ABOUT A STRONG YORUBA WOMAN; FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI
Funmilayo Anikulapo Ransome-Kuti, born on October 25, 1900, she was the Nigerian daughter of a returned slave who lived in the Yoruba Region. Well educated with a colonial education and a Christian background, she was radicalized through the actions of the British occupation of Nigeria: its racism, sexism and economic violence.
Ransome-Kuti’s political activism led to her being described as the doyen of female rights in Nigeria, as well as to her being regarded as “The Mother of Africa.”
Sadly, most people, myself inclusive, grew up only knowing her to be the first woman in the country to drive a car; an insignificant task compared to other greatness she emanated. She was a great leader, a bold and brave woman. She didn’t just talk about freedom from oppression, she acted and fought gallantly all her life against all forms of injustice and oppression.
EARLY LIFE OF FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI
Francis Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas was born on 25 October 1900, in Abeokuta, to Chief Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas (1869-1954) and Lucretia Phyllis Omoyeni Adeosolu (1874-1956) of the Jibolu-Taiwo family. Her father was a son of a returned slave, Ebenezer Sobowale Thomas, from Sierra Leone, who traced his ancestral history back to Abeokuta in what is today Ogun State, Nigeria. He became a member of the Anglican faith, and soon returned to the homeland of his fellow Egbas.
Funmilayo Randsome-Kuti’s parents believed in the value of education. She was one of the first women to attended Abeokuta Grammar School for her secondary education in 1914, where she would go on to teach.
In 1919 she left for Wincham Hall School for Girls, Cheshire, England, to pursue her studies. By the time of her return to Nigeria in 1922, no doubt in reaction to the racism she had encountered in Britain, she had dropped her Christian name, Frances Abigail.
She returned to Nigeria and became a teacher, three years after, on 20 January 1925, she married the Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. He also defended the commoners of his country, and was one of the founders of both the Nigeria Union of Teachers and of the Nigerian Union of Students. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti organized literacy classes for Women in the early 1920s and founded a nursery school in the 1930s. She founded the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club (ALC) for educated women involved in charitable work in 1942. She also started the social Welfare for Market Women club to help educate working-class women (which formed the first adult education programme for women in Nigeria).
Ransome-Kuti received the national honour of membership in the Order of the Niger in 1965. The University of Ibadan bestowed upon her the honorary doctorate of laws in 1968. She also held a seat in the Western House of Chiefs of Nigeria as an Oloye of the Yoruba people.
FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI’S; AN ACTIVISM
Throughout her career, she was known as an educator and activist. She and Elizabeth Adekogbe provided dynamic leadership for women’s rights in the 1950s. Ransome-Kuti founded an organization for women in Abeokuta called the Abeokuta Women’s Union, with a membership tally of more than 20,000 individuals, spanning both literate and illiterate women.
Traditionally, Yoruba society was divided into male and female administrative sections. Although men in Nigeria held the position of clan chiefs, women had traditionally held political authority which was shared with men, particularly concentrated in areas of trade. With the coming of formal colonial rule through the Berlin Conference of 1884, the British authorities occupying Nigeria restructured the governance of the society: establishing the position of “Warrant Chiefs” as middlemen to act between the traditional authorities and those of the colonisers, elevating the traditional and largely symbolic position of clan chief to a political power broker and created the Sole Native Authority, to which only the men holding local political power were admitted.
In 1918, a colonial tax on palm oil to be paid by all men in Nigeria had caused major uprisings; in 1929 the British extended taxation to women and also goats which were usually the personal possessions of women. As soon as the rumors of such a taxation were confirmed, the women of Nigeria rose up. After an initial incident where a Warrant Chief had attacked a female householder and thousands of local women had encircled his home, singing songs, attacking the house before insisting on his resignation and dragging him to the courthouse to be tried for assault, huge gatherings of women appeared across Nigeria protesting at Warrant Chief’s offices, burning courts and European owned shops demanding an end to the tax. The Aba Women’s Rebellion eventually ended in bloodshed after two months on December 17th, 2029 as 32 women were killed when the British military fired into a crowd of protesting women.
Although some compromises were made to the governance structure and methods of collection, the tax on women remained in place. By the late 1940s, the burden of taxation was becoming unbearable as the colonial authorities squeezed more and more from its protectorates in the aftermath of the Second European War. Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, then the headteacher of a local school, who had previously set up several organisations bringing together middle-class women, had heard of the struggles of the market women and the fightback that they had started and established the Abeokuta Women’s Union – an explicitly political organisation uniting the working class market women with middle-class women. This was designed to challenge both colonial rule and the patriarchal structure. Two hundred thousand women joined.
From the initial demands of an end to the taxation regime, the confidence and demands of the AWU grew with proposals to replace the flat rate tax on women with taxation on expatriate companies, investment in local initiatives and infrastructure including transportation, sanitation and education and the abolition of the Sole Native Authority and its replacement with a representative form of government, including women.
The Abeokuta Women’s Union was a well organized and disciplined organization. Mass refusal to pay the tax combined with enormous protests, organized under the guise of “picnics” or “festivals”. The response from the authorities was brutal as tear gas was deployed and beatings were administered. Anikulapo-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 at the authorities.
The British colonizers teamed up with their local lackeys to subdue the women. At one protest, the Ogboni sacred stick was brought out – a symbolic artifact of the secretive male cult of the Ogboni – supposedly imbibed with great powers, and the women were instructed to go home before evil spirits overcame them. When the women shrank back in fear, Anikulapo-Kuti grabbed the stick, waved it around declaring that the women now had the power before taking it with her displaying it prominently in her home. This action gave her a reputation of fearlessness and courage that led 20,000 women to follow her to the home of Alake, the “pseudo-king” of Nigeria and a colonial stooge, who chased him out of the house, condemning him to exile on the threat of castration.
FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI founded the Egba or Abeokuta Women’s Union along with Grace Eniola Soyinka (her sister-in-law and the mother of the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka). This organisation is said to have once had a membership of 20,000 women. Among other things, Ransome-Kuti organised workshops for illiterate market women. She continued to campaign against taxes and price controls.
OBA OLADAPO SAMUEL ADEMOLA AND CHIEF FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI
The Alake of Egba land is the paramount ruler of the Egbas, comprising of Egba Alake, the Owu kingdom, Oke Ona and Gbagura. Oba Oladapo Samuel Ademola II, ascended the throne of the Alake of Egba land in 1920 after the demise of Oba Gbadebo I, on the 28th May 1920. Oba Oladapo Samuel Ademola 11, was an educated Oba, with a deep sense of business acumen. His son, Justice Adetokunbo Ademola became indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria in 1960. Oba Oladapo Samuel Ademola II, ruled for 42 years, but he was on exile for two years, between 1948 to December 1950, as a result of a protest against native authorities, especially against the Alake of Egba land, by the Women’s Union, led by Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti (the mother of Afro beat Legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti) ably supported by Eniola Soyinka-her sister-in law and mother of the Nobel Laureate-Wole Soyinka. This organization with a membership of over 20000 women campaigned vigorously against taxes and price control.
The Abeokuta Women’s Union was a well orgarnised and disciplined organization. The Egba women’s refusal to pay abnormal tax, combined with enormous protests, orgarnised under the guise of picnics and festivals, was a guise to beat the security of the British colonizers, who teamed up with the local lackeys, to subdue the women. At one protest, the “Oro” stick was brought out- a symbolic artifact of the secretive male cult of the Ogbonis, supposedly imbibed with great powers, and the women were instructed to go home, before evil spirits overcame them.
When the women shrank back in fear, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, grabbed the stick, waved it around, that women now had the power before taking it with her, displaying it prominently in her home. This action gave her, a reputation of fearlessness and courage, which led 20,000 women to follow her to the home of Alake of Egba land (Alake Ademola). As the women protested outside the King’s Palace, they sang in Yoruba;
“Alake, for a long time you have used your penis as mark of authority that you are our husband, today we shall reverse the order and use our vagina to play the role of husband”.
