Pride of a continent: Africa's gifts to the world

From music through literature to politics and science, men and women who have battled tough upbringings are now leaders in their fields. By Jonathan Brown and Jerome Taylor
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Music: Youssou N'Dour

When the credibility of last year's Live8 festival threatened to be undermined following accusations that the concerts for Africa were excluding those they were meant to help, Bob Geldof could point with some relief to the participation of Youssou N'Dour.

Although he may only have come to the attention of white audiences when he started recording with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Neneh Cherry in the 1980s, N'Dour was a star in his native Dakar from the age of 12. Fusing traditional Senegalese pop or mbalax, with his own distinctive style, the Grammy-winning singer has become a beacon for West African musical culture - which embraces musicians like fellow Senegalese Baaba Maal or Malian guitarist Afel Bocoum.

But N'Dour, who wrote the official music for the 1998 football World Cup, has deployed his fame to highlight issues from human rights to political prisoners. His Project Joko aims to link Senegalese communities across Africa and around the world through a network of internet cafes.

Literature: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is already earning the 29-year-old Nigerian comparisons with Africa's best writers. Despite having lived in the United States for the past decade, she continues to draw her inspiration from her home country. Her latest book, published last month, is set before the devastating Biafran war. Adichie made it to the final of the Orange Prize in 2004 with her first novel Purple Hibiscus.

The world has waited 20 years for the novel from Ngugi wa Thiong'o, 68. The former professor, political dissident, prisoner and exile did not disappoint critics. Wizard of the Crow was published to strong reviews in the US in August where it was translated from his once-banned language of Gikuyu into English by the author. Set in a fictional African country, Ngugi describes a land "of crooked roads, robberies, runaway viruses of death, hospitals without medicine, rampant unemployment without relief, daily insecurity, epidemic alcoholism."

Politics: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; Joaquim Chissano

Hopes are high in Liberia that Africa's first democratically elected black female president can deliver reform to a country long ravaged by civil war. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a 68-year-grandmother of six, has already earned the nickname "Iron Lady" and, according to Forbes, is the 51st most powerful woman in the world.

A role model for the former Citibank accountant is the one-time Frelimo guerrilla Joaquim Chissano, who led his country for nearly two decades. After fighting against the Portuguese in the 1970s he became one of Africa's most powerful voices for peace, reconciling factions in Mozambique and his party, winning multi-party elections in 1994 and 1999 before stepping down from office in 2005. This year he will collect the second annual Chatham House Prize to mark his achievements, not only in delivering political and military stability but for turning Mozambique into an economic success story with an impressive growth rate.

Religion: John Sentamu: Fr Matthew Kukah

Born in a village outside Kampala, the sixth of 13 children, John Sentamu has risen to become the second most powerful man in the Church of England, the mother church of a family of 38 churches. A former High Court judge who, at the age of 24, defied the Ugandan despot Idi Amin with his staunch independence, his enthronement at York Minster was accompanied by African singing and dancing. The archbishop played the drums. In August a vigil of prayer and fasting for peace in the Middle East generated international media coverage.

Meanwhile, Father Matthew Kukah, a Nigerian, has been acclaimed as an "extraordinary" moral leader in the fight for freedom and democracy in his own country. He is currently playing a leading role in attempts to reconcile the late Ken Saro-Wiwa's Mosop organisation with Shell Petroleum in the Niger Delta.

Fashion: Alek Wek; Waris Dirie

A member of the Dinka tribe from Sudan, Alek Wek has used her profile as one of the world's most famous models to advance her causes. Forced to flee her native land during the bloody civil war, she has become an advocate for refugees wordwide.

Waris Dirie, once voted the most beautiful woman in the world, has also used her profile as a model for good causes. Her experiences as a child growing up in Somalia drove her to become an advocate for women's rights. Having undergone female genital mutilation at the hands of a desert gypsy, she has campaigned against the practice, becoming an ambassador for the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, in the process.

Arts: Romuald Hazoumé: El Anatsui

The young sculptor has successfully exported his African vision to an international audience. Born in Porto-Novo, he continues to live and work in the Benin Republic. His experiments with plastic jerry cans, which began in the mid-1980s, were inspired by the way fuel is transported dangerously on the streets of Africa. He works in a diverse range of media, employing found objects, photography, video and sound installations - even using smells - to explore themes of corruption and resistance. Hazoumé has exhibited at the Hayward Gallery, London, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. His contribution of jerry can "masks" to an exhibition of African art at the Smithsonian last year was hailed by the Washington Post's art critic as "haunting... terrifying".

El Anatsui, from Ghana, hails from an older generation of artists. Now based in Nigeria he has been working and exhibiting since the 1970s but has been building a growing following in recent years, both in London where his work is now represented in the British Museum and in America, where he recently staged his first solo show in New York.

Environmental: Wangari Maathai; Boureima Wankoye

The Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She campaigns on a wide range of issues from deforestation to women's rights. Having challenged Africa's overwhelmingly male leaders to put an end to the wars that blight the continent, this month she accused the Kenyan government of failing to halt settlement in its threatened forests. Since her Green Belt Movement was formed in 1977, it has trained 30,000 women and planted 30 million trees.

Boureima Wankoye joined the UN Environment Programme's Global 500 Roll of Honour in 2003 for his work encouraging the sustainable development of the Niger's deteriorating wetlands through the mass planting of gum arabic for export. He is also president of the African Industrial Association in Brussels.

Business: Dr Titilola Banjoko; Strive Masiyiwa

Around 250,000 physicians and scientists of African descent work in the US alone. The loss of skills and know-how is seen as an impediment to development. One women who is doing something about it is Dr Titilola Banjoko, managing director of AfricaRecruit, which aims to solve Africa's skills crisis with the use of African labour.

Meanwhile, one of the men fuelling Africa's mobile phone boom is Strive Masiyiwa, not that the authorities in his native Zimbabwe made it easy for him, battling all the way to the Supreme Court before they would grant him the first mobile licence. There are now some 35 million mobile phone connections in Africa and it is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the continental economy. Mr Masiyiwa's company, Econet, is one of the five biggest, operating in eight countries and boasting annual revenues of £159m.

Sport: Dikembe Mutombo; Samuel Eto'o

Voted the NBA's best defensive player for three years out of four, the 7ft 2in Congolese basketballer became one of the most famous and highly paid players in America. However, he has not forgotten the conditions of people at home in Kinshasa. His charitable foundation, Mutombo, has donated $18.5m (£9.8m) to build two medical centres in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Cameroon footballer Samuel Eto'o is one of the most feared strikers in the game. Three times African Footballer of the Year, since moving to FC Barcelona from Real Madrid he has been a top scorer for both club and country, helping his team to become European Champions.

Science & Medicine: Florence Mirembe; Peter Mugenyi

One of Uganda's leading doctors, she has spent her life trying to improve conditions for mothers giving birth. The facts are stark: about 585,000 mothers die a year in the developing world in childbirth - more than one a minute. Her work was recognised by the World Medical Association which named her as one of its Top 60 Caring Physicians. Dr Mirembe also set up Save the Mothers, a charity that fosters partnerships between scientists in the developed and developing world.

Peter Mugyenyi is one of Africa's most prominent scientists working to combat HIV/Aids. He is director of the Joint Clinical Research Centre in Uganda and was a guest of Laura Bush's during the President's State of the Union address in 2003.

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