This comment from Akhona Qengqe, general Manager of KFC Africa, launches an inaugural list of female firsts across Africa as International Women's Day 2024 is celebrated this week.


Esperança da Costa was the first woman Vice President in Angola. She was born on May 3, 1961, in a poor part of the capital, Luanda, the fourth of six children born to her machine technician father and seamstress mother. Recognising that education was the road to a better life, Da Costa studied hard at school and university, becoming a specialised plant biologist and university lecturer at a time when few women were involved in this field in Africa. As an activist in the struggle for independence, Da Costa held a number of government posts before being chosen as second on the ruling MPLA’s party list for elections. This led to her being sworn in as Vice President in September 2022.
Neusa Monteiro is the first woman commercial helicopter pilot in Angola. She flies in the dangerous and testing environments of offshore work, ferrying people and equipment out to ships or to drilling rigs. It is one of the riskiest jobs in commercial aviation. She began her training as a commercial helicopter pilot in February 2012 in Portugal, winning the accolade as Top Student in August the following year. She is the Vice President of Angolan Women in Aviation Association in Angola (AWA), and uses social networks to encourage young people, and especially women, to consider aviation as a career.


Dr Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti is the first woman to head the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Africa. She is credited with running the initiative which saw wild poliovirus eradicated in Africa, the second disease to be eradicated from the region after smallpox 40 years ago. Born in South Africa in 1954, but now a naturalised citizen of Botswana, Moeti has been a doctor for more than 40 years and also successfully led WHO’s “3 by 5” Initiative in the African Region, which aimed to expand access to antiretroviral therapy for HIV/Aids patients. She says she was inspired by her grandmother, a strong single mother of seven and by her own mother. She wants to inspire young women herself.
Unity Dow was the first woman to be appointed as a judge to Botswana’s High Court. She was born in 1959 in a traditional rural village. Her mother and father, a farmer and a seamstress, pushed their children to be educated – so after obtaining her law degree in Botswana, she finished her studies in Swaziland and at the University of Edinburgh. As a lawyer in Botswana – she opened the first all-women law firm there in 1997 – Dow won a landmark High Court decision which helped reduce discrimination against women and later, as a judge, ruled in favour of indigenous people on land rights. She has also received a number of awards, including the French Legion of Honour, for her humanitarian work.
Mosadi Seboko is the first female Kgosikgolo (supreme leader) in the history of Botswana, as Kgosikgolo of the Balete people. Seboko, who was born in 1950, had to battle against entrenched male attitudes to become the leader. Against stiff opposition, she claimed the position on “birthright equity”, because she was the firstborn in the family of the then leader, Mokgosi III. As Kgosikgolo, Seboko has made known her sympathies for the plight of women and children and says women should fight for their rights – something which is still considered near-revolutionary in some parts of traditional Batswana society.


Paule Ella Guei, the first woman rugby referee in Côte d'Ivoire, had to overcome many obstacles on her way to recognition as an ambassador for Rugby Afrique and selection as one of the 12 “Unstoppables” from the continent. Guei sees women’s involvement in rugby as a way of breaking down gender stereotypes and a national tour around the theme “Break Barriers” helped identify and rectify issues in communities where women and girls are struggling and “provide inspiration, motivation and self-esteem” for them.
Florence Loan-Messan is the first woman to be elected as the President (Bâtonnière) of the Order of Lawyers of Ivory Coast, the country’s bar association. She has been registered with the Ivory Coast Bar since 1996 and was First Conference Secretary in 1998-1999, as well as Secretary of the Ivory Coast Bar Association from 2015 to 2018. She has a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in private law from the University of Abidjan as well as a Master’s in corporate law from the University of Toulouse Capitole in France. She has worked as an advocate in France, London and the Ivory Coast in private practice.


