Fifty-nine years ago today, on January 17, 1961, Congolese prime minister and independence leader, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated by firing squad. In the months leading up to his death, the world’s attention was riveted on the Congo as a crucial arena in which Cold War politics were to be played out. European and American media coverage of the “Congo Crisis” revealed a fascination with Lumumba and an attempt to cast him as an authoritarian ruler. The Guardian, for example, ran a headline describing “Lumumba as a Congo ‘King.’” The New York Times opted for the title of “’Messiah’ in the Congo.’”
Amid the non-stop international media coverage of Lumumba’s life, leadership, and death, one curious headline stands out for turning its spotlight onto an enigmatic figure adjacent to the Congolese leader.
Three months before the assassination that would rock the world and destabilize the movement toward decolonization in Africa, the Baltimore Afro-American ran a feature titled “The Woman Behind Lumumba.” The article itself was very short:
Behind every famous man there is a woman.
According to the London Daily Mirror, Madame Andree Blouin is the power behind the actions to Congo leader Patrice Lumumba.
She is 42, half-African, half French and married to a French mining-engineer.
Officially, she holds the position of Chief of Protocol, but Justin Bomboko, the Congo’s Foreign Minister, told the Congo Senate that she is trying to run the country and was a Communist.
Who was Andrée Blouin? Was she really the woman behind Lumumba? The article’s four sentences do not tell us much about her. They do, however, speak volumes about the reasons for which politicians and the media viewed her as a suspicious and illegitimate presence in Lumumba’s government. And, even more importantly for us today, they offer lessons about the historically racialized and sexualized representations of women of color in politics.
Blouin was born in the Central African Republic in 1921 and spent her early years in an orphanage for “mixed race” children in Brazzaville in the French Congo. She later became an anticolonial activist in what was then the Belgian Congo. Her movements back and forth between French and Belgian territories gave her firsthand knowledge of the particular cruelties of each imperial power. While the Belgian practice of sequestering children born of Belgian fathers and Congolese mothers in orphanages has recently drawn attention, Blouin’s autobiography reveals her own experience with this practice of segregation and discrimination as a child in an orphanage for “mixed race” girls on the French side of the Congo River. Years later, when her two-year-old son, René, was ill with malaria, the French colonial administration insisted that quinine medication was for Europeans only. A frantic Blouin pleaded with the mayor but he refused to grant her access to the life-saving medicine. She had to watch her son die.
Blouin’s experiences of racism at the hands of French colonizers highlight the interlocking racial and gendered violence of colonialism. By separating her from her parents as a child and designating her an orphan, the colonial administration tried to erase her identity as a daughter. Later by causing the death of her infant son, colonial powers tried to exclude her from motherhood.
Blouin therefore came to political activism in the Belgian Congo armed with the insight gained from her intimate knowledge of colonial violence under French rule. She began her grassroots mobilization of women in the Belgian territory on the eve of independence in 1960 as an organizer for the Feminine Movement for African Solidarity. The organization’s charter outlined projects for women’s health, literacy, and their recognition as citizens of the emerging postcolonial nation. Her work was informed by the conviction that “if she so chose, the woman could be the foremost instrument of independence.” That year, Patrice Lumumba appointed her to the position of chief of protocol in his cabinet. Blouin was 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.”
Even as international media trained an obsessive lens onto Lumumba during his short tenure at the helm of an embattled Congo, Blouin too became an object of fascination. Yet, as the Baltimore Afro-American, citing the London Daily Mirror, shows, the media representation was couched in the same language of intertwined racialized and gendered discrimination that marked her life under colonial rule.
The article begins by relegating Blouin to the background of Lumumba’s government, the proverbial woman behind a powerful man. But that relegation also contains suspicion about her supposedly hidden agenda and manipulative role in this position. Blouin emerges as a mysterious shadowy figure pulling the strings of decolonial politics in the Congo.
To be “behind” Lumumba, then, is to occupy both a location of subordination and a position of power. But it is also clear that this power projected onto Blouin is fragile at best, because it is rooted in sexualized fears of women as exotic objects to be both desired and reviled. Thus, in an article about Blouin as a political figure, we find no mention of her activism to obtain a reform in colonial quinine laws, or her work towards increasing literacy and access to healthcare for Congolese women. We learn instead that she is “half-African, half-French and married to a French mining engineer.” Other newspaper articles about Blouin described her with even more exoticizing language. The Washington Post, for example, called her the “Eartha Kittenish Clara Petacci of the Congo’s brief strong arm regime,” likening her to African American actress Eartha Kitt and Mussolini’s mistress Clara Petacci. To liken someone to Eartha Kitt is far from an insult. But when wielded to make Blouin hyper-visible as an object of desire in the Western imaginary, the comparison becomes a way to elide her political activism.
A journalist once asked Blouin whether she was a Communist. She responded, “Let small fools call me what they like. I am an African nationalist.” The breakdown of her lineage into half and half, as in the Baltimore Afro-American’s coverage, is a gesture that was used many times to challenge Blouin’s authenticity. Neither French enough to benefit from the Europeans-only quinine card, nor African enough to be fully embraced as a pan-Africanist, public representations of Blouin sought to delegitimize her work by questioning her racial, national and even continental affiliations.
Negative representations of Blouin in the media became commonplace throughout her time in office. She reports that Lumumba acknowledged the gendered nature of these portrayals: “Our enemies attack her all the time. Not for what she’s done, but simply because she’s a woman, and she’s there, in the thick of it.”
When Lumumba was assassinated in 1960, Blouin likewise became a target. Her daughter Eve recounts that her mother, who she remembers as “a pivotal figure [and] freedom fighter in Africa,” was sentenced to death. She fled the Congo, ultimately living in exile in Paris until her death in 1986.
Today, Andrée Blouin remains an enigmatic figure, relatively unknown in historical narratives about the long and painful march towards Congolese independence. She is elusive, not because she was the shadowy manipulator of Lumumba’s leadership, but rather because like many of the African women who were engaged in anticolonial activism, she remains on the periphery of historical narratives that privilege the so-called founding fathers of African independence. 59 years after Lumumba’s death, it is fitting to remember Andrée Blouin too, and with her the many women who lived and died for African liberation.