Founding 'fathers' / 'mothers' of Africa

A number of African cities like Accra in Ghana, Harare in Zimbabwe, Maputo in Mozambique and a good many others, all have one thing in common – similar street names. The names include Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania; Sékou Touré, the first President of Guinea; Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president; Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and president; Sam Nujoma, first president of Namibia; Tafawa Balewa, the first federal prime minister of Nigeria and Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.  Haile Selassie also served as the first Chairperson of the Organisation of African Unity. All these men and others like them played key roles in fighting for their countries’ independence.

The Organisation of African Unity, succeeded by the African Union in 2002, was formed by thirty-two countries in 1963 to promote the unity and solidarity of African States; co-ordinate and intensify their co-operation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa; defend their sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence; eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa; promote international co-operation, giving due regard to the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and co-ordinate and harmonise members’ political, diplomatic, economic, educational, cultural, health, welfare, scientific, technical and defence policies. The founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity were from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Léopoldville), Benin, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia and Uganda. 

A question that has always nagged me with regards the founding fathers of the continental body for Africa’s unity and peace is, “Where were the founding mothers?” It is only in 2012 that African Union Commission elected into office its first female chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Does the fact that hardly any streets, schools, hospitals or other public buildings are named after women mean that women did not do much to contribute to the building of their nations?  Or does it just mean that Africa, much like any other continent, operates in man’s world, in which the legacy of women’s contributions in nation building is silenced? Even though most historical accounts choose to ignore them, the following are some of the women whom, in my view, through their bravery and hard work did much more than nation building.

Even before the advent of colonisation, women such as Amina Sukhera, princess of Zazzau (in northern part of Nigeria), were hard at work defending their nations. Amina Sukhera was born about 1533 and is estimated to have died in 1610.  Amina was known as a fierce warrior who refused to marry, but instead worked at expanding Zazzau’ territory and assisted in turning it into a focal point for trade and commercial activity.

Angola’s ruler in the 17th century, Queen Nzingha, also known as Ann Nzingha, was born around 1582 and her reign extended beyond the present-day borders of Angola into parts of central Africa. As a military strategist, she managed to ward off the Portuguese for four decades and fought against their enslavement of African people.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth-century Dahomey Kingdom (located in present-day Benin), thousands of female soldiers fought and died for the expansion of their kingdom. It is estimated that in the last half of the 19th century, between 6000 and 15000 women warriors died in battle.  According to Dash (2011),

“For the better part of 200 years, thousands of female soldiers fought and died to expand the borders of their West African kingdom. Even their conquerors, the French, acknowledged their "prodigious bravery." What made Dahomey’s women warriors unique was that they fought, and frequently died, for king and country.”[1]

Another woman of note is Yaa Asantewaa from Ghana. Born in 1840, she died in 1921 as a farmer, intellectual, politician, human rights activist and Queen. Yaa Asantewaa became famous for leading the Ashanti rebellion against British colonialism to defend her nation. She was a strong promoter of women emancipation and gender equality.

This clearly shows that with some digging, the ‘founding mothers’ of Africa’s struggle for freedom and self-rule are there. We just seldom sing of their heroic exploits since, unlike the founding fathers of post-colonial Africa, they did not get together to form continental or regional organisations, but mostly likely rallied behind or worked side-by-side with the men in national liberation struggles. Today, out fifty-four countries, the continent has only two female presidents, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Ameenah Firdaus Gurib-Fakim president of Mauritius. Needless to say, the global picture is not any better with not more than seven female presidents.

© Mwanja Ng'anjo

[1] Dash, Mike. (2011). Domey’s Women Warriors.