Qinisile Mabuza was the first female attorney in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) when she was admitted in 1978 and went on to become the country’s first female judge. It was after the death of her mother that Mabuza decided she needed something to distract her from her grief, which she did by enrolling for, and completing, a Master’s degree. One of her most important achievements was when, as a judge, she ruled that women married in community of property had the right to register property in their names and have equal partnership with their husbands in its administration. She also ordered parliament to amend existing laws around property, which prejudiced women.
Zandile Sibandze was the first woman from Eswatini to study aerospace engineering. She grew up in a poor rural community, where her father was a migrant worker miner and her mother a subsistence farmer. After the death of her father, it was her mother who inspired her to chase her dreams, and those dreams were all about planes. She and her sisters often had to help their mother by working on the farm to bring in money for the education required. She later worked as a domestic worker to raise money to continue her schooling and was recognised by being selected by a Japanese charity for a university scholarship.


Rose Christian Ossouka Raponda was the first woman to serve as Prime Minister of Gabon and the first to be appointed Vice President. Raponda was born in June 1963 in Franceville. She received a degree in economics and public finance from the Gabonese Institute of Economy and Finance and began her career as the Director-General of Economy and Deputy Director-General of the Housing Bank of Gabon. In February 2012, she was appointed the Minister for Budget, Public Accounts and the Public Service where she served until January 2014. In 2014, Raponda was elected Mayor of the capital city Libreville, representing the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party. Raponda was appointed as the Defence Minister in February 2019. She also became President of United Cities and Local Governments Africa.
Rita Verdavainne Aboghe established the first magazine in the country aimed exclusively at women. The magazine, On Dit Quoi?, aims to give a voice to women and to empower and mobilise them to fight against discrimination. Its arrival coincided with a growing awareness in Gabon of the rights of women and how they are often treated as second-class citizens in society. However, Aboghe has also backed causes such as the fight against cancer and violence against women and children, as well as helping local and international organisations with campaigns against discrimination against people living with HIV.


Patricia Mawuli Nyekodzi became the first woman in Ghana to become a certified civilian pilot in 2009. She is also the first black African to be certified to build Rotax aircraft engines. She grew up in a mud shack in a small rural village and was fascinated by the planes she saw flying overhead. So determined was she to become involved in what would become a passion of hers, she pulled up stumps around the local airfield, outpacing some of the men there. Her work paid off and she earned her microlight licence on her 21st birthday, going on to train and qualify as a Rotax engine builder. Giving something back, she often takes women and girls on short flights to fire their interest in aviation and let them know they, too, can dream.
Carlien Bou-Chedid was Ghana’s first female structural engineer, the first woman President of the Ghana Institute of Engineers (GhIE) and President of the Federation of African Engineering Organisations (FAEO). She has a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering and a Master's degree in Earthquake Engineering and Structural Dynamics from the Imperial College of Science and Technology and Medicine. She sees herself as an advocate for women’s involvement in fields such as engineering and mathematics, which have been one of the strongholds of men. With a father who was an engineer and a mother a teacher, Bou-Chedid believes they encouraged her to explore her natural creativity and curiosity.
Dr Mabel Banson is the first woman neurosurgeon in Ghana and one of only 15 in the country. Born in Cape Coast to a father who was a builder and a mother who was involved as a worker in the retail sector, Banson was encouraged from an early age to read, and from that developed an interest in science and biology which eventually led to a career in medicine. After obtaining her initial medical degree at the University of Ghana, and specialising in neurosurgery, Banson was later made a fellow in Minimally Invasive Brain and Spine Neurosurgery and Pain at the Advance Neurosurgery Centre in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, India.


Irene Koki Mutungi is not only the first woman pilot to fly for Kenya Airways, but also the first African woman to qualify as a Captain on a commercial aircraft. After flying as Captain on several smaller Boeing passenger jets, Mutungi became the first African female in the world to qualify to Captain the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, achieving that milestone in 2014. In October 2022, she was inducted into the Aviators Africa Hall of Fame after working in the aviation industry for over 25 years. She makes it a point to encourage and mentor young women pilots and girls who see aviation as a career. She headed an all-woman crew which delivered Kenya Airways’ 4th Dreamliner from the United States to Nairobi.
Martha Koome was the first woman Chief Justice in Kenya. She was born in a rural peasant village in Kenya. She was one of 18 children from two mothers in the extended family. She remembers it was a struggle, but she achieved law degrees and post-graduate qualifications and, working at various law firms, made a name as a staunch defender of democratic values and of the rights of women and children. In 1995 she was appointed by the African Union Meeting of Heads of State as a Commissioner to the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of Children and served as Chairperson of the National Council on the Administration of Justice’s special taskforce on children. She was appointed as the country’s Chief Justice in May 2021.
Julia Auma Ojiambo was the first Kenyan woman to be enrolled at Harvard University in the United States and the first African woman to be appointed a Government Minister after independence. Born to missionaries in a rural area of Kenya in 1936, she trained as a teacher before gaining multiple university qualifications in science and community health. After lecturing at universities and being elected a Member of Parliament, Ojiambo filled a number of ministerial posts. Her speciality, and her passion, was nutrition and, in addition to publishing multiple books and papers on the subject, she is credited with developing a protein-rich biscuit used in the treatment of kwashiorkor, a disease marked by severe protein malnutrition and bilateral extremity swelling.


