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This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of the oral history interview of Ruth Eileen (Witmer) Cook (CN 317, T3) in the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. No spoken words have been omitted, except for any non-English phrases which could not be understood by the transcribers. Foreign terms which are not commonly used appear in italics. In very few cases words were too unclear to be distinguished. If the transcriber was not completely sure of having gotten what the speaker said, "[?]" was inserted after the word or phrase in question. If the speech was inaudible or indistinguishable, "[unclear]" was inserted. Grunts and verbal hesitations such as "ah" or "um" were usually omitted. The transcribers have not attempted to phonetically replicate English dialects but have instead entered the standard English word the speaker was expressing.
Readers should remember that this is a transcript of spoken English, which follows a different rhythm and rule than written English.
... Three dots indicate an interruption or break in the train of thought within the sentence on the part of the speaker.
.... Four dots indicate what the transcriber believes to be the end of an incomplete sentence.
( ) Words in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words in brackets are comments by the transcriber.
This transcript by Robert Shuster and Amber Thomas was completed in November 2010.
Collection 317, T4 Interview of Ruth Eileen (Witmer) Cook by Paul Ericksen, October 1, 1985
COOK: It just so happened that I wore that same dress the next day. And I walked up to the hospital, and it seemed like the clerks...the male clerks there in the office seemed to be unusually happy about something that I was doing, and I didn’t know what it was. So, when I got back to the house, I talked to Nesta, my African maid there in the house, and I said, “Nesta,” I said, “What is it? What...why are they so happy about this dress I’m wearing because they kept pointing to this dress?” And she said, she called me “Inkozikazi [?].” That’s the...that’s term of an...of a married woman. She said, “Oh, Inkozikazi [?]. That dress is longer than your other dresses.” And she said, “At last, you look like a married woman.” And they were delighted that I was finally looking like that. Now, see if anybody...I had already been there a year. Now if somebody had told me that earlier on, I would have only been too happy to go lengthen all of my skirts, which I did that next day. I went in and lengthened all the skirts I could. Now my dresses that I was wearing, they were already longer than what I usually wear. But to them it was a sign of respect for a married woman to wear her dresses longer. So, I lost no time in...in adjusting the length of my dresses. But just little things like that. There was a time when the girl that worked for us, she had a....she’s a beautiful, Christian African girl, but she was very superstitious over little frogs. And we had these little, tiny frogs that were hopping into the house all the time. And in her superstitious...su...in her fears she was very, very much afraid of these little frogs. And sometimes she would let out what...the most blood-curdling scream you’ve ever seen. She...she’d be sweeping in the house or washing the floor, and she’d find one of these little frogs, and she was.... You don’t speak of an African going white, but you can almost imagine she was going white, she was so frightened. And on several occasions, I sat down and talked with her, and tried to help her realize that that...that there was really nothing to be afraid of in this little frog, that she was so much bigger than this frog. And she just could not get over that. So one day I approached...I approached, and I said, “You know, Nesta, you really love the Lord, and you know...and you know how God has helped you in many, many different circumstances and many dangers. And you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior.” And I said, “Don’t you think that God is bigger than that frog? Don’t you think that God can help you overcome that fear?” And she admitted that she thought He could. And we had prayer about it. And you know, a couple days after that, I heard this funny little, kind of a squelched scream, and Nesta was in the passageway down the hallway. And she had a dustpan in one hand and a broom in the other, and she was trying to bring this little frog onto the dustpan, and she was just swallowing this scream. But she got it on there and she took it out and threw it out. And after that, she was...she was okay. There was another time when I was speaking at a series of women’s meetings, and I was asked to give a...a kind of a practical demonstration on something. Another lady was doing the Bible training, and they wanted me to bring some kind of a practical teaching that they could use in their homes. So I de...decided to do something on cooking. And I knew that the Africans were very superstitious about eggs. They will bring all their eggs to the missionaries and trade them for clothes, but they won’t eat them. And one of the ladies...the missionary had told me, she said, “If you can do something to get them to include eggs in their diet,” she said, “you will really be doing something to help them.”
