African Encounters with Domesticity

By Karen Tranberg Hansen | Go to book overview

5 Colonial Fairy Tales and the Knife and Fork Doctrine in the Heart of Africa

Nancy Rose Hunt

Christmas of 1915 seemed "different from all the rest" for a group of British Baptists who sat down to dinner together in a home on a mission station in the Belgian Congo. "Instead of monkey stew for Christmas dinner, we had roast beef for the first time" ( "Christmas" 1915, 11). For these nonconformist missionaries working in the equatorial forest on the Congo River, roast beef for Christmas dinner represented a significant breakthrough in domesticating their imagined surroundings. They were making Yakusu, their station in the equatorial forest, homelike. "The rose trees from England were flowering in our garden and the tables were gaily decorated" (Ibid., 11). Some Protestant missionaries called such efforts to recreate England in the Congo "a policy of make-believe . . . a loving fraud, but a hollow one" ( Crawford 1912, 416). When Leopold II's son, Prince Albert, toured the colony in 1909, he stopped at Yakusu and entered inside a missionary home, he witnessed the make-believe, but not as hollow: "One would truly think one was in England."1

Scenes of "the white people . . . at table" did not often warrant mention in the Yakusu Quarterly Notes ( "Jottings," YQN, 1935, 12; see also Mill 1956). It was when Christian Africans were participating in mission dining rituals, when the "policy of make-believe" coincided with the "knife and fork doctrine" (Congo Missionary Conference 1904, 47) that the monkey stew to roast beef theme made good copy for this mission station newsletter. In 1922, for instance, the recently arrived doctor's wife, Mrs. Chesterman, described going to "a unique dinner party" on Mr. and Mrs. Millman's veranda. Mrs. Millman's "house girls" served the invited men, who were African evangelist-teachers serving in villages in the mission district. The guests' faces "literally shone with recent contact with

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