February is Black History Month in the United States, a time for the nation to stop and reflect on the contributions and legacy of not only African Americans but also of the global black population. As part of this effort, The New York Times is striving to rectify gaps in its obituary archives, which over the years ignored the achievements of numerous black men and women. One of its latest obituaries is for Andrée Blouin, a female pan-Africanist socialist who advised several of Africa’s first post-colonial leaders.
Blouin was born as Andrée Madeleine Gerbillat in Bangui, in what was then the French-controlled colony of Ubangi-Shari, now the Central African Republic. She was the daughter of fourteen-year-old Josephine Wouassimba and forty-one-year-old Frenchman Pierre Gerbillat. At age three, she was placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage for mixed-race children. This was a common practice during the colonial era, a way to hide evidence of European impropriety in the colonies or to cover the crime of rape while also granting what was believed to be a “better life” for these kids in place of “primitive” African conditions.
Life at the orphanage was miserable, leading to a daring escape by Blouin when she was fifteen, running away not only from the orphanage but also from an arranged marriage the nuns were pressuring her into. At twenty-one, she gave birth to a son, René, who contracted malaria at age two. The year was 1946 and Blouin desperately tried to acquire medicine for her dying son, but was denied since the child was one-quarter African. In her memoir, My Country, Africa, released in 1983, Blouin wrote about how the death of René “politicized me as nothing else could… [Colonialism] was no longer a matter of my own maligned fate but a system of evil whose tentacles reached into every phase of African life.” In 1952, at the age of thirty-one, she married French engineer André Blouin and had two children with him.
It was through her husband that Blouin came into contact with Ahmed Sékou Touré, the head of French Guinea’s independence movement. Her husband had been relocated to a gold mine in the country at a time when the independence movement was reaching its zenith. Andrée Blouin spent months riding around with Touré as he organized rallies and gave speeches advocating for independence. Through Touré, Blouin met other pro-independence luminaries such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Côte d’Ivoire’s Félix Houphouet-Boigny, who would go on to lead his country for three decades following independence.
It was in Conakry, Guinea, in 1960, that Blouin experienced a chance encounter that would make her an internationally recognized figure. While dining in a restaurant, Blouin overheard Congolese representatives speaking Lingala, a language she knew from her youth. This serendipity put her in contact with Antoine Gizenga, the leader of the Parti Solidaire Africain, one of the largest political parties in the Belgian Congo. Impressed by her poise and knowledge of local language, Gizenga made her head of the women’s wing of the party, preaching feminism to sizeable crowds. Parti Solidaire Africain formed a coalition with Patrice Lumumba, the first post-independence prime minister of the newly created Republic of the Congo, with Blouin appointed as chief of protocol in Lumumba’s government.
Unrest and foreign interference quickly followed , plunging independent Congo into a protracted crisis that ended with Lumumba’s kidnapping and assassination, and Joseph-Désiré Mobutu seizing control in 1971. Blouin’s presence in the Lumumba government reinforced Western fears that the Republic of the Congo was turning Communist, despite Blouin herself rejecting the label and describing herself as a socialist African nationalist. She later became the spokesperson for the Congolese opposition, which took up arms against Mobutu’s dictatorship, speaking from Algiers and later Brazzaville.
In 1973, Blouin’s husband divorced her and she moved to Paris. She opened her rent-controlled apartment to any activists and intellectuals who came through the city. She remained committed to her political beliefs until her death in 1986 at the age of sixty-five. Blouin was diagnosed with lymphoma two years prior and had begun to grow disheartened by the continued oppression she saw in Africa years after colonialism formally ended.