Gracing Woman Crush Wednesday today is the first elected female head of state in Africa, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson.
Background and Education
Ellen Johnson was born on October 29, 1938 in Monrovia to Gola father and Kru-German mother. She was educated at the College of West Africa before moving to Madison Business College and later, Havard University in the United States.
Work and Appointments
She returned to Liberia after graduating to work in William Tolberts’ government as Deputy Minister of Finance from 1971 to 1974 and later went to work in the Caribbean and Latin America.
She returned again to Liberia to work as Deputy Minister of Finance in 1979 for the late President Tolbert before he was executed in a coup d’etat by Samuel Doe in 1980. Sirleaf went back the United States, where she worked for Citi Bank and the Equator Bank.
Ellen returned after five years and went into politics. She ran for the 1997 presidential election, finishing as a runner up to eventual winner Charles Taylor.
She later became the first African female president when she won the 2005 presidential election, becoming the 24th President of Liberia. She was re-elected in 2011.
In 2016, she was elected Chairperson of the Economical Community of West African States, making her the first woman to hold the position since it was created.
Achievements and Awards
In 2006, Ellen Johnson became the recipient of ‘Common Ground Award’ and the ‘Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger’. In the same year, she received the ‘David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award’.
In 2007, Ellen Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the United States.
In 2010, Ellen Johnson was presented with the ‘Friend of the Media in Africa Award’ by The African Editor’s Union.
In 2011, Ellen Johnson was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The three women were recognized for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.
In 2012, she received the ‘Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development’. The same year, she was awarded France’s highest award and public distinction, the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur.
Ellen Johnson was conferred the Indira Gandhi Prize by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on 12th September 2013.
In 2016, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was listed as the 83rd-most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.
She has received honorary doctorates from various prestigious universities including ‘Indiana University’, ‘Brown University’, ‘Harvard University’, and ‘Yale University’.
Ellen Sirleaf Johnson revived national hope by strengthening the institutions of national security, leading the revitalization of the national economy, and restoring Liberia’s international reputation and credibility.
Dressed in sheepskins and spooky masks, young Moroccans dance through the neglected city streets of Sale north of the kingdom’s capital to mark the annual Boujloud festival.
Often referred to as Morocco’s Halloween, Boujloud is deeply rooted in local traditions and customarily celebrated after the Eid al-Adha holiday.
But in Sale’s Siddi Moussa district, organisers this year were seeking to transform the traditional festivities by using street art and performances to give a voice to those who are usually not heard.
“The festival aims to send our voice to the elected officials and make them aware of our needs,” says Mohamed Ouahib, head of the Space of Solidarity and Development, which organised Sale’s festival – now in its twelfth year.
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Created by Sidi Moussa residents, the association hopes hype around the event will bring much needed “media coverage to the district”.
Children line the streets and watch from windows as figures clad in sheep and goatskins parade by wearing ghoulish masks and dancing to rhythmic Gnawa music.
Further down the road, the masquerade expands. Young men march by carrying a model dragon reminiscent of the ones used to celebrate Chinese New Year.
Another group shuffles past carrying a wooden statue of a man dressed in traditional Moroccan garb.
Across the neighbourhood, young people fill the streets joyfully celebrating their cultural heritage through creative expression.
Marked in different manners across the country, some Boujloud festivals attract Moroccans from across the country who come to proudly show off their local traditions.
“We are here to participate with our Boujloud,” says Mbarek Seksiwi, who came with friends from the southern city of Agadir.
“Each region in Morocco has its own way of wearing the costume. In our region, we use a dozen skins” to make our outfit, he adds.
All 3 000 seats in the cavernous Palace of Culture in Bamako had been snapped up, and the mood was at fever pitch as the TV dance competition reached its climax.
The three finalists took to the floor one by one, dancing alongside a celebrity – a format familiar to viewers of talent shows around the world.
But here’s the difference: the three hopefuls each had to perform a traditional dance from a region of Mali that was not their own.
To outsiders, the format may seem odd – rather as if, in France, one asked a Corsican to don Breton folk clothing and do a jig.
But in the landlocked Sahel state of Mali, the show has been a raging success.
And it has bred a desperately-needed sense of unity in a country burdened by jihadist violence and ethnic tensions.
The competition is the brainchild of dancer and choreographer Sekou Keita.
Just six years ago, he was wondering how he could reverse the decline of traditional dance in Mali, a country whose music is now achieving global fame.
“Our dances are so varied, we have a number of ethnic groups – we’re very lucky to have such cultural wealth,” he told AFP.
But the sad thing is that all of Mali’s dancers have one thing in common, he said.
“If you ask them to do the coupe-decale, a modern dance from Ivory Coast – which I have nothing against, by the way – they all know how to do it.
