Thuso Mbedu in ‘The Woman King’.
Here are some of the Africans who made it in worlds as diverse as entertainment, sport and politics — and made a difference on the continent
Thuso Mbedu: The leading lady
South African-born actress Thuso Mbedu, appearing in her first Hollywood film, The Woman King, a historical epic about the Dahomey Agojie warriors, managed the near impossible.
In a performance of striking physicality and emotional complexity, Mbedu, playing the wide-eyed would-be warrior, Nawi, steals the film from Viola Davis, one of Hollywood’s great icons.
It is the second time that the University of Witwatersrand-trained thespian has delivered a star-making performance on a global platform. In 2021, Mbedu scored her international breakthrough when she dazzled as Cora, the lead in The Underground Railroad, the miniseries adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead.
Director Barry Jenkins put his faith in, and was rewarded by, Mbedu’s ability to embody an enslaved woman fleeing a Georgia plantation.
Hollywood might have needed some convincing but, back home, Mbedu was already a big deal. She had previously led the Mzansi Magic teen drama series Is’thunzi, for which she received an international Emmy nomination.
Because of the politics and peculiarities of Hollywood’s awards season, Mbedu is being campaigned in the supporting actress category for her work in The Woman King.
This is to increase her chances of getting noticed in a system where the biggest names often vacuum up all of the attention. This decision does not change the inescapable fact, though, that the rest of the world is catching up. Mbedu is already a leading lady, and we can’t wait to see what she does next. — Wilfred Okiche is a film critic, and writes movie reviews for The Continent
Eliud Kipchoge: The fastest person in the world
It’s been a complicated year to be a Kenyan. Politics is murky. Famine looms over much of the country after an unprecedented drought. The national balance sheet looks very unbalanced after years of profligate spending on infrastructure projects that no one asked for and few are subsequently using.
After many years of being mired in Somalia, the country’s army has just entered a new site for engagement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Where does a nation go for hope or even joy when so much of its contemporary history is mired in uncertainty?
Athletics, and specifically long-distance running, has been the go-to place for Kenyans looking to recharge their hope batteries.
In a stellar year for the country’s marathoners, perhaps no star shines brighter than the world’s fastest man, Eliud Kipchoge.
In September 2019, Kipchoge stunned the world by running the first sub-two-hour marathon in Vienna in 01:59:40, an unofficial record because it was achieved under special conditions and not in an open race. In 2022, Kipchoge stamped his authority on the distance by achieving the world record in an open race in Berlin.
He stands out from the crowded field of Kenyan athletes for his determination to sparkle both on and off the track. You don’t need to be a runner to appreciate that running 42 kilometres in less than two hours is insanely fast. With both the formal and informal records under his belt, Kipchoge reminds us of his singular discipline and determination.
But Kipchoge has shown that he is keen to be more than an athlete. Weeks before his Berlin win, he opened a 85 million shilling ($690 000) library in Nandi county with money given to him by former president Uhuru Kenyatta.
His foundation focuses on education and the environment, but with a unique focus on helping athletes that are often abandoned once they are no longer able to perform.
He builds libraries in high schools and plants trees in deforested areas. And he does all this while avoiding the temptation to mire himself in electoral politics, which many high-profile figures in the country gravitate towards as a shortcut to notoriety.
Kipchoge is modelling a different way to be a Kenyan in the public eye and reorienting aspirations for many – to be the best, in Kenya and in the world, and always with an eye on lifting millions more as you climb. — Nanjala Nyabola is a Nairobi-based writer and political analyst. Her latest book, ‘Strange and Difficult Times: Notes on a Global Pandemic’, was released in November
NoViolet Bulawayo: Our names are good enough
Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, better known as NoViolet Bulawayo, is no stranger to accolades. In 2013 she became the first black African woman and the first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, for We Need New Names; in 2022 she became the first black African woman to be shortlisted a second time, for Glory.
Bulawayo did not come from privilege. Born in the rural area of Tsholotsho, she went to Njube High School and then to Mzilikazi High School, an excellent public school in Bulawayo. She moved to the United States when she was 18 for her tertiary education, receiving a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Cornell University in 2010.
She began using her pseudonym as a student. “No” means “with” in Ndebele; Violet for her mother, who died when she was young; and Bulawayo, the place she considers home.
She learned story and the power of language at the feet of her grandmother and her father, in the tradition of African oral storytelling.
Glory, an animal fable about the 2017 coup in Zimbabwe, has drawn comparisons with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a book Zimbabweans frequently reference in veiled (and fearful) criticism of the government. But animal mythology is an ancient theme in African storytelling, and Bulawayo is a product of that tradition.
Both slyly humorous and deadly serious, Bulawayo has made Zimbabwe’s troubles accessible to non-Zimbabwean readers, and cemented her place, and that of recognisably African writing, on the world stage. — Jacqueline Nyathi is a Harare-based writer. She reviews books for The Continent
Khaby Lame: Silence is golden
Humans have a perplexing knack for over-complicating things. Even those so-called “life hacks”, which are supposed to make life easier, too often do the opposite.
