Kéita, Aoua (1912–1979)

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Kéita, Aoua (1912–1979)

Politician and stateswoman in the struggle for independence in the former French Sudan, now the Republic of Mali, who came to her feminist outlook through the practice of midwifery, established an agenda for women's participation in the political life of her country, and became the first woman elected to the Mali National Assembly. Name variations: Aoua Keita. Born Aoua Kéita in Bamako, the French Sudan, in 1912; died in Bamako in 1979; daughter of a French-educated laboratory worker (member of the influential Kéita family) and one of his several wives who came from the village of Kadjouga on the Ivory Coast; educated at the École des filles, the Orpheliat des Métisses, and the School of Midwifery in Dakar; married M. Diawara (a physician), in 1935 (divorced 1949); married Mahamane Alassane Haidara (a senator representing the Sudan in the French National Assembly 1942–59); children: none.

Began practice of midwifery, one of few professional women in her country (1931); joined the USDRA, the main nationalist party, and became politically active after her first marriage (1935); campaigned vigorously in the first elections in which women were allowed to vote (1946); founded the Union of Salaried Women of Bamako (1957); participated in the creation of the Federation of Black African Workers, or UGTAN (Union Générale de Travailleurs de l'Afrique Noir); served as representative to the World Federation of Trade Unions, or FSM (Fédération des Syndicats du Monde); helped draft a constitution for the new Mali Federation (1958); was the first woman elected to the Mali National Assembly (1959); retired from politics (1968); wrote her autobiography, Femme d'Afrique, in retirement.

In 1935, Aoua Kéita was a 23-year-old professional woman, skilled in midwifery, when she married M. Diawara, a medical doctor with whom she had shared work at a number of medical posts throughout the French Sudan. As educated and politically sophisticated young Africans of the French West African territories, the couple had every intention of basing their marital relationship on social and professional equality. In their country, however, it was still customary for an older female to witness the first intercourse of newlyweds and to assist the groom in case the bride resisted. When Dagnouma , a female relative, showed up on their wedding night to do her duty, Kéita's husband put the woman out the door, creating a scandal that exposed the young couple to severe criticism. While this personal event might seem a relatively minor and amusing episode, it also demonstrates the kind of social upheavals inevitable in African countries that have made the transition from colonial status to independent republics in the 20th century, and the redefinition of the political and economic roles in those societies that African women have undergone.

Aoua Kéita was born in 1912 in Bamako, a small town of some 8,000 inhabitants that was the capital of the French West African territory of French Sudan. Her highly respected and well-to-do family was believed to be descended from Sundiata Kéita, one of the founders of the 13th-century Malian Empire, and her father was a native of Kouroussa, in Guinea, who fought for the French in World War I. On his return to Mali during her childhood, he took a job in Bamako as an educated laboratory worker.

Like many Africans of the time, Aoua's father was polygamous, and she grew up in a large household, containing 25 apartments, with many half-brothers and half-sisters. Aoua's mother came from the village of Kadjouga on the Ivory Coast, spoke the Dioula dialect, and held a traditional view of women's role in society, believing that men were superior and should be in charge of all political, social, and economic decisions. She taught Aoua that the only political role a woman should exercise was to pass along advice to a brother, husband, or son in confidence, and then only if she were asked.

Emotional self-mastery was highly valued in Mali culture, and children learned at an early age to keep their feelings under control. Self-discipline was especially important among people of prominence like the Kéitas, who served as models to the rest of their community. Although Mali society had undergone some changes since the advent of French colonialism and the abolition of slavery in 1906, a strong caste system still existed. As a Kéita, Aoua had a position at the top of the social hierarchy, but as a woman, she was expected to be submissive to men.

The mass of people were beginning to become conscious of their condition as slaves. … Local unions have been organized. I undertook my administrative and political activities with these encouraging impressions.

—Aoua Kéita

As the patriarch, Aoua's father exercised unquestioned authority over all the members of his household and observed the tradition of taking several wives. He was, however, socially progressive regarding the education of his sons and daughters. Aoua first attended the École des filles, and later the Orpheliat des Métisses, where she received her Certificat des études primaires (CEP) in 1928, at age 16. Even more remarkable, she was encouraged by her father to seek higher education, and in 1928 she moved to the coastal city of Dakar to obtain training at the School of Midwifery, which was then the only form of education available for women in the French West African territories who had completed high school. Admittance was extremely competitive, with only 15–30 students accepted annually, but Aoua was always a bright and gifted student and successfully passed her qualifying exams.

In 1931, Aoua graduated, becoming one of the few Mali women to receive a professional degree. As a member of an upper-class family, as well as a professional woman trained in the latest European medical techniques, she was soon recognized as a member of the Franco-African elite, who would shape the future of their country in years to come. Like other educated Sudanese, Aoua was proud of her heritage and did not abandon the African oral culture in which she had grown up, but she did join with other bright young people in charting a different path for their personal lives, embracing French secular culture, and choosing to reject some Mali traditions.

Since the French worked diligently to obliterate class and gender oppression, one of the main forms of rebellion among the French colonials revolved around the youthful rejection of parental authority in choosing a spouse. Like most of her educated contemporaries, Aoua planned to marry for love rather than to please her parents.

After three years of study, Kéita took a position in Gao, a small administrative outpost and trading center with an ethnically mixed population, where French colonial policy had made few inroads and most of the inhabitants were Muslim. Kéita learned to speak Songhai, the local dialect, but found many of the townspeople suspicious of her emancipated outlook. Women there were accustomed to giving birth with the help of a traditional midwife who brought an amalgam of folk wisdom and acquired skill to the process. They knew nothing, however, about the reasons behind sterile techniques, and the death rate was often high.

In order to gain the confidence of the local women, Kéita took up sewing, reasoning that women would be interested in new clothes whether they were pregnant or not. "Thanks to this secondary activity," she later wrote, "I was able to come into contact with women of every age and of every condition." Kéita was gradually asked to attend at several births, and her skill in handling difficult deliveries eventually became widely known. Her goal was to synthesize modern medical practice with traditional cultural custom, and she learned a great deal about indigenous beliefs and procedures surrounding childbirth, although some women continued to reject sterile techniques, considering them unnecessary. Kéita described the social delicacy of the situation when she wrote, "How can we act to combat and eliminate certain customs and manners without being criticized by the people whose support we so badly need to reach our … objectives?"

Kéita's position of leadership grew in the community. "All the young people paid me assiduous and continual court," she wrote. "[M]y house became a pole of attraction. … Every day after dinner during the cold season young civil servants, merchants and nobles gathered in my living room." Her ability to bring people together would prove valuable in the coming years.

After her marriage to Dr. Diawara in 1935, Kéita grew increasingly interested in politics. Her husband was deeply concerned about their country's future, and current events were raising the levels of political passion to new highs. Twice during the late-19th century, Italy had tried and failed to control a part of the African continent by colonizing Ethiopia (then Abyssinia). In 1935, Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, made a third attempt, and in the face of the Europeans' introduction of airplanes and machine guns, Ethiopian resistance was doomed. As the fascist dictator had his way, young Africans like Kéita and her husband began to view Italian fascism as another form of bankrupt European rule. Europeans, they decided, must be ousted from the continent.

The couple joined the USRDA (Union Sudanaise du Rassemblement Démocratique Africain), and their days became filled with political meetings. Kéita's work as a midwife proved crucial in spreading the political word: women who gathered in her home now learned not only about birth and delivery, but about voting and national independence; her position was strengthened by the fact that the mothers and families of babies she had safely delivered became extremely loyal to her. It was comparatively easy for her to garner considerable support for the USRDA among a large segment of the population that might otherwise have been apathetic.

The USRDA was in the avant-garde of the African liberation movement. In 1946, years of effort culminated in the first elections in which women of the Sudan were allowed to vote. Although Kéita campaigned vigorously for the USRDA, the party did not win on June 2, but its organizing skills were soon to be felt at a national level.

In the 13 years of their marriage, Kéita and her husband found their life as a couple beset with many contradictions. Although her husband treated her as an equal in private, the couple found this a luxury they could not afford to demonstrate in public. Many political topics were considered taboo for Mali women to discuss outside the home, and when Kéita's husband felt it best not to defy social convention, she bowed to his wishes and kept silent, apparently accepting the public submissiveness as the means required to accomplish larger goals. Eventually, it was the force of traditional attitudes that destroyed the couple's marriage.

Despite several surgical interventions, Kéita proved unable to have children. Since Kéita was unwilling to live in a polygamous relationship, her husband intended at first to stay with his childless wife, until the couple was threatened by his mother's curse. Finally, in compliance with his mother's wishes, he divorced Aoua, then refused for a long time to take another wife, angering his family even more. Despite the divorce, Kéita maintained amicable relations with her husband's extended family and raised two of his nieces. Later, she married Mahamane Alassane Haidara who represented the Sudan as a senator in the French National Assembly from 1942 to 1959.

Politically and personally, the end of Kéita's first marriage proved liberating, as she no longer stood in her husband's shadow. By then in her late 30s, she assumed a greater public role, becoming an advocate for a number of issues, especially health reform, which she viewed as critical to the improvement of welfare for women in her country. In 1957, along with Aissata Sow , she founded the Union of Salaried Women of Bamako, which gave professional women a voice in the political sphere. She helped establish the Federation of Black African Workers, or UGTAN (Union Générale de Travailleurs de l'Afrique Noir), which represented African workers of both sexes, and became a representative to the World Federation of Trade Unions, or FSM (Fédération des Syndicats du Monde). As the French Sudan moved toward independence, Kéita, at the center of political events, was asked to help draft a constitution for the Mali Federation in the fall of 1958.

In her attempts to organize women, Kéita still faced cultural obstacles emanating from the women of traditional Mali society. In setting up the Federation of Salaried Women, for example, some members resisted the election of a president, because the office represented a European approach that challenged their accepted social norms. To provide the party with the officer required by the USDRA, while retaining the egalitarian spirit demanded by the group, Kéita exercised her considerable skill and diplomacy.

In 1958, she organized the Bamako Women's Bureau, which became another political vehicle for presenting the interests of women to the USRDA Party. Through its efforts, the following goals were recognized as part of the USRDA Party platform:

1. Women should participate in the struggle for their country's liberation.

2. Women should participate in Mali's economic development.

3. Women should be given improved educational opportunities.

4. Women should have access to improved health services.

A women's bureau was organized within the USDRA to implement these goals as policies.

In 1959, Aoua Kéita ran as a USRDA candidate from the region of Sikasso and won, becoming the first woman deputy elected to the national assembly of the nascent Republic of Mali. After its constitution was adopted in 1962, the government faced many problems. Its newly elected president was Modibo Kéita, a strong anti-colonialist whose attitudes scared off Western governments, which had never been attracted to investing much capital in the area in any case. Some Communist aid was available during these Cold War years, but not enough to sustain the new government. In 1968, the first president was overthrown and imprisoned in a coup, and the administration of Moussa Traoré which followed proved very corrupt. Aoua Kéita left the government and returned to Bamako, where she wrote her autobiography, Femme d'Afrique (African Woman).

In 1979, Aoua Kéita died, at a time when Mali remained poor and weak. Not long afterwards, however, a series of massive public demonstrations occurred, in which large numbers of Malian women of all ages participated, and a number died when government troops opened fire on the crowds. The corrupt government of Traoré was eventually brought down, by which time it was clear that women in the country had long since abandoned a passive role in national affairs.

Never a militant by nature, Aoua Kéita nevertheless became a radical feminist in promoting the rights of women in the French Sudan. Her moderate approach allowed her to reach large numbers of people who might not otherwise have felt women's liberation as an especially important issue. In both her public and private life, she was determined, as she said, not to "overturn our traditions, because it is on these traditions that our African society is based." Her ability to fuse tradition with new ideas proved a potent political combination. As a USRDA Party member, a representative to the national assembly, and a national leader, she became a founder of the Republic of Mali.


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Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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Kéita, Aoua (1912–1979)

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Kéita, Aoua (1912–1979)