In August of 1925, Ladipo Solanke, a Nigerian law student, and Herbert Bankole-Bright, a Sierra Leonean doctor, founded the West African Students’ Union (WASU) in the Camden Town section of London, England. WASU eventually become a powerful influence in both British and West African politics during the twentieth century, with some of Africa’s most notable leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, H.O Davies, and J.B. Danquah holding membership in the organization.
WASU’s founders were intentional about the organization’s Pan-Africanism. Solanke visited and established chapters in several British West African colonies. The organization soon became a hub for anti-racist and decolonial thinkers across the diaspora. In fact, one of WASU’s early donors was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political activist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), who helped the organization obtain its first meetinghouse.
African immigrants made up a very small minority in 1920s and 30s London and faced considerable racial discrimination, both legal and extralegal. Denial of housing was a common issue faced by many newly arriving West Africans. As a solution, WASU established a series of hostels for new arrivals, the first of which, known as Africa House which opened in March 1933 on Camden Road.
Solanke’s wife, Chief Opeolu Solanke-Ogunbiyi, became the matriarch of the hostel and was known as Mama WASU. Given that Africa House had a restaurant, Mama WASU solicited traditional African ingredients, things like egusi and ewuro, from her mother in Nigeria who sent them to her by passenger ship. Mama WASU hired an Irish cook for the hostel, and taught her how to make traditional Nigerian dishes for the tenants.
WASU also created a journal in which it published its stance on many of these issues. The journal’s title, Wasu: The Journal of the West African Students’ Union, had a double entendre as Wãsù means “to preach” in Yoruba.
WASU steadily expanded its work from student affairs and social movements to more formal political action. By 1930 WASU had persuaded a committee of Labour MPs to advocate for West African interests in Parliament. However, over time, the organization’s position evolved from one of reforming colonial systems to openly opposing them. WASU was a leading voice against Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The call for decolonization intensified with World War II and the conscription of colonial subjects including many Africans, in the fight against Nazi Germany. WASU argued that England could not call on African colonial subjects to fight in its defense while denying them independence at home.
In 1942, WASU made its first formal demand of the British Empire for independence of its African colonies within five years of the end of the war. Though this demand did not come to fruition, it planted a seed that inevitably contributed to African decolonization.
Despite its name and seeming focus on West Africa, WASU was home to many future political leaders from across the African continent. Its members included Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first head of state of independent Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, and Hastings Banda, Malawi’s first president. Other less prominent WASU members contributed to the shaping of the Africa we know today.