Aoua Keita

Aoua Keita (1912-1980) was a Malian midwife and anti-colonial activist.

Pedagogical Unit

1. Midwives and teachers: a female elite in the colonial era

1.1 Educating women auxiliaries: political and economic stakes

Aoua Keita belonged to the first generation of African women ‘auxiliaries’ (midwives, nurses and schoolteachers) to emerge under the French colonial administration. Before the First World War, colonialism remained an overwhelmingly male enterprise, and women were scarcely ever acknowledged in the colonial policies emanating from the metropole. Only missionaries were concerned with furthering African women’s education.

With the threat of impending war, however, the need to increase the colonies’ population density, and to create a larger workforce to support the development of the colonial economy, led to the establishment of a public health policy intended for the colonized populations. To remedy the shortage of skilled French women personnel in French West Africa, the colonial administration opted to form and recruit African midwives. These midwives were charged with the task of lowering the rate of maternal and infant mortality, and disseminating European medical and health norms throughout the colonies.

Map of French West Africa (AOF), « The seven colonies of French West Africa » from L'œuvre de la France en Afrique occidentale, special issue of L'Illustration, 29 February 1936, p. 261. Public domain.

1.2 Girls’ professional training schools (part 1)

The Dakar Medical School was formed in 1918 as part of a set of ‘compensatory measures’ adopted in recognition of Africans’ contribution to the war effort*. It contained a midwifery section from its inception. At the School, African women received a professional formation in the ‘female’ vocations of midwifery and nursing.

With the opening of the École Normale for girls at Rufisque in 1938, African women later gained access to a career which had been the exclusive preserve of men: teaching. These two federal schools in Senegal were unique in accepting young women from across the eight colonies of French West Africa and Togo who wished to continue their studies beyond the school-leaving certificate.

Midwife with a baby. Photographic archives of the Association Santé Navale Outre-mer (ASNOM).

In 1918, a series of reforms was introduced to improve Africans’ living conditions. The reforms had been pushed for by Blaise Diagne, the elected representative for Senegal in the French parliament, in recognition of Africans’ participation in the First World War. It is thought that 200,000 soldiers from French West Africa (the ‘Tirailleurs sénégalais’, or Senegalese Riflemen) fought for France between 1914 and 1918.

1.2 Girls’ professional training schools (part 2)

The formation and professional training of young women civil servants in colonial schools* provoked considerable resistance among local populations. Mothers, in particular, feared that they would not be able to find husbands for their educated daughters, so strong were the preconceptions regarding schooling at the time. Women who had studied were routinely perceived as rebellious, materialist and alienated.

As a result, the two federal schools initially recruited among women of mixed ancestry, and the daughters of auxiliaries of the colonial administration. The fathers of these young women, who had invariably gone to colonial schools themselves, were generally more inclined to see their daughters gain access to paid professions. Aoua Keita’s father fell into this category. In 1923, this veteran ‘tirailleur’, who had gone on to work in the colonial hygiene service in Bamako, sent his daughter to a colonial school against the wishes of his wife, who considered that school ought properly to be the preserve of boys.

Ecole des métisses, Bamako (1920-1945) where Aoua Keita was schooled. © Archives nationales d’outre-mer (ANOM)

Alongside opening these girls’ professional training schools, in 1924 the colonial administration introduced a policy of schooling African girls up to primary level. This resulted in the tripling of the female workforce in little more than a decade. This sudden increase was particularly striking in French Sudan, today’s Mali, where Aoua Keita was born.

1.3 A new family model (part 1)

After obtaining her school-leaving certificate in 1928, Aoua Keita won admission to the Dakar Medical School by way of competitive examination, and was there formed as a midwife. She was transferred to Gao on graduation (1931) – to the great regret of her mother, who did not look happily on a young single woman undertaking such a journey, or living alone so far away from her family.

In this northern region whose language she did not understand, Aoua Keita, in her own words, was the ‘only emancipated young woman’ courted by young civil servants, traders and village notables. In 1935, she married the young doctor Daouda Diawara, whom her father had chosen for her.

Malian and Senegalese female graduates visiting male students of the Ecole normale de Rufisque for festive activities. Private archives of Sira Diop. Extracted from the book by Pascale Barthélémy, Africaines et diplômées à l’époque coloniale (1918-1957), Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010.

1.3 A new family model (part 2)

In the eyes of the colonial administration, whose objective was to establish a new family model based on civil marriage and monogamy, this doctor and midwife embodied an ideal to which Western-educated Africans should aspire. The administration sought to provide male members of the elite with women who resembled them: Western-educated, possessing a similar Euro-African culture, and enjoying the same pastimes (reading, walking, cinema).

These couples, brought together by romantic love and their work in the civil service, reflected the social mobility made possible by the colonial school system. They formed the class of ‘évolués’.* At the same time, however, the education which girls received threatened to upset the conjugal norms of colonial societies. The rejection of polygamy by certain Western-educated African women began to provoke considerable conflict between couples, and among families.

Female graduates during their gym class. Photographic archives of Sira Diop. Extracted from the book by Pascale Barthélémy, Africaines et diplômées à l’époque coloniale (1918-1957), Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010.

The term ‘évolué’, forged by the colonial administration, designated an elite which had adopted the cultural values and modes of behaviour of European societies. This elite stood out in how it dressed and cooked, by its choice of interior furniture, and in its usage of French as a means of communication.