Remembering the Congolese women who fought for independence

The women who lived and died for African liberation should no longer be confined to the margins of history.

Lumumba pickets 1961 AP photo
Pickets carrying anti-Belgian and pro-Lumumba placards parade near the Belgian consulate in New York, on February 11, 1961 [AP Photo/Jacob Harris]

Days before the Democratic Republic of the Congo declared independence, a woman walked onto the tarmac of the Congolese airport with quick, assured steps. Her name was Andree Blouin, a known anti-colonial activist who was being deported by the Belgian government. All eyes were on her as she made her way to the plane bound for Rome. But among those watching, few knew that she had hidden, in her glamorous chignon hairdo, a damning political document that bore the signatures of Congo’s nationalist leaders.

She planned to take advantage of her expulsion to call an international press conference at which she would reveal evidence of Belgium’s interference in the transition to independence. As she walked on board, a colonial official blocked her path and asked, “Madame Blouin, are you expecting to return to the Congo?”

She responded with as much sarcasm as she could muster, “Are you expecting to leave the Congo?”

Today, 60 years after the tumultuous events that led to Congolese independence, Andree Blouin and the women who fought for African liberation are all but forgotten. But in her time, Blouin battled three colonial powers as an adviser to Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and Guinea’s Ahmed Sekou Toure.

In our current moment, as Black female activists lead movements against state violence in the United States, France, Brazil, and elsewhere, the narratives of African female freedom fighters can shed light on the historic roles women have played in the struggle for justice, and offer lessons for the present. In particular, Blouin’s activism showed that women’s liberation could not be separated from decolonisation.

The Woman Behind Lumumba

Who was Andree Blouin? Some said she was a spy for the Russians or the Americans. Others claimed she was the Congolese prime minister’s lover. On October 15, 1960, the Baltimore Afro-American ran a headline describing her as “The Woman Behind Lumumba”. What is certain is that Blouin was a self-proclaimed Pan-Africanist who made important contributions to the anti-imperialist project of liberation for African-descended people. A journalist once asked her whether she was a Communist. She responded, “Let small fools call me what they like. I am an African nationalist.”

Blouin was born in the Central African Republic in 1921 and grew up separated from her family in an orphanage for “mixed-race” children in Brazzaville. Belgium has since apologised for this colonial atrocity. France has not.

Years later, when her two-year-old son, Rene, was ill with malaria, the French colonial administration refused to grant Blouin access to life-saving quinine medicine, it was reserved for Europeans only. She had to watch her son die. Throughout her life, her movements back and forth between French and Belgian colonies gave her first-hand knowledge of the particular cruelties of each imperial power.

Blouin came to political activism in the Belgian Congo armed with insight gained from her intimate knowledge of colonial violence under French rule. She led a mass grassroots effort to mobilise Congolese women to participate in the independence movement. She stated that “one could not separate the problem of the African continent’s resources from the problem of the African woman.”

Blouin criticised colonial education, which limited women and girls to training such as housekeeping and needlework and advocated for a more comprehensive vision of education to be implemented in the new, independent nation. By 1960, she had become one of three members of Lumumba’s inner circle, working so closely with the Congolese prime minister that the press nicknamed them “team Lumum-Blouin”.

On the international front, Blouin criticised Belgium for sabotaging Congolese decolonisation. When she called the press conference in Rome at which she highlighted this fact, she faced an assassination attempt that forced her to flee to Guinea. It was on Blouin’s suggestion that Lumumba requested US assistance in pressuring Belgium to remove its troops from Congolese soil. In her autobiography, she reveals that her motive was to force Washington’s hand to reveal that its alliance lay with the Belgian imperial power. She never believed the US to be a genuine ally.

With the assassination of Lumumba and several of his close advisers, Blouin was sentenced to death. She fled once again, this time to Paris where she lived in exile until her death in 1986. Other women in her family were not as fortunate. Her daughter, Eve Blouin, recalls that the military detained her and her maternal grandmother. Like her mother before her who watched helplessly as her son died of malaria, Eve watched the soldiers beat her grandmother to death.

Blouin’s story is unique. But she was also only one of many overlooked women who were active in decolonisation. She worked with the Feminine Movement for African Solidarity, founded on April 8, 1960. 6,000 Congolese women attended its first meeting. By the end of May, their numbers had grown to 45,000 registered members. As their political influence grew, the colonial administration banned their meetings. Congolese politicians, in turn, tried to capitalise on the movement to boost their own popularity. The organisation remained focused on women’s enfranchisement. They outlined a vision for women’s health, literacy, and recognition as citizens of the emerging postcolonial nation. They also created chapters throughout the provinces and empowered local women to take up leadership roles in the movement.

Lessons learned

In some ways, Blouin was indeed the woman behind Lumumba, because her legacy continues to be overshadowed by that of the “great men” of Congolese independence.

She is elusive, not because she was the shadowy manipulator of Lumumba’s leadership, but rather because like many of the women who lived and died for African liberation, she remains on the margins of history. Likewise, the work of the Feminine Movement for African Solidarity remains relatively unknown in historical narratives about the long and painful march towards Congolese independence.

Today, 60 years later, as global protests against the murder of George Floyd have led to the swift arrest of his killers while those of Breonna Taylor remain free, the decolonisation struggle of the women of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a clear reminder of the need to recognise female victims of state violence and to remember their contributions to liberation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.