On July 12th, 1912, Aoua Keita was born in Bamako, French Sudan, to parents Karamogo Keita and Miriam Coulibaly. Karamogo Keita was a veteran from Guinea who fought for the French in World War I, upon returning to Mali, he contributed to work in a lab to support his family. Miriam Coulibaly was from the Ivory Coast and spoke the Dioula dialect. She was said to be a very traditional woman who believed men were superior to women, women didn’t pursue education, and men made all the important decisions. Aoua’s family was financially stable and her father was able to support a polygamous household. It was widely believed that her paternal family was descendants of the founder of Mali Sundiata Keita, which gave them high social status. Aoua’s father allowed her to attend school and earn an education. She first attended Bamako’s first girls’ school École des filles, before she attended Bamako’s boarding school Foyer des Métisses, where she earned a diploma at the age of sixteen. Later in 1928, she moved to Dakar to study to become a Midwife at the École de Médecine de Dakar; Dakar was the capital city of Mali at the time. Aoua was a young progressive woman who still understood the importance of holding on to some of her cultural practices. She was one of the few women in Sudan who was educated, she came from a high social class, and she was an influential person in the society of Dakar.
Aoua’s next move was to the city of Gao where she worked for an administrative outpost for twelve years. In addition to her work at the outpost, she would use her skills in sewing and her experience as a midwife to help the women of Gao. Aoua learned to speak the dialect of the people of Gao which helped her to build trust with the women so she could serve them to the best of her abilities. There was a high death rate in Gao among the mothers and babies because of birthing traditions that were not considered sterile. Aoua was able to observe several births before she was invited to assist a woman in birthing her child. It didn’t take long before the word spread of how great Aoua was in helping mothers have healthy and safe births. Using her education and the knowledge she had of traditional medical practices, Aoua combined the two practices to create an approach that would allow her to be able to help more of the women of Gao. Initially, the women of Gao didn’t accept Aoua's approach or practices, but over time her reputation grew and trust with the women strengthened, and her home even became a popular meeting place.
In 1935, Aoua married a man named Dr. Daouda Diawara who helped to cultivate her interest and knowledge in the political processes of the country. Aoua and Dr. Diawara believed that all Europeans should be kicked off of the African Continent because of the oppression and terror they brought to African lands and people. The couple then joined the political party the Union Sudanaise du Rassemblement Démocratique Africain or USRDA in 1946. As a member of the USRDA Aoua used her social gatherings and midwifery practice to help spread the word of the social work the USRDA was doing, and to help increase membership. Because of the social and political work of the USRDA, 1946 was also the first year that the women of Sudan were able to vote. The USRDA used the 1946 Sudanese election to make its presence known in the country. The candidates that represented the organization were not elected to any political positions, but the people of the country knew who they were. Aoua’s marriage to Dr. Diawara was coming to an end. Aoua could not bear children and the oppressive customs in Sudan weighed heavily on their relationship because Aoua believed women should not have to follow oppressive customs.
The couple divorced after twelve years of marriage, she would later marry a man named Mahamane Alassane Haidara who was a Sudanese Senator, and Aoua became more of a force within the Sudanese community and political scene. The Union of Salaried Women of Bamako was founded by Aoua and Aissata Sow in 1957. The organization was created to give the women of Sudan a greater political position and voice to gain more rights. She was also instrumental in the founding of the Federation of Black African Workers. She was asked to be a part of the writing of the constitution of the Federation of Mali, as they were gaining their independence in 1958. The political party the Bamako Women’s Bureau was established in 1958 by Aoua and other Sudanese women. The Bureau was created to address the political interest of the women of Sudan. Aoua was elected as the first woman to serve in the National Assembly of the Republic of Mali. The first president of Mali was overthrown within nine years because he was not collaborating with foreign governments that could provide monetary aid.
Following the coup of the President, Aoua resigned from her elected position in the National Assembly. She moved back to her hometown of Bamako where she would spend the rest of her days. While in Bamako, Aoua wrote her autobiography titled African Woman in 1975. Four years later she would die, but not before she gave her country as much as she could in the fight for the equality of the women of Sudan. As a young girl receiving her education, she began to understand that women were just as much human as men and deserved to be treated as a human and not a second-class citizen. To Mrs. Aoua Keita, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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