Malejaka Evelyn Letooane was the first woman appointed High Commissioner of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service. She joined the police in 1977, just seven years after women were admitted for the first time for training as police officers. After passing as Best Candidate in her training course, she worked her way through the ranks to being appointed the first woman High Commissioner in 2005. In that position, she markedly improved the status of women in the service and especially their pathways to promotion. After serving as Lesotho’s High Commissioner to South Africa when she left the Police Service, Letooane became the Chairperson of the International Women’s Peace Group in Lesotho. She has become involved in multiple initiatives to involve women in peace campaigns around the world.
Adelaide Retselisitsoe Matlanyane was the first woman to head the Central Bank of Lesotho. Born in a village outside Mafeteng town in Lesotho, one of eight children, she fought her way out of poverty through education, gaining a Master’s degree and a PhD. Her PhD was in Economics with specialisation in Macro Econometric and Economy Wide Modelling from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She lectured at the National University of Lesotho before joining the Central Bank of Lesotho, being appointed the institution’s first woman Governor in 2012, remaining in that position until 2021. She is known as an innovative economist with a passion for financial inclusion and digital technology, as well as an advocate for the rights of women and children.


Miharisoa Barinia Rakotonirina is the first woman to be appointed Head of the Air Force Training Centre at Air Force Command in Madagascar. She signed up into the Malagasy Air Force in 2011, as it opened its ranks for the first time to women. She was commissioned into the Air Force in 2014 as its first female officer, after attending the French Air Force Academy in Salon-de-Provence, where she specialised in aircraft maintenance. Dealing with racism and sexism in her training just made her more determined to succeed, she once said in an interview, and she believes that her example and those of other pioneering Malagasy women will turn the tide on gender equality in Madagascar.
Rindra Hasimbelo Rabarinirinarison was the first woman Finance Minister in Madagascar. A lawyer and political scientist by training, she graduated in public management at Georgia State University in Atlanta and in international public procurement at the International Law Institute in Washington DC. Before her appointment as Minister, her role was to monitor the general policy of the state in respect of its economic, fiscal, budgetary and financial management; to coordinate the partnership framework with technical and financial partners; and to conduct international negotiations. In 2023, African Leadership Magazine named her as one of the Top 25 African Finance Leaders. In the same year, she was given the African Minister of the Year award in the African Business Leadership Awards.


Tujilane Rose Chizumila was the first Malawian woman to open a law practice, the country ‘s first female Ombudsman and the first Malawian jurist appointed to the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights. After losing her house and property following the death of her husband, Chizumila’s book "A widow's perspective - a personal experience" led to the enactment of a law making “property grabbing” an offence in Malawi, a significant victory for the rights of women and children. After serving a six-year term on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights, Chizumila was re-elected to a second, and final, six-year appointment in February 2023, in what her legal colleagues considered to be a vote of confidence in her judicial knowledge and professionalism.
Joyce Banda, the first female President of Malawi, was born into humble circumstances in Malemia Village in Zomba. An educator and grassroots women's rights activist, she was the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2006 to 2009 and the Vice President of Malawi from May 2009 to April 2012. On the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012, Banda was installed as the country’s President, but only after tense political negotiations which averted a constitutional crisis. She took office as Africa’s second woman head of state, after Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia – a development hailed as a watershed in gender power balances on the continent. In office, she focused on issues affecting women and children. She has pursued those issues for decades, after founding the National Association of Business Women in Malawi in 1990.The association aims to lift women out of poverty by strengthening their capacity and empowering them economically.


