Funmilayo Ransome Kuti: Before MLK there was FRK the "Mother of Africa”

When the great Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) was just a kid, a woman by the name of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was in the frontlines of a movement for gender equality and political independence half a world away.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (FRK) was a pivotal Nigerian feminist and nationalist leader who organized women and the disenfranchised against injustice.

She was the mother of Fela Kuti, a man often regarded as a prophet and the great aunt of one of Nigeria’s most illustrious writers, Nobel Prize Laureate Wole Soyinka. For many Nigerians Funmilyao was like Gloria Steinem, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman and MLK rolled into one.

In her storied life she would become an educator, political and community activist and a nationally-respected champion of women’s rights.

FRK was born Francis Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas in 1900 to Yoruba parents in the city of Abeokuta when Nigeria was still under British rule. As a young woman she pursued studies overseas in Britain and subsequently returned to her native Nigeria to work as a teacher. She would later marry her childhood sweetheart the Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome Kuti.

FRK was a founding member of a political party called the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). She would become the only woman in an NCNC delegation to Britain to call for equitable representation of Africans in colonial government.

Like MLK, Kuti’s legacy would become larger than life.

For many Americans MLK is less a man than a bombastic and noble voice; a burst of righteous sound that resounds against the walls of history and offers us a glimpse of a brave new world.

If MLK was the voice of America’s moral conscience then Kuti was the incarnation of Nigeria’s courage.

Known for her work with the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU), a grassroots organization Kuti founded, she had no qualms about confronting bastions of imperialism and gender inequality.

Kuti would become famous for the tale of how she snatched the Ogboni’s Oro.

The “oro” is both a cultural ritual and physical object used to assert the authority of the Ogboni society, a traditional secret male fraternity.

During the oro ceremony men would march outside while women were forced to stay indoors. The ritual’s physical counterpart was a long stick attached to a string that was swung overhead and believed to be infused with magical power and the ability to punish those who were disobedient.

The legend goes that the oro stick was brought out by men in the Ogboni to intimidate Funmilayo Ransome Kuti as she and other women were participating in a protest.

It is said that FKR snatched the oro stick from the men and put it in her home for all to see.

Her son, Fela Kuti once related a story about another protest his mother led on the office of the local British colonial administration in her native Abeokuta. After enduring some manner of insult on the part of a young white colonial bureaucrat, FRK soundly cursed the man out for his insolence, calling him a “rude little rat” and a “bastard.”

“Imagine insulting the highest…representative of the British imperial crown in Abeokuta, Oh man! I was proud. People in Abeokuta talked about nothing else but that incident,” Fela said of his mother.

Like far too many drum majors for justice the reign of the “Lioness of Lisabi” was cut short. Then an old woman, FRK was thrown out of a window by soldiers who raided Kalakuta Republic, her son Fela’s communal compound. She died of her injuries in 1978.

Funmilayo’s story is one that has been largely unsung outside of Nigeria. Hers is a tale of a hero with an iron will, of a mother of mystics and scribes, of the woman who stole the Ogboni’s oro stick. She is “the Mother of Africa” who according to Fela Kuti, became the spirit of rain and still speaks to us in a voice of storm clouds and thunder.

Assita Camara is a writer residing somewhere below the Mason-Dixon. She writes about culture at her blog The Afro-Modernist and crafts prose about culture, herstory, and life at her philosophie. You can follow her tweets about music, poetry, and technology at @assitawrites

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