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Monica Wilson’s audacious switch from taking history classes to social anthropology was a life changing decision. She had begun a life long journey to becoming a legend in the field of anthropology. By the time of her demise, she had become a renowned ethnographer of her time. Her reputation still reverberates in the classrooms, amongst scholars who rubbed shoulders with hers as well as students fascinated by her discoveries. This has lead to writing of several papers such as The Making of a Woman Anthropologist: Monica Hunter at Girton College, Cambridge, 1927-1930 by Andrew Bank. Such papers attempt to decipher what shaped Monica Wilson’s career(Bank, 2009). Her achievements make her larger than life and she is still alive the lives of those she touched and influenced.
Professor Monica Hunter Wilson wore many caps: an anthropologist, an educationist and an author at the peak of her career. She was born of missionary parents in January 3, 1908 in Loveland South Africa. Monica Wilson studied history and later switched to Anthropology in the University of Cambridge. During her undergraduate studies, she attended the Malinwoski seminars. These famous seminars were held in 1930s at London University. Later on, she carried out fieldwork between 1931 and 1934 in Pondoland, South Africa. She compiled the findings of her study in a monograph entitled Reaction to Conquest. The monograph shed light on the culture laced with a political and historical perspective of people in Pondoland. In 1935, she married Mr. Godfrey Wilson and bore four children; two girls and two boys. Together with her husband, the duo carried out field work studies between 1935 and 1938. Some of the areas they studied in this time frame include Ngonde, Nyakusa and Tanzania (Bruegger &Sandmeyer, 2007).
After making several publications, she was appointed Professor of Social Anthropology. This was at the Rhodes University located in Grahamstown , South Africa. Five years later in 1952, Monica moved to The University of Capetown. She was appointed Chair of Social Anthology Department in the Rondebosch based university in South Africa. It is during this time that she expressed her indignation in regards to human rights violation and human dignity. She was a vocal and radical activist who castigated apartheid in South Africa (Bruegger &Sandmeyer, 2007).
Monica extended her research fieldwork to South Africa. One of her area of study was the wedding practices affiliated to the traditional African setup. She established the link between the wedding cake and African traditions and when it was embraced by these societies. Her scope of study also encompassed other topics such as the enculturation of children and their tutorial methods of the Nguni and Ndembu tribes. Monica narrowed down to studying the society of the Nguni tribe during her field work. The study was predominantly about the rituals and traditions of the Nguni people. Her enthusiasm for this was attributed to her belief that the rituals are an avenue to understanding the values upheld by a society. She believed that rituals were the holy grail of human societies which cannot be understood without them (Bruegger &Sandmeyer, 2007).
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Monica’s body of work elevated her status to an internationally acclaimed anthropologist. She published her scholarly work and lectured in several countries across the globe. One of the accolades that she won was the Rivers Memorial Medal in 1952. She won this as a result of her credible work in social anthropology in her home country, South Africa. She published several Socio-anthropological books during her career. The legendary African Social Anthropologist met her demise on October 26, 1982. This was 38 years after the death of her husband Godfrey Wilson in 1944 (Bruegger &Sandmeyer, 2007).
Writings of Monica Wilson
Monica Wilson’s maiden publication was her monograph entitled Reaction to Conquest in 1936. This book is deemed as a classical body of work on social anthropology of South Africa. It was an insight into the social stratification and history of the Pondo tribe ; a Xhosa sub tribe inhabiting the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It includes an in-depth discussion of the transformation of the lifestyle of African people in the wake of colonialism. She gives an account of the transformation of these people from cattle herders into urban and agrarian wage laborers. She attributes this change to the introduction of colonial economic systems. It is a groundbreaking body of work that lays a blueprint for the study of the nouveau African society in an urban setting. The basis of the blueprint for this analysis involves the employing of anthropological methods of study. This extrapolation has proven useful and successful in the study on the neo-African societal setting (Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d).
