There is a lot to marvel about Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. For anyone quite conversant with Nigeria history, you perhaps know her as the first woman to drive a car or the mother of the Afrobeat founder, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. This woman has a lot to her deeds aside those great feats. And without a doubt, she is one of the founding mothers of Nigeria.
Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was born in Abeokuta, Southern Nigeria on the 25th of October 1900 before the amalgamation of North and South Nigeria in 1914. She was birthed into the family of Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas and Lucretia Phyllis Omoyeni Adeosolu. Her father was a son of a slave who traced his origin back to Abeokuta where he settled, returning from Serria Leone. She attended Abeokuta Grammar School and afterwards, further at Wincham Hall School for Girls, Cheshire, England. Just as expected, unlike these days, she didn’t stay put in England but returned to Nigeria. She became a teacher at her alma mater where she was one of the first girls to attend.
On the 20th of January 1952, she got married to Reverend Isreal Oludotun Ransome Kuti who was a co-founder of Nigeria Union of Teachers and Nigeria Union of Students. Funmilayo played a prominent role in the mobilisation and empowerment of Africans and notably, African women.
In 1932, she rallied and organised the Abeokuta Ladies Club (ALS) which was initially civic and gradually evolved into a political and feminist association. In 1944, it became somewhat a classless society which organised impoverished illiterate and exploited by colonial authorities. She began to engage the women in public and social consciousness.
In this light, ALC became AWU (Abeokuta Women’s Union) in 1946 and its membership opened to women in Abeokuta. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti became the first president of AWU which sought to expand the umbrella beyond her domain. Thus, stretching out women empowerment agenda throughout the nation which made AWU, a national organisation. In 1949, it became NWU (National Women’s Union) and in 1953, Federation of Nigeria Women’s Societies (FNWS).
The exploits of AWU are somewhat immeasurable. They campaigned against price controls which made the colonial government drop the flat rate tax. A system that was extorting the market women at a time when trading was a major occupation for women in Southern Nigeria.
“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.” Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and her AWU members song that saw the Oba Ademola II, Alake of Egbaland abdicating over arbitrary taxation.
The colonial era was an excruciating period for not just Africans but African women in particular. Even before the generation of Funmi, there has been a feminist movement agitating for fair treatment and equality. The Aba Women Riot 1929 is an unforgettable historical moment in Nigeria. According to British colonial records, it is more aptly considered a strategically executed anti-colonial revolt organised by women to redress social, political and economic grievances. Many warrant chiefs had to resign and Native Courts were attacked, most of which were destroyed. Nevertheless, such victories come with pain and death, an inevitable factor the women were faced with. On several occasion when women protested, some were killed. In 1924, 32 women were killed as the British forces shot into a crowd of protesting women.
Funmi Ransome Kuti was a hardcore and streetwise strategist and a disciplinarian. She prepared the women for the challenges by organising training sessions. The women were taught to defend themselves, protect themselves from tear gas and how to pelt back the canisters. The protest was organised under the guise of picnics and festivals.
During one of the protest, the Oro stick was brought out in public to scare the women back to their home. The stick used by the Ogoni male confraternity group is supposedly possessed with a mystical power which possesses women and likely kills them. The women retreated to their homes but Fumilayo grabbed the swings, swinging it and declaring that the women now had the power. This act of courage motivated the women who began to push vehemently for their cause.
They were able to dethrone Sir Ladapo Ademola II, the Alake OF Egbaland in 1949. The local ruler had to relinquish his throne owing to a protest against his abuse of authority over collection of taxes. She was able to with the presentation of a document proving the local ruler financial crimes. The protest was so organised with the mantra, “No taxation without representation”. She also oversaw the abolishment of a separate tax system for women and pioneered the first adult education for women in Nigeria.
Prior to her intervention, the Alake had approval from the United Kingdom to impose an unhealthy tax on the woman specifically. It was a tough task that often required the maltreatment of the women for compliance. They were often beaten, arrested, stripped and their houses ransacked. If the Alake was taken out, there was a need to address the power that gives him such audacity.