“If they go to (Senegal’s capital) Dakar, they all know how to dance the sabar,” he said.
“But they don’t know the traditional dances of their own country.”
Exploring ancient roots
From this came his idea for a programme that explored ancient cultural roots and built bridges across ethnic divides – “Faso Don” or “Dances of the Country” in the Bambara language.
Over six weeks, TV audiences shared the fate of eight young men and women from different regions, who shared a house “Big Brother-style” in Bamako, the capital.
Each week they performed before an audience and the TV cameras, their numbers progressively falling as a competitor was eliminated by a vote by the public and the jury – a device familiar to lovers of Britain’s “Strictly Come Dancing” or its US spin-off, “Dancing with the Stars.”
The final took place last weekend before an audience exhilarated by the ground-breaking, cross-cultural performances.
Dressed in traditional costumes, the finalists performed one dance from their region and one from another region, accompanied by Malian stars such as musician Bassekou Kouyate and singers Habib Koite and Oumou Sangare.
Among the finalists was Mohamed Kassogue, a member of the Dogon group who hails from the central region of Mopti.
His dream of dancing initially sparked a sceptical response from his family but in the end, Billy Elliot-style, their resistance crumbled and they became a source of “huge support and pride in me,” he said.
‘Dancing is useful’
“They always call me to congratulate me,” Kassogue said.
“They now see that dancing is useful, it’s not something bad.”
Kassogue, who donned dramatic masks for one of his dances, ended up coming second.
The winner was Rokia Diallo, a woman from the Fulani pastoral community in Sikasso, southern Mali.
Dressed in a flowing gown and a veil, she interpreted the takamba, a sinuous, sensuous dance from the Songhai group in the far north of the country.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen something like this,” said hip-hop dancer Oumar Tamboura, who had come to support a relative who was also one of the finalists.
“Until now, people weren’t interested in folk dance, tradition and costumes.”
“Faso Don” has not just revived interest in generations-old regional dances in Mali.
It has also reinforced mutual respect in a country whose reputation for hospitality is tragically being supplanted by one for violence.
20 ethnic groups
The eighth largest country in Africa and one of the poorest in the world, Mali is a sprawling state whose external borders were defined by the French colonial era, often cutting communities in two.
It has around 20 ethnic groups, ranging from Arabs to the Bambara and the Songhai, each drawing on their own language and customs.
Six years ago, problems flared when Tuareg separatists in northern Mali staged an uprising which jihadists then exploited to take over key cities.
The extremists were routed in a French-led military operation in 2013 but large stretches of the country remain out of control.
Chronic instability has inflamed competition for resources, especially between Fulani pastoralists and Dogon farmers in the centre of the country.
Across the country, around 600 civilians have died in “inter-communal violence” since the start of the year, according to UN figures.
A small stone flake marked with intersecting lines of red ochre pigment some 73,000 years ago that was found in a cave on South Africa’s southern coast represents what archaeologists on Wednesday called the oldest-known example of human drawing.
The abstract design, vaguely resembling a hashtag, was drawn by hunter-gatherers who periodically dwelled in Blombos Cave overlooking the Indian Ocean, roughly 190 miles (300 km) east of Cape Town, the researchers said. It predates the previous oldest-known drawings by at least 30,000 years.
While the design appears rudimentary, the fact that it was sketched so long ago is significant, suggesting the existence of modern cognitive abilities in our species, Homo sapiens, during a time known as the Middle Stone Age, the researchers said.
The cross-hatched design drawn with ochre, a pigment used by our species dating back at least 285,000 years ago, consists of a set of six straight lines crossed by three slightly curved lines. The coarse-grained stone flake measures about 1-1/2 inches (38.6 mm) long and 1/2-inch (12.8 mm) wide.
“The abrupt termination of all lines on the fragment edges indicates that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface. The pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form,” said archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, who led the research published in the journal Nature.
“We would be hesitant to call it art. It is definitely an abstract design and it almost certainly had some meaning to the maker and probably formed a part of the common symbolic system understood by other people in this group,” Henshilwood added.
Other Blombos Cave artifacts of similar age included ochre pieces engraved with abstract patterns resembling the one drawn on the stone as well as ochre-covered shell beads. Blombos Cave artifacts dating from 100,000 years ago included a red ochre-based paint.
“All these findings demonstrate that early Homo sapiens in the southern Cape used different techniques to produce similar signs on different media,” Henshilwood said. “This observation supports the hypothesis that these signs were symbolic in nature and represented an inherent aspect of the advanced cognitive abilities these early African Homo sapiens, the ancestors of all of us today.”
Homo sapiens first appeared more than 315,000 years ago in Africa, later trekking to other parts of the world.