COOK: So I thought I would teach them different ways to fix an egg that they could use in their big black pots on their open fires. So, I taught them how to fry an egg and how to scramble an egg. And then I thought, something they could all do without a fire would be to fix what we call an eggnog. Now in a hospital, we use those often in...in feeding malnour...malnourished children. They didn’t know that it was...they were getting a raw egg in a glass of milk. If they’d known it, they would have been very superstitious about it. But I made up gallons of eggnog. Now this was at a district women’s conference. I made up gallons of eggnog because I wanted them all to have a little taste. And I had given a little...my little speech on this in Zulu and explained it all to them, and when I.... They all come...they’d bring their little tin cup and plate to the meeting, so I had asked them to bring their tin cup to the meeting that afternoon. And when I was all done, I asked them to all line up and come and I’d dip a little bit of eggnog into their cup. And nobody would come. So, finally I had one of the other missionaries who could speak their language much more fluently than I could to come and explain this to them, and she could speak very, very clearly to them, and she went over the whole thing again. And, finally, there were a couple of mothers that got up enough courage and came up with their cup and took some of this eggnog. And when the rest of them saw that they didn’t drop dead within a couple of minutes, they all lined up and they couldn’t get over how delicious this drink was. And then they started giving it to their children. So there again it was a matter of...of overcoming something that they were very superstitious about.
ERICKSEN: What was the superstition about eggs?
COOK: Evidently, it was that if they were...they were going to get a very severe illness if they ate the eggs. Now where this originated, I don’t know. But it’s something that has always been with the Zulu people that they just don’t eat eggs. They raise chickens and they cook the...the chicken meat, but they don’t eat the eggs. So that’s where we got our eggs, we bought...we bartered them for clothes with the Africans. But they felt that they would get very sick and would die if they ate the eggs.
ERICKSEN: What other kinds of food were in the Zulu diet?
COOK: Their main diet is what they call mealie meal porridge. It’s similar to our cornmeal mush. It’s made from corn, except it’s the white field corn that they use. That’s their staple diet. They sometimes add vegetables to it or make kind of a soup that they put over it. They do have meat but they don’t cook it as often as they should, mainly because their cows are their bank account. So they don’t like to kill them except on special occasions. They have chickens but they don’t cook them often. They make an amassi [?], which is a little bit like cottage cheese in that it’s made from soured milk, and that’s a very popular thing. It’s...it’s awful tasting. It’s sort of like eating vinegar, but they think it’s delicious, and that does give them protein. There are...a lot of fruits are available in South Africa. They eat a lot of sugar cane, and so therefore they have horrible ca...tooth cavities and decay. But the mealie meal porridge is their staple...diet.
ERICKSEN: You mentioned that they would kill a cow for a special occasion. What are the Zulu’s special occasions?
COOK: It could be a wedding. At New Year’s they have a...they almost celebrate New Year’s as far as partying or celebrating with a festivity almost more than we do Christmas. That’s...that’s the big time for them, and they will kill a cow for that. They might do it if...they might do it if some important person comes to the area. There is another national holiday, and I can’t think of the name of it, that they would do it on. But they don’t do it real often. They often...when they cook meat like that, they’ll do it in their big pot and make a big pot of gravy with beef in it and curry it and have that on top of their mealie meal porridge, which is almost like curry and rice.
ERICKSEN: Did you...did you do your own cooking, or did you have African help?
COOK: We had African help. I did some of both. But I found that.... When...when we first went, I did teaching in the nursing school there at...at the mission hospital. And I found that there was so much involved in housekeeping, things took so much longer, like when you had to heat your water for the laundry outside on an open fire and have it hauled in before we had a hot-water heater. Just a lot of things took a lot more time, and I had to be taught how to cook the meat because it was so tough. So, it was a big asset to me to have help in the home. I did not have it all the time, like about four days a week, something like that, it was like during the day. And Nesta was an excellent gal. She was good with the two younger boys that were at home, and I could leave them with her when I was up teaching and that kind of thing. But you look on that in several different ways. It’s not only that the missionary in certain cultures needs the help. It’s also a ministry to that person that you have. But there’s also another angle: they look on you as...they look on you as a po...sort of like you owe it to them to give them some work. It’s like you need the help but also they need the help. And a family who had no help at all would look rather strange in that culture because there’s so much help available. So, we would have a boy that would help in the garden, because we grew a lot of vegetables. And we had a girl that helped in the house. And she did the washing and the ironing and did the floors and that kind of thing. I actually...I actually did the cooking. She...she would help some. She would show me how to do some of the things and how to make the meat a little more tender, but I did most of the cooking. I found that was one thing that was very hard for me to give up. I...I guess I felt that when it came to the cooking, it was more like having a servant than someone to just help. I...I never could come to the place where I could just come in my house and sit down and have somebody else fix the meal and bring it to me. That...that wasn’t my nature. But there were certain things that I liked for her to fix, that she was very good at. But as far as the main cooking, I usually did that. But I did have help with the other...the other housework.
