Yemisi Ransome-Kuti is matriarch of the Ransome-Kuti family. She is also retired Chairman and founder of the Nigerian Network of Non-Governmental Organisations.
In a recent interview with Ademola O., she spoke about her life, the Ransome-Kuti family and more.
How has it been heading a family with so much history?
One of the beautiful things about being in an enlightened family is that leadership is very easy because the membership of that group is made up of knowledgeable and independent minded individuals. These are individuals who have been infused with the right values, ethics and a shared vision of who they are. Because they are all independent and they have a right to express opinions, contribute to the family’s development and growth, your role as a leader becomes very easy. It is when you have a group where the person who is the leader is so cut-off and disconnected from the people that they are leading or has been brought up with a sense of entitlement, that such a person would feel that people must bow down to them as a leader and think they are next to God. No one can ever challenge them or give their own opinions. Such a leader cannot sleep because he would have to look out for everyone and make sure everything is running smoothly. When you have a group where there is a degree of commonality and communal understanding, then it is really easy and fun to lead. You would enjoy it because people feel that they can talk to you. Of course, we all respect one another regardless of the age difference or affluence. You are respected as a human being first and that makes my work very easy, fun and enjoyable because I am approachable. They also want me to be part of their lives and they know that I dance as well as they do, if not better. It is fun. At the same time, because you are in a country where it is not the norm, the Kutis are different, people see us as radicals or troublemakers. You are not able to enjoy so much of the benefits that come with being in such a family because you are worried about everybody else. That is where the activism comes in; we have all been brought up not to be comfortable with what we achieve but to see ourselves as part of a whole and if a part of you is not well, it affects the whole body.
Your family has always been seen as radicals; how did that make you feel as a young girl growing up?
It is a family where Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti and Eniola Soyinka come from; the females in the family have always been strong. I never felt any disparity, there was never any kind of discrimination and I was encouraged as much as the boys to pursue my dreams and do the things that were male preserves. The boys were taught to cook and do social chores while the girls were always encouraged to be as academic as they could be. I never knew I was a girl until I was about 15 years old. When I was young, my father bought me a set of shorts and shirts; I was roller-skating and climbing trees and nobody distinguished between male and female. They related to us base on our character, who we were and how we related with people. I think it helps and at the same time hurts because you are in a society where that is not the norm. You grew up in a family where you can say what you want respectfully and then you grow up and get to the wider society or get married and then you are told that God said you are the weaker sex; it becomes a strange terrain where people have different beliefs. That is the challenge. If I were born in Scandinavia or a place like Norway where none of these issues is a problem, then it is fine. But in a society where we still see the girl-child as someone inferior, then it means that for women like me, there is a continuous wish and will to see how we can change those paradigms because I think it is against God’s will to have inequality in a society. I am a mother with four children – two boy and two girls – and there is no way I want either the boys or the girls to feel superior to the other. I want them to be supportive and respectful of each other as they help one another to be the best in whatever they are doing. I think that as a woman, it behoves all of us to begin to realise that there is a female side to God and it is not just about control or power but unity, equality and mutual respect.
When you think of the fact that three generations of the Ransome-Kuti family fought for equality but they were never recognised, how does it make you feel?
I think it is normal because those who fight for justice and the development of their society do not do it because they want to be recognised and in most cases, it does not happen in their lifetime. It is something within them that drives them. They feel a certain way about the society they live in and they do not feel comfortable in an environment where there is injustice or conflict because peace cannot be enjoyed in isolation. If others do not enjoy the peace, the conflict would enter your home and soul at some point. Throughout history in any part of the world, people fought for what they believed in because they were driven by the spirituality and consciousness in them. They do not do it because they want to be recognised. I think it is absolutely normal. What does recognition do for you? It could even be a challenge because you cannot live a normal life and everywhere you go, people intrude into your personal space and you cannot just go anywhere and do what you like. You cannot behave erratically because you have to think of the name that you bear. It is absolutely normal for people not to get the recognition, particularly in their lifetime.
