As Black History Month comes to an end, we can’t leave February without acknowledging influential female African activists. In a world where history is constantly narrated from a male perspective, these women have defied patriarchy and tradition in order to fight for equality and stand up for issues affecting marginalized communities. Here are five iconic female African leaders that have tremendously shaped and influenced the history of the continent.
1. Wangaari Mathai
Wangaari Mathai was a Kenyan revolutionary, and the founder of the Green Belt Movement. Unlike other environmental organizations, The Green Belt Movement is unique in that it was found under the National Council of Women of Kenya, and organizes women to tackle environmental issues including deforestation and soil erosion. Kenyan women are trained in forestry, how to plant trees, beekeeping, and other essential environmental skills. In addition to launching this organization, Wangaari Mathai was also the woman in Central and East Africa to complete her PHD at the University of Giessein in Germany.
2. Miriam Makeba
Nicknamed “Mama Africa” by her supporters, South African musician and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba left a lasting imprint on the history of South Africa. During a trip to the U.S. in 1963, Makeba condemned South Africa’s apartheid laws in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Following her speech, her South African passport was revoked and she was banned from returning to the country. Although she lived in exile from her home country for nearly three decades, Makeba continued with her humanitarian efforts, even joining the Guinean delegation at the United Nations at one point. She continued to make music and write lyrics condemning the institution of apartheid.
3. Lady Khama
Although she was born and raised in the United Kingdom, Ruth Williams Khama (also known as Lady Khama) became the First Lady of Botswana when she married President Sir Seretse Khama in September 1948. Their interracial marriage ignited controversy in Botswana and neighboring country South Africa, whose government had just made Apartheid legal. Despite the backlash, Lady Khama became heavily involved in philanthropic efforts in Botswana. She became the President of the Red Cross in Botswana, as well as the President of the Botswana Council of Women. Her charity work continued after her death in 2002, when the Lady Khama Charitable Trust was launched. The charity focuses on projects in Botswana, and issues primarily affecting women and children.
4. Winnie Mandela
Perhaps the most well-known name on this list, Winnie Mandela was married to Nelson Mandela and served as the First Lady of South Africa during his leadership between 1994 and 1999. She became one of the most-outspoken anti-Apartheid activists in South Africa, with her supporters nicknaming her the “Mother of the Nation”. She was imprisoned various times for her anti-Apartheid activities, even spending 18 months in solitary confinement. Although many of her actions during the Apartheid era have been criticized, there is no doubt that Mandela has been highly influential in the struggle to obtain equality and end racial segregation.
5. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the President of Liberia between 2006 and 2018. To this day, she remains the only female president in modern times that the continent has seen. Sirleaf accomplished several feats during her presidency, including the complete erasure of Liberia’s debt. She also established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that worked to uncover human rights abuses and conflict during Liberia’s tumultuous transitioning era.