ERICKSEN: So, did you eat primarily Zulu diet?
COOK: No, primarily American diet probably. Yeah.
ERICKSEN: So, you taught her how to cook?
COOK: Yeah, I taught her how to cook some things. Yeah. And we grew a lot of vegetables, so that we had fresh vegetables. And we used what was...you know, what was there.
COOK: I feel that we ate very well when we were in South Africa, more so even Cape Town, because we had just no end of fresh vegetables and fruit there. We probably ate more meat than what we needed when we were in South Africa because it’s...at that time with the economy it was cheaper than...much cheaper than it is here in this country. But now it’s...there’s not as much difference.
ERICKSEN: You’ve mentioned situations with...like with the women’s servants and with the length of the dress. What role did the woman have in Zulu society. Where did she fit in the hierarchy?
COOK: She was a very hard worker. It was the women that went out into the fields and worked and did the plowing and bore the children and took care of the children. The younger girls had to learn at a very early age how to babysit because the mothers would be out in the fields and the younger girls would be...would be keeping the children in a traditional Zulu home. Of course, they...in the non-Christian families, they have more than one wife. And a man might have half a dozen wives. He might even have more. We had one...one nurse who came from a chief’s family, and her father had something like thirty-some wives, something like that. The local chief in our area, we wanted to get a picture of him some time with all of his wives, but they weren’t all on speaking terms at the time. So we only have a picture of three of them. But it’s a very...the father is very much the head of the home and he’s the authority figure in the home. And the woman is really the woman of.... She really is the one who labors and does the hard work and....
ERICKSEN: So, what does the husband do, if the woman is doing all the work?
COOK: Well, very often...sometimes, the husbands will go off and get jobs elsewhere. Sometimes they’ll...they’ll...they’ll stay around the kraal but sometimes they’ll go off and get jobs elsewhere and maybe not even be home all the time. You sometimes find a kraal with a...with a handful of women and all the children and the father may not be there all the time. [pauses]. The father is a very...oh, what’s the word I want...? Sometimes, you...you look at the father and he’s a very...he has a very suspicious look on his face. The woman has a very pleasant smile on her face. She’s the one that’s more...that’s easier to get to know and easier to talk to. They’re very closely knit...that...especially with their children. They’re...the...the Afri...the Zulu families are very, very closely knit with their children, and they take very good care of their children with what they have and with what they know.
ERICKSEN: Does the approach it more...the greater approachability of the women affect the way that missionaries do their work?
COOK: You usually have a lot more...a lot more women in the churches than you do men. Well, I suppose that’s because they...each man has more than one wife. But you...you do find a greater work amongst the women...
COOK: ... than...than amongst the men. They seem to be more receptive to the gospel. That’s kind of an interesting parallel, that you usually have more female missionaries than you do men, too. But that’s usually true, that you have.... Women like to go to women’s meetings. And in our area, we had an annual...we had our local women’s meetings...but we had an annual kind of a women’s conference where they would come to the hospital for a whole weekend. And these women would plan for this for a whole year, and they’d try to get their crops and so forth fixed, you know, everything arranged so that they could...they could get away. And some of them would walk miles and miles and miles. And they’d bring their babies, and they’d come for a whole weekend and.... They’re really...they’re really enthusiastic about their...their church work. They really are.
ERICKSEN: What would these conferences and meetings be like?
COOK: Very much like we would have here for a weekend rally. There would be usually a theme for the...the weekend. They would begin on a Friday evening with the evening meal, and you’d have an evening service. Sometimes we would even show a film after the evening service, something that would be pertinent to...to them. We usually had two or three sessions on Saturday and tried to include something of a practical nature like, I mentioned, that cooking session before.
