18 Africans who won our hearts in 2015; from Magufuli, Malak, Teklehaimanot, Jega to Yego

(M & G Africa) –

It has been a real roller coaster of events but one thing that has been a constant is the unveiling of individuals who have proved themselves to be remarkable, enigmatic, brave, amusing and endearing in a way that was won the hearts of Africans and people across the globe.

Be it through actions they’ve taken or feats that they’ve conquered, here are 15 Africans who stole our hearts over the past year.

Macky Sall

Over the past year this West African president has put many of his African counterparts to shame with his even temperament, sheer enthusiasm, vision and commitment to better his nation.

He singled out higher education as an area for investment, putting himself out as a champion for the cause and pushing for more heads of state to follow suit. Earlier this year he began actively lobbying African countries to allocate more than 1% of gross domestic product to research, hosted the African Higher Education Summit in Dakar and announced the construction of two new universities in Senegal, each with a capacity for 30,000 students.

Sall was also critical in the push to build Senegal’s reputation as a digital nation with the launch of an ambitious project to create Africa’s version of silicon valley, “Diamniadio Technology Park”, located about 40km from the capital Dakar it will feature data and higher education centres.  At a time when several African leaders are tearing up constitutions to remove presidential term limits, and even, as in Burundi, taking their countries back to war so they can cling to power, in May Sall proposed to reduce his country’s presidential term from seven to five years.

Garmai Sumo

Garmai Sumo is one of the very few Liberians who bravely removed the bodies of the deceased during the height of the Ebola outbreak. As a member of the body collection team, she also came face to face with the bereaved children who lost their parents.

She made it her quest to help these orphaned children. Today Garamai currently leads Operation Blessing’s Ebola orphan programme in Monrovia, Liberia and is featured in a short documentary that was recently awarded Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival.

In the film, Body Team 12, Garmai is shown bravely working as a body collector for another aid group during the height of the Ebola crisis. Through the orphan programme, more than 170 children are receiving food, clothing and scholarships.

John Magufuli

Tanzania’s new President, Magufuli, who succeeded Jakaya Kikwete after winning 58.4% of the vote in October elections has become an African sensation. He was one of the pleasant surprises of 2015.

Magufuli has quickly earned a reputation for frugality and being opposed to ostentation, in a continent famous for politicians and big men who live large. Limiting unnecessary spending – for example he announced public money that would have been used for Independence-Day festivities would be reallocated to improve health-care and fight a cholera outbreak – has made him a social media sensation, with a hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo.

The new President has also since introduced a swathe of austerity cuts and crackdowns on public corruption.

Rida Essa 

This year the number of migrants and refugees trying to make their way to Europe has reached epic proportions. More than 2,600 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015, many of them from Africa, all in search of a better life. One of the groups trying to prevent migrants from crossing the sea, save them from drowning and bring them back to safety, are the coastguards from Libya’s strategic Mediterranean port city of Misrata.

But this coastguard, led by Colonel Rida Edda, faces immense challenges of its own – it has only eight boats to patrol 1,930km of coastline, operates in a country which is barely functioning and is also trying to deal with illegal fishing, terrorists and gunrunners. The coastguard’s commander has had his work cut out for him and would have some truly incredible feats to describe over dinner.

Daniel Teklehaimanot

This year Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first black African to start the Tour de France. In 2015 at the Critérium du Dauphiné, this Eritrean cyclist, who started cycling at the age of 10, won the first World Tour jersey in MTN-Qhubeka’s history by taking the mountains competition.

This year he also became the first black African rider to wear the polka dot jersey after winning it on Stage 6 of the prestigious 2015 Tour de France. For the record, he shared the honours with fellow countryman Merhawi Kudus, although the latter had a quieter race.

Denis Mukwege

Denis Mukwege has been doing wonderful work for years. The Congolese gynaecologist is credited with saving the lives of at least 40,000 women, raped during conflict. He founded and works in Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where he specialises in the treatment of women who have been gang-raped, becoming the the world’s leading expert on how to repair the internal physical damage caused by it.