Rehana Bibi Mungly-Gulbul is the first woman to hold the post of Chief Justice of Mauritius and her appointment in 2021 was hailed by feminists across Africa as a significant victory in the fight for gender equality. Born in 1954 to a modest family, Mungly-Gulbul was given the opportunity to aim for the stars after winning scholarships to a top school and then to study law at the University of Sussex in England. Returning to Mauritius, she worked in government as a prosecutor and then a magistrate before being appointed to the Supreme Court bench in 2008. Mungly-Gulbul is the first woman to hold the office of President of the Judiciary since Mauritius attained independence from the United Kingdom in 1968.


Beatriz da Consolação Mateus Buchili is the first woman to be appointed Attorney-General of Mozambique, a post she has held since 2014. She began her career in prosecuting and in state law in 1994, starting as a District Attorney with the Public Prosecution Service. After completing her undergraduate degree in law from the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique in 1999, she went on to finish a Master’s degree in law in 2007 at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. She has prosecuted a number of high-profile corruption cases in Mozambique.
Graça Machel was the first Education Minister of the independent country of Mozambique. Born in October 1945 to a poor rural family headed by her widowed mother, Machel (born Simbine) was educated at church schools and won a scholarship to study in Portugal, where she obtained her degree before returning home and joining the liberation struggle. At independence in 1975, she was appointed the country’s first Minister of Education and Culture. In that role, she was a fierce advocate for the rights of women and children, a passion which continues today. As deputy chair of The Elders, an organisation founded by her second husband, Nelson Mandela (her first was Mozambique’s first president Samora Machel, killed in a plane crash in 1986), she says: “I want to see education that produces young people who will not tolerate their peers living in abject poverty in the midst of plenty; young people who will be outraged by inequality and impatient to bring about change."
Maria Mutola, was the first woman, and the first person, in the history of Mozambique to win a Gold Medal at the Olympic Games. She serves as an inspiration to girls and women in her country. She has said: “Where you come from doesn’t matter at all. Whether you’re from a rich region or family or a poor one, you can still achieve your goals at school or in sport if you concentrate enough and dedicate yourself to them completely.” Dedication is what has marked her life – growing up in a poor shanty town outside the capital, Maputo (where she was born in 1972), she had to fight to get noticed. And she was, switching from football to middle-distance athletics when her running talent was noticed. In an athletic career spanning two decades, she was the only athlete ever to have won Olympic, World, World indoor, Commonwealth Games, Continental Games and Continental Championships titles in the same running event, the 800m. She is regarded as one of the greatest female 800m runners of all time. After retiring from the track, she took to playing women’s professional football and coaching other woman athletes.


Martha Imalwa is the first woman appointed as the Prosecutor General of Namibia, a post she has held since 2004. Imalwa went into exile to Angola in 1982, and studied and graduated with distinctions from the United Nations Institute for Namibia in 1985 in Zambia. She went on to study an LLB degree with honours in 1988 at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and returned to Namibia from exile in 1989. She served as co-ordinator for the Legal Assistance Centre after independence in March 1990 in Ongwediva, before becoming a State Prosecutor in 1992 at Oshakati and subsequently serving as Control Prosecutor for the northern towns.
Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila was the first woman appointed Finance Minister in Namibia and later the country’s first woman Prime Minister. Born in a rural area of northern Namibia in 1967, at a time when the country was being administered by the apartheid government in neighbouring South Africa, she went into exile at the age of 13 to join the liberation movement, which educated her. Returning to the country after independence in 1990, she worked as an economist in the President’s office, before being appointed Director General of the National Planning Commission and then Finance Minister, going on to assume the office of Prime Minister in 2015. Kuugongelwa-Amadhila is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, saying: “I firmly believe that women’s empowerment and economic development are closely related. On the one hand, development itself will bring about women’s empowerment. Empowering women will bring about changes in decision making, which will have a direct impact on development.”


Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and the first African Director-General of the World Trade Organization, a position she has held since March 2021. Born into the Obahai royal family, she received no special treatment in her university years, graduating cum laude in economics from Harvard University in the United States, later adding a number of other post-graduate qualifications, including a PhD in regional economics and development in 1981 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She worked for the World Bank in Washington D.C as an economist for 25 years and served multiple tours as Minister of Finance in Nigeria. In government office in Nigeria, she worked to empower women and young people through the Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria Programme, a gender-focused budgeting system. Since 2019, Okonjo-Iweala has been part of UNESCO's International Commission on the Futures of Education.
Asisat Oshoala Is the first African woman to be part of a UEFA Women’s Champions League-winning team and first African winner of the Spanish Women’s Primera Division Golden Boot. She has had to defy the odds and overcome disapproval from traditional Nigerian society, to play the game she loves. Born in October 1994 in Ikorudu to a strict Muslim family, Oshoala defied the wishes of her family to take up football, playing locally before joining English side Liverpool. After playing for a number of clubs in England and elsewhere, her talent was spotted by Spanish club Barcelona, where she had a long and successful career. She is widely regarded as the best African woman footballer and one of the best in the world. Her mission is to improve education for girls in her community and provide them with access to sport and, to this end, she set up the Asisat Oshoala Foundation in Lagos. She said: “I have always strived to give back to the girl child in my community and I believe this football academy will provide opportunities for more girls to excel through the combination of sport and education.”


Claire Karekezi is the first woman neurosurgeon in Rwanda and one of only eight in the country. Born in Butare in Rwanda in 1982, she had an interest in science from an early age and gained her medical degree in 2009. This was the start of a journey of further experience and training, which took her to Sweden and England and sparked her interest in neurosurgery, a medical speciality in Africa in which there are very few qualified women. After doing an internship in Morocco and further training in the United States and Canada, Karekezi returned to open the first neurosurgery unit at Rwanda Military Hospital in Kigali. An advocate for women’s advancement in the field, Karekezi is a vital voice in a sector where only 12% of neurosurgeons in Africa are women.
Esther Mbabazi is the first qualified woman commercial pilot in the history of the country. When she told her family she wanted to be a pilot, they were surprised, but supportive. Surprised because her father, a preacher, had died in a plane crash when she was just eight years old. Some people thought she was wanting to do it just to understand how her father had died, but she had always been fascinated by flight and by aircraft – and she didn’t want a job where she would sit behind a desk. After initial training in Uganda, she was sent to the United States for further training by Rwandair, the national airline, and thus became the first qualified woman commercial pilot in the history of the country. She fights against prejudice in a male-dominated industry – but also from passengers who are hesitant to fly with a woman (those people are told they are welcome to leave the aircraft). She says times have changed: “Women are out there working and everyone has the brains to do something, now it’s not about how much bicep or how much energy you have.”
Queen Kalimpinya is Rwanda’s first female rally driver. She has had to cope with a lot of scepticism from the men in a male-dominated sport, but after her story was shared on social media, it attracted the attention and approval of former World Formula One racing champion Sir Lewis Hamilton, who gave her encouragement as he shared it with his millions of fans. Born in Kigali to a family which allowed its children to dream their dreams, Kalimpinya’s first taste of success was as a finalist in the Miss Rwanda pageant. From there, the ardent fashion aficionado has become involved in a global fashion manufacturing business, running its Rwanda operation. Her interest in rallying started when she became a navigator, the challenging job of calling out the route ahead for a driver, allowing a rally stage to be driven at the fastest possible speed. When her driver retired from the sport, she was offered the seat behind the wheel of a turbocharged Subaru Impreza. She wants to show young Rwandese women that there are no areas in society they cannot conquer, no matter the obstacles.


