Life at the orphanage, in Brazzaville, the capital of the French Congo, was defined by neglect and abuse. Andrée did not see her parents for five years. Her days were spent learning the catechism and doing embroidery work to raise revenue for the order that ran the facility. At night, she went to bed hungry and fended off mosquitoes. The mother superior employed a hippopotamus-hide whip liberally.
After the nuns tried to pressure Andrée into an arranged marriage at 15, she escaped the orphanage, bloodying her feet as she clambered over a wall capped with shards of glass.
She endured two painful relationships: one with Roger Serruys, with whom she had a daughter, and another with Charles Greutz, whom she married and divorced. She married André Blouin in 1952. A French engineer, he worked for a diamond mining company and had “escaped the colonialist mentality,” as she wrote in her memoir. They had two children.
When Blouin’s husband was posted to a gold mine in French Guinea, the independence movement there was gaining steam under the leadership of Ahmed Sékou Touré. Like all other French colonies, Guinea was preparing for a referendum in which it could choose to remain part of France or gain immediate independence.
Blouin stood behind Touré and drove around the country with members of his party, organizing rallies and delivering speeches calling for independence. In September 1958, Guinea was the only one of 20 French territories that chose to leave France.
Through Touré, Blouin met other activists, including Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Félix Houphouet-Boigny, who would lead 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.