COOK: And then...and end on Sunday noon, so those that have to walk can get there by dark. They don’t...they don’t mind sitting, having a schedule planned where they’re in the chapel all day long. Th...that doesn’t bother them at all. In fact, one session will just kinda go into the next session, and it’s the missionaries that get tired of sitting, not the African ladies. They would...in fact, they start with an early morning chapel and prayer time before breakfast, then they break for breakfast, they’ll sit all day until lunchtime and break for lunch and sit all the rest of the time until afternoon. And...I mean this, they’ve planned all year for this, so they’re going to come and get all they can. And, of course, it takes a full program. And...and one of the things that I really, as I look back it was really interesting, was one of the testimony meetings at one of these women’s conferences. It’s not like our testimony meetings here. They would announce that a testimony meeting was gonna get started, and they’d start by singing a song. And the way you got your turn was they’d start singing the verse of a song. And then while they’re singing, one lady would walk up front and then she’d turn around and she’d face the audience and she’d start telling what the Lord had done for her and what she had to say. And she’d go on and on and on. Now when somebody else decided that she’d spoken long enough, and they wanted to speak, they’d get up and start singing [laughs]. While this one’s still talking, this one starts singing and walking down to the front. And so this one, then, she...she ends, and this one sings the rest of her verse, and then she starts talking. And then when she’s talked long enough, then somebody else gets up and starts singing [laughs], and then they walk to the front. And this may go on...this may go on for a couple of hours.
ERICKSEN: So how does it stop? When everybody’s...?
COOK: Well, everybody just kinda winds down. I guess they...every...just sort of goes until everybody’s said what...anybody...they sort of...I don’t know, they sort of sense that nobody else wants to...I guess when nobody else has...has gone up. But it’s...it’s really interesting. But they...they really are eager, they’re thirsty, they’re hungry. They’re very receptive. And when you look at their faces, you really have eye contact with them when you’re...when you’re speaking to them. It’s...it’s really quite unique.
ERICKSEN: Now you said that the missionary women were getting...were the ones that were tired out. Were...was it the missionaries that planned and ran the meeting?
COOK: Well, the ones...well, the missionaries are just not used to sitting that long on backless benches...
ERICKSEN: Oh, uh-huh.
COOK: ...that’s what I meant. They were the ones that were tired of sitting.
ERICKSEN: Okay. Who planned and ran the meetings?
COOK: We would usually work with an African. We would work with the African women, with the pastors’ wives in planning a conference, giving suggestions and so forth. However, that has changed now in the time that we’ve been back. They are now planning their own, and the missionaries are more the...just the advisors, whereas we kinda took the initiative saying when we should have it and what we should do and...and sort of gave them ideas to pick from.
ERICKSEN: Did [pauses] the men missionaries work with the men and the women missionaries with the women or was there crossing over?
COOK: I would say there’s more crossing over...yeah. Well, on a one-to-one basis, the men would work with the men and the women would work with the women, but like in the, you know...in the church program as a whole there was more crossing over.
ERICKSEN: Would there be women speakers?
COOK: Not so much like on a morning service, no. There would be for a woman’s meeting but not for a.... There would be a man...a man speaker for a combined service.
ERICKSEN: Okay. You mentioned big celebrations, like a wedding. What would a Zulu wedding be like?
COOK: Well, sometimes they celebrate for a couple of days. For a Christian wedding they will now have a church wedding, and they...the girls like to have a...a lovely white dress if they can get it or if the missionary can make it for them or...or something. And they’ve even gotten to the place now where, like some of our nurses that have been married, they’ve had bridesmaids stand up with them a little bit like we do. Of course, they’ve taken on that custom from...from the missionaries. But they will have a big long feast afterwards where they’ll cook a...cook a cow. And that’s a big sacrifice for a family to cook a cow, that’s a big thing. And they’ll just have...sometimes hundreds of people. Because, you see, there a lot of...within a tribe, there’s a lot of relationship within a tribe, and they’ll just have everybody in the area come to the...come to the feast. And they don’t have the honeymoon-type thing that we do here. But the... those who...who have a Christian wedding will still have a big wedding feast afterwards. That just seems to be part of the.... I have never actually...I don’t know what they did before...I don’t know how they celebrate other than the Christian weddings. I have not seen that...that type of the Zulu...of the Montu weddings. But for the Christians, they will have a Christian ceremony and then have a...in place of our punch and cake reception, they would have a great big feast which is held out side.
ERICKSEN: Do they have... are there special...you mentioned that they sometimes wear white wedding dresses. Is there some national wedding costume?
COOK: No, not really. It’s just that...it would only be for the Christian weddings that they would do that...
COOK: ...because they wouldn’t have a church wedding for....
ERICKSEN: Is there any sort of national dancing that they would....
COOK: There...there’s...there are tribal dances, and they do have some costumes that they...or not costumes...they do have some cloths that they wear for that. However, the Zulus are not as colorful in that as some of the other tribes like the Kloses [?] which are up near Johannesburg. They have some very brilliantly dressed costumes that they wear for some of their...their tribal dances.
ERICKSEN: You mentioned the missionary boxes that you would get occasionally, that there would be funny things in them like wedding dresses. Can you think of anything else?
