NOT TO BE MISSED
"La vie d'Aoua Kéita racontée par elle-même", an autobiography.
Paris: Présence Africaine, 1975. (400p.).
ISBN : 2-7087-0320-X.
Ce compte rendu en français
Aoua Kéita's autobiography (La vie d'Aoua Kéita racontée par elle-même), published in 1975, is a fascinating book that retraces the twists and turns of the author's professional and political career against the backdrop of well entrenched African traditions and colonial ideology.
Aoua Kéita was born in Bamako in 1912. Aged 11, she enrolled in the first school for girls opened in Mali by the French administration and, in 1928, she was admitted to the School of Medicine in Dakar where she graduated as a nurse in 1931. From that time, she worked as a midwife in various parts of the Colony. It is however as a political activist and later, as an elected member of Mali's first Parliament that she is better remembered. Her interest in political issues began in 1935, shortly after her marriage to Daouda Diawara, a young doctor very much interested in politics. Keen to share his ideas with his wife, he always considered Aoua as "an equal partner" (p.50). In 1945 the couple joined the newly formed Union Soudanaise Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (USRDA), a progressive political party fighting for Mali's independence from France.
Aoua Kéita's first marriage came to an end in 1949 as the couple had remained childless and Daouda Diawara's mother was determined to give a new wife to her son. After fourteen years of marriage, Aoua was devastated, but this blow did not diminish her political commitment. On the contrary: with her husband gone she was free to battle heart and soul for the USRDA's ideals, chasing new members, organising meetings, selling opposition newspapers such as L'essor, organising women's collectives. She was also mandated by her party to check fair play during elections and that always led to rowdy exchanges with local Chiefs and colonial representatives who did not want her to interfere with their idiosyncratic interpretation of individual voting rights.
In the 1947 election, for example, a polling booth of the Sambourou region had recorded 100% participation in an election, with 1999 votes going to the colonial government's sponsored candidate and a single vote to the USRDA's. Aoua Kéita was determined that a similar travesty of the electoral processes would not happen in her electorate, but many officials did not take kindly to the challenge of "a little black woman" (p.109). Anger against her was shared by both French colonials such as the French Commandant who was booed from a polling booth after a sharp exchange with Aoua and backward looking village chiefs, such as the veteran Sergeant-Chief of the French army, who shouted at her in a blend of French, Bambara and Mianka: "Get out of my village, impudent woman... Leave at once... stop talking or I'll have you caned" (p.390).
It is indeed a minor miracle that Aoua Kéita did not meet the tragic fate of Guinean M'Ballia Camara, assassinated in similar circumstances by a feudal village chief who could not come to terms with the idea of a woman challenging French colonialism and male ancestral authority (p.342). "The little midwife from Gao", as Aoua was dismissively called by some of her political opponents, was a real thorn in the side of the colonial hierarchy, thus for twelve years she was harassed by officials and subjected to all kinds of victimisation, threats, transfers to remote postings and other bullying tactics. As the USRDA gained influence, the pressure put on her to abandon political activities grew stronger from all sides. Influential personalities such as the Health Inspector of the AOF [French West Africa], the Regional Head of the Colony, the heads of the various hospitals, traditional chiefs, as well as "friends" and colleagues both European and African, were instructed "to constrain her" (p.71) in any way they could: and they did. However, as one of her Gao patients noted, that proved sometimes difficult as she was the only midwife in town and her husband the only doctor.
Aoua Kéita's progressive ideas and political activities were not only fiercely opposed by male officials; they were also censured by some women who were not supportive of change. Her own mother, for example, considered it "scandalous to send a girl to school" (p.24) and she objected strongly to Aoua being sent to work in Gao shortly after graduation instead of getting married. Traditional midwives found it hard to trust a young unmarried women with the secrets of their trade. And Aoua's unionist and political initiatives had always the potential to be derailed. Notwithstanding the dissensions associated with internal party politics, nominations and elections, the creation of Bamako's first "Union of Working Women", aimed at fostering women's togetherness and power did not achieve its aim initially. Instead it led first to damaging division between a small elite of "educated women" and the 98% of the female population who were not invited to join in and who felt betrayed and reacted angrily. Furthermore, many women were not convinced that organising women under the rigid political structure envisaged by the USRDA leadership and "masterminded by literate women" would achieve a better outcome than traditional women's organisations. As one militant argued: "We do not need the help of literate women... for ten years we have managed without them and their absence did not prevent us from moving forward. What you've got in mind will be difficult to achieve" (p.381). For Aoua Kéita, the evolution of the country was demanding a change in women's mentality: fostering such a change became her main preoccupation in the 1960s after the independence of Mali.
Aoua Kéita's autobiography ends at the time of Mali's accession to independence in 1960, but as the author says in her concluding paragraph, this milestone did not mark the end of the country's struggle for freedom, democracy and peace. The RDA and President Modibo Kéita's presidency did not transform Mali into a thriving democracy and his one party rule was toppled in 1968 by a military coup. That led to the dissolution of parliament and the end of Aoua Kéita's political career. In 1970 she followed her second husband to Congo Brazzaville and only returned to Mali in 1979, one year before she died, aged 67. A sad ending to a life-long engagement in the service of her country. Perhaps? : but also an example to other Malian women of subsequent generations, such as Aminata Traoré* and others, who have continued fighting ongoing injustice and oppression with courage and determination.
* See Aminata Traoré. L'Afrique humiliée. Paris: Fayard, 2008. (296p.). ISBN: 978-2-213-63590-3. Essay. [Preface de Cheikh Hamidou Kane].
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities