The Calling of Katie Makanya

This book tells Katie Makanya’s story as transcribed by her friend Margaret McCord. Kate was born in the what is now known as the Eastern Cape in 1873 to a Christian family. She grew up feeling “less than” her sister, Charlotte, who excelled at school and went on to become a teacher. It was only when her melodic voice was discovered that Katie came into her own and blossomed. Their choir was invited to England to sing for Queen Victoria, and one of the agents promised to make Katie “rich, and famous”. But three years later Katie decided to go back home. She was concerned that she was getting old, and “wanted to find a husband among our own people. I don’t want to marry in a foreign country.”

The story of Katie though illuminates a number of issues related to how Africans, especially women, are viewed and who they are expected to be. Although the audience was in awe of the performance of the choir, as Africans the individual members were objectified. They were “things” to be watched and observed. Whilst enjoying the music, the audience was entertained by the specimen delivering the music, the African. So as much as they came for the music, they also came out of curiosity. They wanted to see what and how “life is in Africa”. This weighed heavily on Katie. She longed to be herself. She longed to be amongst her own people.

I was equally struck by how little has changed for Black people in South Africa. Katie had to play dumb order to get a job as a domestic worker. Charlie warns her that “The Missis will not like it if you act too proud…and when she speaks to you say ‘Yes Missis’ and ’No missis’ and “Please Missis’ and ‘I’m sorry Missis’ and you’ll get along all right.” He essentially advises Katie to “make herself small and cast her eyes on the ground”. So, she is expected to bring her body to work but not her personality and her opinions. Most certainly she is not expected to ask any questions, but just be grateful for the job. What is interesting for me is that these people actually do have agency. They consciously choose to play along with the Missis as a survival strategy. But they draw a clear yet invisible line that will not be crossed by anyone. Charlie sees red when “white people have forgotten their manners…and want to keep us naked and dirty.” He quits.

Although she is keen to conform to cultural expectations, it is clear from the decisions she takes at critical points in her life that Katie has a mind of her own. She knows when to play along. She is fully conscious that she is expected to get married. She is also conscious of her family’s reticence towards Zulus. It is interesting to watch how she navigates through these expectations with care and sensitivity, whilst also achieving her own goals. This is representative of how most women live their lives, a constant balancing act which should not necessarily be mistaken as a weakness.

But it is Dr McCord who affirms Katie. He insists that she should be what she has to be and learn what she has to learn. It is this empowering affirmation that propels Katie to come into her own, and to serve her community with all her passion.

The Calling of Katie Makanya is an easy read. It won the Alana Paton / Sunday Times Award and the CAN Literary Award for non-fiction. I recommend it to those interested in stories of African women trailblazers.