African Christian Biography Conference: Narratives, Beliefs, and Boundaries

Michèle Miller Sigg

In late October 2015, approximately sixty scholars and graduate students converged on the School of Theology, Boston University, from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Great Britain, and various universities in the United States and Canada to present papers and discuss issues related to the theme of African Christian biography. Representing an intersection of scholars in religious studies and scholars in African studies, the conference was a venue for cross-fertilization between the various fields represented. Furthermore, it was an opportunity to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography (DACB, www.dacb.org).

In the opening plenary, DACB project director Jonathan Bonk presented a brief historical overview by looking at the What, the Why, the How, and the Now What of the project. In the Friday morning plenary address, Lamin Sanneh of Yale University focused his talk on Sir Samuel Lewis, whose extraordinary life illustrated the power of human example in the service of religion and society in nineteenth-century West Africa. The afternoon plenary panel featured noted scholars Kathleen Sheldon, Richard Elphick, and Diana Wylie, who addressed the challenge of portraying belief in biography, as well as the various uses of biography in historical writing. The dinner plenary by Boston University professor Linda Heywood offered an opportunity to explore the life of Queen Njinga, a notable seventeenth-century Kongo figure.

In the concurrent sessions, questions raised either in the papers or in the subsequent discussion included the role of biography in pedagogy, orality and memory in biography, and the use of biography for highlighting the stories of women in the Global South. Almost a third of the papers examined the stories of African women, exploring their roles as helpers and leaders, most often unrecognized in the historical record. The discussions also looked at the role of biographers as portrait artists who must paint their subjects with humility and empathy.

In the closing session, the progress of the DACB was praised, and many participants offered ideas and challenges for new developments in the future. Conference organizer Dana Robert offered a few words about the book that will be published as a fruit of the conference.

Michèle Miller Sigg is a doctoral student at Boston University, and project manager of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography. —mmsigg@bu.edu