5 Revolutionary African Women You Should Know

Africa is not only home to natural resources, a rich cultural heritage and the never ending list of greatness that holds our beloved continent, it is also home to some of the most intriguing people whose footprint on the continent cannot be forgotten. In fact, there's no Africa without her people.

When it comes to African history, the most commonly documented stories we read about are of revolutionary men, yet there are so many unsung heroines whose contribution to us as a people ought to be known and celebrated.

In a world where erasing women from history is the norm; these are the 5 revolutionary African women you should know:

Muthoni wa Kirima

Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima

Muthoni Kirima is a Kenyan liberation fighter who was part of the Mau Mau Movement, an uprising against British colonial rule in Kenya. She spent 11 years in the forest fighting for Kenya's independence.

Kirima was the only woman bestowed with the title of field marshal in the 1950s for her role in the liberation struggle and the only one who came out alive after the Mau Mau Rebellion.
Before joining the movement as a fighter, she served as a spy for the Mau Mau fighters at the age of 20. However, for her, there was more to the struggle than spying, she wanted to be actively involved in the fight against colonialists. 

Despite being injured several times during the war, the fearless leader was never caught. During her time in the forest, she was nicknamed "Weaver Bird" due to her brilliant strategies. 

In 1963, she came out of the forest when Kenya gained its independence. 

She was awarded a medal for distinguished service by president Daniel Arap Moi in 1998 and in 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta awarded her the Head of State Commendation.

Field Marshal Kirima is one of the people who sacrificed so much of their life for future generations to enjoy freedom in Kenya. Even though she had two miscarriages which left her unable to bear children; she says Kenya is her only child.  

The freedom fighter who currently lives in Kenya's Nyeri county, still has the dreadlocks she had during the liberation war. She once said she will not cut her dreads because the fruits of independence have not been enjoyed by the people who sacrificed the most.

Yaa Asantewaa

Illustration of Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa

Yaa Asantewaa, also known as the Worrior Queen, was the Queen Mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire, present-day Ghana. She led an army against British colonial rule.  

The War of the Golden Stool; When British colonialist Frederic Hodgson arrived in the Ashanti Empire after King Prempeh was exiled to the Seychelles, he demanded not only to sit on the Golden Stool, but  also own it. (the nerve!)  The Golden Stool was held in high regard by the Ashanti People as part of their heritage. 

Upon hearing this, the Queen Mother told the men of Ashanti that if they don't go forward with protecting the Golden Stool, then them as the women will. She further advised how she shall call upon her fellow women and they will fight till the last of them falls into the battlefields. 

Her word spread and people joined forces to take on the British invaders. In those days, it was unheard of for a woman to spearhead something of such magnitude. 

Even though their unity against a common enemy was unsuccessful and so many lives were lost as a result of the the war; the British never got to own the Golden Stool.

A year later, Yaa Asantewaa was exiled to the Seychelles, where she spent 20 years before her death. 
Even though she died in exile and never got to see King Prempeh return to Ghana, her fearless and brave attempts to defend her people's heritage will forever be commended.  

Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela 

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

You cannot speak of African revolutionary women and not mention the enigmatic force that is Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as she is commonly known, is a South African anti-apartheid activist, liberation struggle hero, social worker, politician among so many titles.

She is fondly known as Mother of the Nation in South Africa.

Upon graduating at the top of her class, she was offered a scholarship to pursue her studies further in the USA and later admitted as the first qualified Black medical social worker at the Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. With so much on the horizon, she chose not to take up the scholarship to the America and decided to stay in South Africa in order to carry out her dream of being a social worker in her home country.

Her involvement in activism had already ensued before she even met her husband. Also, through her  social worker background, she was exposed to a number of injustices within townships which highlighted the plight of Black people during apartheid. 

From being in and out of jail where she experienced all kinds of inhumane acts at the hands of the evil apartheid government, to being banned and exiled in Bradfort for eight years, where her life was under a microscope of the then oppressive government on top of countless smear campaigns against her, Winnie's spirit was neither broken nor was her activism. She kept the fire burning, not only for the release of her husband but the freedom of her people.

