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AROUND TOWN

A Journey 79 Years in the Making

July 01, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just shy of 80, Margaret McCord Nixon of Venice is a first-time author and in South Africa, where she was born, a bit of a celebrity. Her book, a chronicle of 79 years of history through the eyes of one African woman, has won the Alan Paton Award for nonfiction.

It seems appropriate. The $4,000 prize, awarded by the Johannesburg Sunday Times, is named for the author of "Cry, the Beloved Country," who was a friend of Nixon's parents when they were American missionaries in Durban and who shared their beliefs.

"I think he would have liked the book," she says of Paton, the late elder statesman of white liberalism in South Africa.

Her book, written as Margaret McCord, is "The Calling of Katie Makanya," a biography of the African woman who for 37 years was devoted assistant / interpreter for her father, Dr. James McCord, who brought modern medicine to the Zulus.

It will be published in the United States in the spring by John Wiley & Sons.

"Dad was something of a legendary figure" among the Africans, Nixon says. Today, the modern McCord Hospital in Durban stands as a testament to the work he began "in this little cottage hospital in the slums of Durban" over opposition from white settlers.

In 1954, when Nixon and her then-husband, Charles Nixon, were in Africa on a research grant, Nixon reconnected with Makanya--"She wanted me to write her story"--and spent six weeks taping her. But it took her 40 years to write the book.

She had to "grow up a bit" so as to see her father through the eyes of Makanya and others to whom he was a crusading young radical. When she was born, he was almost 50 and to her he was an opinionated but gentle, humorous and somewhat old-fashioned man.

Dr. McCord and his wife, Margaret, herself a missionary's child born in South Africa, arrived there in 1899, at the start of the Boer War. They'd met at Oberlin College in Ohio and decided to do good work. He chose medicine, Nixon says, because he "was too much of a skeptic to make a good preacher."

Dr. McCord set up his practice among the Africans and Indians. "He did not treat whites or Europeans, except for other missionaries," Nixon says. When she visited the hospital with her son, Dr. John Nixon, in 1994 she was "a little taken aback to see a couple of white patients."

As she sat down to write this book, Nixon worried that people might ask, "How could a white girl really know a black woman?"

But Katie Makanya's life is inextricably linked to that of the McCord family. And, to Margaret McCord Nixon, she represents "the invincible woman."

Makanya was born to a Christian schoolteacher from the Cape of Good Hope and a primitive mountain man who, Nixon says, "had never seen a white person until he went out with his tribe to fight them." While working as a domestic, she dreamed of being a nurse--until her older sister told her, "Nursing schools here are only for white girls."

The illness of her daughter, Ethel, was a defining moment in Katie's life. She'd rushed the feverish 2-year-old to the nearest doctor, only to wait outside in the rain for eight hours while the doctor saw white patients. The child died of pneumonia.

Refusing to take her son to a white doctor, she did accept medicine and advice from Dr. McCord's wife. Learning that Makanya, then 30, spoke both English and Zulu, she persuaded her to come to work for her husband. It was 1902.

Later, she met John Dube, first president of the South African Native National Congress (later the African National Congress), and would espouse his cause to patients. During the Great Depression, she helped derail a proposal to make black women carry passes so as to discourage poor rural women from coming to Durban to seek work.

All the while, she was working at Dr. McCord's side. Then one day in 1939, as Katie and her doctor both neared 70, he said the unthinkable: It was time for him to go home, and for her to rest.

In 1950, word came from America of his death. In 1952, his widow returned for dedication of a new wing of the hospital. At her side, the widowed Makanya was so overcome at having a room named for her that she collapsed and wound up in the hospital.

Over coffee in her 1913 cottage, Margaret McCord Nixon reflects on the South Africa of her childhood, on schoolmates whose parents preached "the dangers of educating the natives" and "were not at all sympathetic with the work my parents did," on the child kept from her birthday party for fear "she'd pick up some disease because we lived next to a black hospital."

By the time Nixon--youngest of six children--was born, her mother, then 46, also had a reputation as an activist, as a founder of black Girl Guides and a regular Sunday visitor to African women in prison, sometimes with little Margaret at her side.

Nixon may be a late-blooming author, but she's had a varied career. She taught for a year after graduation from Oberlin and has been a script reader at Warner Brothers and a travel agent. As for another book, she says, "I might be persuaded to write about the missionaries at the turn of the century. . . ."

A longtime admirer of Nelson Mandela, she is "tremendously pleased and not that surprised" by events in South Africa. Still, she says, there remain "tremendous problems that can't be cleared up in the blink of an eyelash."

And she thinks once again of Katie, who "was a part of my life as long as I can remember." Makanya died in 1955, at 83, six months after telling her story.

She'd borne nine children, buried three and committed one as insane. She'd endured poverty and racism. But, in every way imaginable, Katie Makanya had found her calling.

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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