10 African Heroes

The names we will always remember, by Jackson Biko

Wangari-Maathai1 Wangari Maathai
Environmentalist, Kenya
“African women in general need to know that it’s OK for them to be the way they are – to see the way they are as strength, and to be liberated from fear and silence.” That’s what Wangari Maathai said once. Those words didn’t shock anyone, given her drive as an African woman and her relentless fight for women’s liberation. Little wonder, then, that Wangari was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree.

But her international recognition was for her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation. The Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977, has planted over 45 million trees around Kenya so far, a feat that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. In her own words: “Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.”

2 Chinua Achebe
Novelist, Nigeria
Everybody has heard of the 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, the groundbreaking account that began Chinua Achebe’s path to being one of Africa’s most prominent literary figures. The book has sold over 12 million copies and been translated into more than 50 languages. Chinua Achebe fought colonialism and Western biases through his writing, but more importantly he sought to revive literature and to rewrite the story of a continent that had long been told by Western voices. As well as influencing African writing, Achebe’s work contained strong moral energy that captured the loss that faced many Africans as Western empires invaded and threatened their lives.

3 Kofi Annan
Diplomat, Ghana
The first African to be elected from the ranks of UN staff, Kofi Annan was the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations. One of his biggest contributions – what he calls his “personal priority” – is the fight against HIV/AIDS. Annan will be remembered both for his Five-Point Call to Action to combat the pandemic, and the creation of the Global AIDS and Health Fund – which eventually earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. The fund has been instrumental in fighting HIV/AIDS and reducing its prevalence considerably through various interventions. So far, it has received some US$1.5 billion in pledges and contributions.

4 Nelson Mandela
Statesman, South Africa
A man is born in 1918, in Transkei, South Africa. He flees to Johannesburg to avoid an arranged marriage. Works as a watchman and then a clerk as he pursues a degree in law. Activism knocks at his door and he joins the African National Congress, establishing a youth league with one Oliver Tambo and so begins the fight against apartheid. The man and seven defendants are brought before a judge in the famous Rivonia Trial. They escape the gallows but face life imprisonment. The man, after the sentence, says defiantly: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

But the man doesn’t die. He spends 27 years in a horrible prison, a former leper colony; Robben Island. He is released as apartheid crumbles. The man becomes a free South Africa’s first president. There is a Nobel Peace Prize. And lots of advocacy work. On 5 December 2013 the man dies. Only some men just don’t die. They remain a looming metaphor of lessons on humanity. Nelson Mandela. Madiba!

5 Desmond Tutu
Cleric, South Africa
Nobel Peace Prize Winner Desmond Tutu played a prominent role in ending apartheid by drawing international attention to the iniquities of the regime.

Tutu was the first black person to hold the highest position in the South African Anglican Church, as Archbishop of Cape Town, and was also named the president of the All Africa Conference of Churches. But Tutu recalls what must have been his greatest honour – the introduction of Nelson Mandela to the nation as the new South African president. He remembers whispering to God, “If I die now, it would be almost the perfect moment. This is the theme for which we had all been waiting.”

Desmond Tutu has earned his place alongside the world’s foremost human rights activists. His teachings are not just limited to his specific causes but cross the boundaries to speak for oppressed people everywhere.

6 John Garang De Mabior
Liberator, South Sudan
Africa is the home of liberators, but none with the tenacity and the charisma of John Garang. He is remembered for his beard, bulky physique and the jet-black skin of his Dinka ethnic group.

For more than 20 years he fought in one of Africa’s longest-running bush wars as the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army to liberate the Christian, animist South and the Muslim, Arab-speaking North. It’s his efforts that eventually set a series of events that saw South Sudan emerge as the independent state that it is now.

7 Kingsley Holgate
Explorer and Humanitarian, South Africa
Holgate is easily Africa’s most colourful modern-day explorer. He uses his travels to support rural communities by distributing tens of thousands of mosquito nets to pregnant mothers and children under the age of five, or spectacles to those who can’t access optical services. You’ve probably seen him on National Geographic crossing rivers in dugout canoes, traversing deserts on foot or probing some remote corner of Africa in a mud-caked Land Rover.   His most successful adventure was called The Outside Edge – a 448-day, 33-country expedition tracking the outline of Africa and promoting malaria prevention. If you don’t remember Holgate for his grisly, larger-than-life white mane, you will remember him for the lives he has changed in Africa.

8 Julius Kambarage Nyerere
Nationalist, Tanzania
‘Mwalimu’, as he was fondly referred to, belonged to a generation of African post-independence leaders such as Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah who had unshakable beliefs in their mission to lead their countries through their strong political ideologies.

It was these convictions that put Nyerere at the forefront in the formation of the Organization of African Unity, OAU, now the African Union. He was also the architect of ujamaa, a socialist philosophy that revolutionised the agricultural system.

Nyerere was a devoted pan-Africanist committing resources, time and energy to foreign affairs that would shape the landscape of countries such as Uganda (he helped in ousting Idi Amin) and Burundi. To his credit he stepped down peacefully and voluntarily at a time when African presidents chose to cling onto power until their deaths or coups.

9 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Stateslady, Liberia
In Africa women nurture, inspire and effectively raise communities. Ellen is one of those women that continue to inspire the girl-child. Her successes are numerous, including being Africa’s first elected female Head of State.

She has also been ranked among the top 100 most powerful women in the world by Forbes (2012), the first most powerful woman in Africa (Forbes Africa 2011); among the 10 best leaders in the world (Newsweek, 2010); among top 10 female leaders (Time, 2010); called ‘the best President the country has ever had’ (The Economist, 2010); and as one of the six “Women of the Year” (Glamour, 2010).

More notable is her 2011 Nobel Peace Prize award for her ‘non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.’

10 Paul Kagame
Stateman, Rwanda
Kagame has as many detractors as he has fans, but one thing is certain: Kagame has not only transformed a country, but he has become Africa’s metaphor of reconciliation.
In 1994 Rwanda was engulfed by ethnic genocide and the world watched in diplomatic stupor. Eventually, after over a million deaths, Rwanda ended up being saved by one of its own: Paul Kagame.

He did it by defeating Hutu extremist forces and by creating a lasting peace, co-existence and economic prosperity in a land that nobody thought would recover from that harrowing time. Rwanda still hasn’t recovered fully, but under Kagame the country has remained peaceful and stable, earning it the title of Africa’s ‘biggest success story’. Kagame is more than a saviour of Rwandan people; he is the public advocate for new models of foreign aid that has helped its country be self-reliant.

He might not be remembered for a lot of things, but for sewing Rwanda together he deserves to be in Africa’s history books.