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African Roots: Tracing Africa's historical figures

January 26, 2018

From Ghana's pan-Africanist leader Kwame Nkrumah and Hausa legend Bayajida to Angola's Queen Njinga Mbande, DW digs into African history to shed light on influential Africans who left a legacy.

Bayajida is seen as the mythological founding father of the 7 Hausa statesImage: Comic Republic

Bayajida: The legend of Hausa land

The legend of Bayajida is central to the founding story of the Hausa states in northern Nigeria. But the legend was passed down by word of mouth. This makes it difficult to know when Bayajida existed, or even if he existed at all. According to legend, he started his life as a prince in Baghdad in modern-day Iraq. After a fall-out with his father, Bayajida led a powerful cavalry across the Sahara. He ended up in Daura in northern Nigeria. There, he killed a snake that was stopping people from fetching water at a local well. He was rewarded with the hand of the queen of Daura and his sons became the rulers of the seven Hausa states.

Read more: Bayajida: The legend of Hausa land

Louis Rwagasore: for a united Burundi

Louis Rwagasore was murdered a year before his country gained independence yet he was pivotal in Burundi's peaceful transition to an independent state. He fought for democracy, becoming the country's first prime minister. A friend of African nationalists Patrice Lumumba from Congo and Julius Nyerere from Tanzania, Rwagasore is a widely acclaimed hero in his country. 

Read more: Louis Rwagasore, the unifying prince

Nkrumah: Ghana's pan-Africanist leader

Kwame Nkrumah was born in 1909 in the British colony known as the Gold Coast. He left Ghana in the 1930s by stowing away on a boat and went on to study in the United States and then later Britain. During his 12 years abroad, he became increasingly active in African political organizations. He returned home in 1947 and started fighting against colonial rule. A decade later, Nkrumah became the first prime minister of the newly independent Ghana and went on to become its first president in 1960. 

Read more: Kwame Nkrumah: Fighting for a united Africa

Kwame Nkrumah was fighting not only colonialism in Africa, but also capitalism. He was a strong believer in a particular sort of African socialism which united social justice and African traditions. But putting theory into practice proved a difficult feat. Nkrumah's approach to politics in his own country was often contradictory to the socialism he wrote about. For Wilhelmina Donkor, a history lecturer at Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, these contradictions make Ghana's founding father an interesting subject matter even half a century later. 

"Kwame Nkrumah was special or unique in the sense that he did not only think [of] Ghana. His vision cut across Africa and that was why at independence in 1957, he made that famous statement that the independence of Ghana is not complete unless it is linked with the total liberation of the whole continent."

Julius Nyerere

In 1922, in what was then the British colony of Tanganyika, a chief of the Zanaki people in Butiama got a son and named him Kambarage after the rain-spirit. This boy would soon rise to fame, carrying the dreams and hopes of the country. He would later influence the entire continent. 

After training as a teacher in neighboring Uganda, Nyerere taught for several years. Even later in his life, Nyerere was respectfully addressed as "Mwalimu", meaning "teacher" in Kiswahili. In 1949, he gained a scholarship to study in Scotland — the first Tanganyikan ever to study at a British university. In the country of the colonialists, he was increasingly drawn to politics — a path he continued on his return home.

Read more: Julius Nyerere: Undeterred African leader

To help build peace, national unity and cohesion, Nyerere encouraged the use of Kiswahili as the national language, rather than English. But probably Nyerere's biggest legacy is his policy of African socialism based on cooperative agriculture, called "Ujamaa", which is named after the Kiswahili word for familyhood. To implement Ujamaa, people relocated into village collectives. The policy met with increasing resistance, and eventually Nyerere introduced forced relocations and collectivization. By the 1980s, Tanzania's agricultural production plumetted and the concept of Ujamaa was dropped.

Nevertheless, Tanzanians remember Nyerere as a leader untainted by corruption or personal scandals, as explained by Tanzanian historian Said Mohammed. "In my research, whoever you ask will tell you, Mwalimu was special. He was incorruptible. Money and wealth did not matter to him."

Read more: Queen Muhumuza: Fighting colonialism in East Africa

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 her 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.

Queen Muhumuza: Fighting colonialism in East Africa

More stories will follow soon. 

DW's African Roots series is produced in cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation.