Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti: The Mother of Afrobeat and Spokesperson for Women in Africa’s Movement for Independence

Nobel Prize Winner, Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, makes the role of women like Funmilayo clear when he states, “I have always insisted that American or European feminism has little to teach most other societies —- here is proof [For Women and The Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti] in this portrait of a remarkable woman in remarkable times, brought vividly to life in a work that explores the often neglected crevices of history.”

Fela Remembers Being Introduced To His Excellency Kwame Nkrumah By His Mother

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. Scholarship on the crucial roles played by women in their independence movements and in anti-colonial movements in Africa is still underexplored. What do we know about the relationship of a Nigerian leader like Mme. Ransome-Kuti to leaders of Africa’s independence movements such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria and Sekou Toure of Guinea?

Fela Kuti provides a very rich personal narrative on his dear mother: “…There is something to remember very clearly.  That’s when my mother took me to meet Kwame Nkrumah. Ghana was already independent and Nkrumah was President. Nigeria wasn’t independent yet—and still isn’t. That was around early 1957.  She had met with Nkrumah many times in her life. But on this particular day she took me with her to see Nkrumah. You know, if my mother wants to see somebody like that and she takes me to see somebody like that, it means she’s going to see a friend. At that time he would come now and then to Lagos in his yacht on holidays. I remember the yacht being anchored somewhere in Lagos harbour. He was wearing a white shirt and trousers, man. Nkrumah told my mother he didn’t want to see anybody; that he hadn’t come for any official visit; that he didn’t want to see any minister, nobody at all.  Not even Talawa Balewa, the Prime Minister.  He had come to meditate. But he had sent a message to my mother, saying that he wanted to see her. When she got there they started joking.. My mother said teasingly: ‘Ah, you come to Nigeria and you don’t want to see your brothers here.’ I don’t deal with corrupt people,’ he answered. My mother looked at him and smiled. Nkrumah went on, ‘They are slaves to the people in England. You know that.’ He was smiling while saying it. Man, he was so cool. My mother thought a lot of him. But she never spoke much about him to me. He was her friend, a very good friend. Nkrumah! Man, I’ll never forget his face.”

                              Exploring New Histories In The African Diaspora

With the publication of “Extending The Diaspora: New Histories of Black People” (Edited by Dawne Y. Currry, Eric  D. Drake and Marshanda  A. Smith), a new era in African Diasporic histories has begun. Historian Darlene Clark Hine notes, “The authors of the essays in “Extending the Diaspora” explore an array of new topics, spaces, possibilities, and events, and how this broadens our understanding of complex theoretical and conceptual issues in diasporic studies. The multiple disciplines and the depth of the research displayed in these papers facilitate explorations into the convergences and disjunctions in the historical experiences of diasporic peoples.”

Consider The Inside Diameter Of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti Of ABEOKUTA

Consider the straight-line segment/Leaping through the center of the circle/It starts from one position and ends at another/Tension and conflict are involved and unresolved/Consider the end points

Gladiators lose their thrust/Battles are lost and people praise the wrong works/Those early things, inspired dullness — no tension/Putting it in a silk screen doesn’t get attention either/Putting it under acetate overlay doesn’t create conflict

                                                                     – “Inside Diameter” by Clarence Major

Coming of age in the so called gateway state of Nigeria, Abeokuta — known as such for its reputation to educate its residents to the highest of global standards — Funmilayo committed herself to advocating for a social order that reflected a just and equitable society.

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.

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.

                                   Ransome-Kuti’s Relevance In 2015

Now what must be done to usher in town criers and social media gurus moving through and through this ever-expanding AFROCIPHA? We must tell our children’s children that there once lived this Yoruba woman from Abeokuta in Nigeria who not only believed that African women have agency, but that it is their solemn duty to use it to forge a nation that represents the new order, the postcolonial reality.

Voice #3:  “But it is difficult to make any scene glow

no matter how intense…”

… CMAJOR The MAGE

Mme Ransome-Kuti’s biographers, Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba enter the jagged circle: “The life of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti encapsulates much of the twentieth century history of Nigeria, while the record of her ancestry depicts the evolution of Abeokuta in the nineteenth century. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was deeply attached to her hometown, where she spent the major part of her life. And concern for its progress, as she visualized it, was the initial motivation or her entry into public life. Even later, when she was a participant in national and international politics and the acknowledged leader of women throughout Nigeria, Abeokuta remained her springboard and her inspiration.”

The best thing to give your enemy — forgiveness/To your opponent — tolerance/To a friend — your heart/To your mother — conduct that will make her proud of you/To your child — a good example/To yourself—respect/And to all men—charity.

Is it not an example of her tenacity, the clarity of her vision and the generosity of her spirit that served and continues to serve as an example for those of us who live in the 21st century?  One cannot study the life of this woman, or listen to the conversations of those who knew her or witnessed her visits to “The Shrine” without thinking of her greatness. it’s clear that Funmilayo played a role in the future of global order snatched from a violent and unspoken disorder.

Who Did Not Learn About The Daughter of Abeokuta, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti?

Odim and Mba remind us of the importance of Mrs. Ransome-Kuti’s life: “In an April 9, 1976 profile of Ransome-Kuti in the Daily Times, a life whom Funmilayo was noted to have influenced that was spoken of was Hajiya Gumbo, a Zaria Northern Nigerian political activist who fought for woman suffrage in the North (not granted until 1977) and went on a pilgrimage to Abeokuta to meet and learn from Mrs. Kuti. The article also chronicled her influence on Kwame Nkrumah’s organizing of Ghanaian women. The interviewer wrote: “In an unpainted building she often sits gingerly in an old chair making dresses for her grandchildren on an electric sewing machine.” In her last days, Funmilayo reiterated these words:

… The best thing to give your enemy — forgiveness/To your opponent — tolerance/To a friend — your heart/To yourself — RESPECT……..

The Afrocipha begins highlighting the Ransome-Kuti Family with this Black Music X Afrobeat article on Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Mother of Fela Kuti [the originator of Afrobeat Music] and Grandmother of Femi Kuti who will be celebrating Black Music Month in Philadelphia on 9 June 2015 at World Café Live, kicking off UMUM Afrobeat month

© James G. Spady and Akinyemi Bajulaiye 2015