With this unified action and song, they chased him out of the Palace, condemning him to exile on the threat of castration and this resulted in the king’s abdication.
FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI; LIONESS OF LISABI
Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was a teacher, a political campaigner, women’s rights activist and traditional aristocrat, who was described by the West African Pilot Newspaper as the “Lioness of Lisabi”. She was the first woman in Nigeria to ride a car. She served with distinction as one of the most prominent leaders of her generation.
From her upbringing in a privileged household, her colonial education and Christian religion, in her later years Anikulapo-Kuti embraced her Yoruba heritage and worked to give pride back to the colonized, insisting that children at her school were registered using their African, rather than European names. She abandoned her Western style of dress, favored by middle-class women in the late 40s, adopting the traditional wrapped cloth of the lower classed market traders, and gave speeches exclusively in Yoruba, necessitating the British to find translators to interpret her words.
In the early 1970s she changed her surname to Anikulapo-Kuti to further identify herself with Yoruba culture, thereby following the example of her son, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a popular musician and a fierce critic of Nigeria’s military governments from the 1960s. In 1977 some 1,000 soldiers stormed the family property in Lagos, which Fela had transformed into a commune that he called the Kalakuta Republic. During the assault, soldiers dragged Funmilayo by her hair and threw her out a second-story window. She died of complications from her injuries 8 weeks later.
FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI’S FAMILY
Funmilayo Ransome- Kuti married Isreal Oludotun Ransome Kuti and they both gave birth to four children, one dying shortly after birth, all three who survived carried on her legacy of political activism.
ISREAL OLUDOTUN RANSOME-KUTI
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s husband; Isreal Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was the first President of the Nigeria Union of Teachers
In 1931, Israel was appointed as the pioneering President of the then newly formed Nigeria Union of Teachers, a position he held until his retirement in 1954. Kuti Hall, one of the halls of residence at the University of Ibadan which opened in 1954, is named after Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti.
On April 6, 1955, Israel died of a cancer-related illness at his residence in Abeokuta, Ogun State
Funmilayo Ransome Kuti’s son; Olikoye Ransome-Kuti became an AIDS activist speaking out for the Africans abandoned to the ravages of the disease.
Olikoye Ransome-Kuti was a paediatrician, activist, and health minister of Nigeria.
He held various teaching positions, including a visiting professorship at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University’s school of hygiene and public health. He wrote extensively for medical journals and publications. He won both the Leon Bernard Foundation Prize and the Maurice Pate Award, in 1986 and in 1990 respectively.
Olikoye Ransome-Kuti died on 1 June 2003. He was survived by his wife of 50 years Sonia and three children.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’ son; Bekololari Ransome-Kuti founded the first Nigerian human rights organization. Beko Ransome-Kuti helped to form Nigeria’s first human rights organization, the Campaign for Democracy, which in 1993 opposed the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. In 1995, a military tribunal sentenced him to life in prison for bringing the mock trial of Olusegun Obasanjo to the attention of the world. He was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and freed in 1998 following the death of Sani Abacha.
Beko Ransome-Kuti was a fellow of the West African College of Physicians and Surgeons, a leading figure in the British Commonwealth’s human rights committee, chair of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights and executive director of the Centre for Constitutional Governance.
Beko Ransome-Kuti never went to Nigerian funerals or weddings, notable for the huge sums of money that is often spent by families at such occasions, at which people were lauded for how much money they stuck on musicians and dancers (“spraying”). He was against such gratuitous display of wealth.
Beko Ransome-Kuti died 10 February 2006, at approximately 11:20 P.M. at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba, Lagos, Nigeria at the age of 65 from complications of lung cancer. The state government honoured him with a statue in 2010.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s son; Fela Anikulapo-Kuti became a musician writing songs inspiring a generation.
Also professionally known as Fela Kuti, or simply Fela, was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre and human rights activist. At the height of his popularity, he was referred to as one of Africa’s most “challenging and charismatic human rights activistc music performers.”
