From Feb. 14, 2015:
GOING by the contemporary narrative, love is something powerful, but fleeting and rather silly—with all it’s apparent expectations of dead plants, wax candles and whiny violins. But Valentine’s Day grouches, don’t despair. Love can be serious stuff too, it has been known to shape the course of whole nations:
Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt
One of the most mysterious and powerful women in ancient Egypt, Nefertiti was queen alongside Pharaoh Akhenaten from 1353 to 1336 BC.
Her reign was a time of tremendous cultural upheaval, as Akhenaten reoriented Egypt’s polytheistic religious and political structure around the worship of one god, the sun god Aten.
Akhenaten and Nefertiti were responsible for the creation of a whole new religion that changed the ways of religion within Egypt. With her husband, she reigned at what was arguably the wealthiest period of ancient Egyptian history.
On the walls of tombs and temples built during Akhenaten’s reign Nefertiti is depicted alongside her husband with a frequency seen for no other Egyptian queen. In many cases she is shown in positions of power and authority—leading worship of Aten, driving a chariot or striking an enemy.
Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile
The last, and most famous pharaoh of Egypt was Cleopatra, and her love intrigues brought a 3,000-year-old dynasty to an end. In 49BC, around the time the time that Julius Caesar was rising to power in Rome, Cleopatra was locked in a power struggle with her brother for the throne of Egypt. Cleopatra famously “seduced” Caesar, and with his military aid, regained her throne.
Caesar was killed in 44BC, and she entered into a passionate relationship with Roman general Mark Antony, aligning herself with him in the Caesar succession tussle, against Octavian (also known as Augustus Caesar). When Mark Antony was defeated by Octavian in battle, Antony committed suicide, and Cleopatra followed suit. The Ptolemaic dynasty thus came to an end and Egypt became a vassal state of Rome.
Cleopatra’s legacy has been vigorously contested, the subject of myth, embellishment and propaganda throughout the ages. Though she’s been called the most beautiful woman who ever lived, historical accounts point otherwise.
The ancient historian Plutarch, writing in 75AD, said “her actual beauty was not so remarkable that none could be compared with her…but the contact of her presence was irresistible.” The real Cleopatra, it seems, had charisma, and “her sexiness stemmed from her intelligence – what Plutarch described as ‘the charm of her conversation’—rather than her kohl-rimmed eyes,” says this article in the Smithsonian Magazine.
Makeda, Queen of Sheba
Perhaps no other famous African queen of antiquity has so many competing narratives about her. In the Bible, the Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem to hear the wisdom of Solomon, heavy laden with camels bearing spices, gold and precious stones. But the Jewish scripture, the Talmud, says that it was not a woman but a king of Sheba who came to Jerusalem. In Islam, she is simply “the queen of the south”.
But her story is most elaborated in the Ethiopian tradition. Here, the founder of the Ethiopian dynasty, Menelik I, is the child of Solomon and Makeda, from whom the Ethiopian dynasty claimed to be descended from the tribe of Judah (ending in 1974 with the death of Emperor Haile Selassie).
Intriguingly, the Yoruba Ijebu clan in Nigeria also lays claim to the Queen of Sheba, calling her by the name Oloye Bilikisu, similar to the name mentioned in the Quran, Bilqis.
With such a contested story, it’s difficult to know what is historically true. But virtually all modern scholars agree Sheba was the South Arabian kingdom of Saba, whose capital was in Marib, in present-day Yemen. The Sabaeans were not restricted to Yemen alone, they were also found across the Red Sea in the area that later became the kingdom of Aksum in modern-day Ethiopia/ Eritrea.
Luanda Magere’s “Delilah”
The legend of Luanda Magere is one of the most enduring in Luo tradition, and his story has close parallels with that of Samson and Delilah in the Bible. According to legend, Magere was a fierce warrior, invincible in battle, and fearsome to behold. Arrows, spears and clubs simply deflected from his body, and he had superhuman strength that made him able to tear an entire army apart.
At the time, the Luo were in constant battle with their neighbours, the Nandi. But as long as Luanda Magere was on the battlefield, the Nandi always lost, and their cattle were then looted by the Luo.
Hoping to stop the raids, the Nandis offered their most beautiful girl to Luanda for marriage. But they secretly charged her with the task of finding out the secret to Luanda’s strength.
The two were married, but one day Luanda fell sick. Usually his first wife would nurse him when he was ill, but this time it happened that she had travelled. So he asked his young Nandi wife to bring him medicine, and then gave her a strange request – to cut his shadow with a knife and rub in the medicine. She was surprised when she saw his shadow bleed.
Predictably, the girl told her people what she had discovered, and the next time they were in battle, a Nandi warrior speared Luanda’s shadow – the ground flowed with his blood.
Luanda died and turned into a huge boulder – Luanda is Dholuo for “rock”. The rock still stands to this day, if the legend is to be believed.
Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya of Toro
Far from being the stuff of ancient history, Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya of Tooro’s story happens in modern-day Uganda. Born in 1940, she was educated at the elite Sherborne school for girls in England, and went on to Cambridge University, studying law, history and political science. In 1965, Bagaaya became the first woman in eastern Africa to be admitted to the English Bar.
After President Milton Obote “abolished” Uganda’s kingdoms, her future in Uganda was uncertain. Bagaaya signed with a top modelling agency in London and went on have an illustrious modeling career in London and New York between 1967 and 1970, featuring in the British and American Vogue, Look, LIFE, and Ebony and became the first black woman to appear on the cover of a top fashion magazine (Harper’s Bazaar).
But when Idi Amin came to power in 1971, he was keen to show the world that he really wasn’t an unsophisticated, illiterate brute. So he appointed Bagaaya his ambassador-at-large, and later minister of foreign affairs. She was exactly his antithesis: intelligent, eloquent, elegant and Cambridge-educated; he depended on her to fix Uganda’s tarnished international image, particularly after Amin began to act erratically by expelling the entire Ugandan Asian population in 1972.
In 1974, she gave a famous and rousing speech at the United Nations, but the acclaim that was to follow her after the UN appearance made Amin jealous, seeing that he had given her the position. He proposed marriage to her, and predictably, he fired her when she turned him down.
An enraged Amin claimed he had fired her for sexual indiscretion at a Paris airport. Bagaya successfully successfully sued 15 publications in Britain, France, Germany and Italy who reveled in the gossip tale.
For Amin, though, her departure removed the last soft face of his regime, and marked a dangerous descent into madness that included, among other things, an attack on Tanzania that resulted in the ouster of the dictator in 1979 when a combined force of the Tanzanian army and Ugandan dissidents hit back.
Bagaaya would later serve Yoweri Museveni’s government in a similar capacity when he came to power in 1986, making public appearances in the US as Uganda’s ambassador to Washington to improve Uganda’s negative image at the time; Museveni was perceived as a Marxist sympathiser and a friend of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
BONUS: Mermaids, nymphs, cat-women
Many African legends, particularly among communities that live near oceans or lakes, feature various forms of animal-human hybrid women whose main goal is to lure men into temptation and ultimate destruction. They typically offer riches, power, and, their beauty, in exchange for a man’s soul. The men typically agree to the terms – who needs a soul? – and enjoy their new-found status for a while, but inevitably end up destitute and eternally damned.
We include this here not for its truthfulness, but for the way this narrative endures in our contemporary culture – there are possibly hundreds of Nollywood films with this general storyline.