At a time when few Americans had any consciousness of Africa, Donanne Ralston was living the life of an American diplomat’s daughter in South Africa. Here’s her account of what that was like:
We were living in Port Elizabeth in the Union of South Africa, a busy Indian Ocean port on Algoa Bay. My dad Don Ralston was the American Consul. We had been in P.E. for almost two years, my mom Tommyanne (Tom) helping him succeed.
Now it seemed that everything was about to change. There was talk that my dad would be transferred, possibly to Johannesburg, possibly to the Foreign Service Inspection Corps in Washington. The Nationalist Party government was about to take the country out of the British Commonwealth and proclaim it a republic. The armed opposition to apartheid was just getting organized.
And I was about to be eighteen.
Before that happened, our family of three would travel the length of the continent, from Cape to Cairo and into Europe beyond. We would go on the embassy’s military attaché plane as it flew to Europe for its periodic overhaul. The aircraft was a C-47 (or DC-3 in civilian lingo) that sat on runways with its nose in the air and its tail close to the ground. You entered near the back and walked uphill towards the cockpit. We three and the captain’s wife were to be the only civilians on board.
Naturally, we were looking forward to this month-long adventure. For a short while my dad would escape his official duties; in his absence the Vice Consul would mind the store. My mom would have a change of pace from constant hostessing and helping good causes in the community. And for a time I would leave the between-studies social whirl in which I found myself. These sacrifices we were all willing to make!
The trip was to be a last vacation together before something momentous happened in my life. In a few short months I would leave for college in the States. And the trip was a reward of sorts to each of us for doing our jobs well.
The consulate had various responsibilities. It compiled reports on the local economy to aid US businesses in evaluating investment opportunities. It acted as a resource for Americans abroad: issued passports and visas, registered births, witnessed marriages and even made itself available to settle disputes between US seamen and masters. It tracked the coming and going of US ships. As the “official American presence,” my dad represented America: attended local functions, gave talks to businessmen’s organizations in towns throughout the Eastern Cape, did occasional reporting on local politics and reached out to resident Americans, of whom about 200 were locally employed by such companies as Ford, General Motors and Coca Cola.
The fifth largest city in the Union, Port Elizabeth welcomed almost 200,000 visitors a year. Half arrived by land, half by sea. They came to enjoy the wide white sand beaches or visit the Snake Park and that favorite of mine, Addo Elephant Park. (There at sunset you could watch pygmy elephants come down the hill to eat oranges. One of them had lost most of its trunk but managed deftly to lift the oranges by holding them between snout and foot.) Other attractions included yachting, surfing, camping, game fishing and golfing at one of the numerous courses, complete with watching out for puff adders in the rough. When the visitors were Americans – and there were about 500 a year – my dad’s job was to help them out of whatever difficulties in which they managed to entangle themselves.
My mother’s “job” was to be the Consulate’s official hostess, a task to which she brought delightful creativity. She was a “can do” lady, a hostess-extraordinaire. Three days after our arrival in P.E., for example, she gave her first official party. “We had to cut short our landing in Cape Town,” she wrote home in a letter, “and rush up to P.E. Our dishes and silverware were unpacked on Tuesday and we fed fifty people Thursday for dinner for the inspectors [from the State Department].” Of course it helped that the lovely, spacious two-story Cape Dutch consular residence at 49 Park Drive was furnished and awaiting our immediate occupancy.
Two Xhosas comprised Tom’s staff: Elsie who helped in the kitchen and Douglas who did the house cleaning and gardening. In adjusting to a new set of local customs, Tom discovered that neither staff member would look at her when receiving instructions. Nor would Elsie, when busy at the kitchen counter, turn toward her when my mom came in. (It was a tradition in their society that to look your employer in the eye was to show a lack of respect.)
Running the house meant involvement in the staff member’s lives. My folks returned one evening to discover that a boyfriend lurking about the poorly lit driveway had stabbed Elsie. My mom rushed Elsie to the hospital, stayed with her in the emergency room and adjusted her work schedule, for a time assuming much of it herself. One upshot of this event was that the State Department authorized the installation of lighting along the driveway.
Reveling in her work, Tom wrote home, “As you know we live a most normal everyday life except for the amount of entertaining.” [A normal week usually included several gatherings: perhaps thirty guests at a morning coffee for members of local volunteer organizations, luncheon for visiting VIPs, and dinner often for three dozen.] “Amazingly enough we had no guests all last week and went out to various and sundry cocktails and suppers and enjoyed ourselves very much. We have guests invited for this Thursday again – still an entirely new group – so we’re getting back into the routine. We automatically serve Hawaiian Ham to everyone who is here for the first time. Then I don’t have to keep track so much.”
Tom’s parties were famous. Designed to help people become acquainted, they encouraged members of P.E.’s Afrikaner political structure to socialize happily with folks from the English-speaking opposition, people who probably never socialized except at US Consulate functions. According to a local newspaper report, “competitions and pencil games were a feature of a party given by the newly appointed American Consul and Mrs. Ralston in their Park Drive home. Before the buffet supper guests had to guess what was written on the cards pinned to their backs and then find their appropriate dinner partner — Marine and Drive, Algoa and Bay, for instance.”
