Women have left their mark in various fields across the continent of Africa. From medicine to fashion design and politics, they have tackled huge challenges and have emerged victorious. Their stories serve to inspire future generations.
Throughout history, powerful women have helped to steer the course of Africa’s destiny. In politics, art, science, and other sectors of society, women from Sudan to South Africa have left a lasting impact.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is not only Liberia’s 24th president, she is also the first elected female head of state in Africa. She took the seat in 2006 and is currently sitting her second term in office.
During her first presidential campaign, she said she wanted to “to bring motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency as a way of healing the wounds of war”. Her nation was riven by war, with the First Liberian Civil War raging from 1989-1996 and the Second Liberian Civil War taking place from 1999-2003.
Sirleaf has also encouraged women to enter politics. Her political career started in 1972 when she gave a speech at her high school alma mater in which she criticised the government of the time. Her official biography states that the speech showed her “determination to speak the truth and it was the start of her active role in politics”.
She went into exile twice after clashing with the governments of the time, but did not back down. For her determination and iron will, she was given the nick name “Iron Lady” by her supporters.
As president, Sirleaf has got the UN to lift its trade sanctions on Liberia, giving the country access to international markets and so increasing its annual gross domestic product growth by 8.7%. There has also been investment to rebuild schools, clinics and markets, as well as in scholarships for capacity building.
Some of her more recent awards include the Year of Pan Africanism and African Renaissance African Union Award and the Gender Is My Agenda Campaign African Women Pioneer Award. She has also been named one of the 10 best leaders in the world (Newsweek, 2010) and is among the top 10 female leaders (Time Magazine, 2010). She has also been called “the best president [Liberia] has ever had” (The Economist, 2010).
Millions of people around the world loved the music of South African singer Miriam Makeba, calling her “Mama Africa” and the “Empress of African Song”.
She first came into conflict with the South African apartheid government for performing in the film, Come Back Africa, in which she played a singer. Makeba flew to the Venice Film Festival in 1959 to accept an award for her role; she did not return and her passport was revoked. “She was the first black musician to leave South Africa on account of apartheid, and over the years many others would follow her,” stated South African History Online.
Without realising it, she became one of the loudest voices calling for change in South Africa. “And I’m not a political singer,” she told UK newspaper The Guardian. “I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us – especially the things that hurt us.”
In the early 1960s she addressed the UN. “I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place?” she asked. “Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your country because the colour of your skin is different to that of the rulers?”
Makeba eventually returned to South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. She continued her humanitarian work through the Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for abused girls and the Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation. She also became a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN.
In 2008, at the age of 76, she died after suffering a heart attack.
During the 1950s, Josephine Nambooze became the first woman to enrol into the Makerere University Medical School in Uganda.
As a young girl, she lived near the doctor who treated her family; his children used to play with Nambooze’s brothers. “We got to know them very well, and this inspired me to study medicine,” she told the UN Women Beijing Platform for Action. “There were also some expatriate women doctors at that hospital, and that showed me that being a woman and being a doctor was possible.” She specialised in maternal and child health to tackle maternal mortality in East and Central Africa.
“Once I ventured into medicine, I felt that I had an obligation to succeed to be a role model to women so that they were not discouraged from taking up professions that were exclusively held by men,” she said. “When I was doing obstetrics, I noticed that women preferred to go to a woman doctor than a man doctor. Even when I would finish a long day at work, there were still women waiting to see a woman doctor. Some of this might have been out of curiosity to make sure that I really existed!”
Nambooze went on to become the director of support for health services development at the World Health Organization (WHO) regional office in the Republic of the Congo. She was also the first representative of the WHO in Botswana.
Cultural perceptions about women were her biggest challenge when she was studying, she said. “People actually thought at this time that women could not be as bright as men! The duration of education that one had to acquire before being a doctor, people thought a woman could not be patient enough to do it all before wanting to get married.”
But with immense support from her parents, she completed her studies and graduated as a doctor. If it was not for them, she said, she would not have been able to achieve her objective.
“I encouraged women to feel that they had the same education as men and could now qualify for various positions,” she said of her impact on society. “I made a big contribution in human resource development of medical professionals in Africa, and as a teacher, I taught for 20 or 25 years. This is a big contribution.”
Nigerian Folake Folarin-Coker gave up her day job as a lawyer – she has a Master’s degree in petroleum law – to pursue her love of fashion.