A social worker at heart; while banished to Bradfort, a small township in the Free State, she didn’t speak the local language which was Sesotho and her house was fenced off from the rest of the community but still managed to open a creche in the Methodist church for the children in Bradfort. Talk about not killing someone's spirit?! Nomzamo! Her name 'Nomzamo' means trial/she who tries and boy did she try?

In April 2018, South Africa's president announced that a discussion will be tabled at the next national executive committee meeting to honour the late struggle icon with the Isitwalandwe Award.
The Isitwalandwe Award is the highest honour given to those who have made an outstanding contribution and sacrifice to the liberation struggle.
This resilient woman sacrificed her life for her country to enjoy the bit of freedom they currently have. Therefore, I don't understand why they had to wait for her death in order to honour her with the Isitwalandwe Award. 

Despite several attempts administered through White Supremacist and patriarchal gates to erase her from South Africa's/Africa's history, her resilient spirit never died nor did she give into the powers of oppressive forces, hence many young women in South Africa, on the African continent and the diaspora still revere her for her role in the Southern African country's liberation struggle. 

At the age of 81, she breathed her last breath on 2nd April 2018; but her multi-layered legacy lives on.

Anna Nzinga Mbande

Illustration of Queen Nzinga

Popularly known as Queen Nzinga aka Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba. She's one of the most popular revolutionary African women.

Queen Nzinga was a 17th century Queen of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the Mbundu people in Angola. She is known for her feisty fight against the Portuguese colonialists.

An anti-colonialist, worrier, skilled negotiator and military strategist, Nzinga, despite her fierce fight against colonial rule; her multi-textured legacy is one of African Nationalism, controversy, resistance; from being an ally for the Portuguese colonialists to slave trader. A multi-faceted leader.

During the course of the century, a royal order from Lisbon declared that the kingdom of Ndongo (present-day Angola) be captured after the Portuguese had successfully converted the Kongo people and were searching for slave traders, Nzinga's father could smell a rat, he then decided to prevent European expansion by banning missionaries from his kingdom. This decision led to a 40-year war of resistance against colonial rulers.

It is believed that she learned her renowned military strategist skills from her father. From signing a treaty with the Portuguese which was not honoured, to converting to Christianity which she later denounced and joined Jaga group of warriors after being disappointment by the Portuguese, to forming an alliance with the Dutch, some of Nzinga's main objectives were ending the war with the Portuguese, obtain diplomatic recognition from the Portuguese and establish a regular profitable trading relationship between her people and the Europeans.

Nzinga died in 1663 and her immense legacy in Angolan history still maintains a significant footprint in her country as she is remembered for her political and diplomatic acumen, as well as her brilliant military tactics. A major street in Luanda is named after her, and in 2002 a statue of her in Kinaxixi was dedicated by then-President Santos to celebrate the 27th anniversary of independence.

Dr Esther Mahlangu

Dr Esther Mahlangu

Dr. Esther Mhlangu is a South African revolutionary, icon, custodian and artist known for her bold large-scale colourful contemporary paintings that are inspired by her Ndebele heritage.

The 82 year-old artist has been painting Ndebele artworks for over 70 years. Her work has been featured at galleries across the globe. In addition, she has collaborated with internationally-renowned brands such as BMW.

In April 2018, the University of Johannesburg honoured her with a doctoral degree for her contribution to the arts.

What fascinates me about Dr. Mahlangu is how she has made a living off something that is not only for commercial and financial purposes but also holds significant representation of her heritage. I think this in itself is iconic.  Not many of us get to live life doing something that is purpose-driven with a ripple effect apart from the financial gain.

Her dedication to Ndebele designs is admirable and makes me think of the importance of vocational training; it should be embedded in our curriculum. Vocational skills are crucial.

We do not have to be part of the same career path as these revolutionary women; but we can still pick a leaf and use their courage, drive, resilience and spirit in our respective aspects of life.

May we know them. May we remember them. May we be them. May we write about them. May we quote them. May we keep telling their stories from generation to generation.  May we uphold them.

Sources: K24 TV | Wikipedia | SA History Online
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