It helps societies if you have families like the Ransome-Kutis, Fawehinmis and other families who have distinguished themselves, not because of any personal achievements so to speak, but because of what they have done to elevate their societies. It gives young people the module that they can follow to know that it is possible even in an environment that may be chaotic; they know that it is possible to do certain things and be a particular type of person and that is what changes society.
Has the Ransome-Kuti name always worked to your advantage?
Everything in life has its positives and negatives so if you are looking to become something, look at the part of it that would become a challenge for you. Being in this family holds you up to a certain standard that keeps almost a straitjacket around what you say and do. You cannot become a politician in Nigeria if you are a Ransome-Kuti because politics has become this area where it does not matter what your character or values are. You can say anything or destroy other people without any repercussion. I went into politics and ran for Senate but I knew I probably would not win.
Are you saying that your name worked against you when you veered into politics?
I think so simply because people knew that it was not going to be easy to corrupt someone like me. It was not going to be easy to do deals that were not in the interest of my constituency so I would not have fitted in to the kind of structure that we have in Nigeria and that is why I am saying that it is the negative repercussion that comes from being in a family like mine. I mean did Gani Fawehinmi get anywhere in politics? Was Femi Falana able to get anywhere? It is not easy in a society that is at the stage we are. It is just a stage but not who we are and every society, be it America or Britain at a point were at this stage. They were equally corrupt and they did all kinds of rigging and funny things to get into power. It is a stage of development and we are going to get out of it but we would not get out without a struggle. People who know better need to step up and change the paradigm.
At what point in your life did you decide to become an activist or is it because you were born into a family of activists?
I do not think that there was a moment I decided to become an activist; I was just a normal person. However, in the family that I grew up, injustice was not permitted for anybody. As a daughter of the house, I could not just beat the home helps or disrespect them. Everybody was respected and you had to be polite to everybody. You were given your chores in the house just like the workers had their own chores.
My father was a Lay Magistrate and I remember a story he told me about some young men who molested a girl in our neighbourhood and the girl’s family had come to report about what happened and he could verify that they did it, so he told the family that when coming to court, they should put bandage on the girl and make it look real. That kind of impulse to always want to see that justice prevails has been part of our growing up. Fela Kuti and Beko Ransome-Kuti were in the same house and the vision and happiness that you got from other people’s happiness were absolute. Everything was shared; when my father came home from work every day, he would always have candies in his car and every child in the neighbourhood got candies. I think we were the first family to have a television in our area so our place became the viewing centre and the windows were always open and all the kids in the environment would come and watch TV in our house. So, the whole place was always filled with children from our community. Everywhere was safe and I think I was quite old when we experienced the first burglary in our street. I grew up in Yaba, Military Street, Lagos. Growing up, I did not know who was rich or poor, all the children were friends and we all played together. I think that is what made those days so good and fulfilling. Life was good then.
How was life as an only child?
I did not feel like an only child because my father had adopted some children that he was sponsoring their education. Some of them lived with us; besides, we always had a relative staying with us. Like I said, the community was connected and open; and that is how you begin to transmit ethics and values in a community because when you are disconnected and no one is talking to each other, there will be nobody to monitor one another. During our time, if you misbehaved in the other street, they would beat you there and then you would be praying that they would not report you at home because you would get flogged twice; one for your wrongdoing and the other beating would be for disgracing the family outside. So, wherever you went, you wanted to behave well. You could not do ‘eye-service’ and pretend to be someone else. Also, people were not afraid to scold you because of who your father was. The driver, houseboy and other members of staff could scold you. It was that ability to elevate everybody and make them know that they had dignity, respect and worth that was the guiding spirit at that time.
Being that you were a female and the only biological child, were you pampered by your parents?
