Mudimbe, V. Y.

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Mudimbe, V. Y.


Professor, writer

An esteemed scholar of classics, linguistics, and social science, V. Y. Mudimbe has written extensively about contemporary African themes. He has also published numerous essays, several collections of poetry, and four novels. He has taught at several colleges and universities in Africa and the United States, including the National University of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), Haverford College, and Stanford University, and has enjoyed visiting professor appointments at universities in Europe, Africa, and the United States. Since 2000 he has been Newman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University.

Valentin Yves Mudimbe lived through intense political turmoil during his early life. He was born on December 8, 1941, in Jadotville, a town now known as Likasi, in the Katanga province of Congo. At that time, the country, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was still a colony of Belgium but was increasingly demanding an end to colonial rule. In 1960 the country achieved independence, becoming known as the Republic of the Congo and finally the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The early years after independence were tumultuous; some 14 million people from 200 different ethnic groups were suddenly confronted with the need to find a common political identity. Katanga was one of two provinces that rebelled against the central government and threatened to secede from the country; violence and corruption were common. In 1965 this political instability ended when Joseph-Désiré Mobutu took over the country and established himself as a dictator. His rule became known for its oppressive tactics and extensive violations of human rights. Mobutu, who changed the country's name to Zaire, remained in power until forced out in 1997, after which the country reassumed the name Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Despite the political uncertainties of the time, Mudimbe was able to complete his undergraduate education at Lovanium University in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he studied economics, philosophy, and literature. He then did graduate work in France, studying applied linguistics at the University of Besançon and earning his doctorate in philosophy, with high honors, at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) in 1970. Mudimbe then returned to Africa to accept a teaching post at Lovanium University, where he stayed until 1980. In 1981 he moved to the United States to become a professor at Haverford College, and in 1989 he joined the faculty of Duke University.

From the beginning of his academic career, Mudimbe published more than just academic works. His first collection of poetry, Déchirures, appeared in 1971 and was followed in 1973 by Entretailles [and] fulgurances d'une lézarde and in 1974 by Les Fuseaux. He also began writing fiction. In his first novel to be translated into English, Before the Birth of the Moon, Mudimbe drew on the turmoil of Zaire in the 1960s to create a story about individuals caught up in the country's struggle to achieve viability as a nation. As New York Times Book Review contributor Reginald McKnight described it, the book is set during Zaire's "most perilous and chaotic" period, when "betrayal, assassination, greed, deceit and confusion were as common as equatorial rain." The novel tells the story of a government minister and his relationship with a prostitute, Ya, who, though highly educated, finds herself with few opportunities in the new country because she comes from a disenfranchised tribe. The minister pressures Ya into becoming his mistress; Ya's people urge her to continue her relationship with him in order to spy on him for them. As McKnight observed, much of what has shaped Ya's character is due to the country's sociopolitical turmoil. Mudimbe's love story, according to McKnight, tells readers "more about the pains of the young nation than could any history book."

Between the Tides, which won the Grand Prize, International Catholic Literature, is also set in postcolonial Africa. Its protagonist, Pierre Landu, is a black African priest who studies in Europe and then becomes a Communist revolutionary. He returns to Africa to engage in guerilla activities that, he hopes, will end European exploitation there. At the same time, he struggles with conflicting feelings about the Christian conversion of African peoples. Though he finds much about Christianity appealing, he worries that his mother is right when she accuses him of betraying his people by choosing to follow the white man's God. In the end, his doubts about Christianity in Africa are not resolved. As a reviewer for Publishers Weekly put it, Mudimbe shows in this novel that "there can be no easy resolution for either Landu or for Africa."

Among Mudimbe's numerous scholarly works, several address themes specific to postcolonial Africa. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge has earned particular acclaim, winning the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association in 1989. Tales of Faith: Religion as Political Performance in Central Africa has also enjoyed a positive critical response. In this book, according to Murray Steele in African Affairs, Mudimbe argues for a "new discourse that recognizes the value of [African] tradition, reconsiders the white missionary record and the view of its black detractors, and from these ingredients crafts a black, African theology that contributes to the worldwide theological discourse rather than seeks to develop outside it."

