Aoua Keita

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

Pedagogical Unit

2. The liberalization of political life in French West Africa (1945-1960)

2.1 Unequal access to citizenship

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, reforms were introduced to liberalize political life in French West Africa. For the first time, colonized peoples were granted the right to form associations and political parties*, and were incrementally granted the right to vote. In 1945, only the small group of colonized people who held the status of citizen, or who formed part of the university-educated elite, was authorized to vote.

The following year, under the Lamine Guèye Law, the entire population of colonized peoples was granted ‘citizenship’, without the right to vote. Nevertheless, the right to vote was gradually extended to several different categories of men, and to certain groups of women, such as licensed traders. In 1951, the right to vote was granted to African women if they were above the age of 18, and had at least two children (including children who had died for France). Finally, in 1956, universal suffrage for men and women was introduced in the French colonies.

Protest in Saint Louis during the visit of President Vincent Auriol in 1947. © AKG, extracted from the book of Charles Robert Ageron and Marc Michel (dir.), L’Afrique noire française. L’heure des indépendances, Paris, Éditions CNRS, 2010.

Before 1946 and the liberalization of the legislation governing political life, the creation of associations was subject to the colonial administration’s express authorization, a process which acted as a check on the development of African political initiatives. Consequently, most associations were run by the colonies’ French inhabitants. In 1946, as a result of the issuance of two decrees authorizing freedom of assembly and extending the Law of 1901 (which provides for the right of association) to the colonies, associations, trade unions and African political parties were finally able to see the light of day.

2.2 Aoua Keita, the organization of women and the struggle (part 1)

Aoua Keita’s life as an activist began in concert with her husband. Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 stoked in her the desire to revolt against European colonialism. With her husband, she joined the ‘Union Soudanaise – Rassemblement Démocratique Africain’ (US-RDA) [French Sudanese Union – African Democratic Rally],* helping to establish a section of the party in Niono in preparation for the legislative elections of 1946. Despite encouraging his wife’s political activism, however, Daouda Diawara continued to insist on her complete discretion, so as not to provoke the anger of those opposed to married women’s involvement in politics.

Consequently, when she organized women’s meetings in her clinic during closing hours, she did so in secret. With Aoua Keita unable to have children, and rejecting the idea of having a co-wife, and under concerted pressure from their in-laws, the couple ended up divorcing in 1949. Refusing to remarry, Aoua Keita dedicated herself henceforth to her professional and political activities.

The first conference of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) [African Democratic Rally] was held in Bamako in 1946. This political grouping, presided over by the Ivorian Houphouët-Boigny, gathered together various African political parties united in their struggle against colonialism. Its French-Sudanese wing was the US-RDA, led first by Mamadou Konaté, and then by Modibo Keita. Initially small, the US-RDA gradually succeeded in mobilizing peasants, young people and women to its cause. From 1956, the party would win almost all the elections it fought, defeating the challenge of the Parti Progressiste Soudanais (PSP) [Progressive French-Sudanese Party], its main rival, which enjoyed the backing of the colonial administration, and go on to dominate the political scene of French Sudan.

2.2 Aoua Keita, the organization of women and the struggle (part 2)

On her return to Gao, Aoua Keita successfully established a women’s wing of the US-RDA (1950), began to mobilize young people, and took charge of electoral campaign literature on behalf of the party. Labelled a ‘communist midwife’ by the colonial administration, she was transferred to Senegal immediately after her party’s victory in Gao in the legislative elections of 1951. Like many African civil servants who were also members of the US-RDA, Aoua Keita became the target of colonial repression, and was subjected to a number of arbitrary transfers.

Despite this, she continued actively campaigning in each of the posts she was sent to: Tougan, Kayes, Niono, Kokry, Markala, Bignona, Nara, and, of course, Bamako. In 1958, in recognition of her activism, she was appointed as the US-RDA’s ‘Commissioner for Women’. In this capacity, she became the only female member of the party’s executive body. The following year, she was elected to the Parliament of the Mali Federation, thereby becoming the first woman from francophone West Africa to be elected to the national legislative assembly of her country.

Flag of the Mali Federation. Public domain.

The Federation of Mali was a political entity which, between January 1959 and August 1960, brought together the different territories of Mali and Senegal. It was also supposed to include Upper Volta and Dahomey, but they withdrew just as the Constitution was to be signed. Léopold Sédar Senghor was the Federation’s President, and Modibo Keita its head of government. On the 20th January 1960, the Federation gained independence, only for that independence to shatter a few months later following considerable differences of opinion between Senegalese and Malian leaders.