In 1998, she launched her fashion label, Tiffany Amber, and started a revolution in the Nigerian fashion sector. Her dedication and drive paid off when, 10 years later, she presented her line at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York. “The collection was heralded by such rave reviews that Folake was invited to showcase for the second time, making her the first African-based designer to showcase for two consecutive seasons at the New York Fashion Week,” according to the label’s website.
In an interview with blogger and journalist Belinda Otas, Folarin-Coker admitted African fashion was still in its infancy but stressed that “the time for Africa is now, the world is looking to us for inspiration”.
There was a certain uniqueness about Africa the world had noticed. “It goes deep into our sense of style because of our culture,” she said. “And if you notice, Africans, wherever we go, we make sure we carry our culture with us. So these are the things that are going to come out in our dressing. It is something that we can offer the world.”
Folarin-Coker knows there must be a balance between the art of fashion and the art of business to achieve success in the industry, and that is her strength. “The fashion business is a process of seduction that ultimately leads to desire,” she said. “In the process of trying to seduce your client, you throw money out the window and if it lands in the right place, it comes right back through your door. The key thing is to know which window to throw at.”
She won designer of the year at African Fashion International in 2009 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Joyce Banda became Malawi’s first female president in 2012, a position she held till 2014, during which time she became known for her dedication to austerity for the sake of her country. “She sold off a $15-million (R180m) presidential jet, cut her own salary by 30% and dismissed her cabinet in the midst of corruption allegations,” noted American business magazine, Forbes.
From the start of a political career in 1999, she was an advocate for children and women’s rights. Banda herself survived an abusive marriage and left her first husband in 1981. “Most African women are taught to endure abusive marriages,” she said. “They say endurance means a good wife but most women endure abusive relationship because they are not empowered economically; they depend on their husbands.”
She set up the Joyce Banda Foundation to assist children and orphans through education. In a video, she explained she decided she was not going to be vulnerable again after her marriage failed.
“You’ll find me in New York one day amongst kings and presidents, and I’ll be very comfortable. But at the same time, take me to a village and I’ll be very, very comfortable to sit on the floor with the people so that is [what] we are aspiring to now. People are saying ‘we want a leader that can relate to us, we want a leader that can sit on the floor with us,'” she said.
In 2012, Forbes ranked her as the most powerful woman in Africa. Her international awards include the Martin Luther King Drum Major Award in 2012 and Women of Substance Award in 2010 from the African Women Development Fund.
Elizabeth Tshele, 33, writing under the pseudonym NoViolet Bulawayo, was the first Zimbabwean author to be long- and short-listed for the Man Booker prize; that was in 2013 for her novel We Need New Names.
“NoViolet means ‘with Violet’, in memory of her mother, who died when she was 18 months old,” clarified The Guardian. “Bulawayo is her yearned-for home city in Zimbabwe.” The author moved to the USA when she was 18.
Bulawayo said she was inspired to write the story when she saw children sitting on rubble after the Zimbabwean government bulldozed homes as part of a clean-up campaign of informal settlements. “As I looked at image after haunting image,” she told The Guardian, “I became obsessed with where the people would go, what their stories were, and how those stories would develop – and more importantly, what would happen to the kid in the first picture I saw.”
Drawing from her own life experience as well, the story is of a girl who is forced to immigrate to the US after she loses her home in Zimbabwe.
They did not come to Paradise. Coming would mean that they were choosers. That they first looked at the sun, sat down with crossed legs, picked their teeth, and pondered the decision. That they had the time to gaze at their reflections in long mirrors, perhaps pat their hair, tighten their belts, check the watches on their wrists before looking at the red road and finally announcing: Now we are ready for this. They did not come, no. They just appeared. – Extract from We Need New Names
She had an emotional response to the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa against other Africans, and she shared her thoughts on Facebook:
Her novel was recognised at the LA Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and it received the Pen/Hemingway Award, the Etisalat Prize for Literature, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award (second place), and the National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Fiction. Another of her stories, Hitting Budapest, won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing.
The monarch of the Mbundu people, Queen Nzinga was a formidable leader in the late 16th and 17th centuries. It was a time when the Portuguese were trying to expand the slave trade from south-west Africa into central Africa.
After the Portuguese established a fort and a settlement in Luanda, in what is today Angola, they invited the king for a meeting. But according to the Black Past website, he sent his sister, Nzinga. “Noting that the only chair in the room belonged to Governor Corria, she immediately motioned to one of her assistants who fell on her hands and knees and served as a chair for Nzinga for the rest of the meeting.”
Believing in a strategic approach, she knew she would need the Portuguese as an ally in the fight against her African enemies and to end the slave trade, so she converted to Christianity. “Ana de Sousa Nzinga’s baptism, with the Portuguese colonial governor serving as godfather, sealed this relationship,” noted the Metropolitan of Art website.
But by 1626, the Portuguese had betrayed Nzinga and she and her people were forced to find new land beyond their reach. She eventually formed an alliance with the Dutch against the Portuguese.
“She became renowned for the guerrilla tactics she employed for resisting the technologically superior Portuguese army,” according to the Metropolitan of Art website. “She was a brilliant strategist and, although past 60, led her warriors herself. Never surrendering, she died on 17 December 1663.”
With her death, the Portuguese were able to expand their slave trade. Angola was colonised by Portugal but modern day resistance movements adopted Nzinga’s strategy to wage a guerrilla campaign against colonialism. It led to independence in 1975.
A statue in Angola honours the work of Queen Nzinga. (Image: Wikipedia)
Former banker Lorna Rutto started Eco Post, specialising in recycling plastic waste, in Nairobi, Kenya. She has become a successful businesswoman by converting plastic waste into sustainable plastic lumber.
“The opportunity was born due to the need for plastic poles,” Rutto told UK news site, BBC. “People needed an alternative to timber, a product that does not rot and one that cannot be affected by termites.”
The vision she has for the company is to create a “green Africa free from poverty” and the mission is to “create sustainable jobs for people in marginalised communities and conserve our environment”.
Watch how the process works:
But Rutto has faced a few challenges along the way, such as trying to access credit from financiers. “I set up a business in the waste manufacturing industry, which is not a common type of business sector that women choose to venture into,” she explained. “Women should be courageous to start their businesses in a broader and more competitive range of sectors.”
She told the Unreasonable Institute, an organisation that aids businesses: “We’ve created 20 direct jobs and over 300 indirect jobs for marginalised youth and women thus improving their life. Our staff earn 1.5 times the minimum wage.”
Fatima Abdel Mahmoud
Fatima Abdel Mahmoud studied medicine and public health in the Soviet Union during the 1960s, choosing to specialise in paediatrics. But in 1973, she became one of the first women to hold a political position in Sudan; in 2010, she entered the elections as a presidential candidate. She did not win but entered the race again in 2015.
“She was in 1973 appointed deputy minister of youth, sports, and social affairs,” noted CCTV Africa. “Her appointment, along with that of Sayeda Nafeisa Ahmed al Amin as a member of the ruling Sudanese Socialist Union politburo, made international news at a time when contemporary estimates put the Sudanese female literacy rate at 10%.”
She told news site CCTV Africa: “My sign is the dove. I ran in these elections to prove that women have the right to high authority as president, that this was a successful experiment around the world.”
She went up against 15 male presidential candidates in 2015. Incumbent president Omar al-Bashir was re-elected with the majority of the vote.
South African Rapelang Rabana started her own business, was featured on the cover of Forbes Africa magazine, and was invited to join a panel at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos in 2012 – all before she turned 30.
Rabana is the founder of Rekindle Learning, which describes itself as a “learning and development company that provides mobile and computer learning solutions that enable knowledge mastery and measurement in corporate and schooling environments”.
In 2012, she was invited to speak on a panel entitled “The Future across Generations” at the WEF Annual Meeting in Davos.
“The awe of the moment was particularly pronounced when I realised that beyond the hundreds of participants at Davos, several interpreters, journalists, TV broadcasters and media platforms were listening [to] and recording my every word – when I ‘ummed’ even the interpreters ‘ummed,'” she said. “It’s an interesting perspective to see the world.”
Being on the cover of Forbes Africa magazine in August 2013, alongside Wendy Ackerman – “the force behind Pick n Pay with her husband” – made Rabana feel incredibly lucky and privileged. “It was an honour being where so many far more established and successful entrepreneurs have been, much later in their careers,” she said.
When she was named Entrepreneur for the World in 2014 by the World Entrepreneurship Forum, she felt a deep sense of serenity. “Almost 10 years back I had made the decision to start my business despite the confusion, turbulent thoughts and emotions, not knowing what life would hold,” she said. “Now the trust I had placed in myself to chart my own path was reaping rewards I never could have conceived, all because I dared to listen to myself. Knowing the value of that choice 10 years on gave me great peace.”