Confronting oppression through politics, literature and music

Vocalising against oppression

by
Marijke Everts (Europeana Foundation)

Between the late 1940s and 1970s, many African countries were shifting from colonialism towards anti colonial revolutions and independence.

In the Belgian Congo (later named Democratic Republic of Congo), Senegal and Nigeria, Patrice Lumumba, Mariama Ba and Fela Kuti have each contributed, influenced and shaped their respective countries by vocalising the oppressive systems their societies were dealing with.

Patrice Lumumba

Following World War II, across Africa, young leaders were working towards independence from colonial powers. Patrice Lumumba became the leader of the Congolese National Movement political party, which he helped found in 1958.

The party gained popularity because it did not speak towards any one particular ethnic group and promoted independence, neutrality in foreign affairs, gradual Africanisation of the government and state-led economic development.

A Congolese Round Table Conference was held in Brussels between January and May 1960. There, the future of the Belgian Congo was discussed between the Congolese political class and Belgian politicians and businessmen. The Belgian delegation were not expecting unity across Congolese party lines and underestimated their discontent. With 30 June 1960 set as the independence date, national elections were held in May, with Lumumba’s political party winning.

After independence, an army rebellion broke out, which was the beginning of the Congo Crisis. Lumumba called on the United States and the United Nations for help to repress the Belgian-supported Katangan state separation from Congo. Both refused, so Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for support.

Lumumba was imprisoned then executed in a coup supported by Belgian authorities, the United Nations, the United States and Britain on 17 January 1961. After his assissination, he was seen as a martyr for the Pan-African movement. Belgium formally apologised for its role in the assassination in 2002.

Mariama Bâ

Mariama Bâ was an influential writer and a women's rights advocate born in 1929 in Dakar, Senegal during the French occupation.

She was born into a wealthy family of Lebu ethnicity. Her paternal grandfather was an interpreter for French officials in Saint-Louis, before coming to Dakar. Her father became the first Senegalese Minister of Health in 1956.

As her mother died early in her life, her maternal grandparents took charge of her care. She attended Koranic school and was educated in French due to her father's interest. Her grandparents didn't believe in girls receiving formal education but, upon her father's insistence, she was enrolled into a French language school in Dakar which would later be named after Berthe Maubert whom she studied with.

In 1947, she became a teacher and married politician Obeye Diop whom she later divorced. Some sources claim she had nine children with Diop, while others claim her marriage to Diop was her third marriage and they had five children together.

Nonetheless, it was after her divorce that she raised her children alone and started becoming involved in women's associations, promoting education and women's rights.

In 1979 Mariama Bâ wrote Une si longue lettre (So long a letter).

The novel is in the form of letters and covers the life of Senegalese women during the 1970s and 1980s, community life, Islam and polygamy, and death rituals. It explores the strains between the main character Ramatoulaye's feminist values (developed mostly because of her French colonial education) and her religion, often used as a means of justifying the mistreatment of women. Nonetheless, Ramatoulaye attributes the mistreatment of women by men to the misinterpretation of Islamic scriptures, rather than the scriptures being inherently sexist.

The novel was a great critical and public success - she won the Noma prize for publication in Africa at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1980.

Her second novel Un chant écarlate (Scarlet Letter), published in 1981 after her death, also gained international attention. The novel is about a marriage between a French woman and a Senegalese man. It explores cross-cultural marriage, the tyranny of tradition and the need for women to create empowering spaces for themselves.

In her third book, also published in 1981, La fonction politique des littératures Africaines écrites (The Political Function of African Written Literatures), Mariama Bâ declares that every African woman contributes to Africa's development and growth.

Mariama Bâ is considered one of the pioneers in Senegalese literature, and her novel Une si longue lettre is taught in Senegalese secondary education.

President Leopold Sedar Sengor creat a girls boarding school on the island of Gorée was and named it after her while she was alive in 1977, as a tribute to her work and what she stood for.

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Fela Kuti

Afrobeat pioneer musician Fela Kuti was born in 1938 in Abeokuta in Nigeria, at that time a British colony.

As the son of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a feminist and activist in the anti-colonial movement, he began to vocalise the hardship and the life of the everyday Nigerian people through his music from the late 1960s onwards.

His music was a mix of jazz, funk, Ghanaian highlife, psychedelic rock and traditional rhythms and chants which founded Afrobeat. Singing in Pidgin English, his music was widely understood throughout the continent and beyond.

In 1969 he travelled to the USA, and inspired by the Black Power movement, shifted his musical themes from love to social issues.

His music was extremely critical of the Nigerian government which would see him imprisoned many times. His songs were inspired by the realities of corruption and socio-economic inequality in Africa.

In 1977, he released the album Zombie - an attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military.

The album was a hit which angered the government, setting off an attack against Fela’s commune called the Kalakuta Republic. His mother died in the event which led him to create the songs Coffin for Head of State and Unknown Soldier as well as send her coffin to the military general.

In the 80s he released a song with his band Egypt'80 titled Beasts of No Nation, an anti-apartheid composition with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and South African State President Pieter Willem Botha on its cover.

By the 1990s, military corruption in Nigeria worsened as well as Kuti's health. Fela Kuti died of AIDS in 1997 and more than one million people attended his funeral.

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