Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was an uncompromising champion of women’s rights and self-determination. Her life mirrors the story about the birth of modern Nigeria, writes Tanya Pampalone

Words by Tanya Pampalone | 20 May, 2014

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.

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.

The family poured their meagre resources into educating their children; all would eventually be schooled in Europe. Soyinka wrote that they had one of the four phone lines in the town at the time, but their only major material possessions were small plots of land, inherited and purchased, as well as an old car. Fela would brag to Moore that his mother was the first woman in Nigeria to drive a car—it may be truer that she was the first woman to drive a car in Abeokuta, which, at the time, was witnessing significant infrastructural upgrades, including a new intercity road connecting it with Asha.

Some of those interviewed felt Funmilayo “wielded the most power in the relationship”. Those who knew them well disagree, telling her biographers that “the difference in their public personas—she the firebrand, he the rock—was the foundation of a complementary union built on honest communication, mutual support and deep respect”.

“He was a woman’s man,” stated Funmilayo. “He hated women being exploited. Many times he was sent for and told, ‘Come and see what your wife is doing, O!’ He merely smiled and told them to leave me alone as I had my own mind. He never went against anything I did.”

But her extensive travelling, teaching and political involvement over the years did weigh heavily on their children. Though both Dolupo and Olikoye respected their mother’s choices, they both lamented the fact that they did not have an intimate relationship with her. Each of her children also confirmed that their parents were strict disciplinarians who were strong believers in corporal punishment.

“Caress their children?” said Fela, who the other children said was his mother’s favourite. “They wouldn’t indulge in that shit-o. They called it indulgence. Hold us in their arms? Never … My mother was a motherfucker, you know. She would flog you like a man.”

Funmilayo recalled to her biographers her “mounting anger” as she became increasingly aware of the market women’s concerns which, in addition to the grind of poverty, was exacerbated by the ill treatment at the hand of government and an unfair taxation system. Under the colonial system, a “head tax” was imposed on girls from the age of 15, while boys were not taxed until they were 16; wives were taxed separately from their husbands whether or not they earned income. Non-payment of taxes resulted in jail time. But it was the methods sometimes used to enforce collection that caused the most offence: officials would march into homes and order women to strip so they could assess their age.

It was through the market women that Funmilayo began to learn the stark realities of what was happening around her: “We educated women were living outside the daily life of the people.” It was at that time, in the early 1940s, that Funmilayo abandoned western clothing in favour of the traditional Yoruba wrapped cloth—in order to “make women feel and know I was one with them”—and often began using Yoruba in public speeches, which meant that British officials required translation.

In 1945, after the market women complained to the ALC about their rice being seized without compensation, representatives from the group went to the local government office to demand an end to the practice. After this, and a campaign of letters to the newspaper, the confiscation practices ceased. The win gave the group—and Funmilayo—the encouragement that they needed.

The ALC despatched a list of demands to the government: no increase in taxation on women, an end to government-controlled trading, the building of health clinics, improved sanitation, access to clean water and financial assistance for adult literacy programmes. The ALC, together with the market women it supported, developed into an opposition to the local traditional government, and the colonial authorities who controlled it. In response, officials began to squarely aim their growing frustrations at the instigator of it all.

In August of 1947 Funmilayo formed part of a seven-member delegation of the political party of which she was one of the founders, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, which went to England for several weeks. They were sent to protest the Richards Constitution, which was drawn up as a response to nationalist demands for democracy, albeit without the consultation of the Nigerian people.

Before she left England, Funmilayo was asked to write a piece for the British Daily Worker on the condition of Nigerian woman. Among other things, she noted that these women were “poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, and malnourished” and appealed to British women to “help free the women of Nigeria from ‘slavery—political, social and economic’”.

Soyinka, who had been drawn in to the activities of the ALC through his tutoring work for some of the market women (along with the elder Ransome-Kuti children) recalled the fallout and the outraged letters in local newspapers. “It was a disgrace and [she] was a traitor to her own country-women … Mrs Ransome-Kuti was advised to stick her nose in whatever business took her to England, and leave the concern for the welfare of Egba womanhood to the one man who had always made it his benevolent concern, the father of all Egba himself—the Alake of Abeokuta.” But it would be the Alake, the local ruler who sat under the colonial administrators of the time, who would soon discover the power of the women of Abeokuta.

