Wylie on Walraven, 'The Individual in African History: The Importance of Biography in African Historical Studies'

Klaas van Walraven, ed.
Diana Wylie

Klaas van Walraven, ed. The Individual in African History: The Importance of Biography in African Historical Studies. African Dynamics Series. Leiden: Brill, 2020. Illustrations. xii + 304 pp. $73.00 (paper), ISBN 978-90-04-40781-7

Reviewed by Diana Wylie (Boston University) Published on H-Africa (January, 2021) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56131

“Biography is ... back in fashion.” So writes historian-political scientist Klaas van Walraven, editor of The Individual in African History (p. 39). A good trend it is, especially for historians of Africa whose field has long been biased toward the study of groups, rather than the maddeningly complicated and unruly creatures we each are. Perhaps the reviving fashion will render African history more compelling and vibrant for the general reader.

The Individual in African History marks the seventeenth volume in the African Dynamics series on themes of contemporary relevance like migration or health, put out annually since 2001 by the African Studies Centre at the University of Leiden. This particular volume contains ten essays presented in 2016 at a two-day workshop on the relationship between Africanist biography and historiography. The ten authors, the majority of them younger Northern Hemisphere academics with extensive fieldwork experience, have all written on subjects like missions and gender relations or healing in Ghana. (Only one of them, South African Lindie Koorts, identifies herself as a “biographer.”) The titles of their previous, and even ongoing, projects mark them as, at base, social historians now eager to expand their narrative repertoire. 

The road to good biography—one that can, according to Jill Lepore, make an individual’s life serve as an “allegory” for broader social issues—is strewn with daunting obstacles.[1] It is hard to build a credible analytical bridge between the social and the individual, especially when that individual is not a “great man” who wielded formal power like Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela. Further, when an author invests energy in the minutia of another’s life, hagiography or even just plain partisanship can creep in. Then political sensitivities can barge in and complicate the biography’s reception; people have been known to damn efforts to acknowledge the complexity of a reviled figure like Joseph Stalin or South Africa’s Eugene de Kock.

African history has been particularly bereft of biography in part because, as historian Iva Peša writes, historians of Africa built their field by framing “counter-hegemonic narratives” (p. 95). (“Resistance” is a once-popular example.) In the course of refuting colonial ideologies, Africanists constructed their own meta-narratives, like those based on postmodernist, structuralist, or modernization theories. These big counter-narratives can obscure the power and meaning of local evidence and ignore the roles played by individuals. How can Africanist biographers overturn this “mega-” heritage and engage readers who might even be hostile to their point of view? Biographer Koorts ends her essay by invoking the value of “scholarly apparatus”: the tools holding the historian accountable to verifiable facts can serve as “both an anchor and a beacon” (p. 67).

The Individual in African History effectively draws attention to three overlapping points of tension in the writing of history: between a complex and a reductive story, between empathy and analysis, and between meta- and micro-narratives. These essays suggest that the craft of biography, done well, can resolve each one in favor of an engaging and accurate rendering of the African past.

Good biography can and should yield insights into the complexity of human nature and individual decision-making, out of which empathy and even self-knowledge may flow. “Good” and “evil” are not useful analytical categories, though wielding them as words of judgment seems to help people feel personally purified. Koorts encountered this unsettling truth when her research caught her between an African nationalist rock and an Afrikaner nationalist hard place in South Africa. Neither side liked her dispassionate stance toward the first apartheid-era prime minister, D. F. Malan. Koorts argues that Malan’s life showed “apartheid was instituted by very ordinary people ... with surprising ease.” Her biography reveals “a tale of party intrigues, in which even race was subservient to political ambition” (p. 53). For Koorts “biography does not justify or excuse”; it must be complex because people are (p. 66). A similar acknowledgment of individual complexity appears in Peša’s study of three rural Africans’ choice to move to mines and towns in northwest Zambia. Their motives were more complicated and diverse than early radical theories—like Giovanni Arrighi’s stress on Africans being “pushed” out of rural areas—could credit. Peša’s interviews reveal migrants moving in a variety of ways (occasionally, permanently) and for “contingent” reasons: sometimes the goal was to buy nice clothes to enhance one’s social standing. Meta-narratives like modernization theory, she argues, falsely homogenize real life experience. For Peša the trick is “to do justice to the intricacies and complexities of lived experience, while still formulating narratives of social change that make behavior and mentalities intelligible to a broader audience” (p. 94). Van Walraven also takes up the complexity baton. He introduces the reader to an exceptionally “complex and atypical” figure in the Central African Republic, Barthélémy Boganda, a former Catholic priest who became an anti-Communist and anti-colonial activist, including within the French National Assembly (p. 252). While noting that Boganda’s story reveals “a crisis in the cognitive realm of Equatorial cultures,” van Walraven wisely confesses that it is impossible to know exactly what went on inside the head of his persona, even though biographers crave to know and “are obliged” to try (pp. 258, 247).