Fatou Fall is the first woman General in the Senegal Army. She is regarded as a pioneer. Born in Dakar in 1965, she spent her childhood moving around the country as her father, a schools inspector, was transferred. She chose to enter the military as a way of qualifying to become a doctor, because it offered the best route to do so. She entered the École Militaire de Santé (EMS) in 1985 to study medicine at the Faculty of Medicine and Odontostomatology of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (UCAD). However, she also did basic combat and military skills training. After becoming a doctor, she qualified as a specialist after training further in Dakar and in Paris, as well obtaining a specialist certificate in hepato-gastroenterology from the Cocody Faculty of Medicine in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. She told an interviewer that, as a female General, she would raise awareness about the importance of expanding the recruitment of women in the armed services. She urged all girls to “cultivate the values of perseverance at work and to believe in themselves so they can develop their human potential and position themselves as women leaders.”
Khadjou Sambe was the first professional woman surfer in Senegal and the first to take part in the World Surf League. She has a dream: she wants to see more black girls competing alongside the world’s best in surfing. 27-year-old Sambe now works with international organisation Black Girls Surf, mentoring and training young girls from Senegal in the sport. Growing up in the fishing community of Ngor, outside Dakar, her family initially disapproved of her taking part in watersports. But she continued and was mentored by American surfers, spending some time in the United States. She wants to inspire girls to say, “I can do this, for their country, and Africa, and for Black women and girls anywhere."
Madior Boye was the first women Prime Minister of Senegal as well as the first female president of the FAL (Federation of African Lawyers). She was born in 1940 in Saint-Louis, Senegal, five years before women would have the right to vote in that country. Coming from a family of lawyers, the legal sector was the natural choice for her and she gained degrees in Senegal and France. She was appointed by Prime Minister of Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade in 2001, at the time – and still – one of a few women to succeed to such high political office. This was an especially notable feat in a country which had a long tradition of male dominance in both family and government affairs. She was admired by ordinary people as someone who was impartial and prepared to take difficult decisions if they were in the interests of the people.

south africa

Charlize Theron was the first woman from Africa to win an Oscar as Best Actress. She had a tragic upbringing. Growing up on a smallholding in Benoni, near Johannesburg, she saw her alcoholic father frequently physically assault her mother. In June 1991, he threatened Charlize and her mother, firing a gun at both of them. Her mother shot back and killed him, which a court ruled was self-defence. After training as a ballet dancer and working as a model, Theron moved to Los Angeles and through agent John Crosby, got small parts in movies, gradually becoming well-known. Not wanting to be type cast as a “pretty blonde”, Theron sought out challenging parts including that of serial killer Aileen Wournos, whom she played in the 2003 movie Monster. That won her the Best Actress Oscar in 2004 for a performance which film critic Roger Ebert called “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” Theron’s Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project was set up in 2007 and supports youth in Africa in the fight against HIV/Aids.
Mandisa Mfeka is South Africa’s first black woman combat jet pilot. She wanted to fly from an early age. She, her mother and grandmother would come often from the rural area in KwaZulu-Natal where she was born, to Durban, to watch the air shows at Virginia Airport. Unable to afford the entrance fees, the family would park outside the fence and watch the performing planes. At school, she was an excellent athlete, winning the “Sportswoman of the Year” trophy in 2007 before deciding on the South African Air Force as her route into a flying career. Winning her wings as a pilot in 2011, she went on to train to fly the Hawk fighter, using the callsign “Comet” – because, “Comets have a lot of energy. I always saw myself as someone with a lot of energy and one who can glow quite a bit.” She is also a motivational speaker, focusing on empowering women to break glass ceilings. She says: "It’s not enough for us to be the first, we have to be many."
Caster Semenya was the first black South African woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Her life is testimony to discipline and determination. Born in a small village in the province of Limpopo, the athletically talented Semenya initially started running to train for her passion – playing football. But her talent was spotted in high school and at university, and she trained as a middle-distance runner, gradually moving up in the rankings. After winning the World Championship 800-metre title in 2000, she was subjected to a barrage of tests and criticisms by those claiming she was genetically a man. Although pressurised by this, she nevertheless continued to focus on her career, despite instances where she was banned from competing, pending the results of tests and litigation. The clamour against her grew stronger in 2016, after she won the Gold medal in the 800 metres at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the first gold medal win by a black South African woman. To this day, she is fighting legal attempts by a section of the international athletics community to exclude her from competing in certain events. She is unfazed. “God made me the way I am, and I accept myself. I am who I am, and I'm proud of myself,’ she says.
Saray Khumalo was the first African woman to summit Mount Everest and the first African woman to reach the South Pole. Born in Zambia in 1972, Khumalo was one of seven girls in the family. After living in Zambia and neighbouring Zaire, she came to South Africa and became involved in the business world, marrying and having two children along the way. She became inspired to become the first African woman to summit Everest and, on her fourth attempt, in 2019 she achieved her goal, but not without harrowing near-death experiences on the mountain in previous attempts. That only steeled her resolve, she says. Now, as a life coach, she campaigns for the education of the African child and uses her fame to raise funds.


