Summary: He was the most illustrious emperor of the Mali empire. During his reign, he built the empire till it became one of the greatest in the world.

Birth: 1200s

Parents: Faga Laye [father]. His mother’s name is not verified.

Spouse: He had many, but their exact number is unknown

Children: Same as above

Nationality: Mali

Religion: Islam

Death: 1300s

Mansa’s name, when mentioned, is often anchored by his wealth. Very little is known of his early years when he was a nobody but we’ve gathered that for you.

Take the most comfortable position for you, lying or sitting, as we go on a trip of Mansa’s life. Some scholars speculate that he was either a grandson or grand-nephew of Sundiata, the Lion of Mali. To give this more context, Sundiata built up Mali as an independent state after putting an end to Ghanain rule in the early 1200s. Mansa was born Mansa Keita in the late 1200s to Faga Laye who was his father. 


He grew to become a high ranking official unlike his father who was more or less a common man. He rose higher and higher until he got to be the deputy of Abu-Bakra-Keita II, the Mansa who was the ninth ruler of the Mali empire. Under Sundiata’s rule, Mali acquired a lot of wealth which was helped by its geographical location as a focal point of trade routes, the tributes it received and its resources. 


Abu Bakra was an explorer at heart, curious to know about things and places he was not familiar with. For years, he longed to know what was on the other end of the ocean. Then time came when he could no longer be satisfied with the reports of the explorations he had sent others to do. He decided to lead an expedition himself. Before he left he commanded Musa, who was then his deputy, to rule in his stead while he was gone. 


Abu Bakra never returned.

When the long wait for his uncle did not end, Musa was appointed as the Mansa and this placed him as the official emperor of Mali rather than the temporary leader he was. People loved Musa, he was kind and charitable and as a ruler he was highly competent. Mali had enough wealth to go around its people, food was plentiful, crops grew healthy and on time, life was good. Traders from China, Persia, India and other far flung places came to trade with the people of Mali, boosting an already rich economy.


It was not so at the other end of the world with the Europeans. Life wasn’t good for them at the time. There were wars, decline in trade and increase in poverty levels. While Musa was annexing regions and expanding his empire, the West was faced with a boiling economic crisis. This would have been an obscure knowledge if Musa had not decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1312, leaving his son Maghan in charge of Mali.


To make this journey, he had about 60,000 people in his entourage which included warriors, servants, officials, members of the royal family and common people who wanted to visit Mecca too. But this was not all. Apart from the rich clothing of this group, Mansa had along with them huge amounts of gold he intended to give out to the poor and to rulers as gifts. 


On this voyage to Mecca which spanned over thousands of miles, Mansa gave out so much gold that he caused a decline in its value, especially in Egypt where he stayed long enough to pass the summer. As his gold reduced, his popularity grew. Many proclaimed love for him as they were wont. His reputation preceded him as he went.


When he got to Mecca and finished the Holy rituals for pilgrims, he stayed for a while meeting and discussing with scholars who had come for the Pilgrimage too. While there, he received news that his army was at war with Songhai. Torn between returning home and staying further to explore knowledge with the scholars, he decided to ask them to come with him to Mali. One of those who agreed was Abu Ishāq as-Sāhilī, a Moorish poet and architect who would later help Musa build a lot of stunning architecture.


By this time, word of Mansa Musa’s wealth had spread well beyond Africa and into Europe. Interest in Mali began to quicken and this led to European cartographers eventually creating a map of Mali for the first time. When Musa reached Cairo on his way back, he got great news. His army had won the war with the Songhai. Excited at the prospects Songhai offered, he promptly deviated from the route to Mali and went to Gao in Songhai instead. While there, he toured the cities and noted opportunities for growth and expansion. 


With the acquisition of Songhai which was the home of Timbuktu and Gao, Mali became the largest empire in the world. When he got back home at last, Mansa began working on projects which had economic, architectural, scientific and artistic impact. His mind had been opened to possibilities as a result of the scholarly discussions he had in Mecca. 


