#TBT Dynamic Africa History Post: 10 of Africa’s most well-known couples of the 20th century.
This post is not made with the purpose of romanticising the unions of these couples, but rather as a way to reflect on a different angle of 20th century history on the African continent by looking at some of the most prolific, politically-involved, highly revered or controversial couples we have come to know from around the continent. Some were loved during their time, others loathed - or even a mixture of both at times. Either way, both individuals in all these relationships are popularly known names because of, and some times in spite of, their unions.
Nelson and Winnie Mandela
Perhaps the most famous African couple of the 20th century, both Nelson and his second wife Winnie are political icons in their own right.
The pair met in 1957 at a Soweto bus station at the height of their political activities. Winnie, then Madikizela, was 22 and Nelson was . They were married the next year and the two of them had two daughters - Zenani and Zindziswa. In 1963, three years after the birth of their second child, Nelson Mandela would be sentenced to prison on Robben Island. He wouldn’t be released until 1990.
Although initially banned from visiting him for several years, and occasionally imprisoned herself (and put under house arrest), throughout much Mandela’s prison term Winnie remained dedicated to Nelson, visiting him when permitted and sharing news of his state with the outside world, and vice versa. However, his incarceration eventually took a toll on the both of them.
The two finally separated in 1992 and were officially divorced in 1996.
Nelson Mandela eventually passed away in late 2013.
Albertina and Walter Sisulu
Another South African political couple, the Sisulu’s long-lasting relationship was one of an enduring love and friendship that began in 1941 when the couple first met in a Johannesburg hospital. Him a lawyer and she a nurse, the pair married in 1944 and remained so until Walter’s death in 2003 aged 90. Albertina Sisulu would pass almost ten years later in 2011 aged 92.
Nelson Mandela was the best man at their wedding and he and Walter would both be sentenced during the Rivonia Trial in the early 1960s to serve life sentences on Robben Island. 25 years of Walter Sisulu’s life would be spent there.
The couple had five children and adopted four more. Like Winnie Mandela, she raised the couples children whilst Walter was in prison and was at times imprisoned herself. The couple’s relationship stood the test of time and both are highly affectionately remembered by the South African public.
Jomo and Ngina Kenyatta
Kenya’s first president and First Lady were married in in 1951, a little over a decade before Kenyatta would serve in office as the nation’s first president. Although Jomo Kenyatta had married twice before, Mama Ngina became more well known to the public due to her glamorous appearance, often accompanying the president in public. The couple had children four children one of which is Uhuru Kenyatta, current president of Kenya.
The two remained married until Jomo Kenyatta’s death in 1978 but Mama Ngina would retained her status as ‘Mother of the Nation’, and First Lady of Kenya until 2002 as incoming president Daniel Arap Moi had separated from his wife in 1974.
Mama Ngina currently resides in Nairobi.
Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings and Jerry Rawlings
The Rawlings met whilst both attending Achimota School in Ghana a co-ed boarding high school located in Accra, later marrying after in 1977.
In May 1979, Jerry J. Rawlings led a successful military coup that resulted in him becoming 8th Ghana’s president. He and his armed forces stayed in power for a little over 100 days, until September of that same year when he handed power to a freely elected civilian president, Hilla Limann. He would again serve as head of state in 1981, after Rawlings overthrew Limann’s government. Rawlings is often credited with reviving Ghana’s economy in the late 80s and 90s. In the country’s first elections since 1979, he was elected as Ghana’s president in 1992 and be again reelected in 1996. He stepped down from the presidency in 2001.
The couple remain married to this day and currently reside in Ghana and have four children.
Robert and Sally Mugabe
Born Sarah Francesca Hayfron in Ghana, then the Gold Coast, Sally Mugabe became current Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s first wife in 1961. The two met at a school in Ghana where they both were teaching at the time. It was during this time that Robert Mugabe became inspired by the Pan-African ideologies of Kwame Nkrumah that would lead Mugabe into a career of politics.
The pair soon moved to Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, and Robert was arrested in 1964 for his involvement with Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). in 1967, Sally went into exile in England where she spent eight years campaigning for the release of her husband and other political prisoners in Rhodesia. Their only child, Nhamodzenyika, a son, was born in 1963 but unfortunately died after a severe bout of malaria he contracted in Ghana in 1966.
