African Roots

DEUTSCHE WELLE  |  Podcast , ±3 min episodes every 1 hour  | 
DW's history project "African Roots" addresses young Africans

DW's new series "African Roots" uses online comics and radio broadcasts to highlight 25 important African personalities. The project, funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, is aimed at young audiences.
The portraits cover a long period of time, ranging from Dinknesh, the "Mother of Mankind" in present-day Ethiopia, to legendary rulers of the Middle Ages such as Mali's King Sunjata Keita to key figures from the African independence movement such as Patrice Lumumba.

These animated online stories by the successful Nigerian graphic design team "Comic Republic," will primarily be shared on Facebook once a week. DW’s Facebook platforms for Africa have more than four million subscribers. There will also be broadcasts of supporting content on radio, reaching nearly 40 million African listeners per week. Most of the content is available in six languages (English, Amharic, Hausa, Kiswahili, French, Portuguese).

DW users have raised concerns saying that public discourse on African history is often based solely on the perspective of the continent's former colonial powers. One commented on Facebook that "young Africans don't have easy access to historical documentation." "African Roots" hopes to help close this gap. The project, spearheaded by DW's Africa service, employs African sources, and was developed in collaboration with African historians, cultural scientists and writers. It targets Africa's young generation, which makes up the vast majority of the population on the continent.

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Yaa Asantewaa, the Asante warrior queen

A strong-willed woman who had the courage to stand by her convictions, throughout her life Yaa Asantewaa defended what she believed to be the sanctity of her land, culture and language. If need be, by fighting.

When did Yaa Asantewaa live? Yaa Nana Asantewaa was born in 1840 in Besease, then Ashanti Empire. She died in exile on the Seychelles on 17th October 1921.

What was Yaa Asantewaa renowned for? She inspired and supported what is today known as the War of the Golden Stool. The Golden Stool was the Asante nation's most sacred possession, and the British representative at the time, Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, demanded for it to be brought for him to sit on, in the name of Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom. She commented on the shilly-shally of the Asanti men regarding the British representative's demand with the remark: "Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: If you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls on the battlefield. If you chiefs will not fight, you should exchange your loin cloths for my undergarment.” She was nominated by a number of regional Asante kings to be the war-leader of the Asante fighting force – as the first and only woman in Asante history. She was at the war front at different times to give advice and refresh supplies for the Asante fighters – at the age of 60!

What is Yaa Asantewaa's legacy? Yaa Asantewaa is a very important role model and an inspiration to girls and women in Ghana and throughout Africa because of the bravery she displayed. A lot of women who go into professions that were previously dominated by men are often nicknamed Yaa Asantewaa as a way of encouragement and support. In 2000, a museum in Ejisu was dedicated to the memory of the great warrior queen.

Thomas Sankara, the upright revolutionary

Dubbed the "African Che Guevara," Thomas Sankara led a revolution in the former Upper Volta, reinventing the state as Burkina Faso. Even though he was murdered only years later, his influence lasts until today.

When did Thomas Sankara live? Born in 1949, Captain Thomas Sankara took power during the revolution which started on August 4, 1983. With his comrades in arms, he renamed the Upper Volta, a name inherited from the French colonial power, into the Democratic and Popular Republic of Burkina Faso, which means "the land of upright men." He was later ousted by one of his closest comrades, Blaise Compaore, then murdered on October 15, 1987 along with twelve of his companions.

What is Thomas Sankara known for? Trying to turn his West African country into an agricultural laboratory in order to achieve food self-sufficiency. He was ahead of his time and promoted products made in Burkina Faso. He also attempted to boost local manufacturing and consumption. "The comrade president of Burkina" wanted to improve the health system and the education in a country that was one of the poorest in the world. He lived a modest lifestyle himself. The emancipation of women was also one of his political priorities.

What has Thomas Sankara been criticized for? His links to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, but also for disrupting the established order. In 1985, a conflict even occurred with Mali about the border between the two countries.

