Part 1: 30 Most Notable Africans of 2013
08 Jan 2014
It's that time of year where everyone makes their list of something or other for the year past. After scouring the web for a diverse and comprehensive list of Africans around the world who have made notable contributions to society—whether through the arts, business, politics, advocacy or science and technology—I discovered these lists were really hard to come by.
So I decided to start my own tradition: a list of the 30 Most Notable Africans of 2013. These are people who I've been inspired by, have learned from, are doing amazing things on a community and/or world stage, and who are truly living boldly and fearlessly by following their calling. So without further ado…
What: This versatile, up-and-coming actress gave a performance that still has the entertainment world abuzz months later. Nyong’o plays Patsey in the re-enactment of 12 Years A Slave, a true story based on the life of Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was kidnapped in 1841 in Washington, DC and sold into slavery in Louisiana for twelve years. (Read my review about the movie here.) Besides being a prolific, big-screen actress, Nyong’o also acted in the hit Kenyan television series Shuga, as well as wrote, produced and directed a documentary entitled In My Genes about the challenges albinos face in Kenyan society.
Why I’m Inspired: With her meteoric rise to fame and newfound role as the darling of the fashion world, Nyong’o has remained humble, gracious and laser-focused on her craft. About having to sleep with Patsey’s scars on her back one night during the shooting for 12 Years, she said in an interview:
“I went home with Patsey’s scars on my back…they just haunted me. I had trouble sleeping the whole time during shooting. But it occurred to me, as I was weeping in the night, that my discomfort was temporary while Patsey’s wasn’t. And it still makes me cry… I had been given this privilege to bring her back to life. And it just quieted my soul and prepared me for the next days work.”
Lupita has been nominated for several major awards including a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and two Screen Actors Guild Awards including Best Supporting Actress. Well done my East African sister!
(Click below for the next profile.)
#2. CHIWETEL EJIOFOR
Country of Origin: NIGERIA
What: As the lead character in 2013’s breakout hit, 12 Years A Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor has carved out a place for himself in history as one of the most nuanced, powerful and versatile actors in the entertainment industry. With movies like Amistad, Talk to Me and Salt to his credit—as well as numerous, award-winning theatrical performances—Ejiofor was chosen by director, Steve McQueen, to play the lead role in this epic film because:
"[He] was always going to be Solomon Northup for me. I was looking for someone that had that genteelness, that kind of humanity. Knowing that humanity was going to be tested under certain duress and circumstances, I needed a person who could actually keep hold of that, even through periods of extraordinary trying and extraordinary situations where it would be tested to its absolute limit. He was the only person.”
Why I’m Inspired: At only 36, with a quiet wisdom beyond his years, this multiple award-winning actor hasn’t shied from skillfully telling the most difficult of stories, from Amistad and 12 Years A Slave to his lead role in the screen adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun, and upcoming role as Patrice Lumumba in Aimé Césaire's A Season in the Congo. With more award nominations than there is room to list in this write-up, Ejiofor is definitely one to watch.
What: African women are changing the game. Take Professor Oguttu, the first Black woman in South Africa to receive a doctorate in Tax Law. In addition to her professorship at the University of South Africa, this trailblazer is also a recipient of the South African Women in Science Award, has published numerous articles in top international journals, and was selected as a member of the South African Tax Review Committee in 2013. Although her tax law expertise is specific to South Africa, she has surmised that, in general, the state of a country’s infrastructure is a clear indication of the state and its tax administration. Her assessment deems many developing countries, including Uganda, lagging behind in this regard. This savvy, determined woman is one to watch on the global scene.
Why I’m Inspired: When asked in an interview in Ugandan Diaspora News what her tips were for getting to the top, Oguttu responded:
“…one of the most important things is to be humble because God will always exalt the humble. Never forget that whatever we have and how you made it thus far was not by your own efforts alone. Many people help you along the way and God was watching over you. The second thing is to never let success get to your head. Always aim higher, never settle in the past. God expects you to go from glory to glory. The third tip is to always be resilient. There will always be setbacks and hindrances in life but always find strength within you to come back when trials and tribulations hit. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way.”