This year has been exciting for the doctor, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws by Harvard University and a movie on his work,  “The Man Who Mends Women” was released. Unfortunately the film has been banned from being shown in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Attahiru Jega

Nigeria’s politics and elections have a long-reputation for violence, cheating, and everything that can possibly be wrong with an election poll. Going into elections early this year, it was expected that the unpopular incumbent Goodluck Jonathan would still win by hook or crook, as his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had ensured its candidates since the country’s return to multiparty politics nearly two decades.

His main challenger was former miitary ruler Muhammadu Buhari, a man with a reputation for being a disciplinarian and steely-fisted, and had run for the presidency and lost three times before.

What followed was historic. The election went off fairly peacefully, and was remarkably transparent. Goodluck lost, and conceded defeat gracefully. Buhari was magnanimous in his hour of glory. Nigeria had its first democratic transition from a ruling party and leader to an opposition rival.

In the end, a large part of it was down to one man – Attiru Jega, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). He was courageous, refusing to be intimidated, and even-handed to a fault. In an action that went viral around the world, he was confronted  on live TV by a PDP heavyweight who insulted him and accused him of trying to rig the vote for Buhari.

Unfazed, and controlled, he handed him the most elegant put down. In the social media that followed, many Nigerian were offering to marry him.

 Lupita Nyong’o

Kenyan actress, Lupita Amondi Nyong’o,  didn’t sit on her laurels after bagging an Oscar. She continued to rise, winning hearts and minds across Africa and the world this year. She was awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2014, becoming the sixth black actress to win the award, the first African actress to win the award and the first Kenyan actress to win an Oscar. She didn’t slow down in 2015.

This year Nyong’o co-starred in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), on May 4, 2015, photographer Annie Leibovitz revealed Lupita’s character as Pirate Queen Maz Kanata in Vanity Fair’s June edition issue and that same month Lupita went to Kenya and announced that she will advocate globally for elephants with the international conservation organisation WildAid, as well as promote women’s issues, acting and the arts in Kenya.

Benard Kipkemoi Tonui

Corporal Benard Kipkemoi Tonui was part of the Kenya police department’s Recce Company, a special unit trained in counter-terrorism, hostage situations and close-quarters combat.

On April 2, 2015, he was part of the recce which stopped the attack on Garissa University College in less than 30 minutes. This was after the army and regular police had tried for more than 12 hours to stop the four gunmen from Somalia’s al-Shabab militant rebels from killing students. Thousands of Kenyans flooded his village, Cheleget, and he received a hero’s burial.

Mariam Malak

A truly remarkable story. Schoolgirl Mariam Malak has become an unlikely symbol of the fight against corruption in Egypt after scoring the sum total of zero in her final exams. In previous years she aced her exams, scoring 97%, and had expected a similar result in her final year.

In a highly bureaucratic Egypt with its confusing legal system, challenging rampant corruption or wrongs suffered by the average citizen can be a formidable task but she pushed on, claiming corruption and that her papers were exchanged in favour of “another official’s daughter/son”. She won the heart of the nation – and ours – with people taking to Twitter with the hashtag “I believe Mariam Malak”.

However, the administrative prosecution authority officially closed her publicly debated case due to the “incorrectness of Malak’s corruption claims”.

Julius Yego

Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego won gold at the World Championships in Beijing this year with a new African record throw of 92.72m. Many Africans have won gold, and Yego wouldn’t have been extraordinary but for one thing –  his path to stardom was a bit more unconventional than the standard javelin medalist.

In 2013, a year after qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics for the first time, Yego disclosed that he is self-taught and relied on YouTube videos to perfect his technique.

Yego, specifically found inspiration in Andreas Thorkildsen, a Norwegian javelin thrower who competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Yego would watch videos of Thorkildsen throwing, taking notes on his technique and training methods. He said that there were no coaches to guide him, that he was just alone in the field, training.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim

In May 2015 Ameenah Gurib-Fakim stepped into her role as the new President of Mauritius. Her designation sees her become Mauritius’ first female president, the third on the African continent, and it’s not the only barrier that she looks set to break. When asked what her priorities for the country are, she said that “My country ambitions [are] to become a high income economy and create opportunities for [my] people.” “I strongly believe that Science, Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship are the ingredients that will help advance this vision.