That is the one thing I hate so much because everybody thought I was and they still think so. Some people still think I was very spoilt. My father was so worried that I would be spoilt that he bent over backwards to make sure that I was not. He always said that I was the only one, but he would make sure that I did not get spoilt. He used to beat me with what they called ‘Salubata’ in those days and that was the thick Hausa slippers. That was the punishment I got if I misbehaved. I was really disciplined and was not treated differently from the other children in the house. Even when I went to school abroad, one of the first books my father sent to me was the Art of Self Control. Being disciplined was a big deal in our family but it does not mean that we did not have fun because my father liked dancing as well. I saw him dance a few times. The ability to know how to behave in given circumstances and be a responsible human being was really important to my parents. My father used to say that any government could come and announce that the nation was now a communist one and no one should have property, so I should never depend on what he had or what he would leave for me, but instead, always try and work for what I have in life. What was more important were the values which he instilled in us because it is more important than material things. We kept hearing stories about families where their parents had 12 houses but a few years after they were gone, everything was dissipated because they did not discipline their children. They did not advise their children to get what they need legitimately. If you inherit something after your parents die, it is all well and good, but a lot of people give those material things to charity. People like Waren Buffet and Bill Gates have the talents to create wealth; they are not creating wealth for their children but for humanity. Taking a look at their lifestyle – Buffet is still driving the car he bought when he was a young man. They have very few material belongings. How much does one person need anyway? You can only sleep in one room, live in one house at a time. It is so important for young people to know that material wealth is not everything.
Were you a quiet or troublesome girl while growing up?
I was not your typical gentle girl. I was quite rascally and I got into as much trouble as the boys did. We climbed trees, I got into fights but one of the wonderful things my parents had was the ability to teach. They saw everything as a teachable moment so it was not punishment all the time. Sometimes they sat you down to talk and also listen to you, although, sometimes I wished they beat me because if you sit down and hear your parents talk for about one or two hours, it gets frustrating. But it helped me to understand things and develop an enquiring mind – a mind that did not take things for their face value.
Being that you are opinionated and strong-willed; thinking back, has it ever affected your love life?
No pain, no gain, as people say. If you believe in something strongly enough, you have to realise that you will not always win and things may not always be smooth for you. As a human being whether you are male or female, if you take a certain stand that is not the norm in any society, you must expect to be pushed back so it is important for women to bring up both their male and female children to respect one another and their opinions. It is when you have an environment where both genders have been brought up in different ways that there will be conflict. Even if you educate our men and send them abroad to study and they see the right way that women are treated with respect, when they come back to an environment where that is not the norm, they may change. We see a situation whereby if a mother comes into a home and sees her son cooking, she would think something is wrong with him. His friends would tag him as a ‘woman wrapper.’ It creates that atmosphere where conflict would begin to brew. It takes a man who is very confident in himself to know that cooking does not make you less of a man; listening to my wife does not make me weak. It takes a strong man to know that if he has to work from home based on his job recommendation, there is nothing there if he keeps an eye on the children and it does not take anything away from him. Once we have more men that are confident in their humanity, the society would be a better place. I often find that men have a lot of conflict in their mind about what the society thinks and how they really feel. They may love their wives and be very happy for her to be an opinionated person but they also think of the public perception. I think it is a complete home when you have people who can share ideas and challenge each other respectfully.
But in your case, has being an opinionated woman ever affected your love life?
Of course, it did, I mean, I am twice divorced but I am not sure whether it is activism as such. I think there were character traits in my partners that did not make for the kind of environment I wanted my children to grow up in. So, I do not think it was the activism; it was there, but I do not remember that it played a huge role or the fact that I was opinionated. They probably did not like it. I was opinionated about certain patterns of behaviour that I did not think was conducive for the kind of home I wanted my children to grow up in. Having said that, I have interacted with many activists; Funmilayo did not get divorced and she was an activist. I do not think that Magaret Ekpo’s husband left her. I do not think it is a problem, particularly these days where a lot of young people become activists before they get married, so whoever marries them know their views on certain issues.
Was there ever a time you considered giving music a chance like your cousin, Fela?
