Kojo Tovalou Houénou (1887–1936) was a prominent critic of the French colonial order in the 1920s. Born Marc Tovalou Quénum in Porto-Novo–a French protectorate in present-day Benin–to a wealthy father and a mother who descended from the royal family of the Kingdom of Dahomey, he was educated in France where he received a law degree, medical training, and served in the French armed forces as an army doctor in World War I.
After the war, Houénou became a celebrity of sorts in Paris dating actresses, writing books, and interacting with the elite of French society. In 1923, he was assaulted in a French nightclub by Americans who objected to an African being served. The attack changed his outlook on French colonial policy and law, and he became active in campaigning for equal citizenship and rights of Africans in the French empire. In 1924 he founded Ligue Universelle pour la Défense de la Race Noire (LUDRN)–a Pan-African organization and in conjunction with a newspaper–with the help of other African and African Caribbean intellectuals living in Paris such as René Maran, the first writer of African descent to win the French Prix Goncourt.
That same year, Houénou traveled to New York to attend Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) conference. Upon returning to France, Houénou was regarded a subversive by the French government. He was disbarred from practising law in France and across its empire; LUDRN was made to cease operations, and he was forced to leave France and return to Dahomey. Houénou eventually relocated to Dakar, Senegal, where he continued to be harassed by the French authorities. He died from typhoid fever in 1936 while imprisoned in Dakar on contempt of court charges.
Houénou is among numerous accomplished individuals–living and historic–to whom Strachan pays tribute in his Encyclopedia of Invisibility, a copiously researched A-to-Z compendium of some 17,000 entries chronicling people, places, events, objects, concepts, and phenomena that have been overlooked, lost, or made invisible in some way. Using the rubric of received knowledge to make networks and structures of power more visible, Strachan excavates hidden histories to bring to light ground-breaking yet forgotten epics and little-known human achievements.