Robert Mugabe was eventually released from prison in 1975 and in 1987 became Zimbabwe’s first president. Unfortunately, Sally Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s First Lady, died of kidney failure in 1992. Some consider this to be the time at which Mugabe’s policies in Zimbabwe began to take a drastic turn.
Samora and Graca Machel
Although Samora Machel, Mozambique’s first president, had had relations with three women before meeting and marrying Graca, he is most remembered for the latter relationship. Samora had been married once before, to a highly political Mozambican woman named Josina Abiatar Muthemba whom he met in Tanzania in the early 1960s. The two were married there in 1969 and Muthemba gave birth to the Samora’s only son that same year. Sadly, she passed away in 1971 at the age of 25 leaving Samora incredibly devastated.
Before Muthemba, Samora had had two previous relationships that yielded five children.
Graca and Samora met in the 1970s and were married three months after their country’s independence in 1975. The two were both members of FRELIMO before their marriage. The pair had two children, a daughter and a son, and remained married until Samora’s controversial plane crash death in 1986.
Julius and Maria Nyerere
Married in 1953 until Julius’ death in 1999, the Nyerere’s were Tanganyika’s, and later Tanzania’s, First couple from 1961 to 1985. Julius Nyerere served as the country’s first prime minister and president from 1961 until his retirement in 1985 and was by far the most political of the two. Unfortunately, much of his policies plummeted the country in a serious state of decline.
The couple had seven children during their marriage and Maria was known as the ever-loving and doting wife who preferred to take a quiet behind-the-scenes role.
Meles Zenawi and Azeb Mesfin
Meles Zenawi Asres was Ethiopia’s prime minister from 1995 until his death in 2012, at the age of 57, after previously having served as president of the country’s transitional government from 1991 to 1995. It was during the latter phase that Eritrea seceded from the country.
Both were highly political in their own right with Azeb known for her fight against HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, and for promoting issues concerning mental health and women’s rights.
Meles Zenawi was a very gifted student who dropped out of university, where he was studying medicine, and became involved in by joining the Tigrayan National Organization (TNO) the forerunner Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF was instrumental in the struggle against Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam and the Derg, the communist military government of Ethiopia.
Under his government, it is said that discrimination against and repression of Oromo people was widespread. Zenwai’s presidency was also marred by the Anuak conflict which began in 2003.
He and Azed Mesfin Haile were married until his death and the couple had three children.
Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menan Asfaw
Ethipoia’s most well-known couple, and quite possibly one of the most popular couples in both African and world history, Emporer Haile Selassie I and Empress Menan Asfaw from Selassie’s coronation in 1930 until his deposition by the Derg in 1972.
Although highly revered by the Ras Tafari movement, for which he is named after, as God incarnate and the returned messiah, his relationship and rule of Ethiopia was far more complex. During the invasion of his country by Italy, he was forced into exile in 1936. Selassie appealed to the League of Nations for assistance in defending his country during this time, after which the British came to his aid. Despite this success and his aims to modernize Ethiopia in coming years, towards the end of his rule famine and frustration with his archaic dominance over the country led to him being ousted from power in a coup and kept under house arrest in his palace until his death in 1975.
Empress Menen was remembered far more favourably in the public eye often taking on social welfare issues and causes, most notably women’s issues. She was also a devoutly christian woman who took no public stance on political affairs.
The two had 6 children and Empress Menen passed away little over a decade before her husband who died in 1975, and she in 1962.
Kwame and Fathia Nkrumah
The First President and First Lady of Ghana were wed in what some press outlets described as a ‘surprise ceremony’ in 1958. The pair were married on the evening of her arrival in Ghana on New Year’s Eve that year. A relation of President Nasser of Egypt, Fathia received her marriage proposal from Kwame Nkrumah whilst working at a bank in Cairo. Fathia, inspired by Kwame’s Pan-Africanist ideals, accepted the proposal despite not knowing Nkrumah personally. At the time of their wedding, communication proved difficult as she spoke only Arabic and he, none at all.
The couple had three children together and following Kwame’s exile in 1966, Fathia was forced to single-handedly raise her children in her home country of Egypt ending her time as First Lady of Ghana.
Theirs was a marriage that was more romantic that political and was said to have been a Pan-Africanist strategy carried out in the hopes of linking North Africa with the rest of Africa.
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