Did Thomas Sankara speak out against the powers that be? In a historical speech pronounced in July 1987 at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa,
Sankara denounced the debt owed to the Bretton Woods institutions - World Bank and International Monetary Fund - which according to him were inherited from colonialism. Almost three decades after his murder, the captain was still seen as a hero by the protesters who brought down the regime of Blaise Compaore in October 2014. Many people consider him an icon for African youths.

Sunjata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire

West African storytellers still sing the praises of Sunjata Keita today. Crippled as a child, he overcame his disability to unify the fragmented kingdoms of the region, creating the vast medieval Mali Empire.

Who was Sunjata Keita? Sunjata Keita, also spelled Sundiata or Soundiata, is a heroic figure still praised today in the songs of griots - traditional storytellers and keepers of history in West Africa. According to these epic oral chronicles as a child Sunjata was physically disabled. But through sheer determination (and a little bit of sorcery), he managed to start to walk. He became a great hunter, a mighty warrior and a skilled military strategist who unified the West African kingdoms of the Mandingo people - also known as the Mandinka or Malinke. Born around the end of the 12th century in the northwestern corner of present-day Guinea, Sunjata was the son of a king. While living in exile for reasons that remain unclear, he rallied Mandingo chiefs to rebel against the cruel King of the Sosso (another Western African tribe), who had conquered much of the Mandingo's territory. Around 1235, Sunjata led the chiefs into a decisive battle and won. The victory marked the beginning of the Mali Empire.

Why is Sunjata Keita famous? He is renowned for several reasons. He is celebrated above all for laying the foundations of the Mali Empire, which, at the height of its power, stretched from West Africa's coast 2,000 kilometers inland to the Niger River and beyond. It was one of the largest empires in African history.
Sunjata is also credited with introducing a system of central government and unifying dozens of different ethnic groups living within the empire. This ensured the Mali Empire's future unity and helped make it prosperous. He assigned land, rights and duties to everyone and is also said to have proclaimed, in Kurukan Fuga, the Manden Charter, what is considered to be one of the first charters of human rights in the world (albeit in oral form).

Siti binti Saad, the mother of taarab

A famous Zanzibari singer and composer, Siti binti Saad established taarab as a performing art and as a mouthpiece for women in East Africa. In the process, she became a pioneer in many ways.

When did Siti binti Saad live? Siti binti Saad was born in 1880 in the Fumba village on Zanzibar's main island of Unguja, which is today part of Tanzania. Born into a poor family, she sold pottery on the street before moving to Zanzibar town in 1911. There she started working with musicians and became famous as a taarab singer. She practiced music until old age and died in 1950.

What is Siti binti Saad renowned for? Siti binti Saad was a star of the taarab musical style, a music she herself greatly influenced. Endowed with a beautiful and powerful voice, she was invited to perform at the sultan's palace. But Siti binti Saad didn't only sing for the elite: She also performed for the working class and her house was a place of exchange and debate.

What was Siti binti Saad's pioneering role? efore her, taarab was usually performed by educated men who mostly sang in Arabic - the language of Zanzibar's small elite. Siti binti Saad, who had no formal education, was the first famous female singer of the genre and she popularized taarab music by using the Swahili language. Her role was such that the British Gramophone Company brought her all the way to Bombay, in India, to capture her voice, making her the first East African to ever make commercial recordings.

What are Siti binti Saad's songs about? Always listening to the working population, Siti binti Saad put their concerns to music. Her songs are about everyday life in Zanzibar and talk about actual events. They contain social criticism, denouncing class oppression, corruption, the abuse of women by men and the shortcomings of the legal system. To this extent, taarab, the women's performing art as it was shaped by Siti binti Saad, is highly political.

Sarah Baartman: Reclaiming an African venus

Changing from domestic servant to wondrous attraction, Sarah Baartman was considered an ape in Europe. Though people paid in droves to stare at her body, she died in poverty far from her South African home.
When did Sarah Baartman live? Sarah Baartmann, also known as Saartjie Baartman, was born circa 1789 in the vicinity of the Gamtoos River, in what is now South Africa's Eastern Cape province. She belonged to the Khoikhoi people. Orphaned at an early age, Baartman moved to Cape Town where she worked as a servant for a "free black man" and later moved with him to Europe. After touring Great Britain, she moved to Paris where she died famous, but poor, in 1815.