Monica and her husband carried out an analysis of the transformation of the African society in the wake of colonialism. The duo co-authored an essay called Analysis of Social Change that was published in 1945; a year after her husband’s death. After her three year fieldwork study of the natives of Ngonde, Nyakyusa and Tanganyika, Monica returned to these places in 1955. She published a boo called Good Company: A Study of Nyakyusa Age-Village in the same year. She wrote more about the Nyakyusa in 1977 in a book called For Men and Elders. The book highlighted the transformations that transpired in terms of relations between men and women amongst the Nyakusa and Nyagonde tribes. Another book she published around the same period was called “ ..So truth be in the field..”. In 1976, she focused on the effects of missionaries and analyzed the intention and changes brought by them. She did this in her book entitled “ Missionaries: Conquerers or Servants of God?” Monica published another book called Religion and the Transformation of Society: A Study In Social Change in Africa. Finally a book that was posthumously published in 1983 was called “History of South Africa to 1870”. The book was fundamentally an account of the history of South Africa till 1870. (Goodreads.com, n.d).
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In total, Monica Hunter published a total of eight books and wrote several essays. Some books are still being reprinted and sold even on online websites such as e-Bay and Amazon.com. The book that has received the highest reactions, criticism and scrutiny is Reaction to Conquest. It was last reprinted in 1996 and still under the lens of critics receiving several reviews.
Summary of Reaction to Conquest . Chapter:Initiation of a Pondo Diviner (Igqira) pp 320-348
In Reaction to Conquest, Monica documented the life of the Pondo tribe. In pages 320 through 348 she talks of modes of treatment amongst the Pondo. The chapter is called Initiation of a Pondo Diviner (Igqira). She categorically divided the Pondo medicine men into two. The first class was of diviners known as amagqira. The herbalists also known as amxwhele were the second class of these medicine men. It is imperative to note that there were no distinct boundaries in their functionality and they performed almost the same duties. However, their initiations differed in the manner in which they were carried out. This can be exemplified by the igqira initiation process. The presumption during this process is that the novice has been afflicted by a certain malady. The practice is more practiced more in females than in males. The ‘predicament’ (inkathaza) is believed to be a result of an infliction by her ancestors (amathonga). In severe cases, the only remedy to her situation is through a process called ukuthwasa. This process entails confession coupled with initiation. The diagnosis of the malady is drawn from the inclination of the novice to dream repeatedly and to “visualize” a wild animal in grotesque dreams and visions. The ancestor is believed to take the form of an animal that comes to her in her dreams and visions. This ancestor is named ityala. Ityala is said to permanently affiliated to the igqira through out the life of the woman. To annihilate this malevolence, the novice refuses to acknowledge having seen the ityala in her dreams. This would set her free from ityala reaching the culmination of the process (Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d).
Treatment of the novice undergoes whilst she is secluded in a hut. As part of her treatment, the novice performs a solo dance while inside the hut. The dance is referred to as ukuxentsa in the wake of the ‘confession’. The novice is expected to perform a final confession that is accompanied by an elaborate dance on her last day of the initiation (umgidi). This performance is usually done in homestead (umzi) where a crowd converges to witness this last stage of initiation (Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d).
During the dance performance, she is expected to present herself naked al the way to the waist. Her torso is smeared with white clay and decorated with a special kind of leaves called idwabe that her ityala animal prefers. This is according to what it (animal) is seen to eat in her dreams/visions . There are obscure descriptions that fail to precisely explain how the dance is performed. However, the novice dances in response to the thunderous claps of the converged crowd at her homestead. After the performance, her attire changes to reflect her newly accrued status. She now dons full length attire in lieu of the short skirt she wore during her initiation process. The new attire is white and her face is decorated with white stripes of clay. Furthermore, she wears strings with beads sewn on them. These strings came as gifts to her from her extended family during her treatment. She also dons a feathered turban and either side of her ears has strings of beads dangling precariously. The diviners are also dressed in a similar fashion. To tell her apart from them, the novice has her torso standing out differently. It is saliently covered with a brief white shift that has sleeves (Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d).
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The Amagqira wielded immense clout since they were deemed powerful enough to communicate with the ancestors. The issued directives that saw the alteration of customs, inception of new treatment methods and even the change in planting patterns of crops. They were also capable of identifying witches who resided in the community. Due to their ability to interpret and implement the will of ancestors, they were revered in the Pondo community. They presided over religious ceremonies that were carried out in public. During such divinations, they would dance till they attain a climax in nervous energy. The diviner would plunge into a stupor. In this corporal and mental state, they would then chant their encounters with the ancestors. They would do this in disguised voices. Some diviners who were capable of ventriloquism managed to win the trust of their audience. This is because they created an illusion that grotesque voices were emanating from other elsewhere. The diviners amassed wealth that was evident from the kind of attire they wore. The claimed this to be a manifestation of their proximity to the ancestors in terms of connection (Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d).
