Ongolo Proud African

Celebrating 10 remarkable African women who scored historical firsts

8 March 2021

The United Nations started celebrating International Women’s Day in 1977. This was sixty-seven years after the idea of establishing a special day for women was first floated at the 1910 International Socialist Women’s Conference and sixty years after 8 March 1917 was first declared a national holiday in the Soviet Russia.

To celebrate this year’s IWD, would like to recognise 10 African women who scored remarkable firsts:

#1 Fatima al-Fihr: Founded the oldest university in the world (Morocco, 859 AD)

According to the Guinness World Records, the oldest running university in the world is the University of Karueein in Fez, Morocco. It was originally founded as a mosque in 859AD by Fatima al-Fihr and later became the University of Al-Qarawiyyin. Fatima was the daughter of a wealthy merchant who inherited a fortune from both her father and husband which she used to establish the religious institute. Famous alumni include the French scholar, Gerbert of Aurillac, who later became Pope Sylvester II.

#2 Lotfia El Nadi: first African woman pilot (Egypt, 1933)

Lotfia El Nadi became the first African and Arab woman to earn a pilot's license in 1933. Lotfia developed a passion for flying as a child - long before Cairo had an airport - and believed that women could do anything. She was the only woman in a class of 34 to sign up when a flying school opened in Cairo and paid for her tuition by working part-time at the school. She became the second woman after Amelia Earhart to fly solo in an international race between Cairo and Alexandria in 1933.

#3 Esther Cornelia Brand: first African woman gold medallist (South Africa, 1952)

Esther Cornelia Brand became the first African woman to win a gold medal in high jump at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Brand was one of four women in the South African delegation (64 in total) where the country’s two gold medal were both won by women. She was ranked world #1 in high jump for three years and held the world record of 1.66m in 1941.

#4 Miriam Makeba: first African woman Grammy winner (South Africa, 1965)

Miriam Makeba, who was also known as Mama Africa and Empress of the African Song, put African music on the world map when she won a Grammy for An Evening with Harry Belafonte in 1965. She was a singer, actress and civil rights activist who campaigned against apartheid during her 31 years in exile in the United States. She returned to South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released from prison but maintained her strong connection with the US. The city of Berkeley celebrates 16 June as Miriam Makeba Day.

#5 Graca Machel: First Lady of two countries (Mozambique & South Africa, 1975 & 1998)

While Graca Machel has been successful in her own right as a freedom fighter and first Minister of Education of an independent Mozambique, she remains the only woman in modern history to serve as First Lady in two countries. She married her fellow freedom fighter and Mozambique's first President, Samora Machel, in 1975. Samora Machel was killed in a plane crash on his way back from Zambia in 1986. She married South Africa's first post-apartheid President and global hero, Nelson Mandela on his 80th birthday in 1998 and was widowed for a second time when Madiba passed on in 2013.

#6 Iman Abdulmajid: first African supermodel (Somalia, 1975)

Iman became Africa's first supermodel after she was discovered on the streets of Nairobi in 1975 and soon moved to New York. She first appeared in Vogue Italia in 1976 and went on to have a successful modelling career until she retired in 1989. She moved to Los Angeles to break into acting and ended up meeting and marrying rock star, David Bowie. Iman pivoted to business when she launched Iman Cosmetics in 1994 and paved the way for other cosmetic brands for minority women.

#7 Charlize Theron: first African woman Oscar winner (South Africa, 2004)

Charlize Theron became the first African woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2004 for her stunning portrayal of serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, in the movie, Monster. She also won a Golden Globe, Screen Actor's Guild and Critic's Choice Award for the same role. Charlize started her career as a model in Milan before moving to New York where she intended to become a ballet dancer. When she wa forced to give up dancing after injuring herself, the determined Charlize moved to Los Angeles and began her acting career. Monster catapulted her into the A-list and she remains one of the highest paid actresses in the world.

#8 Wangari Maathai: first African woman Nobel Prize winner (Kenya, 2004)

Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize in 2004 for her grassroots tree planting movement called the Green Belt Network, which she first established in 1976. The movement spread to other countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe. Wangari was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. In addition to being an environmental activist, Wangari championed democracy and human rights.

#9 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: first African woman President (Liberia, 2006)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first woman elected as the head of state of an African country in 2006. She studied at Public Administration at Harvard and joined the Liberian government, rising to Minister of Finance under the military dictator, Samuel Doe. She spent 12 years in exile in Kenya and the United States after falling out with the regime and first run for president in 1997. She won on her second attempt in 2005 and became known a Africa's Iron Lady. She won a Nobel Prize in 2011 along with two others for their efforts to further women's rights.

#10 Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: first woman and first African Director General of the World Trade Organisation (Nigeria, 2021)

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made history as the first African and first woman Director General of the World Trade Organisation from 1 March 2021. Prior to WTO, she served as Finance Minister of Nigeria under two different presidents and was a development economist and Managing Director at the World Bank for 25 years where managed a $81m operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia. She serves on the boards of Twitter, Standard Chartered and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. wishes the fabulous women the world over a happy International Women's Day!


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