I remember an old Twitter friend (who later became a friend in real life but suddenly outgrew our friendship) who once tweeted in anger that all she ever heard about Funmilayo Ransome Kuti while growing up was that she was the first Nigerian woman to drive a motor car. Reflecting on that tweet, it occurred to me that I had not seen any proper biography of this icon, so it was plausible why pedestrian narratives prevailed. Upon reading FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION, one realises how much a disservice has been made to her legacy by only recognizing her as the mother of the iconic maverick, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and being the first Nigerian woman to drive a car. She was way more than those. In the face of few proper biographies that depict her life story, finding FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION, was hectic and the task was justified by the cost of the book and the extensive scholarly output in the book. FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION is written by two history scholars; Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba. Despite the multiplicity of authorship, there is an even tone throughout the book.

Funmilayo Ransome Kuti (nee Thomas) was born in 1900 in Abeokuta and from this South Western Nigerian city she earned the affectionate nickname of Beere (first daughter); the first female student at Abeokuta Grammar school, the first Nigerian woman to head a movement to attempt (and successfully depose a king even if was later reinstated), the first woman to travel with a nationalist delegation to London, and first Nigerian woman to hold office in an international women’s organisation. In all of these, she did not seek a pioneering role for its sake or to advance her agenda, she was constantly at the forefront of emancipating Nigerian women; whether it was to unshackle market women from the burden of excessive taxation imposed by colonialists and their apologists or extending suffrage to Nigerian women, or the nation’s independence from colonial Britain. Her entire life was about liberating Nigerian women and enforcing equality in a society that was deeply (and still is but to a lesser extent) skewed against them. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was a pragmatist. She was not beholden to her Western education, her Yoruba culture or even her Christian faith. She deployed every aspect of her life to push the agenda of Nigerian women.

A careful reading of FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION shows that the iconic role of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti would not have materialized without the active participation of her spouse; Rev. Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. Theirs was an egalitarian union. Rev. Israel Ransome Kuti did not feel emasculated in his masculinity as he often played second fiddle to his wife’s prominent role as an activist. In fact, he was an enthusiastic supporter and always found a way to merge and weave his activism as an educationist (a founding president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers) into her activism as a women leader or pre-independence nationalist. Her nationalist activism entails a lot of international travel and he willingly supported her by managing the home front in her absence. Such an egalitarian marriage was rare in Nigeria in the 1940s and 50s and highlights how the structure of the Kutis household played a major role in Funmilayo Ransome Kuti’s success as a pioneer in the emancipation of the rights of Nigerian women. It is slightly ironic too when one considers Fela’s subsequent views and conduct around women.

FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION is an excellent exploration into the life of an iconic figure and is a work that deftly positions her life within the politics of her day, the life and times of her husband and the prevalent Yoruba culture of the time. I was initially sceptical when I first picked up this book as soon as I became aware that it was written by academicians. I was concerned it might be too scholarly and dry. My worries and concerns were dispelled with the first few pages as it is a very accessible work that does not compromise on the relevant rigorous research that makes it an authoritative output. FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION is highly recommended.


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