Remember that feeling of African pride in 2018 when Marvel Studios brought the action-packed comic book Black Panther to the bigscreen? For leading actress Lupita Nyong’o – who played the fearless Wakandan warrior Nakia – that sense of wonder and strength never faded. In fact, it inspired her to go on an eye-opening journey to find the real-life warrior women who inspired the king of comic books, Stan Lee, and writer-artist Jack Kirby to dream up the fictional all-female Dora Milaje tribe back in the 1960s.

Watch now on Catch Up

Let it be known

The documentary Warrior Women with Lupita Nyong’o takes us on this journey, as Lupita makes her way through the streets of Benin in West Africa, to track down the forgotten female army known as the Agoji. “I think it’s kind of a travesty that such a formidable group of women is not known about,” Lupita says in the documentary. The Agoji stood up in various battles against African and European powers from the 18th to 19th century, and now Lupita brings their history to life in all its vivid, and at times brutal, beauty.

“My curiosity was piqued on Black Panther,” Lupita explains. “The Dora Milaje (the all-women Wakandan army) ended up being this beacon of feminism and femininity.” But Lupita admits that this also made her aware of her own ignorance about female history, or the lack thereof. “A history like this should be louder and known around the world. All too often, history is written by men. In many instances, women are fighting for their context, to keep their stories alive. When you erase the history of a people, it’s a very smart way to disable them, because people then don’t know what they are capable of. It takes documentaries like this to rewrite the history.”

Peeling back the layers

Throughout Lupita’s travels, we learn more about this once 4,000-strong female army that stood up to French colonisers with mere machetes, defending their king, their land and their people for almost 200 years. We get a glimpse into never-before-filmed sacred rituals still practiced today, invoking Agoji warrior spirits and paying tribute to a culture lost. But we also see the more sinister side of this mighty army, as Lupita’s journey takes an unexpected turn when she meets family of women who were kidnapped and enslaved by the Agoji.

An exploration that starts off in the Kingdom of Dahomey in the capital of Abomey leads to rarely visited corners of this ancient village where we meet a few startling individuals. Whether it’s the grandson of the great Agoji warrior Allewammon, as he tells of her strength and impressive backside (a sign of strength and resilience in Dahomey), or one of the last women to ever be trained as an Agoji warrior when she was an innocent teenager – the experience is an emotional, and at times, confusing one. Clearly, the Agoji were both admirable fighters, but also bringers of great suffering for others.

Warrior Women with Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t romanticise the Agoji, nor does it shy away from the various triumphs and impressive war tactics. Instead, it speaks to the power of women, the ability to persevere and, generations down the line, to forgive.

Watch Warrior Women with Lupita Nyong’o on Sunday, 9 August on BBC Earth (DStv 184) at 19:00 or on Catch Up

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