Some critics favour the school of thought that claims many African freedom fighters were denied their pages in history as a conscious effort to relegate the Pan-African struggle to the background.
Whether or not this is true, one cannot deny that many people did their part – big or small – to ensure the demise of slavery, colonialism, or apartheid. The names of prominent African historical figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, etc. will continue to resound in history, and rightly so.
However, we must recognize that there are a few others who made sacrifices for African freedom and have all but been forgotten by history.
Unsurprisingly, many of these unsung heroes were women who lost their lives or were left with no choice but to go into exile, leaving loved ones behind, simply to avoid persecution. The revelation gives credits to the words of former United States Ambassador to the U.N., Andrew Young when he said “the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement were always the wives and the mothers.”
In this article, we take a look at a few of these people, whose contribution to freedom you might not know.
1) James Ewusie-Mensah:
Often described as Ghana’s unsung independence hero, not much is known about James Ewusie-Mensah. Ray Carina’s 2007 documentary and article is perhaps the most revealing documentation of Ewusie-Mensah’s life – who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page to his name.
Ray Carina writes; “the history of American racism in the Gold Coast during World War II, however, cannot be told without remembering James Ewusie-Mensah. He was killed by American Air Force major, Russell McCormick.”
In 1941, the Americans established their base at the Accra airport, and by July 1942 the US Army's Air Transport Command was relocated from Cairo to Accra, where it established its Africa-Middle East Wing. During this time, Ewusie-Mensah who worked as a Clerk in the transportation office at 22-years-old was believed to have made many decisions that assisted in ushering Ghana’s independence.
2) Peter Abrahams:
Born to an Ethiopian father and a coloured mother in 1919 in Vrededorp, in Johannesburg, Peter Abrahams’ mixed-race influenced his writing throughout his life.
He was an avid reader as a child, prompting a career choice as an author. He often wrote about race in South Africa, speaking out against the institution of apartheid.
As an adult, he lived in France, the UK and Jamaica, this highlighted even more so the appalling race relations in South Africa. He believed South Africa was a long way behind these other countries in terms of racial integration and acceptance.
In 1946, his novel, Mine Boy, became the first book to be published internationally by a black South African writer. He lived in Jamaica until his death on 18 January 2017.
Critics believe that the works of Peter Abrahams which clearly painted the true picture of the South African struggle with apartheid helped to document the history for future generations.
3) Josina Muthemba Machel:
Muthemba was a key figure in the Mozambican struggle for independence. Born in a well-known nationalist family, she joined the struggle young, at first becoming active in clandestine student groups, before joining the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in 1960.
She was the driving force behind the Women's Detachment Movement known today as the ‘Organization of Mozambican women’ —a group of women that picked up arms to fight for their country's liberation. In 1969, at the age of 24, she married Samora Machel, the man who would become the first president of Mozambique.
4) Ahmed Sekou Touré:
He was the first president of Republic of Guinea. He is revered across French West Africa for being the first president to have dared to say no to France, by refusing French colonialism and fighting for independence.
He was known as a charismatic and radical figure in Africa's post-colonial history who led his country to independence from France.
In 1958, French President Charles de Gaulles, under pressure to grant independence to French colonies, organized a constitutional referendum.
African colonies had the choice to approve the constitution and be granted gradual independence or become independent right away. Guinea is the only country that rejected the constitution and demanded its independence. In a famous speech, Touré said: “It is better to be poor and free than to live in opulence and be a slave."
5) Yaa Asantewaa:
She is often dubbed as the African Joan of Arc. She was a politician, war strategist, and political activist.
In 1900, at a time when spirits were low, she led a rebellion against the British to defend the Golden Stool—the symbol of the Ashanti nation. The rebellion was eventually quelled by British forces who forced her into exile in Seychelles, but she remained a symbol of courage and strength in the face of oppression.
Yaa Asantewaa was the queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire – now part of modern-day Ghana, appointed by her brother Nana Akwasi Afrane Opese, the Edwesuhene, or ruler, of Edwesu.
6) Funmilayo Ransome Kuti:
Kuti was one of the key figures in the fight against British colonialism in Nigeria. She was the founder of the Abeokuta Women's Union — which was instrumental in protesting colonial taxation. As an activist, Kuti fought tirelessly for women's right to political representation and to empower the most marginalized segments of society.
Sadly, despite her role in Nigeria’s independence and women's liberation, she is not regarded as a national hero.
Interestingly, she is the mother of Fela Kuti, the Pan-African music legend who used his satirical lyrics to expose the military dictators and foreign superpowers who together exploited his home country, Nigeria, and Africa in general. He coined the popular phrase “music is the weapon of the future”.
7) Mariama Ba:
Mariama Ba is a Senegalese writer and political activist. In her writing, she denounced the derogatory status of women in Senegalese society, violence against women, and lack of opportunities for women and polygamy.
At an early age, she came to criticize what she perceived as inequalities between the sexes resulting from African traditions. She became a staunch advocate for changing laws and traditions that subjugate women.
A wife and mother, Bâ married a Senegalese politician, with whom she had nine children. Though the marriage ended in divorce it provided inspiration for her first novel, So Long a Letter, noted for its striking depiction of women in Islamic culture and its blistering treatment of polygamy. She died on 17 August 1981.
8) Dorothy Adams:
Dorothy Adams was born in 1928 in Wellington, some 70km outside Cape Town. Her father worked in a factory and her mother was a cook. Both were heavily involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and religion played a huge role in Adams’ childhood.
She completed basic training to become a teacher when she was 17.
According to South African History Online, Adams became disillusioned with the church because “the apartheid government introduced the Group Areas Act through the church”. She felt the church should have done more to reject segregation.
The young Adams turned to politics and joined the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA), the Non-European Unity Movement, and the National Liberation Front.
9) Victoria Mxenge:
The death of her anti-apartheid activist husband, Griffiths Mxenge, prompted Victoria to join the legal practice he had established.
She intervened in cases in which young people were mistreated in prisons and was part of the defense team in the 1984 treason trial of leaders of the UDF and the Natal Indian Congress in the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court.
Mxenge started a bursary fund in memory of her husband, recounts South African History Online. She became a member of the Release Nelson Mandela Committee, the National Organization of Women, and the Natal Treasurer of the UDF.
In 1985, she was attacked and murdered at her home in Durban. She was 43 years old.
10) Chérif Moumina Sy:
He is a Mauritanian-born Burkinabé politician who served as the transitional Head of Parliament from 2014 to 2015. While history recognizes him for his role in parliament in 2014, it is his character as a fearless writer and a champion of media freedom across Africa that earned him a slot in our ranking.
Renowned author, Nick Cowley records that when Burkina Faso was in crisis, through his outstanding leadership qualities, Chérif Moumina Sy led his nation against a military coup.
Some critics believe that one of the reasons why Moumina Sy is not a familiar name anywhere in Anglophone Africa or Western history is because majority of the records about him are in colloquial French and have not been translated.
When military strongman Blaise Compaoré was forced from office in 2014, Chérif Moumina Sy was at the center of the movement that ousted him. Supporters wanted him to be the interim president. He not only declined the position, accepting only that of speaker of the transitional parliament, but spearheaded legislation that barred any member of the interim government from holding office in a subsequent elected administration.
Moumina Sy is a former chair of the African Editors Forum who founded the Pan-African Festival of Freedom of Expression and Press Freedom, held annually in Burkina Faso.