What was Sarah Baartman's claim to fame? In Europe, she was exhibited as an exotic attraction. Her body features, not uncommon with South African Khoikhoi women, were considered a sensation in England and France: Baartman had a slender waistline with big buttocks and large sexual organs. She was nick-named the Hottentot Venus. Hottentot was a European name for the Khoikhoi people, while Venus alludes to the Roman goddess of love

Was Sarah Baartman a victim of racism? It is not clear whether she traveled to London of her own accord or if she was forced. Neither do we know exactly how much say she did have in the revues where she presented herself to audiences. But Baartman definitely suffered from the racist mindset that dominated Europe's view on the world in the early 19th century. Generally, following cultural and biological, Africans were considered to be lesser developed human beings. The Khoikhoi people of Southern Africa, rarely seen in Europe, were even de
humanized. After her death, Napoleon's surgeon, the renowned naturalist Georges Cuvier, dissected Baartman's body, concluding she had ape-like features. For almost 160 years, her remains were displayed at the French National Museum in Paris, making her a victim of scientific racism.

Queen of Sheba: A journey in search of wisdom

Though her origin is contested, the Queen of Sheba — also known as Makeda — is at the core of Ethiopian mythology. Her encounter with Israel's King Solomon 3,000 years ago is legendary.

When did the Queen of Sheba live? She is believed to have lived more than three thousand years ago.

What is the Queen of Sheba renowned for? In a massive desire to quench her thirst for knowledge, this legendary queen supposedly paid a visit to Israel's wise King Solomon in Jerusalem. Written accounts of the encounter suggest that she bore the king a son, who would become the first Ethiopian king in the Solomonic dynasty.

How do we know about her existence? The encounter in Jerusalem is documented in various texts, among them the Jewish Bible, the Qur'an — where the queen is called Bilqis — and an ancient Ethiopian document called Kebre-Negast, where she is named Makeda. She is also alluded to in the New Testament as the "Queen of the South".

What is the Kebre Negast? The Kebre Negast was first compiled as far back as the fourteenth century in Ethiopia. Its sources include various legends, the Old and New Testaments, as well as Egyptian, Arabian and Ethiopian sources. The Kebre Negast gives the most detailed account of the queen's meeting with King Solomon. The story goes that having convinced Makeda of his wisdom, Solomon spent the night with her. This union results in the birth of King Menelik I, the founder of the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia, which ruled until the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.
But where did the Queen of Sheba come from? The Queen of Sheba's origins remain a subject of debate. Ethiopians claim her as their own, but so do Yemenites who believe that tha name 'Sheba' is a reference to the Yemenite kingdom of Saba. Ethiopians believe her palace to have been in the northern Ethiopian town of Aksum, where ruins can still be visited.

Queen Muhumuza: Fighting colonialism in East Africa

About a hundred years ago in Uganda, Queen Muhumuza stood against patriarchal, colonial and chauvinist forces. She was a spiritual leader, a military leader and a fighter for social justice.

When did Muhumuza live? Queen Muhumuza's exact date of birth is not known but her life history spans from the 18th to the 19th century. She was a wife of Rwandan King Kigeli IV. When, in 1895, her husband died and her son was denied the throne, she rebelled against the Rwandan establishment and colonial powers. She moved to Uganda, was finally captured by the British and imprisoned in Mengo where she died in 1945. She never got an opportunity to return to her cradle land.

What was Muhumuza renowned for? Muhumuza, also spelled Muhumusa, is said to have possessed spiritual powers hailing from the legendary Queen Nyabingi. Most of her followers never saw her face since the cult required her to hide in a basket. Described by colonial governments as "an extraordinary character", Muhumuza took up the fight against the three colonial powers in the region - the German, the British and Belgians from neighboring Congo. She is also remembered for resisting the establishment and the norms that limited women's rights in society.

What is the biggest controversy surrounding Muhumuza? Some of her followers actually believe Muhumuza herself to be Queen Nyabingi. Others refer to her as being the reincarnation, or being possessed by the spirit, of a Rwandan queen who lived several centuries back. Unfortunately, her history was never fully documented due to the patriarchal nature of society then and colonial imperialism.

