Two years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “9 of the Worst Quotes about Africa”, in which I compiled nine bigoted, colonial, and generally racist things that have been said by people in power about the continent of Africa. I received a lot of xenophobic comments on that one, including this gem, which started off by quoting a line from the post about James D. Watson:
Ironically, I received this comment while preparing to travel to Ghana to work with people who are worth my time, so I didn’t respond. While I was there, I realized that this ethnocentric comment was a great impetus for raising awareness about African geniuses. Listening’s ignorance on the subject is not entirely his or her fault, after all; in the West, our educations tend to overlook people of color, a trend that I’m all too happy to buck. So let me sate your doubtless feigned curiosity, Listening. Instead of naming one, I’ll go ahead and name nine Africans who are smarter than you and I.
To start off, I’m not sure where this user got the idea that Hannibal wasn’t black – scholars have no real idea what the brilliant Carthaginian general’s ethnicity was. His alleged family name appears to be Phoenician, but the Phoenicians were in North Africa for 1,000 years before Hannibal, during which time they very well could have intermarried with Saharan or sub-Saharan tribes. I’ll go ahead and stick to Africans we know are black, since that’s a distinction racism is obsessed with.
Born and raised in Ethiopia, Kitaw Ejigu scored a scholarship to study automotive engineering in Japan before going over to the USA to earn his master’s degree in business and his doctorate in space vehicle systems engineering. After working for various aerospace companies like Garret Air Research and Boeing, Ejigu was hired by the Jet Propulsion Lab – a NASA research center – in 1977. During that time, he worked with astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and invented two aerospace mechanisms that were patented under NASA’s new technology programs. After developing mission spacecraft, earth-orbiting satellites, lunar and Mars rovers, GPS platforms, and missile defense systems, Ejigu turned his attention to the chaos in his native Ethiopia. He met with Ethiopian refugees in Kenya, paid for them to go to college, and formed a political party to stand up for them against the regime in place.
An African rocket scientist, philanthropist, and hero. Your move, white supremacists.
An Igbo from southeastern Nigeria, Bennet Omalu obtained his MD in his native country before immigrating to the United States, where he earned a master’s in public health and a master’s in business. While working as a forensic pathologist, Omalu – trusting a hunch – self-financed brain tissue analysis of a deceased NFL player, which led to him being the first person to identify, describe, and name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as a disease in American football players. This was so unpopular with the NFL that they demanded Omalu retract his paper. Omalu responded by performing more autopsies on football players that suffered brain damage and depression – some of whom had committed suicide – and he published another paper that collaborated his findings. He also testified before the United States Congress twice. It wasn’t until 2009, seven years after Omalu’s discovery, that the NFL acknowledged the link between football and CTE and stopped allowing players knocked unconscious by a concussion to return to a game or practice.
It took an African neuropathologist to stand up for the health of American football players.
Nashwa Eassa is a lady to keep your eye on. She’s a nanoparticle physicist from Sudan who earned her master’s in nanotechnology and material physics in Sweden and her doctorate in South Africa (while she was pregnant with her first child). She was just recently awarded the 2015 Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World for her research on lessening film that accumulates on high-speed semiconductors. She is also developing a way to use solar radiation to purify water and investigating the possibility of collecting hydrogen by splitting water molecules. In addition to that, she founded Sudanese Women in Science, an organization dedicated to helping her countrywomen become scientists.
How many people do you know who are breaking down social barriers, publishing papers on nanoparticle physics, and raising kids all at once?
Cheick Modibo Diarra
Born and raised in Mali, Cheick Modibo Diarra went to Paris for his undergraduate before traveling the world and landing in the USA at a friend’s invitation. He decided to stay, acquired his master’s and doctorate in aerospace engineering, and taught as a physics professor before being hired by Calltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As one of NASA’s first astrophysicists, he participated in projects like the Magellan probe to Venus, the Ulysses probe to the sun, the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter, and various Mars programs like Sojourner, Pathfinder, and Observer. Like many on this list, Diarra then turned his attention to his homeland, starting the Pathfinder Foundation to help facilitate education and development in Africa and the Solar Energy Research Laboratory in Bamako, Mali. He also served as UNESCO’s goodwill ambassador and was awarded the African Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 (the year after Nelson Mandela won it). This all led to Bill Gates approaching him and asking him to head Microsoft Africa, which he did until 2011, when he started a political party in Mali to help restore order there.
Huh, another African astrophysicist, activist, and philanthropist. Huh.
