African Intellectuals and Scholars: Inspiring Minds in History

African Intellectuals and Scholars: Inspiring Minds in History

African intellectuals and scholars have been shaping African history, culture, and knowledge for centuries. There have been some significant African thinkers throughout history. It is hard to single out just a few.

Here are just some of those who are highly regarded internationally. 

Chinua Achebe  

Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930. He became a best-selling author who wrote the classic novel Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, this novel is still widely studied in schools and universities. Achebe was interested in the effect of Christianity on African traditions. His novel discusses the consequences of the influence of British missionaries and colonial authorities on an African village.

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Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was born in South Africa in 1918. He studied law at university and joined the African National Congress. He became an anti-apartheid revolutionary and founded the ANC’s military wing. His actions eventually resulted in his imprisonment.

In 1993 Mandela and the current president of South Africa, de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After his release from prison Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. He became known and loved around the world for his commitment to peace, negotiation, and reconciliation.  

Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka was the first African to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. He was a Nigerian literary icon. He contributed to political and economic debate in his country. In 2008 he urged militants in Nigeria’s Delta region to “replace armed militancy with intellectual militancy”. He established a literature prize in 2005 awarded to those whose talents have had a positive impact on society.

Ayi Kwei Armah

Ayi Kwei Armah was born in Ghana in 1939. He is an author and cultural activist who is now 83 years of age. He has written seven novels. His debut novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born was published in 1968. He also wrote an autobiography entitled The Eloquence of the Scribes. For over four decades, he has been vocal about the effect of Western education on Africa. He believes that only a sound educational system can reverse the unjust social structures of the colonial era.

Steve Biko

Steve Biko was a South African anti-apartheid activist born in 1946.

He founded the Black Consciousness movement. His death in police custody made him a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement. In his writings, he attempted to empower black people. He became famous for his slogan “Black is beautiful.”

It was intended to remove any sense of racial inferiority black people felt. He saw black consciousness as a state of mind and way of life. He argued that true liberation was only possible when black people saw themselves as agents of change.

Kwame Nkrumah

Kwame Nkrumah was born in 1909 in Nkroful, Gold Coast (now Ghana). He earned his teacher’s certificate and went on to spend 10 years studying in the United States. During this time he helped to found the African Students Association of America and Canada. After this, he went to London where he spent time focusing on his intellectual work and political organization.

He helped to coordinate the fifth Pan African Congress. On his eventual return to the Gold Coast, he played a key role in the decolonization of Africa and became the first president of Ghana.

Léopold Sédar Senghor

Léopold Sédar Senghor was born in 1906 in Senegal. At first, he wanted to become a teacher/priest. When he was 20 he realized this wasn’t his calling. He became a poet, writer, and politician. In 1928 he went to Paris where he continued his studies. At the time he discovered the unmistakable contribution of African art to modern sculpture, painting, and music.

He was an African socialist and a key figure in the Négritude movement. To him, this was “the sum of cultural values of the black world as they are expressed in the life, the institutions, and the works of Black men”. He became the first president of Senegal.


African intellectuals and scholars have earned their place in history through their scholarly writing, research papers, political influence, etc. Some of them have become presidents. Others have won Nobel prizes. Some have started movements and become martyrs. All of the above figures have helped in some way to shape the history and culture of Africans.