2.32 Heart of Africa Mission

Hayes Perkins commenting on the lives of African women reveals much about his compassion, his sense of moral rectitude, his naiveté, his iron resolve, and his inability to address continent-wide, world-wide, colonial abuses.  However one values Hayes’ observations on this subject, at least he quotes directly the voice of one African woman speaking for herself.

February 21, 1914 – December 24, 1914

Of course the Beligian officers left Niangara for the war fronts in Kamerun and German East Africa leading columns of African soldiers. Askaris recruited on both sides of the conflict bore the brunt of the fighting over European colonial boundaries throughout WWI.

Askaris in German East Africa
photo by Walther Dobbertin

Hayes writes that the Belgians kept a large well-trained askari contingent stationed at Niangara prior to the outbreak of the war fearing an uprising of the Azandes:  “Renzi, Mopoie and Bukoyo, to say nothing of Akengai, all have several thousands of warriors behind them, and all they lack is arms to drive the Belgians out of the northern Congo.”   With German artillery and machine guns posing a more immediate threat than native uprising, the Belgians immediately rushed the trained Niangaran troops to the front replacing them with newly enlisted men to keep the native chiefs in hand.

Photographs from the period show the askaris fully equipped with modern weapons.  Hayes does not record their payment except to note that the Belgians gave each soldier a wife – all of  whom were abandoned, often with children, when their soldiers marched off to the front to fight for a Belgian Government that took no official concern for the providence of their wives and children.

Initially, Jenssen-Tusch, commander of the Niangara station, whom Hayes describes as “a kind hearted Dane,” donated 10 centimes food allowance to each woman daily.  Jenssen-Tusch’s charity didn’t last long; by September 25 his fund was exhausted “and the girls are wandering about the country in bands, purchasing their living in the only way they know how.”

Zande Woman with Child
Photo by Richard Buchta circa 1880

By September, 1914, Hayes was fluent enough in Bangala to ask some of the women if they hadn’t some other recourse.  He translates one woman’s bitter reply:  “Musungu, we were taken from our homes against our wills and given to this soldier.  He has gone away, and we have no garden, no home, no place where we may find a living.  The men who belonged to us have been taken away.  If we return home (which we may not, it is very far) we will but be made slaves what else can we do?”

Hayes writes, “I cannot answer their queries.”

Studd, Buxton, and the Heart of Africa Mission are significant by omission in Hayes’ account of this abandonment of the military wives.  Perhaps even with the best of intentions, the scope of the disruption would have overwhelmed the young mission’s scant resources –  Hayes accounts more than 800 women forced into prostitution at Niangara and “It is so in every post in the Congo.”  If the missionaries bear no blame, Hayes delivers a scathing summary of the colonial government’s response:  “Little do the Belgians care, for there are always more women when these are gone, more where they are going, so why worry?”

Hairdressing among Mangbetu Women
Photo Eliot Elifoson 1970

In late November Hayes enters another note concerning these abandoned wives of the askaris who “waylay” him at the post “everywhere I turn.”  What could he do?  The women knew that he would not help them in the commercial manner to which they’ve been forced.  What could he say?  “It is futile to tell them what they should do, what they need is bread.”  He muses with resignation that “gradually they will be absorbed into the general population, as wives to newly enlisted askaris or taken up by chiefs and into the general body of the Mangbettu and Azande peoples.”

As a 36-year-old celibate American man who lived in northern Belgian Congo less than a year, Hayes Perkins may not be best qualified to comment on the lives of the local African women. Nevertheless, his last lengthy passage on women before leaving the Congo concerns the newly arrived Belgian officers who had accompanied the missionary reinforcements arriving at the Heart of Africa in December of 1914.  Askaris were sent to find “jewels for the haremlike (sic) at Niangara, for this is the Belgian way.”  Hayes observes that as long as her beauty lasts a woman will be kept as a Belgian plaything.  But time wears her down or her officer leaves with empty promises of return.  She then becomes wife to an African soldier or house boy; eventually falls to field labor; then to begging when too weak to to work.  “Then she dies, and a few of her sisters bewail her passing.  She is a thousand times better off dead.  Being a woman is hell in Africa.”

And then, four days later, lest a reader get a simplified impression of Hayes’ complex relationship to women, he writes:  “Mangbettu ladies have been making one last tremendous effort to seduce me, even to slipping into my room at night naked. …  Sometime I hate women. …  As a boy I believed them to be the emblem of all that was pure and good.  I believe many are now, but most are filled with dissimulation.”

All this just as Miss Flangham, whom Hayes believes “has been sent here by Studd’s order as a helpmate for me,” arrives to bolster the mission work at Niangara.  Hayes sees “a spoiled kiddy of 28 … accustomed to servants, [who] requires a party to wait on her.”

Time to flee this place.

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3 Responses to 2.32 Heart of Africa Mission

  1. It’s hard not to see the parallel between African women given to soldiers by the Belgians and Miss F given to Hayes by the missionaries, except that Hayes refuses the “gift.” Miss F may be spoiled and have more resources and agency but it seems she’s still a pawn to be offered between men.

    • johnmmartin says:

      Yes, add too the offer Hayes received of 10 wives from the Azande chief Renzi and the commodification of women is nearly universal. Would be interesting to know more about Miss Flangham. She did remain at the Heart of Africa Mission for 17 years. Hard to imagine that she continued a “spoiled kiddy” who needed servants in that environment for 17 years.

      • Yes, hers would be an interesting story but so would any of the African women left behind by the soldiers. I’m reconsidering my use of the word “agency.” I think they all had agency but certainly as a white woman Miss F had quite a few more options.

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