Voices in the Dark

Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region

edited by M.J. Daymond, Dorothy Driver, Sheila Meintjes, Leloba Molema, Chiedza Musengezi, Margie Orford, and Nobantu Rasebotsa
Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 554 pp., $75.00; $29.95 (paper)

In May 1863, Eliza M. visited Cape Town, traveling by steamship from the South African port of East London. She was a young girl, Xhosa-speaking, mission-educated, and her first glimpse of city life came as Cape Town was celebrating a royal wedding in faraway England. The ocean had disconcerted her: “It was unpleasant when nothing appeared….” But as soon as she was on dry land, and the ground stopped heaving, she began to process and analyze for posterity a barrage of new impressions, with a sharp eye and a levelheaded precision that jaded modern travelers would envy. Table Mountain, she reported, is not like a table; all the same, that is its correct name. There were ox wagons, like at home: surprising, that. Everything was so cheap: three pairs of stockings for a shilling. The streets at night were lit up. There were strange trees and flowers, strange food: bananas, crawfish “frightful in appearance,” and chestnuts; of this item, she adds, on a practical note, “it is sweet and edible like the potato, you can boil it or roast it.” She saw canaries, and Newfoundland dogs, which she had heard about but never imagined she would meet in real life.

Eliza was working hard on behalf of the people at home, not just marveling at things but trying to grasp how they worked. She gives an account of the dyeing of clothes, and the workings of a steam engine: “The wheels run on metal…and when it is about to proceed it says ‘Sh!'”

For the first time she was meeting cultures very different from her own and that of the missionaries. The Malays, with their pointed hats and wooden shoes that clattered, were celebrating the end of Ramadan, and their houses were decorated with paper flowers. The pomp of a funeral, the ceremonial volley of shots fired by soldiers, flags fluttering in the wind, the “ancients hats” and gold coats worn by dignitaries in procession: these impressed her but not too much. “I do not say that those coats were really of gold, I say there was gold on some parts of them.”

Eliza’s account was published in the King William’s Town Gazette, a settler newspaper. Her readers liked it, we can suppose, because it made them smile to see their own city sophistication through the eyes of an upcountry black girl. For a reader today, it is full of jittery fascination of a different kind. Eliza spares comment, but only reports on the white men capering in blackface,

that thing that is said to be always done by white people in this month of May. They make themselves black people…a thing is made with evergreens, and a man is put inside it, and two people carry it, and another man carries a pan, and goes begging for money.

Here are the rituals of a very strange tribe, who play at “Punch & Judy, Spectre, Father of the Doomed Arm-chair,” and who have a special house in which…

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