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In Context by Doris Weatherford 9/13/19


Except for jokes about presidential Sharpies, things are relatively quiet in the political world, so I’m continuing the mental break from contemporary news that I began last week. I quoted then from “Olivia’s African Diary,” the day-to-day journal of a six-month trip through southern and eastern Africa in 1932. The writer was Oliva Stokes (later Hatch), and the photographs that accompany the published diary were by Mary Marvin Breckinridge (later Patterson).
And yes, women’s history is much harder to do than standard history because it was (and is) routine for women to change their surnames at least once in their lifetimes — with remarriages, even several times. Can you imagine tracing Thomas Jefferson if his surname were “Franklin” or “Washington” or “Hamilton” at different points in his life? And no one called him “Tom” or “Tommy,” unlike Mary Marvin Breckinridge, a woman called “Marvin.”
Olivia and Marvin were young college graduates who traveled with Olivia’s parents; they were checking on progressive projects in Africa, some of which were funded by the Phelps-Stokes family. They began their trek after landing at South Africa’s Cape Town in August, the weather equivalent of February in the Southern Hemisphere; when we left them last week, it was October, the equivalent of April. They were in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, and we will pick them up again at the southern edge of what then was the Belgian Congo and now is Zaire.
Belgians (at least most of them) speak French, and the broad area was called “French Equatorial Africa.” Globalism is further reflected in that their destination here was the new village of Elisabethville. As its English name denotes, it was a company town built by Britons who mined its copper, which “is supposed to be the richest ore in the world. It was started only five years ago and seems amazingly well run,” Olivia wrote:
“We visited the attractive village where the Natives are given little houses with one room and a kitchen, their food, and the men their working clothes, besides from ten to twenty-five francs a day. It is all very clean and trees have been planted, which adds a lot. The Natives are a cheery group… The women are stunning. Many tribes have very becoming tattoo marks, made by rubbing juice from the rubber tree into scratches made on their faces… Their dress is…gaily printed cotton worn off the shoulders… They twist a bandana of the same color about their foreheads and it hangs down the back of their heads.
“We visited the baby welfare center where every day the babies are brought in and bathed…. On Sundays, they all bring their tables and chairs outside, spread their best tablecloth, and sit about in their best… Many of the men, it seems, wear dinner jackets. We asked one woman to open up her trunk. She said she was very poor, but it contained a fine hat, several silk dresses, and in a notebook, four or five hundred franc notes… We went down into the mine and noticed several Natives in positions of responsibility.”


This community was strongly influenced by a Belgian Catholic physician who had been there for twenty-five years. He also had overseen the creation of other such communities, and at Pandar, “they have a Camp d’Acclimatation just outside the town where all recruited labor, wives, and children, have to stay for one month, undergoing physical examination [and] vaccination…before they can go to one of the mines.”
When they took the railroad further north, she commented, “the Belgian Congo trains are quite grand and even have showers.” The railroad tracks ended at Bukama, however, where she said “the shopkeepers were mostly Greek.” From there, they took a tri-level boat that featured “good food” supervised by the captain’s wife. This family had their home on the upper deck, and because the captain needed his sleep, the boat docked at sunset. Then, she said, the 162 “Native passengers who crowded the lower deck got off and lit their little fires all along the bank.”
The Lualaba River, however, promoted mosquitoes, and brief trips ashore led them to conclude that “half of the Natives have sleeping sickness.” The river connects to Lake Tanganyika, a huge north-south waterway that looks on the map more like a river than a lake. The town where they stayed waiting for the next boat was Albertville, even though “of the 250 Europeans here now, only two are English.” Again it was a global mix, with many from Cypress, “a few Mohammedans, and the rest Belgians… The place seems very active and bustling with even white-robed priests dashing about on motorcycles… They say that about five Natives a month are eaten by crocs, so we resisted the temptation to swim in the lake.”
Kigoma, one of the next towns, is in modern Tanzania, and at its hospital, she reported “distressing cases of leprosy, sleeping sickness, and awful yaws” — a serious tropical skin infection that can penetrate to the bones. Yet she described the town as “quaint, with its thatched roofs and trees planted by the Germans.” They also witnessed a trial in Kigoma, in which a Muslim woman accused two Christian Natives of having stolen her cassava. “A group of older ones seemed to serve as a sort of jury. Witnesses were called in. The men were proved guilty and marched off to the lock-up.”
As they approached Dar-es-Salaam, on the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya, she said “we saw several giraffes from the train window.” While the parents took a plane to Mombasa, the young women stayed at the palatial “Government House.” Diplomats there were glad to squire them around “through groves of cocoa palms, bananas, breadfruit trees, and endless clove trees with their perfume pervading everything.” The minister of agriculture told them that they had experimented with raising silk worms, but it was not a success because “a fat and healthy silk worm was too much of a temptation for the Natives, who ate them.”
To the north of Dar-es-Salaam, in Zanzibar, they began to encounter more Muslim culture, and she wrote: “Mrs. Johnston took Mother, Marvin, and me to an Arab wedding, or one part of the three-day ceremonies, the one for women only. Mrs. Johnston runs a school for Arab women. Most of the teachers are twelve, thirteen, or fourteen years old – the ages at which they usually marry… We were shown into a room downstairs where were the young unmarried girls who were not permitted to see the performance, or those who, though married, were still in their “period of modesty,’ which lasts for a year or more after marriage… An Arab will always take a pure-blooded Arab for his first wife, while others were Natives or mixed who tried to plaster their kinky hair down to conform to Arab fashion.”
Nairobi is a big modern city today, but then, she said that its Kikuyu natives “wear skins.” They had seen skin-wearing elsewhere, though, and what they found “most amazing” here were the huge earrings. Women wore “loops of them, stuck all up and down the ear,” while “men have distended ears with different sorts of rings.” She added, without explanation of what we understand today is the tradition of genital mutilation: “The women seldom get very far in their studies because apparently the Kikuyu ceremonies for women are so horrible and the operation so cruel that they are dulled thereafter.”
North of there, they stayed at a hotel in the coffee-growing area of Kenya, and she reported: “although only twenty miles from the equator, it is about 7,000 feet up and quite cold at night… Some Native men came around selling monkey skins.” In Uganda, they found the best roads in all of Africa. “Under Native law,” she explained, “each petty chief has to maintain a road… They are fine and wide…and really park-like. Beyond them are forests of mahogany trees…, with their owners’ huts hidden among the banana trees.”
At Kampala, they toured “a very good maternity hospital where they train midwives. They have reduced the death rate…so that of every pregnancy, now only 7.6% of the babies die within the year…, while before it was 74%.” An earlier hospital in Zimbabwe had given them a glimpse of brutal traditions associated with childbirth: This “small hospital” featured “a special place for twins where the mother can bring them as soon as they are born to prevent them from being killed according to tribal custom.”
Also at Kampala, they observed “a parliament… efficiently run entirely by Natives. The only European we saw there was an electrician mending one of their telephones.” On the other hand, when they peered into a tomb for the latest king: “We could see a couple of his widows sitting on the floor and moaning. Some widow has to keep up this lament and vigil all the time… Now the leading widow is a young woman of eighteen who, according to their custom, was married to the corpse!”