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Evaluation of the contributions of Monica Wilson
Monica Wilson was born in a missionary family in South Africa. During this time, the missionaries were attempting to reach out to the natives of the land and evangelize to them. She must have been raised and inculcated to reach out to people. This would partly explain her change from History to social anthropology in a span of eight months as an undergraduate. She coupled her background with her knowledge to develop a curiosity that saw her study extensively the tribes in South and East Africa. Her change in career path may have also been influenced by affiliation to the thorough and intellectually challenging multi-cultural Labor Study Circle. The leader who was a South African Communist Party affiliate might have instigated her change of mind This would suffice to explain her interest in the topic on witchcraft that she rigorously covers in her study of the Pondo people. She indisputably dismisses the possibility of witchcraft being real. However, she believes the study of their belief in witchcraft is an avenue to understanding this society (Bank, 2009).
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Monica theorized that understanding a people’s culture and tradition is the key to deciphering the values of a people. She believed that belief in witchcraft was a fabricated manipulative tool that was invented by perpetrators of hegemony in a society. Her theory further states that: an in-depth analysis of witchcraft claims provides and insight to understanding a facet of the society in question. This theory was welcomed by scholars of her time and no one has come with concrete opposition to this theory. This idea became popular since very little was known about African, African societies and their culture. It was a plausible explanation and the results were acceptable. It was the only theory that could explain the African society as it encompassed every facet of their societal coexistence. Such acclamation saw her elevated to a Professor and head of departments in universities. Her new status elevated her to an international platform and she gave lectures around the world (Shumaker, 2003).
Together with her husband, Monica worked hand in hand in heading the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Zambia. They successfully managed to document a report on the cumulative effects of colonization of African states by the British. This insight to the changes in politics, culture and economy was an invaluable contribution to the discipline of social anthropology. The information availed vital information to the colonial governments on how to manage and run their colonies. Her findings assisted these governments to know how approach such territories and the manner in which they can manipulate the natives of such lands. The information also came in handy to missionaries who came to the African continent. They were able to know what to expect from the natives they had not interacted with. This made it easier for them to penetrate a n African society that is tightly woven by traditions. This is because they are able to identify loop holes and other weak points that they would capitalize on to spread the gospel. She therefore albeit indirectly contributed to spread of Christianity in Africa (Shumaker , 2003).
Monica Wilson was one of the founding members of the Council on Anthropology and Education that was formed in 1968. With her understanding of the enculturation of children for which she had extensively researched in many societies primarily African, she availed invaluable contributions to the council. Her versatility on various fields that relate to the society orchestrated her inclusion and contribution in the council. The council was instrumental to the research that formulated the system of education and everything that pertains to it including the enculturation of children. This council has shaped the academic world to what it at present. (Govenarle, n.d).
Monica Wilson , with the assistance of Leonard Thompson, the duo edited The Oxford History of South Africa. Monica. This was a major contribution to the scholarly realm as far as the history of South Africa is concerned (Bruegger &Sandmeyer, 2007)..
Her documented fieldwork results put Africa on the map in terms of culture. African history, culture and tradition had gone undocumented for centuries. It was ostensibly impossible for her to study all societies on the entire African continent and compile her findings in writing. She was able to cover part of East and South Africa. That is an extremely exceptional fete for a woman at that time in history. She has assisted in demystifying the social structures of African societies. In addition to this, she has elucidated on the beliefs and witchcraft practices in Africa. Her articles are still reviewed to capture the African perspective of the supernatural. A good example of this is the article Witch Beliefs and Social Structure by Monica Hunter Wilson in 1951(University of Chicago, n.d).
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It is beyond a shred of doubt that the corpus of material in Monica Wilson’s name is a great contribution to mankind. Her legacy has been as a result of sheer determination to rise to the top in a predominantly patriarchal society. The main reason for her success stems from her curiosity and the desire to interact with unfamiliar environments and cultures. Her boldness made her stand clear on societal issues such as human rights and apartheid. The vociferous nature and hard-line stance on such issues elevated her to the international platform. Very few women of her time would boast of accolades of her nature. In lieu of this, they would retreat into the chauvinistic cocoons and complacently watch men excel. There is a lot of room for research in the discipline of social anthropology. What Monica Wilson did was to lay a foundation on which future anthropologist would build on. She availed elaborate reference points from here work that can be appropriately used to carry out field work studies on different topics in the African society.