Fela Kuti was outspoken; his songs spoke his inner thoughts. His rise in popularity throughout the 1970s signaled a change in the relation between music as an art form and Nigerian socio-political discourse.
Fela Kuti was a political giant in Africa from the 1970s until his death. Kuti criticized the corruption of Nigerian government officials and the mistreatment of Nigerian citizens. He spoke of colonialism as the root of the socio-economic and political problems that plagued the African people. Corruption was one of the worst, if not the worst, political problem facing Africa in the 70s and Nigeria was among the most corrupt countries of the time. The Nigerian government was responsible for election rigging and coups that ultimately worsened poverty, economic inequality, unemployment, and political instability, which further promoted corruption and thuggery. Fela’s protest songs covered themes inspired by the realities of corruption and socio-economic inequality in Africa. Fela Kuti’s political statements could be heard throughout Africa.
Kuti’s open vocalization of the violent and oppressive regime controlling Nigeria did not come without consequence. He was arrested on over 200 different occasions and spent time in jail, including his longest stint of 20 months after his arrest in 1984. On top of the jail time, the corrupt government would send soldiers to beat Kuti, his family and friends, and destroy wherever he lived and whatever instruments or recordings he had.
“Imagine Che Guevara and Bob Marley rolled into one person and you get a sense of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti.”—Herald Sun, February 2011
On 3 August 1997, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, already a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health, announced his younger brother’s death a day earlier from complications related to AIDS. However, there has been no definitive proof that Kuti died from complications related to HIV/AIDS, and much skepticism surrounds this alleged cause of death and the sources that have popularized this claim. For example, it is widely claimed that Fela suffered and may have possibly died from Kaposi’s sarcoma, which is associated with HIV/AIDS infection. However, there are no known photos of Kuti with telltale lesions; moreover, Kuti was honored with a lying-in-state in which his remains were encased in a five-sided glass coffin for full public viewing. More than one million people attended Fela’s funeral at the site of the old Shrine compound. The New Afrika Shrine has opened since Fela’s death in a different section of Lagos under the supervision of his son Femi.
Other notable family members of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti include her grandsons; Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti, her Nephew; Wole Soyinka, her niece Yemisi Ransome-Kuti amongst others
ACHIEVEMENTS OF FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI
- Took part in the pre-independence conferences that laid the groundwork for Nigeria’s First Republic
- One of the women appointed to the native House of Chiefs, serving as an Oloye of the Yoruba people
- Ranking member of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons
- Treasurer and President Western Women Association of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons
- Leader of Abeokuta Women’s Union.
- Leader of Commoners Peoples Party
- Leader of Nigeria Women’s Union.
- First woman to drive a car in Nigeria
- Winner of the Lenin Peace Prize
In old age her activism was overshadowed by that of her three sons, who provided effective opposition to various Nigerian military juntas.
Obasanjo was angered by Fela’s criticism of the military as “zombies” who intimidated ordinary Nigerians while allowing the corruption and exploitation of communities to go unchecked.
In 1978 Ransome-Kuti 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 over a thousand Nigerian soldiers acting under orders from General Obasanjo.
She lapsed into a coma in February of that year, and died on 13 April 1978, as a result of her injuries. She spent eight weeks in a coma before passing away.
After her death, Fela took her coffin to Dodan Barracks(then Nigeria’s Supreme Military Headquarters), General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence together with a newly written song “Coffin for a Head of State”.
An anti-colonialist, womanist and revolutionary to the end, it is what she would have wanted.
Ransome-Kuti is one of the most prominent figures in Nigerian history and inspired women across Nigeria through her brave acts and most notably her fight for women in the country. Some say that she paved the way for women in Nigeria to have better lives.
• • • • • • •
Written by Johnson Okunade
I’m a Writer, Humanitarian, Historian, Computer Scientist, Lifestyle/Travel Blogger, Web Developer, Web Content Creator, Culture Activist, Proudly Bowenian, and a friend-to-all. Feel Free to Contact me.
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