What is Muhumuza's legacy? She inspired a whole anti-colonial struggle in Rwanda and Uganda. Today, her followers see her as a role model and a true representation of inclusion and resistance to norms that undermine sections of society. Her spirit lives on through the Rastafarian movement, where Muhumuza is referred to as Nyabinghi.

Patrice Lumumba, uncompromising independence fighter

He's inspired generations: Patrice Lumumba became prime minister when the Congo was still under Belgian colonial rule. But he was forced out of office shortly after the country's independence and later assassinated.

When and where did Patrice Lumumba live? Patrice Emery Lumumba was born as Elias Okitasombo on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, a village in the Kasai Oriental. After receiving basic education in local missionary schools, he settled in Stanleyville (now Kisangani), a city in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the early 1940s, he moved to the capital which was then called Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). He held various jobs, working at the post office, as press correspondent and sales director for a brewery, while establishing himself as an anti-colonialist political leader. He became the first prime minister of the independent Congo in 1960, but was rapidly removed from office in the turmoil that followed independence. Lumumba was put under house arrest. He attempted to flee, but was captured and brought to Lubumbashi (formerly Elisabethville) in Katanga province where he was assassinated on January 17, 1961.

What was Lumumba renowned for? The idealistic and charismatic autodidact Lumumba knew how to rally people for the cause of an independent state. His uncompromising fight against colonialism earned him recognition far beyond the borders of his country, creating a true Lumumba myth. On June 30, 1960, images of his speech at the ceremony of independence went around the world.
"No Congolese will be able to forget that [independence] was won in struggle, a struggle in blood, fire and tears," he declared. He went on to describe the injustices suffered by Congolese during the colonial era, while the King of the Belgians, Baudouin I., was present in the room. Throughout his life Lumumba wrote articles, essays and speeches, addressing social issues as well as Congo's or Africa's fate.

Queen Njinga Mbande: The diplomat warrior

Njinga Mbande was a diplomat and a military chief from the 17th century in the territory which is now known as Angola. She fought the Portuguese through military actions and diplomacy until her death at 82.

When did Njinga Mbande live? She lived in what is now Angola. Njinga Mbande was born circa 1583 in the Ndongo region and died 17 December 1663 in the Matamba region.

What is Njinga Mbande remembered for? Njinga Mbande fought the nascent Portuguese colonial administration all her life using both her diplomatic acumen and her military skills.

What is Njinga Mbande criticized for? She was said to have a ruthless character. It is documented that she killed her nephew in order to obtain the reign of Ndongo. Critics also point out that she facilitated the slave trade in her territory, striking deals on the delivery of slaves in her negotiations with the Portuguese and Dutch. Furthermore, she was accused of cannibalism, adopting the habits of her allies, the Imbangala.

Tell me about Njinga the insubordinate. In 1622, then ruler Ngola Mbande, Njinga ’s brother sent her to Luanda to negotiate a peace treaty for the Ndongo region with the Portuguese governor. She was given a rug instead of a chair to sit on, which meant she was regarded as a subordinate. Njinga ordered one of her servants to kneel on the ground and serve as a human chair. She continued the negotiations as an equal.
What can you tell me about Njinga the educated? She could speak several native languages as well as Portuguese. She was also literate, writing her correspondence for the negotiations with the colonial rulers herself. Her early contact with missionaries and Portuguese merchants contributed to this. She had a great sensibility for diplomatic and military issues which came to her advantage when dealing with the Portuguese and the Dutch.

Ngungunyane, the king against Portuguese occupation

He was the last king of Gaza. And he resisted Portuguese occupation. A century after his death, Ngungunyane came to symbolize Mozambican resistance. But he remains a controversial figure.

When and where did Ngungunyane live? Ngungunyane — also known as Mudungazi — was born around 1850 in the territory of the southeast African Gaza Empire. His grandfather Manukosi ruled over a vast territory. At its peak it stretched from the Incomati river in the south and the Indian Ocean in the east to the Zambezi and Save rivers in the north, covering much of what is today Mozambican territory, as well as parts of neighboring countries. Ngungunyane would become the last Gaza king before the empire was defeated by the Portuguese. He died December 23rd, 1906, while in exile on Terceira Island.

