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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

I'm Taking A Break

from the reality TV show that is our daily life.  Although we LaGaceta columnists do not coordinate our topics, I'm trusting that my dear colleague Joe O'Neill will do the necessary ranting and raving about the latest outrage from the White House.  I'll just say that never in my life have I been so eager to see Congress go back into session after their August break.  There is much to be done, and I'm grateful that Nancy Pelosi will lead the doing.


Instead, I'm moving back to 1932.  That was a crucial year, too, when the Democratic Party moved to the left, nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and crushed the incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover in November.  Congress got the message and began the repeal of Prohibition already the following February, before Roosevelt was inaugurated in March.  (Yes, inauguration was later then.)  Congress would adopt most of FDR's New Deal programs, and the nation (and world) began pulling out of the Great Depression in which it had plunged -- partly because of low wages and high prices caused by tariffs, just like now. 


The depression was called "crise," or "crisis" in Africa, especially its French-speaking parts, and Africa in 1932 is my topic for the day.  If you think that's irrelevant, think again:  all history is relevant.  That's how we got where we are, and the more we know about our past, the better we can handle the present.  Specifically, I'm going to quote long sections of "Olivia's African Diary:  Cape Town to Cairo, 1932."  The diary was not published until 1980, however, and it took Amazon so long to find it that I had forgotten I ordered it.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a 1984 autograph from Marvin Breckinridge Patterson.


No, Marvin was not a man.  I have an embarrassing a mea culpa:  I encountered her with research for my first book on World War II and thought that her name was Mary Martin Breckinridge.  I wrote about her 1939 radio broadcasts from occupied Europe, which is another interesting story, but back to the mea culpa:  it turned out that "Martin" should have been "Marvin."   I was just fortunate (or unfortunate) that no one at Prentice Hall, which published my third book in 1994, caught my mistake.  Moreover, I didn't know until recently that she was called "Marvin," not "Mary," and was not primarily a radio reporter, but instead a photographer.  She took cameras and film for both still and moving pictures to Africa, where she aimed to procure "pictures of Natives for the Field Museum, done at the request of Henry Field."




Marvin probably was called that to distinguish her from another Mary Breckinridge, who founded the Frontier Nursing Service that traveled in Appalachia, often on horseback.  The affluent, liberal Kentucky family also included Sophonisba Breckinridge, called "Nisba,"who was the first woman in the world to earn a doctorate in political science; another, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, led the state's women in the right to vote.


Marvin accompanied her friend Olivia Stokes to Africa, along with Stokes' parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Anson Phelps Stokes.  He was the canon of Washington Cathedral, as well as president of the family's Phelps-Stokes Fund.  It financed many schools for blacks both in Africa and in the United States, and he had countless speaking invitations throughout the continent.  She rather paved his way:  she had been a missionary prior to marriage; spoke African languages; and also had family members who had lived there a long time, some of whom held aristocratic titles.  Because of these connections, the party of four had friends of many ethnicities and religions who were happy to host them on the six-month trip.


The ocean voyage from Southhampton to Cape Town took fifteen days; the young women saved money by booking second class, while the older couple was on the upper deck.  That has not changed on cruise ships, nor have young tourist-trappers who greet them.  In the Madeira Islands off the coast of northern Africa, Portuguese-speakers had learned enough English to dive for coins:  "One shilling boy dive – he very little boy.  You be good sport." 


They reached Cape Town on August 1, which in the Southern Hemisphere, is the weather equivalent of February.  Olivia recorded:  "The temperature and the whole atmosphere – palms and poinsettias – made it seem like a chilly winter day in Southern California."  They were very impressed with the natural beauty of the land and especially with False Bay, from which they could see both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  Their primary purpose, of course, was not tourism but instead visiting schools and occasional hospitals.  I have to admit that I was surprised at the number of educational institutions that were well established in South Africa by 1932. 


In Cape Town, they stayed with a former divinity professor who had been "put out" of the University of Stellenbosch "for his too liberal interpretation of the Bible." Stellenbosch, which is close to Cape Town, also featured a school for "Blind Natives and Coloureds," as well as the Huguenot College for Women, "apparently run by Americans for up-country girls of Dutch or Huguenot heritage," as well as the "Mission Institute for Training Dutch Reformed Missionaries."


From Cape Town, which she described as "a town rather than a city, and a rather ugly one at that," they went north on the railroad.  "The local trains here," she recorded, "are very slow and delightfully informal – you can even stop them to pick wildflowers."  The gardener in me appreciated her many mentions of flowers, but you probably don't care that much, so I'll skip them in favor of the more unusual -- such as their visit to the Cango Caves, which "were far more beautiful than anything I expected… It took us two hours to get to the end and back and they are very well lit with electricity."  In 1932!  And I'd never heard of Cango Caves or any other caverns as a feature of South Africa.


