visited the kingdom of Songhai and traveled the full extent of the Muslim world, from West Africa to Asia Minor and Central Asia, India, Sri Lanka, China, and South East Asia. The seventy-five thousand miles of his journey exceeded by fivefold the distance traveled by his more famous European contemporary, Marco Polo.


Other Africans were as curious about the rest of the world, as the rest of the world was about Africa. In the 16th century, Tsega Ze'ab , an Ethiopian cleric, traveled to India, and served as his nation's ambassador to Portugal's king João III.

Slave Trade: Ana Joaquina dos Santos e Silva

The trade in raw goods and intellectual ideas between Africa, Asia, and Europe, prefigured our modern day global economy and, after 1500, was also a driving force behind the transatlantic slave trade. The DAB includes stories of Africans who encouraged the slave trade, and Africans who resisted it. It tells us about the lives of men and women who prospered as result of the trade, and those who suffered.


By the 18th and 19th century, most African slaves were women. So too were a significant number of slave traders. Perhaps the most remarkable was Ana Joaquina dos Santos e Silva, born to a Portuguese father and an African mother, who was a leading merchant, money-lender, entrepreneur and slave-trader in Angola. She had extensive links to the Brazilian slave trade, and was perhaps the wealthiest of all merchants in Portugal's Angola colony in the early nineteenth century. Even though Brazil abolished the slave trade in 1850 (it would not abolish slavery itself until 1888), Ana Joaquina continued to prosper having diversified her business links beyond the slave trade.

20th Century Freedom Struggles: Fela Kuti, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and Wole Soyinka


Many of our entries focus on the struggles throughout the African continent to regain independence from colonial rule. The DAB contains important scholarly assessments of the careers of independence leaders Nkrumah and Azikiwe, Kaunda and Nyerere; Senghor and Sekou Toure; Ben Bella and Nasser; Lumumba and Agostinho Neto.

The DAB also allows us to examine the efforts of those who came after that founding generation, and attempted to broaden the meaning of freedom and independence. It is instructive to look briefly at 3 members of one family: the musician and activist, Fela Kuti; his mother, the feminist leader Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and his cousin, the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.


Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

Born in Western Nigeria in 1900 — the year of the first Pan African Conference — Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was among the first generation of African women to receive a formal Western Education. She studied at the famed Abeokuta Grammar School and in England, and, along with her husband — a minister and educator — she was at the heart of the anti-colonial struggle in British West Africa. She founded Nigeria's first feminist organization in the 1930s, which by 1953 had become the Federation of Nigerian Women's Societies (FNWS). The FNWS included both formally educated Christian women and illiterate market women. Arguably, the FNWS did a better job of overcoming regional and class differences than did the male-dominated independence movements. Her political radicalism and demands for social and gender equality won her the Lenin Peace Prize in 1970, but also marginalized her in the newly-independent Nigeria.


Fela Kuti

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti's radicalism clearly influenced her son, the musician and political activist Fela Kuti. Like his mother, Kuti was uncompromising in questioning authority. As a musician, Kuti was a pioneer of Afrobeat, and would come to influence other African musicians included in the DAB, such as Salif Keita of Mali, Youssouf N'dour of Senegal, Manu Dibango of Cameroon, and Hugh Masakela of South Africa. But it was in his direct challenge to the cultural conservatism of 1970s Nigeria — and especially by records like Zombie (1977) which attacked the nation's repressive military regime that Kuti was most radical. In 1977 he released "Zombie" — an explicit condemnation of Nigeria's repressive military government: "Zombie no go turn unless you tell am to turn/Zombie no go think unless you tell to think." That sentiment provoked the authorities to storm Kuti's compound in 1978, resulting in several rapes and murders, and — most shockingly — led to his mother being thrown through a window. She later died of her injuries, and from a resulting stroke.


Wole Soyinka

Fela Kuti's cousin was Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and whose entry in DAB is written by Biodun Jeyifo. Jeyifo notes:

Throughout his long and varied career, Soyinka has been singularly concerned in formulating an African literary and cultural modernity that complexly engages questions of race, culture, writing, nationalism and freedom. If there is a central thread, a unifying theme in the many strands that make up the substance of this project, it is a powerful determination to rescue literary and cultural self-fashioning in modern Africa from both the over-simplifications of naïve nationalist defenders of African traditions and the distortions of paternalistic Western writers and critics.


Indeed, the youngest person featured in the DAB, William Kamkwamba, indicates that the ingenuity of Africans themselves will shape the continent's future, just as that ingenuity shaped the past. Kamkwamba, born into poverty in rural Malawi in 1987, built a windmill to power his family's house using blue gum trees, bicycle parts, and other scrap materials. He also built a solar-powered water pump that supplies the first drinking water in his village. Kamkwamba's 2009 book about his work, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, earned him international recognition, and a memorable appearance on The Daily Show. He was also a guest speaker at Google's 2011 Science Fair. His work has inspired a number of Malawian-run rural economic development and education projects, which promote community economic independence and self-sustainability. Kamkwamba's website is at The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

The Dictionary of African Biography can be purchased at Amazon.com.

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