The ALC’s first major demonstration unfolded on November 29 and 30 in 1947, amidst the backdrop of the disassembly of the British Empire, which was in the midst of their withdrawal from India. An article in the West African Pilot reported that 10 000 women held a 24-hour vigil outside the Alake’s palace. A second protest, in December that same year, apparently lasted for 38 hours. By then, the ALC had become the Abeokuta’s Women’s Union (AWU), and the protests were always led by Funmilayo. She held training on mass resistance at her home, showing women how to protect themselves from tear gas, and even how to throw the canisters right back at police.

During one of the actions, Soyinka recalls a confrontation with the local colonial administrator who instructed Funmilayo to “shut up your women”. Funmilayo shot back a response: “You may have been born, you were not bred. Could you speak to your mother like that?” Soyinka notes that the district officer’s “open-mouthed retreat was accompanied by a welling of the women’s angry murmur. There were shouts on the Alake to get rid of the insolent white man at once, within minutes. If he was not out, they would come in, cut off his genitals and post them to his mother.”

The ongoing protests escalated and were accompanied by letters to newspapers, petitions, press conferences and documented complaints of the Alake’s abuse of power; the women were relentless, making the town, at times, ungovernable. Soyinka further recalls: “The women now dug in for a long siege. Shock squads roamed the city, mobilising all womanhood. Markets and women’s shops were ordered closed. Those who defied the order had their goods confiscated and sent to the field before the palace … They held meetings with the Alake’s Council, most of which ended in deadlocks. At the end of each meeting they reported back to the assembly who responded with songs and dances of defiance.”

Funmilayo’s biographers recorded a few of those songs, some remarkably raw in their messaging, a testament to the unabashed feminist spine that ran through the movement: “[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 on you … O you men, vagina’s head will seek vengeance.”

After months of protest, the women eventually won. In January 1949, the Alake abdicated. In an interview with New Breed magazine years later, Funmilayo commented on the protests that drove the Alake out: “What people are saying is that I attacked [Alake]. I didn’t really attack [Alake], I attacked imperialism. Those Europeans were using him against his people … I was attacking Europeans indirectly and they know it. Attacking a ruler who abused his power was not an imported ideal but very much a part of Egba tradition.”

Funmilayo adopted an increasingly anti-colonial stance, as did the nationalists who were intensifying pressure on Britain for greater autonomy. But independence was far from being her sole driving force. She knew that Nigerian women would not be freed from a deeply ingrained patriarchy just because they were granted an independent state.

In May of 1949, the AWU went national, morphing into the Nigerian Women’s Union. At their second annual conference, in 1954, Funmilayo addressed her audience: “As women we still feel that we are inferior to men, we inherited this feeling from our mothers whose spirits had been subdued with slavery and we have to join hands together to shake off this feeling so that the forthcoming independence may be of reality to us.”

Funmilayo’s work had gone national, and not long after, she would be heavily involved in women’s rights on an international scale. Six years later, on 1 October 1960, Nigeria would be independent. But Funmilayo’s work was far from complete.

Shortly after her London visit of 1947, the Soviet-inspired Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) asked Funmilayo to join their group. Years later, she was elected vice president. Her involvement with the WIDF and other international women’s groups would take her to China (it is said that she met Mao Tse-tung) as well as Vienna, Poland, Algeria, Benin, Guinea, Liberia, Togo, Britain, Germany and Ghana (she personally knew Kwame Nkrumah).

Funmilayo’s impressive travel schedule is matched by her tireless correspondence. Throughout her papers, her biographers found correspondence from women’s groups from around the world: South Africa, the United States, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Trinidad, Korea, China, Bulgaria, India and Vietnam. At different times throughout her travels, the newly independent Nigerian government would refuse to renew her passport or give permission to travel due to her affiliation with some of the groups, which they considered communist. But it didn’t slow her down much.

Despite her husband’s illness—in 1952, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer—she continued her extensive overseas trips. In her diary that year, she referenced a dream on her birthday where she had “seen insects coming out of pieces of cake that she was eating. She later expressed guilt and regret at not having stayed more closely by her husband’s side during his illness.”

Her biographers also noted a story about when the Reverend was visited in hospital by a member of the teacher’s union who asked if his wife would be coming to see him soon. His reply: “My wife is eaten up with her concern for women’s affairs and I leave her to it.” The visitor reported that this was said “not with bitterness but in resignation”. When he died in 1955 they had been married for 30 years.

Funmilayo would outlive her husband by 23 years. During these later years she was dogged by financial constraint, but remained heavily involved in national and international politics. She built her own schools on land she had inherited from her father, as well as a two-story house for the family. She also purchased 30 acres of land down the road, using much of it for a new secondary school which opened in 1962—the Reverend Ransome-Kuti Memorial Grammar School—which, eight years later, would have 12 classrooms, chemistry and biology laboratories, a library that had more than 2000 volumes and staff quarters. But running the schools became more difficult as she got older and, by many indications she ran them as a micro-manager, alienating staff; she also struggled with financial affairs, sometimes paying salaries late.

