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Dictionary of African Biography


We in the West often tend to think of Africa primarily in terms of slavery and colonialism, but Africa has a long tradition of excellence in the arts and sciences, including, for example, a number of Nobel laureates in a variety of disciplines, beginning in 1952. The DAB contains biographies of nineteen Nobel laureates, sixteen of whom were born on the African continent. Doris Lessing (Literature, 2007) was born in Persia, before moving to colonial Rhodesia as a child. Two others were born in Europe, but, like Lessing, have a strong connection to the African continent: the French citizen and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer (Peace, 1952), who died in Gabon, at his famous hospital; and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (Literature, 2008), a joint citizen of France and Mauritius, who spent his childhood in Nigeria. The French-Algerian Albert Camus won the prize for Literature in 1957.

It is worthy of note that in addition to Schweitzer, nine of Africa’s Nobel prizes have been for peace. Four winners of the Peace Prize have been South Africans, including Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli (1961); Desmond Mpilo Tutu (1984); Nelson Mandela (1993) and Frederik William De Klerk (1993); three have been Egyptians: Muhammad Anwar al-Sadat (1978); Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, who was born and educated in Cairo (1994); and Mohamed ElBaradei (2005); one, Kofi Atta Annan (2001), was from Ghana and one,Wangari Muta Maathai (2004), the only African woman to win the prize, was from Kenya. In 1986 Nigerian Wole Soyinka was the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Subsequent winners are the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz (1988) and the South Africans Nadine Gordimer (1991) and J. M. Coetzee (2003).

Perhaps less well known are the two Africans who have won a Nobel Prize in the field of science. In 1951 the South African Max Theiler received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Theiler developed the first effective yellow-fever vaccine, which eliminated yellow fever as a threat to public health in West Africa in the late 1940s. Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-born American citizen educated at the Universities of Alexandria and Pennsylvania, won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in founding the field of femtochemistry. Using rapid laser technique, Zewail showed how atoms in a molecule move during a chemical reaction, thereby transforming scientists’ understanding of intramolecular behavior. Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, is also President Barack Obama’s special envoy for science to the Middle East and Africa. In February 2011 Zewail returned to Egypt to assist the transition to democracy in his native land.

There are, of course, many other realms of renown recognized in the DAB. We include great track athletes, including the Ethiopian distance runners Abebe Bikila, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele and Derartu Tulu; Kip Keino of Kenya; Maria Lurdes Mutola of Mozambique, the greatest female 800-meter runner in history; and Hicham El Guerrouj, the Moroccan 1,500-meter champion known as the “King of the Mile.” Two other Olympic golds were won in Atlanta in 1996, by the Nigerian-born basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon, who competed for the United States, and Augustine Azuka “Jay Jay” Okocha of the Nigerian Super Eagles soccer team. Other soccer greats included are the Mozambican-born Eusébio, the most prolific striker of his era; Cameroon’s Roger Milla, the oldest player to play and score in a World Cup; and George Manneh Weah, the first African selected as World Footballer of the Year. In 2005 Weah was defeated in a run-off for the presidency of Liberia by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became the first elected female head of state of an African nation.

The DAB also includes entries on a wide range of artists, musicians, and writers. Playwrights range from the ancient Roman playwright Terence and the thirteenth-century “Arab Aristophanes,” Shams al din Muhammad Ibn Daniyal, to contemporary playwrights like Kirundi-language writer Marie-Louise Sibazuri of Burundi and Tanzania’s Penina Muhando, the first female playwright of the Swahili language. Well over one hundred poets are included, reaching across the borders of nations and centuries: Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy, an influential nineteenth-century Kenyan poet in the mashairi tradition, influenced the later work of Tanzanian writers like Shaaban Robert and Saadani Abdu Kandoro. The Senegambian-born poet Phillis Wheatley famously wrote in praise of the American Revolution, while the modern-day Gambian Lenrie Peters explores in his poems the corrupting influences of colonialism on African societies. Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi’s “The Will of Life” became a rallying cry in the 2010–2011 uprisings in his native Tunisia as well as in Egypt. The Greek-Egyptian writer Constantine Cavafy won acclaim for his poems dealing with themes of classical history and homosexual eroticism, and Kabelo Sello Duiker’s novels controversially explored sexual experimentation and exploitation in apartheid-era Cape Town.

Our musical entries range from traditional singers like Egypt’s Umm Kulthum, recognized as the greatest singer in Arab music history, Cheb Khaled, the undisputed king of Algerian Rai music, and Reuben Tholakele Caluza, whose combinations of ragtime rhythms and traditional Zulu lyrics brought modernist African musical traditions to the attention of international audiences. We also include the radical Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti (who happens to be Wole Soyinka’s first cousin) and the Somalian rapper K’Naan Warsame, whose lyrics are inspired by his childhood in the war-torn streets of Mogadishu.

Entries on African film explore the lives of numerous path-breaking artists. Tsitsi Dangaremgba’s 1996 film Everyone’s Child was the first feature film directed by a black Zimbabwean woman. Omar Sharif and Djimon Hounsou were among the first African-born actors nominated for Academy Awards. The Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty has been widely acclaimed for the innovative style and narrative structure of his films, which include a documentary about the making of Burkinabe director Idrissa Ouédraogo’s Yaaba (1989).

The artists included have produced pieces in a wide array of artistic media and traditions. The bronze sculpture “Anyanwu” (sunshine in Igbo), created by the modernist artist Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, stands as an enduring symbol of Nigerian independence. Self-taught visual artist and actress Younouss Seye of Senegal incorporates pan-African symbolism into her mixed-media paintings through her regular use of cowrie shells. The Nigerian woodcarvers George Bandele Areogun and Lamidi Olonade Fakeye helped to create the artistic genres of Yoruba-Christian and Yoruba-Neotraditional art, and Sokari Douglas Camp’s steel sculptures draw upon the Kalabari traditions of the healing powers of art.