“The death of my son politicized me as nothing else could,” Andrée Blouin recalled in her 1983 memoir, My Country, Africa.
A mixed-race woman, Blouin watched her two-year-old son, René die from Malaria. René was reportedly denied medication because he was “one-quarter African.”
Devastated by the demise of her child, Blouin who was then living in Bangui, the capital of the French colony of Ubangi-Shari unleashed her furor and hurt on the City’s mayor.
According to The New York Times, Blouin reinvented herself a decade and a half after the painful loss of her child to become an adviser to leading politicians in Africa’s independence fight.
Born Andrée Madeleine Gerbillat on December 16, 1921, in the village of Bessou, in Ubangi-Shari, to Josephine Wouassimba, a 14-year-old girl, and Pierre Gerbillat, a 41-year-old Frenchman who worked for an import-export company, Blouin was sent to a Roman Catholic orphanage for mixed-race at the age of three.
Characterized by desertion and abuse, life at the orphanage for Blouin in Brazzaville, the capital of the French Congo was torturous. For five years, she made no contact with her parents, according to Times.
According to historical accounts, the nuns at the orphanage tried to pressure Blouin into an arranged marriage at 15, but she declined and escaped.
She married Andre’ Blouin, a French engineer who worked for a diamond mining company in 1952 and whom she stated in her memoir had “escaped the colonialist mentality.”
Blouin’s husband was posted to a gold mine in French Guinea, where the independence movement there was gaining steam under the leadership of Ahmed Sékou Touré.
She established friendship with Touré and through him, she met Africa’s foremost politicians fighting for the continent’s liberation from the invading Europeans. They include Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Félix Houphouet-Boigny, who would lead the Ivory Coast for more than three decades.
But it was a chance encounter in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, that catapulted her to fame.
At a restaurant one evening in January 1960, Blouin overheard men at another table speaking Lingala, a language she knew from her youth. They were nationalist politicians from the Belgian Congo, in town to make contact with Guinean allies.
Through them, Blouin met Antoine Gizenga, the leader of Parti Solidaire Africain, one of the largest political parties in the Belgian Congo. He recruited her to help his campaign for elections that would lead up to independence.
Gizenga’s party formed a coalition with that of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister, and after the country achieved independence that June, Blouin became chief of protocol in his government.
Blouin was said to be 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.”
Fiercely anticolonial, Western diplomats and reporters tagged her as a communist – an allegation she flatly rejected describing herself as a socialist committed to African nationalism.
“Blouin was always seen as a courtesan,” said Karen Bouwer, a professor of French at the University of San Francisco who has written about Blouin. “Here was a beautiful, elegant woman moving in high circles. She was an easy target.”
Lumumba was overthrown in September 1960 in a coup orchestrated by the C.I.A., and Blouin was expelled from Congo.
Blouin’s husband divorced her in 1973, and she moved to Paris, where she became a den mother to African leftists, opening her rent-controlled apartment on the outskirts of the city to opposition figures and revolutionaries who happened to be passing through.
According to Times, in 1984, sick with lymphoma, Blouin shocked a symposium on Congo by asking attendees for a moment of silence in memory of Pierre Mulele, a politician-turned-insurgent who was tortured to death by Mobutu’s soldiers. Some scholars, horrified at the idea of honoring the leader of a violent, Communist-backed revolution, walked out of the conference.
She died on April 9, 1986, at 65.