Nemat Abdullah Khair is the first woman in Sudan to occupy the chair of Chief Justice. Born in the Gezira state of Sudan in 1957, Khair obtained her B.A. in Law from Cairo University and began serving in the Sudanese judiciary in the early 1980s. She founded the Sudanese Judges Club as an organisation independent from government and built a reputation as being politically impartial. She was confirmed as Head of the Judiciary in October 2019 and served until 2021. At the time, this was seen as a milestone not only for conservative Sudan but for Africa as a whole, where very few women occupy the highest judicial office.
Nahid Toubia was the first female surgeon in Sudan. She was born in Khartoum, Sudan in 1951 and after schooling in Sudan attended the University of Kharthoum for pre-medical studies for one year. She then pursued a career as a physician, attending medical school in Egypt. In 1981 she completed her surgical training in the United Kingdom, gaining an MPhil and a PhD in Public Health & Policy from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1981, and the first female surgeon in Sudan. Toubia is a women's health rights activist, specialising in research into female genital mutilation.


Julie Manning was the first female lawyer in Tanzania and the first woman appointed as judge. Born in the town of Morogoro in 1939, the second of eight children, she was the first Tanzanian woman to enrol at the University College Dar es Salaam for university degree studies. In 1963, she was the first woman from Tanzania to graduate with a law degree. She was the first Tanzanian woman to be appointed a High Court judge (1973) and a Minister of Justice, from 1975 to 1983, one of the first two women appointed to high political office. She later served as a counsel and a Minister Plenipotentiary at the Tanzania High Commission in Ottawa, Canada, where she dealt with educational matters, international relations and development projects. She served on a number of boards, including the Electoral Commission. A hall at the University of Tanzania has been named in her honour.
Samia Suluhu Hassan was the first woman President of Tanzania. Born in Zanzibar in January 1960 to a teacher and his wife, she was educated in the country and earned various post-graduate qualifications from universities in England and the United States. After working as a government development officer in Tanzania and then with the World Food Programme, she went into politics and was appointed Zanzibar's Minister for Youth Employment, Women and Children. She became the country’s first woman Vice President in 2015 after her CCM party won the election. After the incumbent President, John Magufuli, died in 2021, she took over the Presidency, the first woman in the history of the country to occupy that position. In office, she has been lauded for her commitment to democracy, reversing some authoritarian policies and improving Tanzania's global image. She ordered the release of political prisoners, met opposition leaders, and allowed newspapers which had been shut down by the government to reopen.


Phiona Mutesi, is Uganda’s first Chess Woman Candidate Master. Her story of triumph against adversity was so inspiring that it was made into a successful movie, The Queen of Katwe. Born in Katwe, the biggest slum in the capital, Kampala, in 1996, she had to drop out of school at the age of nine, because her family could no longer afford to send her following the death of her father when she was younger. Mutesi learned chess before learning to read by visiting Agape Church, where Robert Katende ran a chess programme. It wasn’t long before she could beat Katende and from 2007 to 2009, she won Uganda's women's junior championship. She was selected for the Uganda team for the Chess Olympiad and impressed her opponents with the ability she showed at such a young age. She played in Olympiads in 2012, 2014, and 2016. By scoring 50 percent in 2012, she earned the title of Woman Candidate Master. Now focused on being a motivational speaker, she talks about overcoming adversity, pursuing opportunity, realising your dream, inspiration and resilience.
Dr Maggie Kigozi is the first woman CEO of the Uganda Investment Authority (UIA). Born in July 1950, Kigozi is a Medical Doctor by training, business consultant and ardent sports woman who has established herself as a formidable figure in business leadership and entrepreneurship in Africa. As head of the UIA, she created about 4 000 direct jobs and 3.2 million indirect jobs, as well as helping Uganda receive US $4bn foreign investment.
Peruth Chemutai is the first Ugandan woman to win a Gold Medal at the Olympic Games after finishing first in the women's 3 000 metres steeplechase at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. She was born in the Bukwo District, and took up running in 2013 after attending the District Athletics Championships in Bukwo as a casual fan. She gradually improved her performances around the world in both flat races and steeplechase events, setting a number of national records in the process. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she beat pre-race favourites, such as Beatrice Chepkoech and Hyvin Kiyeng Jepkemoi, to finish with a time of 9:01.45, a national record, and win gold.