At a Glance …

Born on December 8, 1941, in Jadotville, Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo); married Elizabeth Mbulamuanza Boyi, 1966; children: Daniel, Claude. Education: Lovanium University, Kinshasa, Congo, junior college degree, economics, 1962, diploma, 1964, BA, and aggregation, 1966; University of Besançon, graduate study, applied linguistics, 1966; Louvain University, Belgium, DPhil Let, 1970.


National School of Law and Public Administration, Kinshasa, Congo, lecturer, 1967-68; University of Paris, Nanterre, lecturer, 1969-71; Lovanium University, Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), assistant professor, 1970-71; National University of Zaire, Lubumbashi, associate professor, 1971-74, professor, 1974-80, director of Center for Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, 1971-74, dean of faculty of philosophy and letters, 1972-74, secretary general of International Semiology Center, 1974-78, research director at Center for Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, 1974-79; Haverford College, Haverford, PA, Margaret Gest Professor of Comparative Religions, 1981-82, Ira Reid Professor of History and Sociology, 1982-83, professor of general programs, 1984-87; Duke University, Durham, NC, professor, 1988-90, Ruth F. DeVamey Professor of Romance Studies, 1991-94, professor of literature, 1995-2000, Newman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Trinity College of Arts and Science, 2000-.

Selected Memberships:

L'Académie Royal des Science; Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy; World Institute for Advanced Phenomenological Research and Learning.


International Catholic Literature, Grand Prize, for Between Tides, 1975; French-Language Writers' Association, Senghor Grand Prize, 1977; Republic of Zaire, Gold Medal of Scientific and Civil Merit, 1980; African Studies Association, Herskovits Award, for The Invention of Africa, 1989.


Office—Box 90670, Durham, NC 27708-0670.

Mudimbe has received many awards, including the Senghor Grand Prize from the French-Language Writers' Association in 1977 and honorary degrees from the Sorbonne and the Catholic University of Leuven. He has held posts as a visiting professor at numerous universities, including Stanford University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of London, Johns Hopkins University, Spelman College, the University of California-San Diego, Cambridge University, El Colegio de México, the Sorbonne, the University of Berlin, the University of Bonn, the University of Brazzaville, Princeton University, the University of Leiden, the Catholic University of Louvain, and the University of Cologne. Since 2000 he has served as chair of the International African Institute, London. He serves on the editorial boards of several scholarly periodicals, including African Studies Review, Canadian Journal of African Studies, Cultural Anthropology: Journal of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, Jouvert: Journal of Post-Colonial Studies, Public Culture, and World Literature Today.

Selected writings


Déchirures (poetry), Editions du Mont Moir, 1971.

Entre les Eaux (novel), Présence Africaine, 1973, translation by Stephen Becker published as Between Tides, Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Entretailles [and] fulgurances d'une lézarde (poetry), Editions Saint-Germain-Des-Prés, 1973.

Les Fuseaux (poetry), Editions Saint-Germain-Des-Prés, 1974. Le Bel Immonde (novel), Présence Africaine, 1976, translation by Marjolijn de Jaeger published as Before the Birth of the Moon, Simon & Schuster, 1989.

L'Ecart (novel), Présence Africaine, 1979, translation by Marjolijn de Jaeger published as The Rift, University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the order of Knowledge, Indiana University Press, 1988.

Shaba Deux (novel), Présence Africaine, 1989.

The Idea of Africa, Indiana University Press, 1994.

Tales of Faith: Religion as Political Performance in Central Africa, Athlone Press, 1997.

(Editor) Nations, Identities, Cultures, Duke University Press, 1997.



AAH Examiner [Newsletter of African Americans for Humanism], Winter 1992, pp. 5-6.

African Affairs, April 1998, p. 279.

New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1989.

Publishers Weekly, September 6, 1991, p. 93.


"Valentin Y. Mudimbe Faculty Page," Duke University, (March 14, 2007).