Funmilayo spent much of her later years fighting a lawsuit over a piece of land she and her husband purchased years before. After beginning construction on the land near Lagos, a man placed a court order against her. It turned out he was the legal owner and her ownership papers were worthless. But she continued the court battle; each time the judgment was upheld, and each time she would contest it. Funmilayo went through so many lawyers, say her biographers, that when her daughter was asked if she “had any men friends” after her husband’s death, she replied laughingly, “Her only men friends were her lawyers.”

In the 1970s Funmilayo added the Yoruba word Anikulapo to her name—it means “hunter who carries death in a pouch”—and dropped Ransome completely. Fela, who became increasingly politically radicalised in this decade, did the same. By 1977, Fela was one of Nigeria’s best-known musicians, as well as an extremely outspoken political agitator, his music and lifestyle representing an affront to the independent government.

Funmilayo was a regular visitor to 14 Agege Motor Road in Lagos, where Fela lived with his band members, many of which were girlfriends (in 1978 he would marry 27 of his band members in one ceremony). He dubbed the compound the Kalakuta Republic, naming it after the cell where he was first imprisoned in the early 1970s, likely under a charge of drug use. Fela faced continual government harassment for his critical political views (“We fear to fight for freedom/ We fear to fight for liberty/ We fear to fight for justice/ We fear to fight for happiness/ We always get reason to fear,” he intones on his 1977 song “Sorrow Tears & Blood”, which likens the situation in Nigeria to South Africa and Rhodesia).

Police raids became a constant, both at his compound, as well as his famous nightclub, the Shrine. On 18 February 1977, more than 1000 soldiers are said to have stormed the compound. Many who were there that day were brutally beaten; women had their clothes torn off and some would later claim they were raped. Fela was badly injured, as was his brother Bekolari. The compound itself was burnt to the ground. Funmilayo, who was nearly 77 at the time, was thrown “by the hair” from a two-story window. She would never fully recover from the injuries she sustained that day.

The raid would become known popularly as the “Kalakuta War” and eventually resulted in the military government convening a tribunal—the government distanced themselves by saying the attack was undertaken by “unknown soldiers”. According to Funmilayo’s biographers, the incident nearly made international news, until the New York Times correspondent, who attended the first tribunal sitting, was arrested and deported. For the next year, Funmilayo was in and out of the hospital. In February 1978, after a lawsuit for damages from the raid was dismissed by the courts, Ransome-Kuti reportedly moaned, “Why are they doing this to us?” On April 13, she went into a coma-like state and died.

Fifty-thousand people turned out for her burial in Abeokuta. It was, however, on 1 October 1979, when then-president Olusegun Obasanjo finally was stepping down that Fela fashioned a coffin, along with a song, “Coffin for Head of State” (1981), which he left on the steps of Obasanjo’s residence. “Them steal all the money,” he would wail. “Them kill many students/ Them burn many houses/ Them burn my house too/ Them kill my mama.”

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti did not go quietly, and neither will her legacy. She will soon feature prominently in October 1, a movie by Nigerian filmmaker Kunle Afolayan, which follows on a successful run of Fela!, a Broadway musical produced by Jay Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, where her image literally took centre stage. Like many women leaders, and indeed many working and travelling mothers, Funmilayo’s children and her husband would suffer from her long absences, both in body and in spirit. Her attention was focussed elsewhere. But Fela adored her, and took to worshipping his mother in ceremonies after she died, believing her spirit would enter one of his wives to speak to him.

What would she have made of her favourite son’s polygamy, his abusive behaviour (he told Moore he slapped his wives when he needed to), the misogynistic beliefs reflected in “Mattress”, a song appearing on his 1975 album Noise For Vendor Mouth in which he describes a woman as something on which a man is to sleep upon? One wonders, too, what she would have made of the glamour, the commercialisation of her life and that of her son; if she would believe her message was lost on the obsessive material world that both of them seemed to have shunned. But one doesn’t have to wonder so much about what she would have said about that banknote. Certainly, she wouldn’t have kept her mouth shut.

Tanya Pampalone is the executive editor of the Mail & Guardian where she oversees print and digital narrative projects, in-depth features and the publication’s special editions. Her own writing has been widely published in the United States, the Czech Republic and South Africa