By Saheed Alawode
“The labour of our heroes past” in Nigeria’s national anthem is a testament to the sacrifices made by some notable personalities for the betterment Nigeria’s future generation. These wonderful individuals, though mere mortals like us, left their marks in the sands of time. And when we talk of the female folks among them, the leading figure that comes to mind is none but the enigmatic and charismatic activist, Chief Olufunmilayo Ransome Kuti.
Born Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas on October 25 1900 in Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State, Nigeria, Chief Olufunmilayo Ransom Kuti was also known as Funmilayo Anikulapo Kuti.
The young Funmilayo was a very stubborn but intelligent student. She was the first female student at the prestigious Abeokuta Grammar School, where she schooled from 1914–1917.
Her father, Chief Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas, was the son of a returned slave, Ebenezer Sobowale Thomas, who traced his lineage back to Abeokuta and became of one of the leading Anglicans in his native home.
Education, Marriage and a Life of Activism
After her secondary education, Funmilayo proceeded to the United Kingdom to further her education. Upon her return to Nigeria, she became a teacher and later got married to Reverend Israel Oludotun. Her fervid interest in mass education and quest to eradicate illiteracy among women was equal to none. This made her organize literacy classes for women in the early 1920s. She also founded the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club for educated women who involved in charitable work in 1942.
Olufunmilayo also started a social welfare programme for market women club to help educate working class women. The programme later became the ‘first adult education programme’ for women in Nigeria. Although the programme began with working class women who are educated, it quickly expanded to market women and soon over 100,000 women were a part of the organization.
Through her doggedness and towering intellectual height, the association fought for the right of women, girl child and price control. For instance, in 1948, she led a fight against the sexist tax imposed on women in Abeokuta and temporarily shut down the government before forcing the Alake of Egbaland to temporarily relinquish his crown in 1949.
Political Giant in the ‘Native House of Chiefs’
As a strong member of the National Council of Nigerian and the Cameroons – NCNC, she fought for women’s right to vote and be voted for but was suspended due to her activism and her leftist opinion. In fact, she was directly or indirectly responsible for the creation of over ten groups fighting for women’s right in the 1940s in Abeokuta and environs.
In 1956, Olufunmilayo was banned from travelling because the British government accused her of romancing with the East. Particularly, the British authorities were unhappy of her meeting with Mao Zedong of China and other Eastern Bloc leaders, which according to them could affect the psyche of followers if it was not curtailed.
She was a colossus that changed the way people viewed women. It was surprise that she was the first Nigerian woman to drive a car. She was a part of the pre-independence conferences that later laid the ground for independence in 1960.
Due to immense contributions to communal struggle, she was also one of the women appointed to the ‘Native House of Chiefs’, serving as the Oloye of the Yoruba people. Likewise, she was the leader of the Abeokuta women group; winner of the Lenin Peace Prize; leader of the Commoners Peoples Party; leader of the Nigeria Women Union; among other illustrious achievements.
Mother of Legends
She was mother of the Afro-beat legend and activist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti; renowned doctor and activist, Beko Ransome Kuti, and also pediatrician, activist and Nigeria’s ex-Minister of Health, Olikoye Ransome Kuti. She is also the grandmother of Grammy award nominee and afro-beat legend, Femi Kuti, among other notable children. One of her notable family members is the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, who is her nephew.
She died on 13 April 1978 at the age of 77 in Lagos, Nigeria.