Yes, yes and yes!
#4. CLIFFORD OWUSU
Country of Origin: GHANA
What: If you don’t know this guy, you should. For those of us, like myself, who have grown up as Africans in a different society, Clifford Owusu has been able to capture an element of our experience through humor, music, and of course, some ridiculous dance moves—because, there are some things words simply can’t explain. Whether it’s Azonto, Coupé Decalé or Ndombolo, Owusu expertly uses YouTube's online platform to deliver a regular dose of laughter and sometimes, just utter foolishness. Take for instance his video, “The Reason Africans Don’t Answer Phone Calls.” When my sisters and I watched this, we could relate! There was definitely truth to how sometimes the music is so good, you just ignore all else—including your caller.
Why I’m Inspired: With a sense of humor like that, Owusu is a great reminder that sometimes culture, music and humor are just what is needed to loosen up and embrace who you are!
#5. ASMARA SIUM
Country of Origin: ERITREA
What: More often than not, some of the most notable people we know are unsung heroes who quietly, but passionately go about their work—rarely seeking publicity unless it will somehow help the people they serve or advance the mission they are committed to. Asmara Sium is one of those unsung heroes. Don’t let her friendly smile fool you, as the Executive Director of the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation (AIRF), the fire she has for empowering African youth is what drives her to often work 60-80 hour weeks, while juggling the demands of being a wife and mother of two young children. Based in the Washington, DC area, AIRF was founded in 2000 by Mama Wanjiru Kamau to help African immigrants transition into American society.
Why I’m Inpsired: From hosting programs like the Catching Up Program in local area public schools to enable African immigrant youth to embrace their culture while assimilating in an environment that isn’t always welcoming, to hosting an annual conference to engage these same youth in dialogue, education and a celebration of their African heritage, Sium has carried the torch passed on by Mama Kamau with a grace and selflessness that is rare. In a world that puts shameless self-promotion above service to humanity, her sincerity and focus on the mission of empowering African immigrant youth is refreshing. Having faced many of the cultural challenges herself that these youth are facing, Sium states in this article:
“The kids are trying to figure out how to be American… We see in these kids so much more than I think they do at times and it’s our job to say, ‘here are the tools,’ and they rise to the occasion. With some extra support, these kids can excel beyond any of our expectations.”
Learn more about AIRF here and how you can contribute to the empowerment of African immigrant youth.
#6. CHINUA ACHEBE
Country of Origin: NIGERIA
What: Although admittedly, I never made it through all of Things Fall Apart in my attempt to read it in high school, the importance of this literary work was not lost on me. Chinua Achebe, in his first novel that was published in 1958 and has since become a worldwide classic, was a key contributor to bringing postcolonial literature from Africa to the rest of the world. In fact, Things Fall Apart sold 8 million copies worldwide and was translated into 50 languages. An outspoken critic of injustice, ignorance and corruption, Achebe pulled no punches in his reviews of fellow writers and even his fellow countrymen. In his book, The Trouble with Nigeria, published in 1982, he says on the first page: “the Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility and to the challenge of personal example which are hallmarks of true leadership.” Indeed, it’s not just a Nigerian problem.
Why I’m Inspired: This literary giant who died at the age of 82 in March of 2013, has been rightfully called “the father of modern African writing.” His passion for skilled storytelling gave succeeding generations of Africans a doorway through which to walk in order to write about African culture, history and heritage in a more complex and nuanced way than had previously been done.