Inonge Mutukwa Wina was the first woman to hold the position of Vice President and therefore the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Zambian government. Born in 1941 in a small village in the Barotse area of Western Zambia, Wina’s father was a teacher who married a princess in the Barotseland Royal family. She was married at 18, to Arthur Wina, a nationalist freedom fighter and university graduate. Wina’s father agreed to the marriage on condition that Arthur promise to continue her educational advancement. She accompanied her husband when he went to college in the USA and obtained her own degree in social work from Santa Monica College. After returning home, she obtained a degree from the University of Zambia and later, as President of the Young Women's Christian Association, she was instrumental in promoting women's human rights agenda, resulting in the Zambian government's establishment of the Victim Support Unit under the Zambia Police Service. In January 2015, Zambia’s new president, Edgar Chagwa Lungu, appointed her to the position of Vice President. “This was one of the greatest things to happen to Zambian youth,” said Wina. “It was a privilege for me, but it also had the benefit of renewing the ambitions of young women in my country.”
Dr. Gertrude Mwangala Akapelwa is the first woman Zambian computer engineer. Born in the town of Sesheke on the Zambezia River in Western Zambia in 1948, she obtained a Bachelor's degree in mathematics and education from the University of Zambia, a Master's degree in public administration from Harvard University, and a Doctorate in higher education from the University of Liverpool. Working as a computer systems engineer for IBM, she won the IBM Systems Engineering Professional Excellence Award and was acknowledged as the Pioneer Female Computer Scientist in Zambia, by the Zambia Association of University Women. She helped establish and currently serves as Vice-Chancellor of Victoria Falls University of Technology.


Noviolet Bulawayo (the pen name of Elizabeth Zandile Tshele) is the first Africa woman writer to make the prestigious Booker Prize short-list twice. Born in the rural area of Tsholotsho outside the city of Bulawayo in 1981, Bulawayo was schooled in Zimbabwe and then completed her college education in the United States, studying at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and earning Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English from Texas A&M University-Commerce and Southern Methodist University, respectively. In 2010, she completed a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Cornell University, where her work was recognised with a Truman Capote Fellowship.
Captain Chipo Matimba was the first woman to qualify as an Air Force pilot in Zimbabwe and the first to win Captain’s rank on a commercial aircraft. Born in 1965 to the family of a tailor, she and her eight siblings were thrust into near poverty when she was just 10 and their father died, leaving her mother as the breadwinner. Despite the family’s battle to make ends meet, Matimba finished high school and decided she wanted to fly, applying to join the Air Force of Zimbabwe (AFZ) – a decision which mystified her family. Her grandmother, particularly, didn’t think flying was a profession suitable for a woman. Matimba gained her AFZ pilot’s wings in 2006 and went on to gain her commercial pilot’s ratings, flying for a number of airlines, including Air Zimbabwe. She told an interviewer: “In most cases when passengers are told that they are flown by a female captain, they come to shake my hand and introduce their daughters to me. More than a pilot, I now see myself as an inspiration to most females and young males. I want them to look at me and say, ‘if she did it, why can I not do it’.”
Grace Bema is the first woman to be elected President of the Zimbabwe Association of Consulting Engineers (ZACE) in the organisation’s 59-year history. Born in the capital, Harare, in 1980, she was the first of seven children. After leaving high school, she enrolled to study engineering at the University of Zimbabwe, one of only two women in a class of 33. After working on major engineering projects, including houses and roads, water and sewer services, she obtained an MBA degree in Zimbabwe and later a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Systems in the United States. She was also Chair of a major property holdings company, one of the first women in Zimbabwe to occupy such a position.

The public is invited to nominate more “female firsts” for the next edition of this list across sectors and disciplines by emailing