The African Studies Program remembers professor emeritus Jan Vansina, one of the world’s foremost historians of Africa.


ON SEPTEMBER 21, 2018.

 In Memoriam

“Tribute to pioneer of African history.” The Patriot, 2/16/2017.
“UW-Madison’s Jan Vansina, giant in the field of African history, dies.”
 Wisconsin State Journal, 2/15/2017.
“Remembering Jan Vansina.”
 The African Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2/13/2017.
“Jan Vansina.” Cress Funeral Home, 2/9/2017.


As a tribute to Jan’s remarkable scholarship and mentoring, his former students invite you to contribute to the Jan Vansina Fund. The fund was established in 1994 upon Jan’s retirement. The sole purpose is to serve the broad needs of the University of Wisconsin African History Program, especially through graduate support, fellowships, and research grants. Thanks to the fund, the program has already supported a significant number of graduate students, many from Africa.

The UW African History program is committed to Jan’s career-long mission of promoting research by African and African-descended scholars. As such, new gifts to the fund will target continuing collaborations with African scholars and linkages between US African studies programs and Africanist scholarship elsewhere in the world. Among the aims of the fund: fellowship and research support for African graduate students at UW; support for visiting African scholars to utilize UW library collections and engage in research collaborations; bolstering partnerships with African universities and institutes, including publishing projects, small seminars, and conferences. Ultimately, our goal is to continue the rich legacy of engagement with Africa that Jan developed over his many years of distinguished scholarly service.

You can make your gift directly online at the following here.

If you are interested in making an estate gift in Jan’s honor, please contact Katie Rather at the University of Wisconsin Foundation: 608-308-5342 or


Send your stories and fond memories of Jan Vansina to to be shared on this page. Please include your name, title, and relationship to Jan Vansina, as well as any photographs.

He epitomized the best of African scholarship.  With a handful of others, Jan legitimized oral traditions as sources of history. His integrative interdisciplinary approach opened up new ways of learning, knowing, and writing about African daily experiences. And, he wrote in a style that those for whom he was writing about and for could understand.  He understood that for African history to be have a place at the table, he had to write in prose that was clear, accessible, and to all.  He will be sorely missed.
-Chap Kusimba, Professor of Anthropology, American University
Jan Vansina at a Kuba initiation in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Jan Vansina’s personal collection)
Jan Vansina at a Kuba initiation in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Jan Vansina’s personal collection)

On behalf of the University of Wisconsin Press, we remember Jan with the deepest affection, respect, and admiration. He published eight superb books with the University of Wisconsin Press and was a trusted adviser to several generations of press directors and editors. He will be greatly missed. We send our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.
-Sheila Leary, University of Wisconsin Press (read Sheila’s blog post on Jan Vansina’s achievements here)