Biography can make conventional political categories seem thin and inaccurate. Elena Moore notes in her life histories of the Pietersens, a Coloured couple in Cape Town, that life histories have the power to invigorate challenges to the state’s ideology: the way people remember their personal histories feeds into their “counter-discourse” to the “dominant” or official story of division and discord that apartheid was meant to resolve (p. 75). Paul Elen Grant discards the tired old dichotomies of “collaborator” or “proto-nationalist” when he writes the story of a nineteenth-century Gold Coast entrepreneur, David Cornelius Badu. Badu saw through European pretensions of superiority, spent money he earned preaching in Europe on a harmonium and fine clothes, and was also committed to “remaking the world” through “the emergence of an African Christianity” (p. 143). Grant concludes that Badu’s fascinating story “exemplifies the historian’s imperative to balance sweeping narrative analysis against the basic human experience of moral imagination” (p. 144). Grant is effectively writing a Scramble-era tale as a dialogue between relatively ignorant and sometimes powerless Europeans and their more savvy, cosmopolitan, and surprisingly independent African helpmeets. What are the political effects of tales of this nature? They can be significant, Erik Kennes writes with hope. For Kennes, research into the lives of Congolese political thinkers could help to systematize Congolese political thought. It could inspire those still trying to find an ideology that does not lead to hypocritical demagoguery like that of Laurent Kabila, a man who voiced leftist political slogans without apparently planning to realize them or having the means to do so. Life histories of the political elite could clarify how that elite was formed and transformed over time: when ideology is a tool for wielding power, rather than constituting an actual platform, how are we to understand the elite mouthing those slogans? According to Kennes, biography might turn out to have practical utility by answering that very question.

Probing individual lives can expose wellsprings of action in relatively hidden places: childhood, early schooling, military service, or the choice of a spouse. Eve Wong suggests taking childhood seriously. She argues that the faith in South African non-racialism and liberalism held by early twentieth-century Coloured politician Abdullah Abdurrahman reflects the experiences and lessons he imbibed in a broad array of Christian educational institutions he was privileged to attend. Historian Morgan Robinson would concur. She also focuses on children. She takes the micro-/macro- tension inherent in biographical writing to Zanzibar where she examines liberated slave narratives told by children, finding them “often formulaic” but also revelatory of social rebirth as individuals experienced new, free, Christian lives (p. 199). She claims the stories of freed slaves “recapture the[ir] subjectivity” and reveal the “small accretions of change” over the course of their specific lives, thereby illuminating the process of Christian conversion (p. 200). Conversion was inextricably linked to social rebirth, as the children not only were baptized but also recovered their health, interacted with other students and teachers, assumed responsibilities, and learned to read and write Swahili. Duncan Money is similarly attentive to the stages of a person’s life. He introduces us to Jack Hodgson, a one-time miner whose radicalism was once limited to defending white workers’ rights on southern African mines and, thus, the Colour Bar. Contrary to the expectations generated by a rigid theory of class determinism, Hodgson became an African National Congress (ANC) supporter, a defendant in the 1956 Treason Trial, and a central figure in the ANC’s military wing. What accounts for his mid-life pivot? Money suggests that Hodgson’s service in the Second World War and his second marriage helped to change his political stance. War service also factored into the radicalization of a Roman Catholic leader, Timneng, in the kingdom of Kom, Cameroon, whose church shook the ancien régime and “changed political and gender relations in Kom forever” (p. 168). Jacqueline de Vries shows Timneng operating within the context of a society rendered fragile by a host of circumstances beyond his control—war, depression, illness—but she stresses that explaining his success depends on understanding the “repertoire” of traditional and modern tactics at his disposal. The man had tools and he used them.

As is to be expected in published conference proceedings, some “chapters” are stronger than others. The weaker ones tend to assert, more than they prove, their core arguments. Further, one might wish for a sustained discussion of the quality of data found in oral and written “life histories.” There are, in addition, a few factual errors: for example, the University of Glasgow has not been “Catholic” since the Reformation (p. 227). What newcomers to African history will miss most, however, is a more thorough elaboration of context—social, political, economic—in some of the essays. The relatively thin contextual base is apparent when expressions like “the Uganda tribe” (Baganda) are quoted without explanation, but the silences are more frustrating when big issues are not broached (p. 203). We never learn what Kabila’s “business ventures” might have been when he was amassing wealth at the same time as he was mouthing left-wing ideologies and moving toward becoming president of the fractured Democratic Republic of the Congo (p. 287). Further, what exactly were the social realities in the Congo that led to decades of civil wars and demagoguery like Kabila’s? The absence of full-bodied context also inhibits the drawing of comparisons with movements in other parts of the world. The Catholic Church founded by Timneng in Cameroon, for example, drew the ire of a local political leader, a situation that merits acknowledgment, at least, of analogous state-religious tensions in, say, Brazil (Antonio Conselheiro), South Africa (Bulhoek), or Nyasaland (John Chilembwe). They are not identical situations, of course, but mention of them would help lift the significance of the individual life out of the “micro-” and into the “macro-” sphere. The task of hoisting the complex life of a particular individual onto the level of social significance is indeed difficult, but it lies at the heart of the problem of biography. It is worth doing, as the authors persuasively argue, if we are to make African history familiar and palpable to a wide audience.


[1]. Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (2001): 133.

Citation: Diana Wylie. Review of Walraven, Klaas van, ed., The Individual in African History: The Importance of Biography in African Historical Studies. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56131

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