Black history month: celebrating humanitarian heroes

During Black History Month, we're highlighting Black humanitarian heroes from across the globe. You may not have heard of all of these men and women, but they are leaders in the fields of poverty alleviation, peacebuilding, environmental justice, and gender equality.

Whether they are still alive or have passed on, we’re remembering the ways they dedicated their lives to the pursuit of justice and the end of human suffering. 

Ralph Bunche, 1904-1971

Ralph Bunche. Unknown author, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons 

Ralph Bunche was an American political scientist and diplomat. Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1904, he earned a master's degree from Harvard University and went on to establish the political science department at Howard University.

In the 1940s, he helped to form the United Nations and played a major role in mediating Arab-Israeli conflicts. Eventually, he would earn a Nobel Peace Prize for this work - making him the first African-American to do so.⁠

Wangari Maathai, 1940-2011

Wangari Maathai. Kingkongphoto & from Laurel  Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As the founder of the Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai is known for her environmental activism. She was born in Kenya in 1940 and attended college and graduate school in the United States. Maathai also earned a PhD in biology from the University of Nairobi, making her first woman from East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree.

After her academic training, much of her work focused on tree planting and environmental conservation. In the 1970s, she launched a grassroots movement, training women to plant trees in order to strengthen ecosystems as well as improve their lives. In total, she’s equipped women to plant more than 20 million trees, and her methods have spread to many countries across the African continent. Maathai became a powerful advocate for human rights and environmental conservation and addressed the United Nations several times. 

Dr. Hawa Abdi, 1947-2020

Dr. Hawa Abdi. Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images

Dr. Abdi, Somalia’s first female gynecologist, is remembered for her human rights activism, her contributions to women’s health, and her care for refugees. After her mother died while she was a child, Dr. Abdi raised her younger siblings and eventually went to what is now Ukraine to study medicine. 

With her medical degree, she went back to Somalia and opened a free medical clinic on her family’s land. This is the same land that would later become home to over 90,000 refugees as conflict escalated across the region. Dr. Abdi allowed any refugee to settle on her property, and the refugee camp now has its own hospital and school. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

Dr. Abdi passed away in August 2020, but her foundation still works to secure basic human rights and sustainable access to education, business opportunities, and healthcare for Somalis. 

Dr. Denis Mukwege

Dr. Denis Mukwege. Francesca Leonardi & Internaz, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to being an internationally renowned physician, Dr. Mukwege is  a pentecostal pastor. He was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1955. During the country’s civil war, which broke out in the 1990s, sexual violence was widely used as a weapon in the conflict. 

In 1999, Dr. Mukwege was the only gynecologist in the region. He saw tens of thousands of women who’d been injured by the ongoing violence, and he and his team developed new medical treatments that included psychological care and even legal support. Dr. Mukwege also spoke out widely against sexual violence, and is a leading activist for gender equality.

In 2018, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reduce violence against women. Overall, he and his team have treated more than 40,000 survivors of violence.

Leymah Gbowee 

Leymah Gbowee. Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

In 2002, then 30-year-old Leymah Gbowee had a dream. From her office in Liberia, she dreamed that God had told her to “gather the women and pray for peace.” 

This was during Liberia’s second civil war, which was particularly brutal. Gbowee responded to God’s invitation and began inviting Christian and Muslim women to gather and pray for an end to the conflict. It didn’t take long for the movement to gain recognition and momentum as they held pray-ins and led other nonviolent actions. Eventually their prayer and influence actually pushed Liberia’s president into exile.

This opened the doors for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election, making her the first female president of Liberia. Gbowee and Sirleaf both received Nobel Peace Prizes, making them the second and third African women to do so after Wangari Matthai. 

She was also the subject of a 2008 documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which highlights the impact of her nonviolent prayer activism (available on Amazon Prime).

Want to go deeper into Black history? Check out this blog from Be the Bridge which covers major events from African and American history.

For more resources about racial justice and the church, head over to our racial justice page.

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