Working around sub-Saharan Africa this year has meant that I have come across countless fascinating people doing innovative, admirable, and sometimes destructive work. You’ve probably never heard of most of them. But here are some of the most compelling, all of whom you should definitely know:
1. Her name has been on the minds of most Africa observers this past year, and with good reason. Joyce Banda, the President of Malawi, took office in April, after an epic power struggle in which the late former President’s allies tried to block her from rightfully assuming the position, and she has since made a promising impression. She took a substantial pay cut, put the Presidential jet and cars up for sale, vowed to arrest the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, an accused war criminal, if he entered Malawi (a promise that several other African presidents have shied away from), and has spoken out against proposed anti-gay legislation. She also has been a prominent advocate for women and children, famously leaving her first husband because he was abusive. The hype on Banda may be outsized—critics point out that her taking a pay cut and selling the jet and cars was necessary in a floundering economy—but I am eager to see more from her.
2. It is rare enough to find vocal gay-rights advocates in West Africa, but the Cameroonian lawyer Alice Nkom takes it one step further: she has devoted her practice, the Association to Defend Homosexuals, to protecting L.G.B.T. citizens in a country where homosexual acts are illegal. As a result, she has been repeatedly threatened with disbarment and arrest. (One Cameroonian lawyer went on local television with a Bible, advising that Nkom be put to death for promoting homosexuality.) Sixty-seven years old and grandmotherly looking, the lawyer called attention to an “anti-gay crackdown” last year in Cameroon, in which at least ten people had been arrested on charges of homosexuality, including one man who was sentenced to three years in prison for sending a text message to another man, and numerous incidents of homophobic violence. She refuses to close her practice. “Someone has to do this,” she says.
3. The director of one of this year’s most stunning films, “Nairobi Half Life,” is the Kenyan David (Tosh) Gitonga, from the small town of Nanyuki. Praised by the Hollywood Reporter and Kenya’s second-ever official entry for the foreign-language Oscar, Gitonga’s first film is a lush, suspenseful coming-of-age tale and an ode to the multilayered stimulant that is Nairobi. The film won the Breakthrough Audience Award at the AFI Fest 2012. Notably, Gitonga, who has worked on several productions as an assistant director, is part of a generation of young African filmmakers, which includes Djo Tunda Wa Munga, the Congolese director of “Viva Riva!,” and the Rwandan Kivu Ruhorahoza, who made “Grey Matter,” that appears poised to reinvigorate moviemaking on the continent.
4. As a woman, Tanzanian lawmaker Al-Shaymaa Kwegyiris already a minority in her country’s Parliament. But as an albino, she is one of merely two parliamentarians with first-hand knowledge of the increasingly perilous existence of the country’s albino residents. In June, she broke down crying in Parliament as she recounted the grim facts: almost eighty albinos have died in ritual killings in recent years, and many others have been raped. Little has been done to find the perpetrators of these crimes, and many albino Tanzanians live in constant fear. Albinos are often killed and dismembered there because of superstitious beliefs that charms made from their body parts—some of which sell for thousands of dollars—bring prosperity. Though a few charities in Tanzania aid albinos, Kwegyr’s efforts, if heard, would be the most effective.
5. Proscovia Oromait is a nineteen-year-old college student and one of the newest members of Uganda’s Parliament. The youngest lawmaker in the country’s history, she is filling the office of her late father and says that she simply wants to continue her father’s initiatives—when she’s not in class.
6. Writing on a range of topics, from a painting of the South African President Jacob Zuma’s genitals to widespread poverty, the newspaper columnist and political analyst Justice Malala has cemented his status as one of South Africa’s most important voices today with sensitive, insightful commentary. On Zuma, he wrote:
The freedoms that we enjoy today, the dignity that we enjoy today, are enjoined in that [South African] constitution. For us to enjoy all these and to continue to enjoy them, we have to acknowledge that this same constitution will allow things that pain us, things that kick us in the very heart of our being, to continue. The depiction of Zuma in such a manner did so to many of our compatriots. Yet that is the bargain we struck.
7. Nigerian pop music is taking over the continent. The captivating duo P-Square has been churning out hit after addictive hit. The group is made up of identical twin brothers Peter and Paul Okoye.
8. In some ways, the Rwandan President Paul Kagame is the man of the moment. Accused of helping to orchestrate a rebellion in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for political and material gain, Kagame has, despite considerable evidence, continued to deny involvement in some of the worst violence that has taken place in the country in years. He has remained defiant even as allies like the United States and the United Kingdom pulled their aid to Rwanda, which makes up forty per cent of the country’s budget, as a result of that involvement. The international community, still grappling with its complicity in the Rwandan genocide, is now being forced to plead with him to pull back from a conflict that he won’t admit he has a hand in.
Bonus item! Many people came together to provide the face of Occupy Nigeria, a protest movement that fundamentally shook Nigeria early this year. After the government removed the seven-billion-dollar fuel subsidy that made fuel cheaper for Nigerians, leading to a near halt of local trade and business as the price of fuel doubled overnight, young and working-class people organized mass protests that took over the streets. Nigerians were told that government deregulation of the petroleum industry would free up funds for other uses, an incongruous message in a nation where only the élite profits from the oil wealth. The subsidy was partly restored, thanks to protestors. The question now is whether the Occupy movement will sustain itself and hold the government accountable as reports of oil corruption emerge.
Photograph, of Joyce Banda, by Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post/Getty.