Words: Tanya Pampalone |
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was the educated wife of a reverend whose son became one of Africa’s foremost musicians. A friend of Kwame Nkrumah, her transition from society lady to uncompromising champion of women’s rights and self-determination is also a story about the birth of modern Nigeria
The announcement, which came out of the Central Bank of Nigeria in August of 2012, would mark a historic move: Funmilayo Ransome- Kuti, the activist and mother of Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, was to be memorialised on the new 5000 naira note, alongside two other notable Nigerian women activists, Margaret Ekpo and Gambo Sawaba. The response from the family was swift. In a Google+ hangout with Channels Television, Seun Kuti, Funmilayo’s grandson, demanded the government first apologise for the death of his grandmother before deciding to place her image on their new currency.
“It’s ludicrous to say the least,” said Kuti, who maintains the family musical legacy and is currently the lead singer of his father’s legendary band Egypt 80. “She was murdered by the federal government of Nigeria. They have to accept they were the cause of her death.”
With all four of her children now deceased, including Seun Kuti’s father, Fela, who died in 1997, the youngest of Fela Kuti’s sons spoke on behalf of the family. And his response was right on key. His grandmother, an educator, a feminist and national and international political activist, had fought government officials—from the colonial era right through the early days of independence—much of her life. Kuti was not going to allow his grandmother to be silenced by her death.
According to Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba, who wrote the only existing biography on Funmilayo, For Women and the Nation (1997), the woman who was known as the “Lion of Lisabi,” after an 18th century Egba warrior, and compared to Madam Tinubu, a prominent trader who opposed colonial as well as local leaders, was the great granddaughter of a freed slave, Sarah Taiwo. Both sides of her family were western educated: her father, Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas, was a tailor, and her mother, Lucretia Phyllis Qmoyeni Adesolu, a seamstress. They wore western clothing, were married in an Anglican church and spoke fluent English as well as Yoruba; her father would later take a second wife, Rebecca Olushade Thomas.
“From all indications,” write Johnson- Odim and Mba, “they were as proud of their Africanness as of the privileged status that western education accorded them in a colonial setting.” Funmilayo would enjoy a similar standing. She was born on October 25, 1900, as Frances Olufunmilayo Olufela Abigail Folorunsho in Abeokuta, 100km north of Lagos, where she would spend much of the rest of her life. Originally settled in the early 19th century by the Egba, a Yoruba clan who fled the Oyo Empire, it had been a walled city, with the palace of the Alake, the traditional ruler of the area, appointed with a generous courtyard and an arched entrance topped with an elephant as its guardian.
Abeokuta was the first Yoruba town to receive missionaries, in 1846, and was early on at the vanguard of Yoruba educational efforts. By 1850 its population numbered 100 000— four times greater than Cape Town at the time, or roughly a fifth of the people living on Manhattan Island. The expanding railway network out of Lagos reached Abeokuta in 1895, connecting its agrarian economy, which concentrated around the production of palm oil, palm kernels, kola nuts and later cocoa. Women traders were a hallmark of the local economy. They sold their wares— from rice to traditional medicines—in a bustling marketplace, and the streets were lined with bicycle repair shops, barbers and sewing schools.
Funmilayo’s parents were “comfortable,” not wealthy, and were respected in the community. She and her sister, Comfort Harriet Oluremi, often played with her half-siblings. Her parents believed girls were as entitled as boys to an education— something she would embrace as a defining cause in her adult life. She met her husband-to-be when she was just 12. Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was nine years her senior. The son of a well-known reverend, who was credited with opening more than a dozen churches in the area, he added “Ransome” to the family name due to the influence of a British missionary, a common custom at the time. The two endured a long, highly chaperoned courting, and it was only after her schooling in London (where she would drop Frances Abigail from her name and be known only by Funmilayo, meaning “give me happiness” in Yoruba) and his studies in Sierra Leone, where he received his BA and a degree in theology through the University of Durham in England, that they married. It was 1925.
She stood five feet four, and in the photographs collected over the years, a slender, dark- skinned woman with high cheekbones, wide-set eyes, a gap tooth, and round, wire- framed spectacles stares intently back at you
The Reverend took a job in a nearby town as principal. It was in Ijebu- Ode that Funmilayo organised a “ladies club.” Made up of mostly middle-class, western-educated women, it focused on handicrafts and social etiquette. When the couple returned to Abeokuta in 1932, where the Reverend was appointed principal of the Abeokuta Grammar School, she set up a kindergarten class, and started up her ladies club yet again. The Abeokuta Ladies Club (ALC) held picnics and lectures and athletic games until 1944, when Funmilayo was introduced to a “market woman” who wanted to learn to read. Grace Eniola Soyinka, a successful trader and mother of Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka, was a niece of the Reverend. She served on the executive committee of the club and would drag her son to the early meetings.
Soyinka places the Reverend at the centre of the change in direction of the club. In his memoir Ake: The Years of Childhood (1981), Soyinka described how one afternoon the Reverend was “strolling past” the group and said: “You’ve been meeting now for some time and all I see all the time are onikaba (gown wearers). The people who really need your help are the aroso (wrapper wearers), yet they are not here. Forget the problems of social graces for newlyweds. Concentrate on the aroso. Bring them in on your meetings. They are the ones who need your help.” Regardless of the details of the transition, from this time on, everything would shift for Funmilayo. “The movement,” wrote Soyinka, “begun over cups of tea and sandwiches to resolve the problem of the newlyweds who lacked the necessary social graces was becoming popular and nationwide. And it became all tangled up in the move to put an end of the role of white men in the country.”
She stood five feet four, and in the photographs collected over the years, a slender, dark-skinned woman with high cheekbones, wide-set eyes, a gap tooth, and round, wire-framed spectacles stares intently back at you. Those who knew Funmilayo described her as “aggressive” and “stubborn”. Her biographers note that she “abhorred the flaunting of material wealth”. “Several informants described her as always eating ‘on the go’, having little patience with those around her, exhibiting a ‘military’ discipline, being ‘bossy’ in her desire to get things done yesterday. Diplomacy was not, in fact, her strong suit. In both public and private, her no-nonsense approach was not particularly tolerant of incompetence, dishonesty, pettiness, or disagreement, once she’d made up her mind.”
Many years later, one of the women from the ALC said: “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.” Sandra Smith, the Black Panther activist who met her son, Fela, in Los Angeles in 1969, and was known to have a major influence on him politically, met his formidable mother in Abeokuta not long after she first met Fela. Moore succinctly described her to Fela biographer Carlos Moore as follows: “Fela’s mama didn’t take no shit!”
The Abeokuta Grammar School was founded in 1908 as an all-male school, where the young Oludotun was among the first class of 44 students. By the time he took the reigns in 1932, the school had 100 boarders and 300 commuters. The grounds also served as the family’s home, along with their four children— Dolupo, Olikoye, Olufela (Fela), and Bekolari—until the Reverend’s retirement in 1954. It was co-ed, admitting students from different religions and ethic backgrounds. Funmilayo was “especially adamant in enforcing a ban on the use of derogatory names or epithets based on ethnic origin”, one former student told Johnson-Odim and Mba. To continue reading subscribe or get a copy of the print edition