I was a first year graduate student in anthropology when I took a History seminar with him, and was a bit out of my league compared to the other, more advanced, graduate students. Nevertheless, he was patient with me, and later served on my dissertation proposal committee. Years later, he thoughtfully agreed to write a foreword to our “Funerals in Africa” book volume, for which we were grateful.  If it were better known on the continent what Prof. Vansina has done for African history, there would be memorials, death celebrations, matanga, all over Africa right now for this great man.
-Michael Jindra, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame
Jan was the first faculty member I met in the fall of 1968, when I arrived in Madison for graduate work.  Through my classwork, fieldwork, and dissertation, he was a never-failing inspiration.  It was good to see him again, briefly, at the program’s 50th anniversary celebration.
-Peter Koffsky, Ph.D., retired from the International Development Program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture
How fortunate we all were to have Jan as an adviser. His brilliance, commanding interdisciplinary knowledge, pioneering dedication to African history, and his generosity of spirit made him a continual source of inspiration. Going through old files, I only recently came across the detailed letters he sent while I was doing field research and the long word lists from Central Kenya that he helped me to decode for my MA thesis. When women graduate students in the history department began organizing in the early 1970s, I realized how fortunate I was to have a mentor who gave equal encouragement to all of his students. Hamba Kahle, Jan. We’ll miss you.
-Iris Berger, Professor of History Emerita, University of Albany
As an editor at the UW Press, I worked closely with Jan on his last two books. The image that returns to me most clearly is of him bursting into my office, full of energy and enthusiasm, cheerfully shaking off the cold of a Wisconsin winter day. The words that come to mind when I think of him: curious about the world, generous in his assessments of others, unassuming in his view of himself, dauntless.
-Gwen Walker, University of Wisconsin Press
I first met Jan Vansina in Astrida, Ruwanda (as it then was) in 1969 though I had already read, and was impressed by his penetrating analyses of oral history. He enabled me to appreciate the historical complexities and ambiguities of Bahima chieftaincy. He was an historian of great distinction, easy to talk with and well read in linguistics, archaeology, ethnography and folk culture. He use all these skills to analyze the art of Africa with great success. When I first met him he was deputy to Jacques Maquet who joined us later at UCLA. Between them they had established the foremost center for social science research. For Jan there were no boundaries, neither political nor discipline wise. What I admired most was that he looked at history from within rather than being an outsider for whom the people he studied were “foreign” even in their own land. He was a role model for many of us who wanted to consider ourselves both anthropologist and historians. His publications were mentoring tools.
-Merrick Posnansky, Professor Emeritus, UCLA
I had the astonishing good luck to work for Jan Vansina during the summer of 1981 as an undergraduate research assistant. My job involved tracking down and ordering books from Memorial Library and other libraries around the world, and photocopying hundreds of articles and other secondary sources. At the end of the summer, Jan took the time to help me with my own Belgian roots. That he was kind enough to do that made a huge impression.
-Mary Johns, University of Wisconsin-Madison Class of ’83
Jan was always such a positive and encouraging person. Our correspondence began while I was still a young researcher in Botswana and continued over the years as I moved to the States and a position at Texas. I will always remember what and encouraging person he was, as well as a great scholar.
-Jim Denbow, Professor, University of Texas
Jan was so important to so many students and colleagues at Wisconsin and other places with which he was associated, and especially in what is now the DRC; but his generosity as a scholar and sympathetic mentor seemed to know no bounds. When I was an Anthro grad student at Chicago in the early 1970s and decided to make Zaire the site of my dissertation research, the first person I contacted was Jan. Though we had never met, he invited me to visit him in Madison, and so I did as soon as I could get there. Jan’s enthusiasm was such a boost, and for all these years afterwards right up to shortly before he left us, I knew that he would offer the same helping hand to me as he had that first time. No one knew Congolese histories as he did, from his feet-on-ground research and deep archival work. Jan invited me to send him drafts of papers, and I did several times over the years when my topics including historical materials; without fail, I always received the wisest guidance. Jan and I didn’t always see eye to eye, since I have been more given to the “elegance” of thought by African and European savants than he was at times, but not only did that not matter to either of us, it gave us more to chew on. What a guy. May he rest in peace.
-Allen F. Roberts, Professor, UCLA
I never met Prof. Jan Vansina, but am extremely saddened by his departure. I was strongly influenced by his research in oral traditions when I studied African History at the University of Zimbabwe during the 1980s. His works were a must read, and extremely valuable.
-Innocent Pikirayi, Professor of Archaeology, University of Pretoria
As a eighteen year old Belgian student in History, I did meet Jan in 1974-1975. He was a guest professor at the Catholic University of Leuven, where he had studied medieval history and law in the 1950s. He was one of the first Belgians who made a PhD on a Congolese topic (the Kuba and oral history, which means how to write history seen through the eyes and memories of the Congolese and not the “colonizer”).  After a conference I asked him innocently the question why he went teaching African and Congolese history in the US and didn’t stay in Belgium.  He didn’t want to discuss it in public and said that it was destiny. That day, he invited me to eat a spaghetti in a small Italian restaurant. During the meal  he told me that after the Independence of Congo in 1960 even the academic world in Belgium didn’t have an interest in the former colony, didn’t want to get involved in it and considered his work not relevant for the university.  He said that it was a very bitter moment to see that not only his work, but also Africa didn’t count anymore.   These were traumatic times and it was not possible to fight against the colonial culture which was more than ever present in Belgian society.  And it was destiny. He went abroad to the UK and US and could develop his research without taking into account the many sensibilities which were haunting Belgian society concerning the former colony (even until today).  I don’t know about what else we discussed at that moment, but I came out the restaurant revolted.  Seen in perspective, his views and ways to look at African history has influenced me profoundly not only in the way to conduct my research but also in my personality and world view.  For me Jan will be always there.
-Dr. Guido Convents, President, Afrika Filmfestival Leuven
I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Professor Jan Vansina at the age of 88.   My relationship with him began in Spring 1968.   Through a series of letters seeking admission to the UW-M Department of History, African History, I received a letter from Vansina admitting me to his graduate class in Fall 1968 on African Migrations (other students in the class were Tom Spear–the brilliant challenger to us all!, Richard Sigwalt, David Newbury–who helped me out a lot and still remembered!–the late Ashton Welch, the late Ebou Janha , etc.).   Since I wished to specialize  in West Africa, Vansina assigned me to the Nilotes in East Africa.   I still have the papers: (1) The Nilotes: A Study in Migrations.  Part I, 1-36; (2) From Stateless to Dynasty: The Nilotes,  A Study in Migrations (Impact of Serology upon Migrations), Part II, 1-38.   From this semester onward until his death, February 2017, I have consulted with him on everything that I have written; for he has played a great and constant role in my development.   Unlike a few of my other professors, who taught with apathy, Professor Jan Vansina  taught with empathy; and he will always be my kind of a professor!  As I have always said about him with introductions in public:  “Professor Jan Vansina remains the ‘God’ of African history”!  As an after thought, Vansina never discouraged me from stating this title which I bestowed upon him (smile)!
-Dr. Adell Patton, Jr., Associate Professor Emeritus-Founders Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-St. Louis
I was honored to have been a student in Jan’s seminar at Northwestern in 1961-62. He opened my eyes to the potential of African history. He recommended my dissertation topic published as Reform in Leopold’s Congo in 1970 and was very kind in giving me credit but all the credit belonged to him and Roland Oliver. There were no permanent historians on the staff of Northwestern then. Without his support I might not have pursued my career path. His passing leaves a great void but his students reflect his accomplishment in contributing to the birth of African studies in the US.
-Stan Shaloff, INR/AF (retd)

Send your stories and fond memories of Jan Vansina to to be shared on this page. Please include your name, title, and relationship to Jan Vansina, as well as any photographs.