Enter Khabane “Khaby” Lame, the 22-year-old Senegalese-Italian you didn’t know you needed in
your life. He’s expressive, hilarious and, famously, doesn’t say very
much at all. He worked as a machine operator in a factory before his job was axed during a round of cost-
cutting in March 2020, prompting him to embark on his extraordinary rise to social media stardom. You have to see his videos to understand what makes them special but, essentially, Khaby reacts to videos of other people attempting various challenges or providing hacks.
Only, he hacks the hack, or simplifies the supposed simplification, making a mockery of whoever thought they were actually doing something cool. He punctuates his hack recreations with a signature exasperated shrug-point as if to say: “This is how you do it, duh!”
His short, wordless videos offered much-needed levity during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns and he hasn’t stopped since.
This year, he became the most followed content creator on TikTok, and his follower count is currently just under 153 million
Khaby is a great example of how the simplest things can bring laughter to people, and within that, reinforces the idea that we are more similar than different as people because what brings us joy is largely the same.
Sadly, and not uncommonly so, he is an example of how exceptional Africans and black people have to be to even achieve even approximate equality.
He only received Italian citizenship this year after living most of his life in the country with his family.
European passport or not, though, he’ll always be a son of the Senegalese soil who effortlessly leaves a smile on the face of anyone who sees him. — Refiloe Seiboko is The Continent’s production editor
Anita Soina: The kids are all right
Anita Soina was born into the climate crisis. It was the year 2000, and the Kyoto Protocol had just been signed. It committed rich countries to do the work of reducing their deadly carbon emissions.
The hope it engendered didn’t last long. The United States and others refused to do their part. Politicians listened to the corrupting whispers of lobbyists who wanted to burn more lucrative fossil fuels. They took the indifference of most voters as permission to not act.
The world got hotter. In Soina’s Kenya, it has meant extremes, with floods and droughts smashing lives and livelihoods. In its north, the rain has failed to fall for five consecutive years. Over four million people are starving. Yet Kenya is responsible for just 0.05% of the world’s emissions.
At age 18, Soina helped found Green Warriors, a group that helps people build their own gardens and replant forests. She was inspired by her grandfather, who planted small groves and defended them from people seeking firewood. She then published The Green War, a book about how hard it is to fight for change.
This year, she decided to run for a seat in Kenya’s parliament, representing the Green Thinking Action Party. “I am compelled by the significant role that politics plays in international environmental governance, and the economic and social prosperity of communities,” she said.
Soina was the youngest-ever candidate to stand. While issues of water, sewage and agriculture do feature in Kenyan elections, hers was a rare voice linking these issues to the climate crisis — all the more important given that 47% of Kenyans have never heard of climate change, according to Afrobarometer research.
Soina lost. But her voice is part of a growing chorus of women, particularly in East Africa, who are talking about the biggest challenge humanity faces — and demanding to be part of the solution. — Sipho Kings is The Continent’s editorial director
Desiree Ellis: Ahead of the game
Desiree Ellis has said she reveres Sir Alex Ferguson. A lifelong Manchester United supporter, she was captivated by how the legendary coach wove one generation into the next.
Young players were blooded, older ones phased out, but the team’s quality was never compromised. She read his book, searching for lessons she could emulate as a technician.
Those teachings have guided Ellis’s own path as a coach. One that this year took her straight to the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations trophy, South Africa’s first. In the final she decisively out-thought Morocco, outplaying them on enemy territory in Rabat.
She did so with a squad ostensibly compromised by key personnel losses: “I said we can only do it if the senior players are united, set the culture and be together, which we were,” Ellis said after landing to an adoring welcome from fans at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg. “We lost players to injury, but we have individuals who stepped up … there was encouragement and objective.”
How easy it would have been for Banyana Banyana to crumble under the pain of coming second in 2018. Instead, Ellis has embodied Ferguson-esque foresight. Her side has remained consistent but not stale. Fresh yet never impetuous. Experience in the squad has sharpened young talent, not kept it on the sidelines.
South Africa is now, remarkably, only the second African nation, after Nigeria to have both men and women’s teams lift continental gold.
Bafana Bafana were never able to transition from their golden generation, gradually regressing after their 1996 win. Ellis, you have to imagine, has already begun working to silence the echoes of history. — Luke Feltham is a sports writer and online editor at the M&G
Alaa Abd El-Fattah: The spirit of the Arab Spring
The body needs about 2 000 calories a day to function. From April until October this year, Alaa Abd El-Fattah lived on 100 calories, drinking only saline water, in protest against his imprisonment. He is serving a second five-year sentence for self-expression.
In the first week of November, just before the United Nations climate change conference started in Egypt, he escalated his hunger strike, refusing water.