Striking mosques and palaces were built with the help of Abu Ishaq, the architect who followed him from Mecca. These drew tourists from around, creating an influx of richies. Embassies, schools, and trading routes were built and expanded, leading to a high increase in foreign trade volume. In a relatively short time,  Mali had become a world power with her cities a melting pot of commerce and culture.


While Mali was rich before Mansa Musa came into power, it was his vision, openhandedness, strength and wisdom in administration that lifted it to the status of one of the most powerful empires in history. He died in the 1300s and his son Maghan, once tested, ruled after him.

Summary: He was a folktale character whose origins came from the Akan in Ghana.

Spouse: Okonore Yaa

Children: Anansewa, Afudohwedohwe and Nankonhwea

Country of Origin: Ghana

He was wise. Cunning. Smart. Witty. He was a man. A spider. A god. He was many things and of many names, but in all, he was Anansi. Many stories of him abound, especially folklore focusing on virtues and morals. Elders told tales of his exploits to children, sometimes while around a crackling fire on a warm night or tucked in bed. 


His name means ‘spider’ in the Akan language. Considering he was always spinning webs around his antagonists, this was apt. Some believed he was a literal spider, to some others still he was both man and spider. Although the origin of his stories were from the Ashanti in Ghana, they spread over the African continent and beyond as a result of slavery. 


When the blight of slavery began spreading, he became a symbol of resistance, resillience and survival. Tales abound in which he outsmarted his oppressors by wit or grit, becoming a source of hope for the enslaved who were taken to foreign lands. He was a receptacle into which customs and traditions were poured and passed down from generation to generation.


Like the Ijapa [Tortoise] in Yoruba folklore, Anansi was a well fleshed out fictional character who had flaws, strengths and family who were his supporting characters. He had a wife known as Okonore Yaa, a son called Nankonhwea, another named Afudohwedohwe and a daughter, Anansewa. Anansewa featured more in his stories because she was eligible for marriage and he sought for ways to get her the right husband.


As his stories became assimilated into different cultures, Anansi became known with different names. There’s Ananse, Kompa Nanzi, Ba Anansi, Anancy and so on. One of his most popular fables is one about how he became the source of all the stories in the world after getting them from Nyame, the Sky-god. This story in particular  gave room for endless creation of stories about Anansi which can be used to teach children about their culture and tradition.


There are some who draw a line from Anansi the spider god or man to Spiderman in pop culture. This is based on the observation that both were highly interesting characters who wield wit over the brawn of their antagonists. However, this is far-fetched. We can say though, that Spiderman’s stories came from the sack of Anansi. He owns all the stories in the world afterall.

Sango was born as Arabambi and later known by many names across Yoruba land and beyond. Of the little that is known of his childhood, consensus holds that he was a sharp edge on the well-worn canvas of traditional convention as followed back then. 


Headstrong he was, and wildly ambitious. These traits in addition to his fearlessness, fiery passions, temper and intelligence were his blessings and doom. In his youth, he was an entertainer who danced with masquerades to the beats of Bata drum. To widen his audience, he went to Tapa, his motherland. There, he added fire-breathing to his skills.


While he was catering to the entertainment of people, his brother Ajaka who was the Alaafin of Oyo was having a hard time ruling. Things got to a head when Ajaka got captured by Olowu of  Owu land. The Oyo elders decided to call Sango in as Regent so he could rescue Ajaka and beat back the grasping hands of the Olowu. That decision, at the time, was the right one.


Sango restructured the army, rescued his brother and restored Oyo’s pride. For this, the elders crowned him as the third Alaafin of Oyo after dethroning and exiling Ajaka. His reign, though short, was powerful. He developed strategies that kept enemies in check and fear while expanding the Oyo empire. 