I used to dance with Fela. In fact, there was a particular occasion when I went on stage at the Shrine, at that time I was working with Shell Petroleum and I even took my expatriate colleagues there. I got on stage and you know how Fela was on stage and did some funny dance steps with the ladies, so I went on stage and I went behind him and I was doing the same thing he was doing to the girls. We were dancing and he was happy. But after the show, he realised that I was doing to him what he was doing to the girls, so he banned me from the stage for about six months and I could not get on the stage with him. We love dancing. Also, with my cousin Frances Kuboye, when they (she and her husband) had a jazz band, we used to go there to dance. My singing was not very good, I did not have a terrific voice but I do not think Fela had one too. I really did not have much interest in singing, however, I loved drama and when I was in school, I was in a lot of plays and at a point, I wanted to get a degree in drama but my parents were not too pleased about it. The desire went away and I did something else. I never really wanted to be on the music scene as much; my discipline tilted more towards management and business.
At that time, Fela was seen more like an outcast. Being his cousin, were you proud to associate yourself with him?
Sure, it was fun; being around him was always great and there was always a lot of laughter. I remember that any time I came home on holidays, we would go to Kakadu. There were always some spots where he always had gigs, especially on Sundays. It is great to have a person like Fela in your family because there was not a single dull moment then, of course, we had Beko who was another contrast and there was always something going on. It was great to associate with him. It was wrong of people to think that because he smoked marijuana, I would smoke as well; or that because he liked lots of women, I would like lots of men. That was a crazy way to think about it and we had to deal with that but every female in the Ransome-Kuti family was not like that because it is not a genetic or hereditary thing. That was one of the wonderful things about being in our family because you could be an individual, loved and respected for who you are and nobody expected you to be like the next person. Everybody was allowed to develop and be who they were meant to be.
What are some of the things you learnt from your aunt, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, before she died?
It was depressing to know that in other societies, people who stepped out to fight for others were protected but in our own society, they are resented because the powers that be do not want their positions to be questioned and they want to be treated like gods. She is a symbol of the contempt and the disrespect that our leaders have for our citizens but it does not matter who you are or how rich you are; when a society does not value the proper ethics, ideas and ideals of what it takes to be human and organise a society and what the relationship should be like between the citizens and leaders, they (ruling class) would trample and come for each and every one of us until they silence us all. It was distressing for the family. It taught a lot of us lessons and we knew that we had to be careful and ensure that we resisted the caution of power drunk leaders and those who did not understand the principles of democracy. If we wanted monarchy, that is what we would have opted for but we went for democracy. The danger in that also is that, although people want democracy and freedom, there is also a yearning for strong leadership and tribal identity. People want security and order and the tendency to balance all that is the question. How do you get a strong leader who respects his citizen and creates a society which is more unified? Those are the things she taught us, which included being fearless because she never cared who you were, be it a king; she would tell you what she thought. At the same time, to have set up a school, she cared for all the young people and she gave proper education and skills to young people. Those are some of the examples that she taught us. People were afraid of her without her doing anything to anyone in particular just because of the way she lived her life and the principles she upheld. I remember one man telling me that when my aunt gives you money, do not take it because it would burn through your palm. There are many stories about how powerful she was and we need more men and women who will live by such standards. Another thing she taught me was the ability not to think in a tribal fashion. She was a member of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, so she was not constrained in the way she thought. We are a nation of so many tribes and skills; what makes a soup sweet is the variety of spices, so we should celebrate ourselves. We should celebrate the likes of Moremi, Efunsetan, Queen Amina, and the Magaret Ekpo’s of this world; the diversities.
We have read about how some of your family members had been arrested by the government due to their activism. Have you ever been in that kind of trouble due to your standpoint?
I was arrested by the State Security Service (now Department of State Services) at the time of the women conference in Beijing because they wanted to know what I was going to say over there. That was when I saw that my own freedom was encroached upon. In those days, when the military was in control, you could not just go anywhere or drive at night because there were checkpoints everywhere. The soldiers felt so powerful that they felt they could treat people the way they liked. I remember a time I was in the car with my daughter during the day and a few soldiers jumped in front of my car and ordered me to turn off the engine. Simply because I was hesitant, they started calling me a prostitute and my daughter was sitting there.