With this he managed to draw attention back to his country’s atrocious human rights record, at a time when the world was watching it, and as world leaders were jetting in.
The Egyptian government was embarrassed but unmoved.
In mid-November he ended the hunger strike.
Abd El-Fattah’s journey captures both the promise and dashed hopes for social media in Africa. It could have liberated us. It did not.
Instead, it opened the bravest among us to swift and harsh backlash.
A leader in the 2011 North African protest movement that came to be dubbed the “Arab Spring”, Abd El-Fattah and his contemporaries showed us the power of our networked voices.
On Twitter and furious blogging, they organised a sea of humanity to occupy Tahrir Square, eventually forcing Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak to resign, ending his 30-year repressive and corrupt rule.
But the revolution was stolen.
Mubarak’s successor, Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown by the generals in a coup just two years after the revolution. The revolutionaries were hunted down and jailed.
Abd El-Fattah is the most prominent of an estimated 65 000 political prisoners in Egypt.
So why should anyone keep on resisting, Alaa asks us from behind the prison walls, nearly every week in letters to his loved ones. “We go to the square to discover that we love life outside it. And we walk into prison because we love freedom,” he wrote in a 2011 ode to the birth of his son. — Lydia Namubiru is The Continent’s news editor
Fadzayi Mahere: A new generation of leadership
For the grand crime of tweeting, Fadzayi Mahere, a Harare lawyer and politician, was arrested in January 2021.
She was formally charged with “communicating false statements prejudicial to the state”. The state alleges that Mahere “intended to incite public disorder or public violence” or “undermine public confidence in a law enforcement agency”.
It wasn’t her first jailhouse rodeo, but this arrest was most symbolic of how the 37-year-old has become a painful pebble in the ruling Zanu-PF’s shoe.
Mahere, a constitutional lawyer and lecturer, serves as the national spokesperson for Zimbabwe’s main opposition, the Citizens Coalition for Change.
Since April 2016, she has called out government malfeasance and incompetence on social media, despite coming from privilege, and despite her father’s links to Zanu-PF.
Zimbabwe’s political landscape has always been dominated by “strong men”. Women politicians, often veterans of the liberation struggle of the 1980s, tend to be older and inclined to muscle out rather than mentor young political aspirants.
Mahere is different.
In a country used to gendered attacks against women who have the gall to stand for office, Mahere’s cleverly insouciant responses and legal expertise make her difficult to bully into silence. She represents the kind of talent Zimbabwe has to offer in spite of itself.
In the six years since she first became prominent in Zimbabwe’s politics, Mahere has helped to mobilise and reinvigorate people’s resolve to fight for their democratic rights and hold the state accountable.
Whatever the outcome of this current momentum, her fostering of a strong active citizenry will not be forgotten. — Kiri Rupiah is The Continent’s communities editor
Diébédo Francis Kéré: A blueprint for the future
Diébédo Francis Kéré, the eldest son of a village chief in Burkina Faso, was the first person in his family to attend school.
The conditions at his school in Gando in the 1970s were not ideal for learning. The classroom, a simple structure made of concrete blocks, was dark and poorly ventilated. When overcrowded with students, as it usually was, it became unbearably hot and humid.
This didn’t seem to hold Kéré back.
When he graduated, he was awarded a vocational scholarship to study carpentry in Berlin, and then another scholarship to study architecture.
In 2001, Kéré returned to Burkina Faso to build his first building, a new primary school in Gando, built with funds that he had raised himself.
Already the blueprint of his architectural style was clear. He used indigenous materials that are cheap and easy to source. He lifted the roof above the walls, to allow air to circulate.
He consulted widely with the people who were actually going to be using the school.
He contracted local builders and carpenters, which created jobs and ensured that, when something goes wrong, there are people nearby who know how to fix it.
And he made it beautiful. As he explains: “Everyone deserves quality, everyone deserves luxury, and everyone deserves comfort.”
He didn’t just create a building; he created an environment for learning. Enrolment at the school has gone up by 700% since the new school was completed.
Slowly, the architectural world has caught up with Kéré’s vision.
Glossy, air-conditioned skyscrapers are out; climate-friendly, sustainable spaces are in. This year, he was awarded architecture’s most prestigious prize, the Pritzker.
“His buildings, for and with communities, are directly of those communities — in their making, their materials, their programmes and their unique characters,” the prize committee said.
“They are tied to the ground on which they sit and to the people who sit within them. They have presence without pretence and an impact shaped by grace.”
It is this grace, and this sensitivity, that is redefining African architecture for the 21st century.
The most compelling example of this is Kéré’s design for the new National Assembly in Benin, which is under construction.
It elevates the ancient practice of meeting under “l’arbre à palabres”, the palaver tree, into a breathtakingly beautiful building that emerges from the surrounding landscape, rather than rising out of it.And that, perhaps, is an accurate metaphor for Kéré himself: a world-leading architect whose foundations are embedded in the land that raised him. — Simon Allison is editor-in-chief of The Continent