As his conquests piled up, his quest for more power grew. Accounts on how he got his thunder and fire emitting powers differ. Some said he got it from a Babalawo. Some said he discovered it himself. Others said it was inborn. But all accounts mention his axe with which he calls forth the thunder on his enemies.


A man of wild passions is a man of wild appetite. And this is true for Sango whose hefty appetite went beyond conquests in war fields to romantic conquests. His wives, Oba, Osun and Oya were powerful women who were feared and regarded as goddesses as well. From different accounts Oya who was his favourite, played a major role in his downfall.


His reign ended in the seventh year when, according to some accounts, he died. Others said he disappeared, some say he committed suicide after losing everything, and there were some still who believed he ascended to heaven. In the tales of the greats, many spoons are used to cook the broth of their life histories. One thing was clear however, Sango made such a big dent in history that he got deified as a god. By who? You ask. By people in parts of Yoruba land, the Caribbean and beyond. They worship him in different countries across the world and hold carnivals in his name. And no, they aren’t “civilized” or “illiterates” as traditional worshippers are often mistaken to be. Ask on your Twitter timeline or Facebook, you just may come across a Sango worshipper.

Summary: She was a trader popularly known for helping Oba Ewuare take back and secure his throne after his brother, Uwaifokun, usurped it.

Birth: Differing accounts exist about the century Emotan lived in but the pendulum of this dissent swings between the 13th to the 16th century.

Parents: Unknown

Spouse: Name unknown, he died before her.

Children: None.

Nationality: Nigerian

Religion: Traditional

Death: Exact date unknown

Long, long ago when your great great grandparents were yet to be born, there lived a woman named Emotan in the Great Benin Kingdom. Kind she was,  often choosing to address her pain by helping others. Many knew and loved her in the Oba market where she was a market woman. 

Heaven denied her a child of her own, yet children swarmed to her. Parents left their children under her care and as time went on, she found herself running a full blown foster home. When you ask scholars of Emotan, they would say she was a pioneer of daycare in the history of Benin. She took care of these children and some, she taught how to trade.


Day by day, time passed like water over rocks for Emotan, content as she was in the joy she found with the children around her. Then came one day when the 11th Oba of Benin died and time came for the 12th to ascend the throne. The rightful heir was Prince Ogun, but his brother Uwaifiokun decided that was not to be so. He claimed the throne then sought to kill Ogun who then ran away into exile. Furious, Uwaifiokun put ears to the ground, eager for even the tiniest whisper of his brother’s whereabouts. 


Meanwhile Emotan, who some say was a mentor to Ogun, knew where he was. Sometimes, Ogun would come to stay at Emotan’s place and she would scold him for taking such risks with his life. Whenever she went out, she would gather information about the usurper king’s plans and share with Ogun. Then they would in turn plan how to take back the throne.


One day, Emotan found out that Uwaifokun planned to go to the ancestral shrine to make a sacrifice to the ancestors so they can bless him with a good reign and she quickened home to tell Prince Ogun. Ogun got excited as this was an opportunity for him to eliminate his brother. He hurried to the shrine and when his brother arrived, he fought with and killed him.


With the throne cleared of the usurper’s backside, Prince Ogun became the Oba. He then took on the name Ewuare, loosely meaning “the trouble has ceased”. Now with the power to assign titles, he made Emotan the Iyeki, leader of the Expate guild responsible for security and smooth running of the market.


Sadly, Emotan was witness to Oba Ewuare’s reign for only a short while before she died. After her death, he was determined that she would not be forgotten. He commanded that she be buried in her hut by the market and planted the sacred Uruhe tree by her graveside. She became known as a goddess and every year after, the king and his people will pay homage to her. King Ewuare’s determination stood the test of time, and till today, Emotan is still remembered by both young and old alike.

Summary: He was the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to 1913 and led the expansion of Ethiopia as a modern state.