Gurib-Fakim will become the only current African president who did not dabble in politics beforehand. She is an internationally-renowned scientist and biologist. Mail & Guardian Africa asked her for an interview – via LinkedIn. She obliged, becoming the first African president to do so.

Shaeera Kalla and Nompendulo Mkhatshwa

An unprecedented movement of student activism swept through South African university campuses and cities as students protested an exclusionary fee hike of 10,000 rand, or $752, from each student at the beginning of the year, which would hurt poor black students and force them further out of the education system.

The “Fees Must Fall” protests saw many student leaders raise their hands and leading the student movements towards free university education across the country – the main leaders that deserve a mention are Wits University’s former and newly elected Student Representative Council Presidents, Shaeera Kalla and Nompendulo Mkhatshwa.

Trevor Noah

South African comedian, TV and radio host, and actor Trevor Noah walked into the hearts of many Africans this year as the host of American news satire television programme “The Daily Show”, succeeding Jon Stewart, and arguably becoming Africa’s foremost comedic voice in American pop culture today.

His mixed-race heritage, experiences growing up in a Soweto township, and his observations about race and ethnicity are leading themes in his comedy. What he’s done this year has helped destroy many African stereotypes.

Gregoire Ahongbonon

People with mental disorders face huge discrimination and exclusion from societies across Africa. Having discovered that people with mental illness were being chained up in villages across West Africa, Gregoire Ahongbonon, from Benin, decided to get actively involved in their care and founded the St Camille Association which provides shelter, medical treatment and follow up to people with mental disorders, and helps their social reintegration and rehabilitation through work.

Today the association currently runs 12 centres in Côte d’Ivoire and Benin and has helped 2,500 people, of whom 1800 have successfully reintegrated into their village of origin. The Association also currently serves about 70,000 meals a day. His work saw him win the Daily Trust “African of the Year” award – a prize of $50,000 –  for people doing extraordinary working.

Solomon Belay

Ethiopian scientist Solomon Belay is a man who doesn’t give up easy, nor is it easy to discourage him with derision.

WhenEthiopia strongman Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, learnt that he and his colleagues wanted to set up a space programme, he wrote them off as dreamers. “People said we were crazy,” said Belay. “The attention of the government was to secure food security, not to start a space and technology programme. Our idea was contrary to that.”

This year, his efforts saw Ethiopia launch its and East Africa’s first space observatory, deep in the fields high above the capital Addis Ababa where farmers lead oxen dragging wooden ploughs.

That propelled Ethiopia into an elite club of African countries to have embarked on a space programme. This is not the last time we are going to hear about them.

Kenyan Muslims group

Somalia-based al-Shabaab terror group has for years crossed into Kenya and carried out deadly attacks. In September 2013 they attacked the upmarket Westgate mall in Nairobi, held hostages for hours and then holed up inside for days. When the siege was done, 67 people (including 4 attackers) lay dead, and nearly 200 were injured.

Everyone thought it wouldn’t get worse. It did. In April, in the northern Kenya town of Garissa near the border with Somalia, Shabaab attacked Garissa University. They separated Muslims and Christians, and slaughtered the Christians. Over 140 students were killed.

In several  other attacks in northern Kenya, Shabaab carried out this divide-Muslims-and-Christians-and-kill strategy, in the hoping of inciting a national anti-Islamic backlash.

A few days to Christmas, they tried again, and this time they got more they bargained for. Not too far away from Garissa in Mandera, Shabaab ambushed a bus that was travelling from the capital Nairobi.

Immediately, the Muslim passengers gave the Christians in the bus Islamic scarves and other dress. Shabaab then asked the passengers to get out and divide themselves among Muslims and Christians. The Muslims refused to be split into groups, telling the militants to ““to kill us together or leave us alone”.

Unprepared, Shabaab fled. They did kill two people; a passerby and a passenger who lost his nerve and run.

When it comes to taking a stand, the Kenyan Muslims on the Mandera taught everyone how it is done.


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