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Great Women from the African Continent

Through their roles as leading figures, entrepreneurs, farmers, wives, and mothers, African women have successfully contested established power systems, changing the worldwide realities of Black people. Women respected for their formidable political talents and social vision came to prominence during the turbulent years that followed West and Central Africa’s first contact with Europe. To fully recognize the achievements of these women, we must change the way we think about individuals and political players. They had a name. What did they do? But more significantly, how does viewing civil society through their lives alter our understanding of them? Some notable names on the list include:

Queen Amina of Zazzau

Queen Amina of Zazzau (now Zaria), a Nigerian warrior was born around 1533 to Queen Bakwa Turunku in the city-state Zazzau (Kaduna State). She was the eldest child of her parents. She became interested in politics and the military with the way she saw her mother and grandfather were. She started training in Zazzau warfare at sixteen years old, and became the heir by becoming one of her mother’s cabinet representatives.

Her brother became the King and started fighting wars, Amina fought with the soldiers which earned her respect from the city’s soldiers and kingmakers. She became the Queen in 1576 when her brother died. She was a warrior and continued to enlarge the city. She became a trader of gold, kola nuts, and eunuchs in the Arab slave trade.

Though she dated numerous men, she never got married or had children. The exact details of Queen Amina’s death have been lost to history but it’s believed that she died in battle at Attaagar (near present-day Bida, Nigeria).

Bibi Titi Mohammed

Bibi Titi Mohammed, a Tanzanian known to be the “Mother of the Nation” was born in 1926 in central Dar es Salaam (which was previously referred to as Tanganyika) to a family of Islamic faith. She never attended educational citadels because her father had the belief that she would contend with Islam, as she received the informal education like other people of her age. After her father’s demise, her mother permitted her to get a formal education. Four years later, she was deprived of going to schools which is due to her culture that stated that when a child has reached the puberty stage, she was told to stay at home unless accompanied by her older brother. When she was fourteen years old, she was arranged for a man who was in his forties who she never met. She had a daughter for him, and instantly he divorced her.

She was the trailblazer of the women’s involvement in the freedom fight in Tanganyika. When she first started her political professional journey, she persuaded numerous women to join her cause in which she became the chair member and was named Union Women of Tanganyika (UWT). As the leader of Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), she got many women to fight with her.

During the action to get Tanganyika free and in the early stage of Tanzania, Bibi had numerous ministerial roles under President Julius Nyerere. At some point, she had different approaches to that of President Nyerere socialist ways which made her career become rapid. In 1969, she and six others were arrested and lied about wanting to overthrow the government, which made them become the first sets of people in Tanzania to be arrested for treason. They were tried for one hundred and twenty-seven days, and after that, Bibi was sentenced to life imprisonment, but she was fortunate to be released in 1977 after receiving the Presidential pardon, several years later. The arrest made her become a lonely life devoid of her family and previous socialite friends.

Mariama Ba

Mariama Ba, a Senegalese writer and political defender was born in 1929 in Dakar, Senegal to a very affluent family. Her father was the Minister of Health in Senegal, but she lost her mother at a very young age. She was brought up by her maternal grandparents who taught her conventional Islamic tenets and traditions.

All the schools she went to were religious, but was taught in the French language. Due to her father’s interference, she attended the Ecole Normale (Teacher Training School) in 1943 at Rufisque, a town some 25 miles away from Dakar where she received her diploma in 1947. She taught from 1947 to 1959, and she became an academic inspector.

She had nine children with her husband, Obeye Diop which was unfortunate that they divorced which raised them as a single mother. Her children had already become adults in the 1970s when she became a very active women’s defender and an attacker of the neocolonial system. She became so concerned about women that she authored many articles on feminist issues such as polygamy, mistreatment of women in Senegalese society, ostracism of the castes, the exploitation of women, violence against women, and lack of educational opportunities for girls.

Her first and prominent novel, Une Si Longue Lettre (So Long a Letter) was published in 1979. It stands as a landmark of African and Francophone literature which received widespread critical acclaim as well as the Noma Prize for African Literature. Her novel has been translated into numerous languages and is a staple of francophone literature courses worldwide. So Long a Letter is an epistolary novel, written in the form of a letter from a widow to a friend who lives in the United States following the death of her husband. The widow grapples with her polygamous situation as well as the rise of modernity and Westernization. She recounts that, despite the fact that her husband has taken another wife after 25 years of marriage, she remained faithful to her values and religion. Her quiet strength, common sense, and courage are a direct contrast to the depiction of males in the story, including the husband.

Her second novel, Scarlet Song, published after her death in 1986, also received international awareness. The book deals with an interracial relationship in Senegal and the struggle of women to overcome the traditional system of polygamy and gender discrimination.

Mariama Bâ died in Dakar, Senegal in 1981 after a long battle with cancer. A prestigious boarding school on nearby Goree Island is named in her honor.

Read Also: Advocating for Women and Girls through Artworks in Nigeria

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan social, environmental and political fighter was born in Nyeri, a rural area in Kenya on April 1st, 1940. She began her higher education at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas where she obtained her Bachelors of Science in Biology (1964). For her Masters of Science degree in Biological Sciences, she attended the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1966) and lastly, she pursued her doctorate studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, Kenya before bagging her PhD (1971) from the University of Nairobi, Kenya where she studied Veterinary Anatomy which made her the principal female in the East and Central Africa to earn a PhD degree. Professor Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively. In both cases, she was the first woman to attain those positions in the region.

She was an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya (1976–1987) and was its chairman (1981–1987). In 1976, while she was active in the National Council of Women, Professor Maathai proposed the ideology of community-based tree planting. She continued to develop this idea into a broad-based grassroots organization, the Green Belt Movement (GBM), whose main focus is poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting.

In September 1998, she launched a campaign of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition. She had started new challenges, playing a leading global role as a co-chair of the Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, which seeks cancellation of the unpayable backlog debts of the poor countries in Africa by the year 2000. Her campaign against land grabbing and rapacious allocation of forest land has caught the limelight in the recent past.

Professor Maathai represented the Tetu constituency in Kenya’s parliament (2002–2007), and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya’s ninth parliament (2003–2007). In 2005, she was appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem by the eleven Heads of State in the Congo region. The following year, 2006, she founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with her sister laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Betty Williams, and Mairead Corrigan. In 2007, Professor Maathai was invited to be co-chair of the Congo Basin Fund, an initiative by the British and the Norwegian governments to help protect the Congo forests.

She died on September 25th, 2011 and is survived by three children (Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta) and two grandchildren (Ruth Wangari and Elsa Wanjiru). She won many awards, received numerous honorary degrees, affiliated to many professional organizations, five academic positions, and had many personal achievements.

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