How did Ngungunyane rise to power? After the death of Ngungunyane's grandfather, Manukosi, in 1858, a war between his two heirs was ultimately won by his son Muzila, with the support of Portuguese authorities. But deciding his successor was problematic. As the son of Muzila and his favourite wife, Yosio, Mdungazwe — as he was then known — ordered the killing of one of his halfbrothers who also had a claim to the throne and rose to power in 1884. He changed his name to Ngungunyane, meaning "the terrible" or "the invincible". For 11 years he ruled with absolute power and used excessive force in the handling of vassal peoples.

How did Ngungunyane relate to the Europeans? Ngungunyane took power a few months before the Berlin Conference (1884-85) was held, where European nations divided Africa among themselves, often viewed today as
the formalization of the so-called 'Scramble for Africa.' In the face of Great Britain and Germany's growing interest in the Mozambican territories, Portugal felt increasing pressure to impose its power on the region and suppress the Gaza Empire.

Nelson Mandela, visionary of a free South Africa

Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison to lead South Africa to freedom from white rule. He became the country's first black president and won the Nobel Peace prize for his policy of reconciliation.

When and where did Nelson Mandela live? Born in the mountainous Transkei region of South Africa in 1918, Mandela went on to study law at the country's Fort Hare University. In 1944, he joined the African National Congress, a political party set up to resist the racist policies of the white-led South African government. Soon afterwards, this system would be refined into apartheid, and Mandela's fight would turn into a life-long struggle. The first president of post-apartheid South Africa, he retired after five years in office. Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95.

What is Nelson Mandela renowned for? Nelson Mandela set up the military wing of the ANC known as "Umkhonto we Sizwe" ("Spear of the Nation") to take on the ruling government and their anti-black policies. He was charged with sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government in 1964 and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island where he spent 27 years. Released in 1990, Mandela went on to become the first black president of South Africa in 1994.

How did Nelson Mandela survive his long prison spell? Mandela inspired a generation because although he was imprisoned for so long, his humanity and world view transcended the walls of his prison. The decades served in jail didn't break him but only built his iconic role in the nation's struggle for freedom.
Various freedom songs called for Nelson Mandela's release, amongst them Johnny Clegg and Savuka's "Asimbonanga" (which translates as "we haven't seen him").

What is Nelson Mandela revered for? Despite his years of hardship and imprisonment, Mandela never lost sight of his vision of a peaceful, more equal society in South Africa and his role in serving his country.

Margaret Ekpo, pioneering feminism in Nigeria

She was strong. She was outspoken. She didn't just open doors for women, she kicked them down. The Nigerian women's rights activist and politician, Margaret Ekpo, helped change the face of politics in Nigeria.

When and where did Margaret Ekpo live? Margaret Ekpo was born in 1924 in the muddy settlement of Creek Town in Cross River State, southeastern Nigeria. At the time, Nigeria was ruled by the British and women weren't allowed to vote. Ekpo died aged 92 in 2006 in Calabar, Cross River State.

What was remarkable about Margaret Ekpo? Ekpo is particularly remembered for mobilizing women rich and poor to fight for their economic and political rights and participate in politics. She also tirelessly agitated for Nigerian independence. She became one of the country's first female elected politicians and continued to push to advance the role of women while she was a politician.

How did Margaret Ekpo become politically active? In the 1940s, Ekpo, whose husband was a doctor, started attending meetings to protest the treatment of indigenous medical staff by the British colonial authorities. In 1946, she founded the Market Women Association to unionize women in the city of Aba in Nigeria's Abia State, where she was then living with her husband. In this period, Ekpo also became active in Nigeria's struggle against colonialism, joining the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons party. The party later nominated Ekpo as a special member of the influential regional House of Chiefs to represent women.
After Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960, Ekpo became an elected politician in the Eastern Regional House of Assembly. She was the first woman in Aba, and one of the few female politicians in the country, to be elected to such an office.

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