In order to achieve this, she inked out, “We Had Equality till Britain Came”. She wrote this article on Nigerian Women and the problems which featured in the British Communist Party newspaper, Daily Worker, in 1947. The article focuses mainly on how the British advent impacted Nigeria, especially Nigerian women. She opened her article with the compelling statement,
Before the British advent in Nigeria, life there was mainly agricultural, and there was a division of labour between men and women. The men cultivated the land and sowed, and it was chiefly the duty of women to reap. The women owned property, traded, and exercised considerable political and social influence on society.
She then further explained that as a result of British advent, the women of Nigeria suffered greatly. They had very little healthcare, poor education, and they were “stripped naked” by taxation policies. Although Funmilayo was one of the few women to receive a prestigious education in England, she used her knowledge to voice the opinion of these women, in which the problems she listed inspired more radical movements.
Her ultimate cause and initiative for the pressure group were to raise the living standard of women and ultimately, enable equality between men and women in every sphere of life. She is also given kudos for women’s enfranchisement in northern Nigeria, courtesy the alliance between Women’s International Democratic Federation and Nigerian Women Societies. All of these and many more earned her an appointment as an Oloye in the Egba House of Chiefs. This led the way for women representation to fill administrative positions in the local council.
However, in such a time and age of colonialism, there was a political fight to engage in and feminism had to show forth it needs. You may have heard of the founding fathers but there wouldn’t be fathers if there weren’t mothers. Funmilayo isn’t just one of the women but one of the people who fought hard for the independence of Nigeria.
She actually played a huge role and took on somewhat espionage missions that one who took assume were for only men. During the cold war before independence between the West and East., she travelled widely around the world and was believed to have made contact with the Eastern Bloc. She travelled a lot to former USSR, Hungary and China where she met Mao Zedong. The Nigerian, American and British government accused her of working as a Communist agent. In 1956, she was denied passport renewal and visa for trying to influence Nigeria women with communist ideas. Her active role earned her the Lenin Prize for Peace in 1971 especially in promoting mutual relations between Nigerians and the Soviets.
She even helped found one of the political parties, National Council of Nigeria and The Cameroons (NCNC) in 1944. She was part of the delegation that negotiated Nigeria’s independence in the 1950’s.
Even though she fell apart with her political colleagues in the NCNC after she lost a seat in the regional assembly and her bid rejected for the second candidacy in 1951 and 1959 respectively. She didn’t deter to fight outside of politics for the good of the common man.
As a result of her old age, the activism began to wither but bloomed even more in her three sons, Olikoye, Beko and Fela. They were oppositions to various military juntas.
Prior to her exit from active politics, she formed her political party, the Commoner’s People Party which was a year later disbanded. Her activism began to witness a paradigm shift after independence. And also her social life, as we may say she partook of the Anikulapo dynasty – a rare feat. She discarded Ransome from her name in the 1970’s and adopted one by her son, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti is the origin of the dynasty, the legend of Afrobeat. And even she was raised in the Christian faith, there hasn’t been a record of when she opposed Fela Anikulapo Kuti new found extreme Afrocentric lifestyle. Quite unusual for a wife of a pastor raised in the Christian faith. His mother may have indoctrinated him of African values and heritage. It would be fairly right to say his experience of racism in the UK changed Fela forever and woke him up to another life entirely.
Mysteries of her death
The situation that surrounds the death of Funimlayo Anikulapo Kuti is somewhat blurry. It is said that she died from injuries she sustained during the raid of Kalakuta Republic, Fela’s estate. On February 18th, 1977, the police were on the chase for a boy, believed to be one of Fela’s son. He ran into the compound and apparently, two officers were electrocuted by the electric fence in an attempted to gain entry. This prompted the police to report to the nearest military barracks for reinforcement. The police and military personnel equipped with bayonets and clubs stormed the house without warning. The raid was a brutal one as the people were beaten, women stripped, property destroyed and the house burnt.
Fela’s mum, Funmilayo who was in the house as at that time was said to have been pulled by the hair and literally thrown off the window. She was 77 years old and suffered severally from the injury and shock. She died two months later as a result of the injury.
However, another account has it that she was not actually thrown out of the window but had to jump off the window for safety. The soldiers had set the house on fire and that was the only way she could have survived.
Looking a the image of Fela’s mother hospitalised, it doesn’t seem like she sustained injuries from beatings nor was thrown out of the window. You never can actually tell as there was no investigation for the true cause of her death.
Funmilao Ransome Kuti was a defiant feminist and Pan-Africanist.