They watched a snake handler in Port Elizabeth, and in Alice, sat at "high table" with the Scottish woman who ran the school there.  "The food and manners of the Native women who sat at long tables below us were interesting.  They eat great piles of mealies, which look like white corn, with beans, or pumpkin, and meat three times a week.  For breakfast they have "sweet water," that is hot water with sugar in it.  They don't care for variety in food…  The European staff asked many questions about America, its movie houses, skyscrapers, Hollywood, beauty parlors, etc."




At incongruously named East London, they encountered their first Zulus, who usually went naked, or in cold weather, wrapped themselves in blankets.  "They are required," she said, "to wear more than a blanket when they come into the towns and must leave their sticks outside to prevent fighting."  Yet natives did have some rights in this area called Transkei, where "no European can now acquire a farm." They went on to Umtata and a Catholic school, where she commented:  "It seems that when they become Christians, the Natives discard their blankets and beads and take to European dress, although no one forces them to.  Some wear white blankets to set themselves apart.  For Christian weddings, they have adopted our whole regalia, orange blossoms and all, and the girls even wear corsets for the event.  They have specially designed ones for those who have any Bushman or Hottentot blood!!"


The train ran through parts of Africa, but far from all of it, so they hired drivers to take them north on barely developed roads.  One, who "spoke with a mingled South African and cockney accent though both he and his father had been born out here," told of getting stuck in a swamp for seven days just two years earlier.  The group he was chauffeuring included a 74-year-old (white) woman, and "they had to sleep in the car while lions roared around them."  Another such man told "amazing tales of cattle's ability to smell a lion.  He once caused a whole team of oxen to dart off the road and wreck the wagon, because, when he was well ahead of them, the oxen smelt bits of lion hair in his pocket!"


At Maritzburg, they visited a government-run village for Zulus willing to adopt a European lifestyle.  "They can get neat little brick houses with outside toilets, light, a tap in the street, and a fireplace for a pound a month.  They have a nice plot of ground around them, and it is amazing what they have done with their gardens.  They also have showers, a market, a school, and once a week, a clinic and a free movie show."  That was not so different from what FDR would do a few years later, especially in the South and primarily for poor whites.


In Durban, they were warned that "the chief would be drunk," but "he made a beautiful speech in Zulu welcoming Mother as 'a daughter of our people.'  In spite of his untidy European clothes, the old man had a remarkable dignity."  The main concern of his clan, apparently, was that he wanted the son of his favorite wife to succeed him, but the older sons of his seven other wives understandably objected.  From those people and others, she said, "we learned a lot about Zulu customs such as always putting out two hands when giving someone a spoon or anything else, to show that you are keeping nothing back.  Also, you can never refer in public to your husband's first name or use any word of which it is a syllable; even more taboo is your husband's mother's first name."


Did you know that there is a town named Florida near Johannesburg?  That area features mines, and these adventurous young women climbed down into mines for gold, copper, diamonds, and even asbestos.  Most miners were unmarried young men, many from "Portuguese East Africa."  They lived in "compounds" with thousands of residents, and often took their company-mandated savings and returned home after a few years of work.  At one compound, the women watched a performance of all-male dancing and comedy.  The miners played musical instruments "called pianos, which are made of five or six gourds lashed together…on which the men beat with soft-ended sticks.  The rhythm is marvelous, especially as they have rows of different sized pianos."


At Mazabuka, which then was in the province of Northern Rhodesia and now is the nation of Zambia, "Marvin got some good photographs and bought a pipe from a wonderful old man who was smoking it before his hut.  He had the typical top knot of his tribe besides feathers in his hair.  The topknot of mud and grease and hair was studded with brass thumb tacks.  The pipe is long with a pottery bowl and a spike, which stuck into the ground, supports it while one smokes." 


On the train to the Congo (then the Belgian Congo), an English army colonel who had lived there for twenty years regaled them with the story of Lord and Lady Stanley's first trek to central Africa.  Sir Herbert had insisted on wearing shorts and "became so sunburned that he had a temperature of 105 for a week and had to be carried the rest of the trip." Despite this stubbornness, however, he proved a good administrator for Africans, willing to risk antagonizing whites by setting aside some 21 million acres of land for the exclusive use of natives.


I'm loving this diary, and unless you object, I'm going to write about it again next week.  We all need to know much more about that huge continent.



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