Throw Back Thursday: DANG Hero, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

0 July 13, 2017 By Dang

There are many who see Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti as not only the mother of Fela Kuti and the Afrobeat Musical Movement but also as the mother of the modern African women’s resistance movements in the 20th century. –

Her father, Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas, was a son of a returned slave from Sierra Leone, who traced his ancestral history back to Abeokuta. He became a member of the Anglican faith, and soon returned to the homeland of his fellow Egbas. She was raised by parents who valued education and became the first girl-student admitted to Abeokuta Grammar School, hence, her nickname-Beere which means first girl in Yoruba

Her immortalized journey began in the early 1940’s when she was introduced to a local market woman who dreamed of learning to read. At the time, Funmilayo, or Funmi for short, headed a ladies’ club at the Abeokuta Grammar School, membered primarily by western educated, middle class Abeokutan residents. This interaction with the market woman prompted Funmi to expand her community organization to market women at large, who were generally poor with lived experiences of injustice and maltreatment by a ruling colonial administration. Funmi’s reputation among the market women — as a person of principle and courageousness – would grow and soon catapult her into a position of leadership within the state, and set the foundation for her soon-to-be national and international prominence and recognition
“We educated women were living outside the daily lives of the people.” -Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

Funmi endeavored to unify and empower Nigerian women from all rungs of society, and to represent Nigeria in its entirety. She started wearing traditional garments, and speaking Yoruba more often in meetings. As president of the Abeokuta Woman’s Union (AWU) and thereafter the Nationally formed Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU), Funmi described their aim as multifold [in the organization’s constitution]: “to unite women; to defend, protect, preserve and promote social, economic, and political rights and interests of women; and to cooperate with all organizations seeking and fighting genuinely and selflessly for the economic and political freedom and independence of the people.” These values and commitments were applied and realized, first by fighting the unfair issues of taxation and colonial ruling on a local level (it was not unusual for Funmi to be seeing leading mass demonstrations with 10,000+ local civilians) and longed-for government representation on a national level.

A fearless, impassioned and persuasive leader, Funmi stood at about five foot four inches. Drawn from her papers, seen at the University of Ibadan, here is what one NWU member had to say about Funmi: “She was like a goddess. We hung onto every word she said, even if we thought it was wrong, but hardly any of her words were wrong anyway. There was nothing hypocritical about Funmilayo. She just did not know how to pretend.”

And there it is, a women of the people advantaged by circumstances that allowed her to embody being both western educated and grounded in tradition. Funmi became a national heroine, the only woman in the 1950’s to play a major role in one of the three most recognized political parties in Nigeria – the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in the West (the other two were the Action Group (AG) in the East and the Northern Peoples Party (NPP) in the North). Many of times she appealed to Nnamdi Azikiwe — who later became the first President of Independent Nigeria – and other NCNC executives, for women to be nominated as candidates for elections on all levels.

Due to her unwillingness to compromise her advocacy for each of the groups that she represented – women, the poor – and the prejudice stemming from presenting as a woman herself, Funmi proved when independence was imminent to never win a candidacy on the federal level. Her view on those in power are well stated by Funmi’s biographers in their chapter The True Citizen: “Men do not want women to take part in our legislation; they want women as mere voters, ordinary election tools.”

Nonetheless, she developed and continued to develop a status as a Nigerian woman who gained an international exposure that could be matched by very few at the time. She became involved with the West African Students Union (WASU), a grand organization that promoted a nationalist, anti-colonialist consciousness in West Africans in Great Britain and all over West Africa. This may have been the circumstance under which Funmi first met Kwame Nkrumah, who served as one of the Vice Presidents for WASU. The organization attracted the likes of blacks throughout the diaspora, such as the famous and celebrated actor and singer Paul Robeson.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in her time abroad would find herself as a pivotal piece to the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), serving as Vice President and traveling to their congresses and conferences in China, Copenhagen, India, Geneva and Vienna. Although the WIDF was perceived by some Western media as a communist establishment, Funmi was not a member of the Communist Party, though she was neither frightened nor repelled by communism. She would characterize herself as a democratic socialist, believing that a government should be elected by all adult citizens, and those over whom the government resides should be guaranteed all the basic necessities of life.

The impact of her life is best described by a song derived from the local Abeokutan market women: “Your life is beneficial to us, Olufunmilayo, your life is beneficial to us. You will certainly live to a good old age, Funmilayo, you shall not die young. Béère shall not die young.” Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti lived to the ripe age of 77, with many dreams fulfilled and even more hearts touched. She goes down as a fixture in Nigeria’s history, and the soil from which the roots of the Afrobeat genre and culture arose.-

In 1946, the burden of taxation became unbearable and the Abeokuta ladies club metamorphosed to Abeokuta Women Union. This was designed to challenge both colonial rule and the male-controlled structure. Through the union, they opposed price controls and imposition of direct taxation, engaged in press campaigns and mobilized so much pressure against the Alake.

The Abeokuta Women Union was a well-organised and disciplined organisation. Mass refusal to pay the tax combined with enormous protest led to brutal response from the authorities as tear gas were deployed and beatings were administered. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti ran training sessions on how to deal with this threat, teaching women how to protect themselves from the effects of tear gas and how long they had to throw the canisters back to the authorities.

Abiyamo, a Nigerian blogger, reports that under the leadership of Funmilayo, the women demanded exclusion of direct female taxation of Abeokuta women. They also demanded for the representation of women in local politics and governance. Funmilayo was of the view that no important decision could be made without the involvement of women.

When her protests began, the Alake did not take her serious. She was seen as a typical women ranting. They under estimated her believing she would go nowhere. But that was their undoing. From 1946 to 1948, she led women in protest against women taxation, non-women representation in the native authority. She even led protest against some of the business interest of the Alake of Egbaland. As the women protested outside the king’s house, they sang in Yoruba: “Alake, for a long time you have used your penis as a mark of authority that you are our husband. Today we shall reverse the order and use our vagina to play the role of husband.”

In her old age, Funmilsayo’s activism was overshadowed by that of her three sons, who provided effective opposition to various Nigerian military juntas. In 1978, Funmilayo was thrown from a third-floor window of her son Fela’s compound, a commune known as the Kalakuta Republic, when it was stormed by one thousand armed military personnel. She lapsed into a coma in February of that year, and died on 13 April 1978, as a result of her injuries she sustained from the fall.-


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