What: I first heard of Yaba Blay when a friend of mine introduced me to the (1)ne Drop Project, a project she had initiated to explore the challenges and narrow perceptions of Blackness as both an identity and a lived reality. A leading voice on colorism and global skin color politics, Blay has developed a (1)ne Drop traveling exhibit, a beautifully produced coffee table book—(1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race—and has been featured on CNN with Soledad O’Brien as a guest expert on the fifth installment of Black in America. She is a co-Director and Assistant Teaching Professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA.
Why I’m Inspired: In September of 2013, Dr. Blay made headlines when her compassion and quick thinking produced A Care Package for Tiana: Locs of Love a digital book for Tiana Parker, a 7-year-old Black girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma who had been suspended from school for wearing her hair in locs. Within 24 hours, the digital book of women and young girls who also wore locs and provided words of love and encouragement to young Tiana, had made its rounds worldwide on the internet, but most importantly made its way to its intended recipient and gave her a boost of self-confidence that comes from knowing your community’s got your back. The Doctor is in!
What: In 2010, Evans Wadongo was honored as a CNN Hero for his cost-effective, life-saving invention of the solar-powered LED lantern. He was inspired to come up with a solution to the health challenges caused by the kerosene lamps used by most rural Kenyans for nighttime reading, when his father, a high school teacher, developed eyesight problems from years of reading by kerosene. Wadongo encountered his own frustrations when his performance in school suffered from lack of access to reliable lighting and electricity—something most of his peers struggled with. His solar lamp—which he named MwangaBora (Swahili for “good light”)— has saved lives, improved educational performance, is saving the environment and has helped to decrease hunger due to the money saved from no longer having to buy kerosene. Since 2010, Evans has helped found a nonprofit, Sustainable Development for All–Kenya, which is on track to provide 100,000 MwangaBoras to Kenyans by 2015. He’s received numerous awards and in August 2013 was named by MIT Technology Review as one of the Top 35 Innovators Under 35.
Why I’m Inspired: With an invention like the solar-powered lamp, Wadongo could easily have made a healthy profit from selling these much-needed devices to his rural community. Instead, in an effort to contribute to the health and educational needs of his community, he initially produced and offered the lamps for free. No cost. Gratis. In fact, even when the lamps started going into production with the help of a local nonprofit, Wadongo decided to forego getting paid and ate only one meal a day to conserve funds. We need more people like him. Period.
What: At 49, Cécile Kyenge is a living definition of “grace under fire.” Since her historical appointment as Italy’s first Black Cabinet Minister as Minister for Integration, she has endured racist taunts, threats and disrespect from a European society which is largely resistant to change—even as the world rapidly evolves around it. In April 2013, after being appointed to her position, she experienced backlash that was swift and sharp. In an incident that made world news, she had bananas thrown at her by a former government minister who likened her to an orangutan.
Why I’m Inspired: Despite this, and other blatant acts of racism in protest to her appointment, Kyenge has remained steadfast in her commitment to integrating immigrants into Italy’s society. The Huffington Post said it best:
“Minister Kyenge's resilience, sensitivity, and undaunted dedication to the cause, are those of a world citizen with a long path behind her and perhaps an even longer one ahead. These qualities keep her at the forefront of political reform going forward, and not a victim of her circumstances.”
#10. NELSON MANDELA
Country of Origin: SOUTH AFRICA
What: 2013 will undoubtedly go down in history as the year an entire continent—and, indeed, the rest of the world—mourned the death of one of the greatest leaders that ever lived. Many called him an angel on earth. So much has already been said about our beloved Madiba, including a post I wrote in December, 8 Unforgettable Lessons on Life and Love I Learned from Nelson Mandela, that I’m not sure that much more can be said except: THANK YOU NELSON MANDELA.
Why I’m Inspired: If we had more leaders like Mandela who were selfless servants with a ready smile, I know for sure that the world would be a much better place. Let’s not allow his legacy to languish in our memories, but instead live it out in our own lives as Ambassadors of love, service and ACTION. Click here for PART 2 of this series.
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Who else do you think should be included on this list and why?