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Capturing a world that was

Izak de Vries

Since pictures have been credited with the eloquence of a 1 000 words each, it is difficult not to open a discussion on missionary photography and drawings with two fine examples of the subjects in question.

This pictures’ captions read: “Then” and “A native dance in Bawendaland some years ago”. The “native dance” in question is the Domba, also known as the Python Dance. Venda girls used to perform this ceremony as a rite a passage, a coming of age, along the lines of the Proms in the United States, or a confirmation dinner / matric farewell in the South African tradition. Their scantily clad bodies mimed the rhythms of a snake, since the snake, in turn, symbolised the contractions of the womb during birth.

The second picture’s captions read: “And now” and “Converts to civilisation in Zoutpansberg”.

The difference between “Then” “And Now” is obvious. These pictures come from Writing the soul in light: Missionary encounters in the late-nineteenth-century Vendaland, Blouberg and Beyond by Alan Kirkaldy and Albert Wirz. The book was published by the School of Human Sciences, University of Venda, and forms part of what is called the SHS Monograph Series. Kirkaldy is a lecturer in history at the University of Venda and Wirz is at Humboldt University in Berlin.

The publication is part of a larger quest of Kirkaldy’s to investigate the missionary influence on Vendaland, a region that today is part of the Northern Province. He is especially interested in the influence of the German missions. Kirkaldy’s research took him to East Berlin, where he spent almost a year sifting through letters, books, pamphlets, pictures and sketches pertaining to his pursuit.

Kirkaldy does not look upon the work of the church with scorn, but he does provide a critical insight into the ways in which the eyes of the missionaries beheld the Venda people of the nineteenth century.

Photographs were used as proof of missions’ achievements in heathen Africa. Those pictures were used as advertisements to lure their supporters into giving. The better the reports and supportive pictorial evidence were, the bigger the likelihood was of receiving desperately needed donations to drive the work in Africa.

The above photograph is a fine example of such an advertisement. Below it one of the missionaries wrote:

    Miryam with the young Nathanael on her back cooks for the builder of the chapel of Old-Georgenholtz. Mashudu, next to her, holds the flour-basket. Petrus, with his hand below his knee. In the background, Asaf, the oldest son. (As quoted in Kirkaldy 2000: 25.)

Kirkaldy and Wirz note:

    Unlike the case with non-royal “heathens”, all the people appearing in the photograph are individually named, attributing to each of them a history and personal identity (Kirkaldy 2000: 25).

The picture of Miryam and her children was entered into the pictorial canon of the Berlin Mission, but others, such as that of a “heathen” woman with a clay pot partaking in a virility ritual for a young man who had died before losing his virginity (detail below), never got included in any of the official exhibits.

This photograph is of far greater anthropological value than the one of Miryam, as it illustrates cultural activities unlike any other observed before, but it could not be used for raising money. Such heathen activities in close proximity to Christian settlements might just make donors worry about the effective use, or not, of their alms!

It was important, however, constantly to bring to the attention of donors the strenuous, and sometimes dangerous, circumstances under which the missionaries operated. The dilemma was that none of the pictures showing heathens in their day-to-day activities, such as that of the Domba, were fierce enough to scare people into giving. And so the mission departments took to drawings such as the one on the cover page of the Bavenda-freund, an official publication of the Berlin Mission.

Note the muscular arms of the half-naked, very black men and their sunken eyes. Behind them is a dense forest. The missionary, with a friendly smile, but firm and direct gaze, forms the border between the forest of darkness and a settlement basking in the Christian light. His hand points towards the cross, but the invitation clearly is to the orderly settlement as well. Do note that the missionary wears white in this picture, while in reality missionaries’ dress often was dark. A dark suit would, however, not have contrasted enough with the nudity exhibited by his adversaries.

The (selected) reality was equally interesting, however. Down below we see some of the “helpers”, or “native evangelists”.

These men did convert and were now helping the white missionaries to point more of their fellow-tribesmen and women in the direction of the cross. Their nudity had been covered, but — as was the case with many other converts photographed at the time — they wore no shoes.

Of the photograph above Kirkaldy and Wirz say:

    For us, the photographic image that captures the way that they felt most effectively was that of “Missionary Schwellnus” ... It would appear that the Mission Society felt the same way as they also used this image for the cover and frontispiece of their published history of the mission in Vendaland [Geshichte der Bawenda-Mission in Nord-Transvaal — IdV] (Kirkaldy and Wirz 2000: 6).

I now quote at length from their text.

    The subjects are positioned around a banana tree — a sign of cultivation. On one level, this draws the viewer’s eye away from the background forest and towards those grouped around it. Viewed differently, the grouping serves to separate the missionary from the African other. Separation and othering is also linked to dominance and subordination — Schwellnus is standing on the left-hand side, slightly elevated above the young boys, two of whom are seated and one squatting slightly lower down on the right. The missionary’s head and shoulders protrude into the upper left-hand quadrant of the photograph (the strongest part), while the boys are clustered in the lower right hand quadrant (the weakest part) (Kirkaldy and Wirz 2000: 7).

For the sake of clarity, the quadrants and the falling line (top left to bottom right) had been added to the photograph of Schwellnus by the reviewer:

Kirkaldy and Wirz have produced a text that is easy to read and understand. It is a scholarly work with endless footnotes, but those do not distract from the readability of Writing the soul in light. Anyone who is interested in, or collects works about, the era of the early missions in South Africa, the German involvement in the country or the Venda region, ought not to let this monograph slip through their hands.

Writing the soul in light: Missionary encounters in the late-nineteenth-century Vendaland, Blouberg and Beyond is available from Kirkaldy himself at the give-away price of R10 plus postage. Contact Alan Kirkaldy at mwalanki@mweb.co.za to order your copy. The ISBN number of Writing the soul in light is 0 620 27620 8.

The photographs used in this article were kindly provided by Alan Kirkaldy.

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