A native of Ghana, Francis Kofi Allotey is an internationally respected mathematical physicist who acquired his bachelor’s in London and his master’s and doctorate at Princeton in the US, after which he became the first Ghanaian full professor in mathematics. In addition to being a member of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy, the International Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physics in the USA, and the UNESCO Physics Action Council, Allotey also founded the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), Ghana. Through his work on soft X-ray spectroscopy, he developed a technique – later named the “Allotey Formulism” – which is still used to determine matter in outer space.
That’s right – there are even physical principles with African names.
A South African scientist and engineer, Tshilidzi Marwala obtained his Master of Engineering in Pretoria and his PhD of Engineering from Cambridge. He went on to work in the fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, economics, social science, and medicine. His fundamental contributions to engineering science include the concept of pseudo-modal energies and the theories of rational counterfactual thinking, rational opportunity cost, and flexibly bounded rationality. Marwala holds three international patents and has co-invented innovative methods in radiation imaging, an artificial larynx, and the first software agent that could bluff in a game of poker. In addition to his 9 published books and over 300 technical papers, Marwala is now the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research & Internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg.
Fun fact: in the time it takes for a troll to write a xenophobic comment below, Tshilidzhi Marwala can publish another paper on computational intelligence.
Cheikh Anta Diop
Born in pre-independence Senegal, Cheikh Anta Diop traveled to Paris just after World War II for his master’s and doctorate. While there, he studied history, Egyptology, physics, linguistics, anthropology, economics, and sociology – he also wrote three doctoral theses and translated Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into his native Wolof. His most controversial theory was that the ancient Egyptians were black, which he supported with evidence from his many fields, like linguistic phenomena, ancient literary references, and archaeological data. He went on to claim that, since ancient Egypt was so influential to ancient Greek and Roman civilization, Western civilization was partially based on African culture. This was during a time when African nations were fighting for independence, and ideas of Africans being foundational to world history and civilization were incredibly unpopular. Diop was called a racist for his Afrocentric, largely theoretical hypotheses. He kept working, though, doing research, writing books, contributing to political movements, and established a radiocarbon laboratory in Dakar. As it happened, more evidence surfaced showing that the ancient Egyptians had close cultural links to the Nubians, an undeniably black African culture.
Basically, Diop sees your Hannibal and raises you ancient Egypt. Fold or call, “master race”.
After doing his undergraduate in Ethiopia, Eritrean-born Haile Debas went off to study medicine in Scotland and surgery in Canada. After a year of private practice, he turned to academia and served on surgery faculties at prestigious universities in both Canada and the USA before landing at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where he became the chair of the Department of Surgery. As it happened, UCSF became one of the country’s leading centers for transplant surgery, the training of young surgeons, and basic and clinical research in surgery during his tenure. Debas also made groundbreaking, original contributions to physiology, biochemistry, and the pathophysiology of gastrointestinal peptide hormones that earned him national recognition. He kept climbing the ladder, becoming the dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, which became a national model for medical education under his leadership, and then the seventh Chancellor of UCSF, helping to establish a new campus and a comprehensive cancer center. He is currently a member of the National Academy of Sciences and serves on the United Nations Commission on HIV/AIDS and Governance in Africa.
They’re going to have to start creating higher academic positions just for this brilliant African surgeon.
Born in Kenya, Wangari Maathai obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biological science in the USA and her PhD in veterinary anatomy in Kenya, making her the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate. Although she became the Chair of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi, she is best known for her Green Belt Movement, which worked with women to plant trees to protect the environment and improve quality of life – she helped women plant more than 20 million trees on farms, school grounds, and church compounds. The movement spread to other surrounding countries, bringing with it environmental education and a fight against land grabbing. For her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation, Maathai has been recognized with at least 27 international awards – including the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She served on many boards, including the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament, and was elected to the Kenyan parliament with an overwhelming 98% of the vote. She was listed in UNEP’s Global 500 Hall of Fame, was named one of the 100 heroines of the world, and received honorary doctoral degrees from 4 international universities.
Seriously, who needs white superheroes when we have African women?
The list could, of course, go on. I could easily write entries on figures like Philip Emeagwali, Bisi Ezerioha, Thebe Medupe, Mo Ibrahim, Venansius Baryamureeba, Seyi Oyesola, Kofi Agyekum, Gebisa Ejeta, Henry Odera Oruka, Mohamed H. A. Hassan, or scores of other African geniuses, and maybe someday I will. For now, it should be enough to know that the 9 African people above were – or continue to be – phenomenal and influential in their fields, oftentimes defying oppressed or disenfranchised circumstances to become internationally recognized and inspirational. Those who stand on the rickety platform of bigotry and claim that Africans are somehow intellectually inferior need to close Breitbart News and pick up something with a bibliography.