The Calling of Katie Makanya
Jeremy D. Popkin
University of Kentucky
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The Calling of Katie Makanya

Katie Makanya’s memoir1 tells the life story of a remarkable black woman from South Africa whose lifetime (1873-1956) coincided with the transformation of the region as a result of European imperialism. Margaret McCord, the daughter of Katie’s employer, recorded her memories in 1954, and from those memories, crafted this chronological narrative. Katie Makanya’s experiences show how Western technology turned Africans into industrial wage workers living in European-style cities, and how Africans began to adopt Western religious and political ideas.

What makes the book unusual is its success in showing how this process involved both European domination and genuine negotiation between people of different cultures. Katie was willing to accept aspects of European culture—Christianity, European marriage patterns, the techniques of modern medicine that she learned as a nurse for an American missionary doctor—when they promised a better life for herself and other Africans. But Katie had a strong sense of self. Neither her experiences with white racism in South Africa nor the rapturous reception she received when she toured England with an African choir in the 1890s swayed her from living her own life according to her own standards.

Initially reluctant to work for Dr. James McCord because of bad experiences with other white doctors, Katie was won over by his unmistakable concern for his African patients, but she stayed with him because he came to recognize that she had important things to teach him about how to deal with them. In 1954, at the height of the apartheid period in South Africa, her contribution to Dr. McCord’s work was recognized when a room in the expanded McCord Hospital in Durban was named in her honor.

When The Calling of Katie Makanya was published in post-apartheid South Africa, it was immediately recognized as a story that symbolized how the country’s black population—including its women—had not just endured during the period of white rule, but how they had contributed actively and positively to the making of a modern civilization that fuses elements from the Western and non-Western worlds.

Why I Taught This Source

I have used The Calling of Katie Makanya as supplementary reading in an introductory Western Civilization survey and in an advanced seminar on “Autobiography and Historical Experience.” The book is accessible to first-year students, but at the same time it poses questions that can stimulate lively discussion with more experienced students. I chose the book in Western Civilization because it lends itself so well to discussions about the impact of European imperialism on non-Western cultures, and because, unlike the widely used Chinua Achebe novel, Things Fall Apart, it highlights the experience of women.

I also appreciate the open-ended way in which issues of cultural exchange and conflict emerge in the story. Katie Makanya’s story is not just a testament to white oppression and black resistance: it demonstrates the range of possible interactions between whites and blacks.

The book is also useful because it incorporates a broad historical perspective. The story begins with Katie’s childhood encounter with her “old ancestor,” a great-grandmother whose memory goes back to the time of Shaka Zulu’s wars in the 1820s, before the imposition of white rule in southern Africa. It ends in the mid-20th century. Born to parents already converted to Christianity and educated in a mission school, Katie was not entirely unprepared for the experience of visiting England, where she performed for Queen Victoria, but she also learned to appreciate the virtues of life in the traditional village where her father had been born.

In my course on autobiography, Katie Makanya served to show how personal memoir can illuminate complex issues of self-definition in a situation of intense cultural exchange. It was also an excellent basis for discussion of the issues raised by “ethnographic memoirs” and autobiographical texts cowritten by an informant and an editor.

How I Set It Up

American student readers need some context to fully understand The Calling of Katie Makanya. For my classes, I prepared a short two-page handout, based mostly on Robert Ross, Concise History of South Africa (1997). I also sketched a map to show the locations of various episodes in Katie’s life; at different times, she lived in almost every region of South Africa. My handout provides background on some aspects of the story, such as the way in which discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa’s interior resulted in a demand for labor and the introduction of European technology. It also identifies institutions and organizations that are referred to in the book without much explanation, such as the pass laws and the various organizations to which Katie belonged.

Reading and Discussion: In my Western Civilization survey, Katie Makanya served as the basis for two separate one-hour discussion sessions. I prepared a list of questions for these discussions, and divided the class into small groups of four or five students. Each group was assigned one of the questions and given 15 minutes to discuss it; then we reassembled as a “committee of the whole” and a spokesperson for each group reported on their ideas, providing a basis for additional discussion.

Katie Makanya lends itself to this approach because of the variety of issues it raises. Katie Makanya is written as a series of episodes that can be considered separately—Katie’s encounter with Europe, her visit to her father’s native village, her relationship with Dr. McCord—but there are also themes that run through the book: the role of women in South African society, Katie’s ideas about marriage and family and how successful she is in living them out, her attitude toward the white world.


Students in both my classes came away from this assignment with a better appreciation of the way in which European imperialism changed the lives of peoples in the rest of the world. They also gained considerable insight into the experience of women.

In my seminar on autobiography and history, we also delved into some of the issues posed by the adoption of a Western pattern of narrative—chronological autobiography—by someone from another culture. Members of that group had a variety of reactions to the text. Some were critical of Katie because she turned down the opportunity to become the first African-born European opera star offered to her as a result of her tour of England. Or they found her “too Christian” and not politically radical enough. But others argued that her choices reflected her determination to lead her life according to her own values.

These debates confirmed my sense that The Calling of Katie Makanya is a useful text for generating serious discussion at any classroom level.

1 Margaret McCord, The Calling of Katie Makanya: A Memoir of South Africa (John Wiley, 1995).