Birth: 1844

Parents: King Negus Haile Melekot [father] and Ejigayehu Lemma Adyamo [mother]

Spouse: Woizero Altash Tewodros [first wife, divorced], Woizero Befana Wolde Michael [second wife, separated] and Taytu Betul [third wife, till death]

Children: Many, none from his wives.

Nationality: Ethiopean

Death: 1913


Once upon a time in the Age of the Judges, a boy was born to a king called Negus Haile Melekot in the city of Ankober, Shoa, which used to be found on the Ethiopian map. It was a time of anarchy, a period when monarchs showed their lust for power through wars and assassinations. The boy was named Sahle Maryam, and later Menelik by his grandfather. He had the circumstances of his birth clouded in conjectures, the truth of it lost to time. Some said he was raised as befitting a future monarch, others said he grew up beneath his father’s notice. But all, as time told, agreed he grew to be a great emperor indeed.


His life as a child tottered on without a hitch until one sad day his father died. Melekot had been resisting the grasp of Tewodros II, the Emperor who had conquered all the Ethiopian princes except for two, one of which was Melekot. While standing his ground against Tewodros, an illness got its clutches into him. In a short while, Melekot’s body began to fail. His healers tried and tried to restore his health but in the end, they lost. Menelik, still a child, became fatherless. 


After establishing his representative’s government in Shoa, Tewodros took Menelik, his mother and some other important members of the court as royal hostages. They were to live in supervised exile at his court. At Tewodros’s court, Menelik was treated with the respect and courtesy due to a prince, for Tewodros didn’t have anything against him. Some even said he treated Menelik as a son. With resources available to him, Menelik was able to learn as a prince should. He grew up well read and informed. He was taught matters of governance, the art of war, horsemanship and gained experience in governance and its politics.


Menelik was content at the court and made no attempts to take back his father’s kingdom until Tewadros’s power started shrinking. A man called Bezzabeh had dared sit on what was once Melekot’s throne and Tewadros had failed to chastise him though not for lack of trying. With his father’s people whispering into his ears, Menelik began to fear he might never sit on the throne as was his birthright. Tewadros had treated him as a son, showing him love and marrying him to his daughter, Altash. He considered and considered the options open to him. Then one dark night, he fled Tewadros’s court, a few of his men and the few bright stars as his only companions.


Tewadros, old as he had gotten by then, felt the bite of Menelik’s betrayal deeply. He raged and ordered the death of many of the royal hostages he had taken. While this was happening, Menelik proclaimed himself ruler of Shoa after hauling Bezzabeh’s behind off his father’s throne. He revoked the reforms brought by Tewadros’s rule, winning the approval of conservatives. While Tewadros and his reign went into a steep decline, Menelik initiated relations with the Europeans. He began layings plans that showed he had his eyes on the Imperial throne. In respect to Tewodros, he did not make a move to take the throne while he was alive.


When he died, Menelik along with Tekla Giyorgis and Kasa, other powerful men, made a play for the Imperial throne. Menelik decided to bide his time and lay more groundwork while Tekla and Kasa fought battles. Unfortunately for Menelik, a rebellion reared its head in his camp and while he was quelling it, Tekla lost and Kasa named himself Emperor. He was crowned Yohannes IV, governing most of northern Ethiopia. Menelik had to submit to Yohannes.


A battle lost is not a war lost however, so Menelik went on with his strategic plans to become Emperor. He stealthily brought several kingdoms and states of southern Ethiopia under his rule while growing his army. He plotted against Yohannes several times and failed. Matters came to a head when Yohannes, tired of Menelik’s machinations, decided to march against him. Caught in against the rough tide of low morale from his army, low supplies and equipment, Menelik pushed for a treaty. Yohannes agreed and pardoned him. Shoa was then placed under Yohannes empire with Menelik as its official ruler. 


