“A World of Their Own”: Community and Authority at an American School for Zulu Girls, 1860s to Recent Times

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Seminar Date
March 18, 2009
In March 1869, a kholwa man named Thomas Hawes brought two of his daughters to the new girls’ boarding school on the Inanda mission station. His elder daughter, Martha, was an adolescent who had attended the station’s day school for a few years, and he was eager to enroll her in this institution that promised to mould the next generation of teachers, wives, and mothers for Natal’s amakholwa community. Martha Hawes was, in fact, just the sort of pupil that the missionaries of the American Zulu Mission had envisioned when they had begun urging the American Board to expand higher educational options for male and female converts five years before. Literate in isiZulu and able to read basic English texts, with parents committed to her education, she was one of what missionary Henry Bridgman had called the “‘First-fruits’ from amongst the children of Believing Parents on our different Stations.” For a mission that was still struggling to convert people in a turbulent region that it had entered three decades earlier with absurdly confident expectations of evangelical success, boarding schools seemed essential institutions by which to “secure” this next generation and to “prepare them (as far as human agency can) as an offering to the Lord’s service in this land.” Mary Edwards, the Ohio schoolteacher charged with operating Inanda Seminary, received Martha Hawes eagerly. Thomas Hawes’ younger daughter, Dalita, presented a less ideal pupil. She was nine years old, “a little lame girl” who “did not know the Alphabet and not one word in English” when she arrived at Edwards’ door. But Hawes was desperate for his younger daughter to board in the school, as it was too strenuous for her to walk between her home and the day school on his station. So, as Edwards put it, he “begged me to take her.” She hesitated to enroll a girl so unprepared for this ambitious school, conceived on the model of Massachusett’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Yet ultimately, Edwards explained to her supporters in the Women’s Board of Missions, “Her parents were so anxious to have her admitted that we could not refuse. They gave her to me.” Edwards would expel Martha in the school’s second year, for reasons that remain unclear. Thomas Hawes briefly refused to speak to Edwards on this account, although he kept Dalita in the school and soon sent another daughter, Ella, to join her. But Dalita Hawes became Edwards’ special charge. When Edwards returned to the United States in 1875, Hawes returned to her parents’ home; when Edwards returned to Inanda the next year, Hawes came back to the school as a pupil-teacher. In 1877, Edwards paid for Hawes to undergo a series of painful and unsuccessful leg operations in Durban, where she arranged for an English housekeeper to attend to her. Upon Hawes’ return to the seminary, the pair sometimes shared a bed, and Edwards wrote of her protégée frequently. In turn, she described Edwards as “not any less than a mother to me. I love her dearly.” The Hawes sisters’ journey to Inanda Seminary comprised an amakholwa adaptation of the ritualized passages long central to African family life. As Jeff Guy has suggested, a young woman’s journey from her father’s household to this new “home” shared at least one critical feature with a young bride’s umendo to join a new homestead: Both were premised on her complete transformation within a new network of people and a new set of rights and obligations. While Deborah Gaitskell and Lynn Thomas have related mission schooling to puberty rituals and age-set initiations that also prepared youth for their gendered participation in adult society, another apposite comparison for Inanda’s early students is to marriage itself. For while American missionaries expressly hoped that the seminary’s graduates would become model wives and mothers heading their own Christian households, the process by which girls left their homes of birth to board at this female-run institution represented nothing less than their fraught passage from one set of familial affiliations and authority to another. En route to the more permanent transformations that marriage demanded, Inanda Seminary girls joined a liminal community that would serve as both site and mode of instruction in Christian domesticity. Under the provisional authority of their “MaEdwards,” the girls prepared for lives as monogamous women within the relative seclusion of a self-sufficient, homosocial community. While they were expected to leave agricultural work to their future husbands and their ploughs, everyone hoed the fields at Inanda. Boarding schooling thus signified a complicated new stage within young women’s development as daughters, wives, and mothers, rendered through the sorts of familial idioms that had long undergirded women’s work in the American Zulu Mission.
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