Because of Marvin’s interest in photography, Olivia spent ink on movies that were being made in Africa. I won’t try to summarize this topic, but she remarked that one – a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film – “was banned in Uganda because of the fact that a Native carries a white girl.” It was a land of contrasts, as on the same day that she recorded this Hollywood presence, she also wrote: “We passed a herd of about forty elephants going in single file up a hill.” Later, in Sudan, she said that natives told them elephants sometimes “committed suicide by curling their trunks into their mouths and blowing their brains out.”
Uganda is home to pygmies, and she wrote of “the really saintly Apolo, a Native minster who works among them.” Although an African, Apolo was not a pygmy, and she said that because adults were not allowed to learn the language, he had some small boys go and live with them and learn it… Most of the Pygmies live in grass and leaf shelters on the ground, while some tribes still live in little leaf shelters in the trees. If a Pygmy is hungry, he will cut a chunk off the leg of a passing elephant, while if he really wishes to kill an elephant, he sneaks between his legs and spears him in the stomach…. They steal grain and fruit from the Forest people, but always leave a piece of meat hanging outside the village in payment.”
In contrast to pygmies, the people in Sudan were “very tall,” with some estimated at seven feet. They were “practically naked, and “all carry at least one spear and many also a bow and arrows.” Modern technology was being introduced, however, as they saw “a large Raleigh bicycle advertisement of a Native thumbing his nose at a pursuing lion.” The most surprising thing about Sudan, though, was that “there is no color bar.” Natives who could afford it sat with them (and Australians) on the train to the White Nile branch of the huge Nile River.


On the boat north, they met a Miss Wolf “who has charge of all the midwifery work in the Southern Sudan.” Again, they learned interesting things: “This lady said that the Shilluks have an old custom which makes it necessary for their king to be speared – he cannot die in his bed. The present one has managed to live fifteen years, but they tried to kill him a couple of months ago.” Stokes described the Shilluks as “very tall,” but statistics were hard to come by because they refused to be measured – for valid reasons, from their point of view, as the only time they were measured was when their graves were dug. “They have to give a cow to the gravedigger and he cannot return to his home until he has passed through a purification ceremony… The Presbyterians have not tried to clothe the Shilluks, so Dr. McLenahan said it was a wonderful sight to see the stark naked choirboys march up to their place in the church on Sundays!”
Khartoum, a city on the Nile about midway between modern Eritrea and Chad, was the only place where they spoke directly about slavery. They asked the Headman if “there were any slaves in the town,” and he replied, “No, but there were several Negro women, unveiled, walking about [who] were practically, though not technically, slaves. He knew one man who had gained his freedom who was still paying ten piasters a month to his former owner. Theoretically, everyone can get his freedom through applying to an official, but inherited slaves are married off to other slaves and thus a sort of domestic slave class has arisen. In Abyssinia there is supposed to be still actual slave raiding going on.”
Abyssinia was another terms for Ethiopia — and very soon, the practice of raiding enemy villages for war captives to sell as slaves would be abandoned, as in 1935, all natives faced bombs from Italian airplanes during the first incidents of World War II. Just as an aside from the diary and for your information, historically most slaves were captured by enemy tribes and brought to the western coast of Africa. The biggest slave markets were in ports controlled by Portugal, especially Ghana and Senegal, which were closest to the Western Hemisphere. The east coast had less slave trading, but the unfortunate point is that virtually all Africans initially were sold by other Africans. The question of how much slavery still goes on, both there and on other continents, is worthy of more attention.
The last places that the diary details were in Sudan and some of the lower regions of Egypt. Stokes had seen Cairo and other aspects of the Nile Valley, including Luxor and Karnak, earlier in her life and understandably found it less noteworthy. Her December summary of two schools at Khartoum was the last to focus on women and girls. With a big Muslim population, she said, “the teaching has to be largely in English as there are few books in modern Arabic… Miss Grove gets all shades and colors, and mixtures of French, Egyptian, Greek, English, Arab, and Negro, among others. The girls receive a certificate…, but there seems to be little for them to do with their education, and they aren’t often wanted as wives.”


La Gaceta – September 2019

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