Having learnt not to move against Yohannes without a capable army, Menelik turned his attention towards matters of state. Years passed by, then came the time of Yohannes death. This time, Menelik moved swiftly and after convincing the majority of the ruling class that he had a better claim to the throne, he got crowned as Emperor. He then began the huge task of unifying the many provinces that make up what is now known as Ethiopia today. 


Menelik initiated treaties and quelled wars, beat back the European hands clutching at his lands, repressed slave trade. He built and improved the economy through trading, education, introduction of new technologies, and creation of new trade routes. Educational facilities, railway between major cities, telephone and telegraph systems, cars, modern plumbing and banking and many other advancements were brought to Ethiopia under his reign. For this, many regard him as the founding father of modern day Ethiopia. He was also the wall that stood against the colonialists that threatened to colonize Ethiopia. He refused to submit to the Italians when they came to take control of the land and because of this, Ethiopia was never colonized.


As a man who refused to accept failure but continuously sought for ways to achieve his aspiration, Menelik was quite fascinating. As a ruler who brought glory and better living to his people, he was one to reckon with. As one of the iconic characters of African history, he is unforgettable. There’s much, much more to his life than you have read here, but all agree, Menelik II is worthy of a place of honor in African history.

Seldom will a woman achieve great feats without people inserting a man in her story. Such is the case of Queen Amina. “She’s a woman like a man” some say. We’ll tell you her story and perhaps, you’ll come to the conclusion that ‘man’ is not a parameter for a woman’s greatness. 


Her story began in the 1530s when she was born to King Nikatau and Queen Bakwa Turunku of Zazzau. A rebel by nature, she would rather learn about warfare than homecare. Some said she was able to acquire the strategic skills and knowledge she did because she was favoured by her father who instructed her in matters of state, others say she got this from her grandfather.


Through her teenage years, she honed her skills with the Zazzau calvary while her younger brother, Karama, was groomed to take their father’s place upon his death. Amina absorbed all she could regarding political, administrative and military matters and by the time she was 16 years old, she became worthy of the title “heir apparent”.


From some accounts, at that period,  positions of power were open for those who merited it whether they were male or female. Although there were clear gender roles, women could still assert their authority and challenge men for positions they felt they deserved. Amina distinguished herself by rising to the top as leader of the Zazzau cavalry, making it easier for her people to accept her when she decided to rule.


As at the time her brother’s reign was coming to an end, she had won military campaigns and garnered the respect of warriors along with wealth. In 1576 ten years after he was crowned king, Karama died and Amina took the throne as was her right. This was to begin an era of immense growth for Zaria.


A few months after she was crowned, she led her first military charge as Queen with the aim of expanding Zazzau’s territory. In the ensuing years of her reign, she paid the blood price of annexing surrounding territories which included Kano, Katsina, Nupe and subjected them as her vassals. Her kingdom grew to be the trading center of the Southern Hausaland and vanquished states paid tribute to her, resulting in an influx of immense wealth to Zazzau. 


Her warriors were a major part of her leverage, so she took care of them well, giving them slaves, armour and other gifts. They were well trained and feared, their numbers increasing with the growth of her reign. They were said to consist of 20,000 foot soldiers and about 1000 cavalry troops.


To mark her territories and protect her people from enemy raids, she built walls some of which can still be seen today. These walls are said to be the inspiration behind those used in Hausaland today. 


Amina never took a husband for reasons either known to her or lost to time. There were speculations that it was because she did not want to be subjected to a man. She never had children either. Some said she took a lover when she wanted in cities she passed through. Fair enough if that was true. Fierce, brilliant and passionate as she was, she took her aim of expansion very seriously, choosing to forgo family life. 


For 34 years, she ruled with an iron hand, not ceding an inch to her enemies while developing Zazzau, now Zaria, to the greatest it ever was. Different accounts exist regarding her death. Some said she died in a place called Ataagar or Atagara. Some said she died in battle in 1610. We would love to believe she died happy and fulfilled, not as a woman who believes she was like a man.