Sometime last month, I read Cloth Girl by Marilyn Heward Mills and while I admit that I did not read the book’s blurb in its entirety before buying the book, I was nevertheless eager to read a book that was not only set in an African country during the colonial period but that also had Africans as main characters. Cloth Girl is the tale of Matilda Lamptey who at 14 years old is basically pressured (by her family) into marrying Robert Bannerman, ‘the suave and sophisticated Gold Coast lawyer’. Matilda then has to contend with Julie, the first wife of the household. I really enjoyed reading Matilda’s story and would have enjoyed Cloth Girl even more if the book didn’t at the same time follow the story of Audrey, the wife of the assistant of the Governor who left England to settle in the Gold Coast due to her husband’s profession.
I only started really enjoying Cloth Girl about halfway through the book simply because I kept on wondering what exactly Audrey’s character was doing it. To put things bluntly, Audrey’s moaning about how horrible life in Africa was did not interest me at all. Really, to say that I hated Audrey’s character would be an underestimation. As I read the book, I really wanted to just skip the chapters that had to deal with Audrey’s oh-so dreadful life as the wife of a local administrator. I really would have appreciated the book more if we did not see the Gold Coast through Audrey’s eyes. To me, her point of view was too typical. I really wish Matilda’s character had the book to herself. Her story was to me far more interesting that Audrey’s typical view of life in colonial Africa.
Apart from this, I enjoyed Cloth Girl. I really liked the depiction of the Bannerman’s and their wealthy status in community. Matilda comes from an impoverished background and it was also interesting to see how she managed in her role as a second wife. I absolutely adored Matilda’s character and I liked her character’s development as she went from an uncertain and confused 14 year old girl who was married off in order to improve her family’s status to a woman who stood up for herself and what she believed in.
Another aspect of the book that I found intriguing was *spoiler* the relationship between Matilda and Audrey’s husband, Alan. I guess it should be, Matilda’s affair with Alan as though Audrey had left Alan before the affair took place, Matilda was still married to Robert. I had noticed Alan’s attraction to Matilda pretty early in the book but I didn’t think anything would happen between them after the book was not a story about Matilda’s love for a white man but of her marriage to Robert Bannerman.
After reading Cloth Girl, I was left curious about what I now know is called, sexuality and colonialism. I was mostly interested in relations between African women and European men in colonial African countries which admittedly was a topic I knew relatively nothing about as it is not something people talk about or is portrayed in movies or books. On the other hand, it’s pretty much well-known that some African men did marry European women during the period, I’m thinking of Seretse Khama. Cloth Girl was the first book I read that mentioned such an interracial relationship that was consensual, it appears that interracial relationships involving European or Asian men and African women are ‘the most neglected face of colonial encounters’.
Reading about the lives of women living under colonial rule is pretty amazing on its own. It was nice to learn about the autonomy some of these women exercised and the way some women ‘claimed to follow their hearts’ rather than being controlled by European men under the name of colonialism. I found two sources on sexuality and colonialism in Africa which I thought I’d share here. While one was about women in southern Mozambique, the other hit much closer to home. In What My Heart Wanted*, Heidi Gengenbach notes that Magude women of Mozambique had interacted with European men within feminine spaces even as the Portuguese men treated African men badly. Apparently African women of all ages drank, danced and negotiated sexual union with white men from all sectors of the colonial society.
Gengenbach interviewed a woman Rosalina Malungana (born in 1914) who was ‘married’ to a Portuguese driver, Agosto Capela whom she met during her teenage years as a student in the Swiss Missions girls’ school in Lourenco Marques. Agosto was among the other white and mestico men who had been interested in Rosalina but her uncle, a pastor with whom she and her mother lived, was against Rosalina being with a white man. Through a series of somewhat unfortunate events (you can read Rosalina’s interview here) she ended up with Agosto. And even though colonial law would not permit the couple to marry, Rosalina lived with Agosto referring to him as her ‘husband’ till he died.
The other well-document relationship comes from Nigeria and is more tragic and I guess more sensational than Rosalina’s story. In the early 1950s, Esther Johnson (née Ada Ocha Ntu) a 22 year old ‘Western Igbo’ woman killed her lover, Mark Hall a middle-aged British official of the Nigerian Railway Corporation. Apparently she had killed him because he had returned from a home leave to tell her that he had married an English bride and had completely used the £400 she had lent him to buy a taxi for her so that she could start a business.
While there is no way of knowing exactly how Agosto felt for Rosalina as the story is told by Rosalina, it’s pretty obvious that Mark Hall used and rejected Esther due to his betrayal. If you read Rosalina’s interview, how she came to be with Agosto reads like a romance novel however this wasn’t the case with Esther. That is not to say that Esther did not have ambitions of her own as apparently when African women saw advantages in unions with white men, they went for it and did not view their relationships as more oppressive or exploitative than marriage to an African man.
It seems that in 1950s southern Nigeria, interracial relationships were mostly tolerated by colonial society. It was normal for European men to take local mistresses who they usually left behind, sometimes with children, when they were posted elsewhere. A few white officers married Nigerian women without significant social or political penalties. Also foreign educated Nigerian men married European wives.
Franz Fanon argued that colonialism resulted in inferiority complexes among people of colour which manifested in the desire for sexual relations with Europeans and that black women wanted white men as a way of lightening their offspring and gaining status by association. On the other hand it has also been argued that it was not only white skin or colonial power that made European men attractive to some African women but the association of whiteness with wealth.
What I read
*Gengenbach Heidi (2002), “‘What My Heart Wanted’: Gendered Stories of Early Colonial Encounters in Southern Mozambique” in Women in African Colonial Histories ed. Allman Jean et al, Indiana University Press, USA.
**Lindsay A. Lisa (2005), ‘A Tragic Romance, A Nationalist Symbol: The Case of the Murdered White Lover in Colonial Nigeria’, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 17, No. 2.