Known too for her menus, Tom made excellent use of recipes acquired when we lived in India and Greece. After dinner was The Game – forerunner of today’s Pictionary – a great equalizer and FUN-raiser. Guests divided into two teams, one in the dining room, another in the living room. In a race against time a member from each team would try to sketch what was on the slip of paper drawn from a hat filled with offerings from the other team. (I recall such choices as Birth of a Nation and the Theory of Relativity.) As soon as teammates guessed correctly, the “artist” raced to the entry hall to sit in an armchair. Occasionally both contestants dashed for the chair at the same moment, adding to the merriment.
Tom always had everyone pose for group photos as a means of “bringing people together.” Once there was no film in the camera. She feigned taking the picture and because everyone was talking, no one knew the difference. Tommy and Don also had a clever and unusual guest book. Often I would be in charge of taking it around. The columns were: name, address, place of birth, birth day (not year), favorite meat, favorite sweet, hobby. All useful information for future gatherings!
On the Fourth of July my parents hosted an extravaganza for all resident Americans (with Canadians and the mayor and mayoress thrown in). Held in several areas of our huge garden, the event included balloon races and croquet, badminton and three-legged races as well as hot dogs and baked beans with all the trimmings, an ice cream cart and a humungous plastic container (brand new trash can!) filled with popcorn. And my dad played a festive tape recording of patriotic songs.
Besides helping out at parties (which I loved!) and subbing at my dad’s office (a good experience) when secretaries were away, I also had a job – though it was never presented to me in that way. My job was to represent the family well and to be unofficially the town’s “official American teenager” (and the only full-time one). A little unexpectedly I found myself a minor personality, occasionally mentioned in the papers.
When the headmistress admitted me as the first American to attend The Collegiate School for Girls, she warned that “politics and religion” were not discussed on campus. This was fine with me. I did not yet have political opinions. We purchased the uniform: hat, clunky shoes, blazer, shirt, jumper (three inches above the knee when kneeling). As I was getting on my bike one day after school my first week, the science teacher hollered at me. And so I learned that hat-wearing was not optional. When she realized I was “the American,” she softened. We had a get-acquainted chat while I donned the hat and prepared to cycle off.
The Collegiate girls were very welcoming and I quickly made friends. We began each day in the meeting room/gym. There the headmistress spoke and led responsive readings in our psalm books followed by the Lord’s Prayer. We passed quietly through the halls monitored by upper class prefects, sat at “old fashion” lidded desks with inkwells, stood quietly when the teachers entered, did a lot of memorizing and of course looked forward to holidays. The boarders went home and the day students enjoyed lovely parties where there were BOYS from Grey, our brother school: beach parties and dances, braivleis barbecues and dances, house parties, garden parties and dances. One favorite dance was the compelling “kwela” with its captivating pennywhistle accompaniment. One wonderful night the African maids came out of the kitchen and danced with us!
For finishing touches after a year at Collegiate, I enrolled in a technical school, studying bookkeeping, shorthand and poetry. Tom arranged for me to take “real” sewing lessons from an American friend and gave me opportunities to do some cooking.
That had been our life in South Africa. Now it was May. I had passed the Scholastic Aptitude Test sent from the States and after anxious waiting had been accepted to Principia, the college of my choice. The Cape to Cairo trip would be a time for the three of us to be together before I left home.
So what was happening to Fred about this time? He graduated from Principia College (to which Donanne was about to head off) in 1955, served two years in the army, first in Oklahoma, then at Ladd Air Force Base outside Fairbanks, Alaska. His parents offered their children a three-month tour of Europe in autumn 1957 that included Gibraltar. From there he looked across the straits at the mountains of Morocco, never dreaming that Africa would call him. When Donanne was finishing her secondary education, Fred was working in Bell System public relations in both New York for Western Electric and in San Francisco for Pacific Telephone with an ever greater hankering to travel.
Next post: Donanne and her parents travel from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo with stops in Nairobi, Khartoum, Wadi Halfa and Wheelus AFB, Libya.
November 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm
I really enjoyed reading this, Donanne. I’m gald that lighting was installed along the driveway and that your mom knew what meat her guests preferred.
I look forward to reading the next installment.
November 4, 2010 at 3:53 am
Loved this episode. Brought memories of game parties of the era and all the entertaining. Your Mom had her hands full for sure. Look forward to the next blog.
November 5, 2010 at 2:47 am
Donanne, what a wondrous life you had and what a marvelous mother and father.
I am really enjoying learning about your early years and travels. Thank you and Fred for sharing your adventures. Love, Gloria
November 9, 2010 at 8:39 pm
You write well, Donanne, communicating your warm and exciting memories in a good flow of language.
Now I understand the responsibilities of a Consul and his wife………most definitely a team. And you must have charmed everyone with your lovely teenage demeanor.
I look forward to the continuing saga.