COOK: Bathing suits [pauses], girdles, things that would be completely foreign to [laughs]...to the...the Africans.
ERICKSEN: And these were intended for the Africans?
COOK: These were intended for the Africans [laughs]. It didn't happen often, but just once in a while for a good laugh. [laughs] That's why we censored the boxes before we gave them out [laughs].
ERICKSEN: What was it like raising children on the mission field?
COOK: It was not easy sending them away to school. However, we felt that...that South Africa was an excellent place to raise children. We thought that the quality of family life was excellent. And there was a lot to do with the children. We're a family that like to do things outdoors, and we took a lot of camping trips in South Africa which were just...are just fantastic memories. And the...being in sort of a country situation at the hospital, there was just no end of things that the children could do. There were...there was a group of missionary kids at the hospital, and on school holidays they just...there was always something for them to build or something for them to make. I feel that they were allowed to develop their imaginations and their creativeness much more than their counterparts at this time in the [United] States who were watching TV. And I've never regretted once that our boys did not have TV at that...at that age. We noticed the difference when we came home on furlough. Our boys were always wanting to make something or go outside and make something, and their...their friends at school wanted to watch some favorite program on TV. So I feel from that standpoint it was good for them. Even though they were away at boarding school when they did come home we had very good quality time because we were not running off to this church meeting and this committee meeting and...and we were not spread as thin as we are here. And although my husband was on duty at the hospital it was right there, and the boys felt very much a part of the missionary work and they got to see a lot at the hospital as they were growing up. They got to see operations and deliveries and...and our missionary life was...was their life too. And I don't think they look back...I think if you were to question them now, I don't think they'd look back on many regrets that they had in...in growing up. They certainly have made lasting friendships that they still keep up with today, and we have just always felt that we had a very good quality family life overseas. We did a lot of game playing, a lot of reading aloud. And in Cape Town, the boys were older, they were getting into high school years, but we had fantastic family vacations, beautiful camping times, far surpassed what we've been able to do in this country. And [pauses] there again, we...I...I feel we had such good family quality time that's...is sometimes hard to arrive at here in this country.
ERICKSEN: Could you describe what your responsibilities at the station were?
COOK: Okay. I guess first and foremost I was a mother and a wife. And along with that [pauses] I taught in the nursing school. Now that I did in English because the nurses had to pass their exams in English, and I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed my work with the student nurses. I also taught the Sunday school teachers who went out to the wayside Sunday schools on Sunday mornings. We used some American Sunday school lesson material and I taught them in English but then they would teach it in...in Zulu, which was very interesting, because it's amazing how many of the Bible stories are much easier to teach in a location like Zululand than they are here, where you've got the cattle right out there while you're teaching and...and it's just...it's just really a...an interesting set...setup to teach in. Hospitality was also a big item and something that I really enjoyed. We had lots of company, the hospital being the stopping place for many people passing through, not just missionaries but other people. Whenever there were engineers or mechanics that were up at the hospital for any reason then they would stay in our homes. Of course, we weren’t the only one. There was a group of homes. But there was several of us that...several of the families whose homes were a little larger than a single gal’s...
COOK: ...so the brunt of it fell on us. We had lots of missionaries staying with us who were passing through or coming to the hospital for tests and so forth. So then hospitality was...was a very big item. But I like company, so I...I enjoyed that very much. And I guess that with my...with the women’s work...I was involved in the women’s work also.
ERICKSEN: As you look back on your...your [pauses] years in South Africa, is there anything that you look back on and still makes you laugh?
COOK: [Chuckles]. I guess there’s some of the little changes of meanings of words that we sometimes still laugh at. You know, things like you...instead of putting things in the ‘trunk’ of the car you put them in the ‘boot’ of the car. Instead of riding on the ‘sidewalk,’ you ride on the ‘pavement.’ And there’s just...oh, you can just make a whole dictionary of little words that you...that you look back and forth.... But I...I...there is one story that..that I think is perhaps one of the funniest things that happened. One of the other missionary wives (her name was Jan Snavely, she was our pilot’s wife)...she and I seemed to be famous for arriving at the right place with the wrong kind of clothes on. We were often going to write a book about this. But there were two circumstances which I’ll just tell briefly. And one was we had been invited to the independence of Swaziland [in 1968], which is a big celebration. And we had a friend who was a colored lady (that’s a lady of mixed race) who lived in Swaziland. She had been one of our speakers at several of our mission...women’s conferences, and she said she could get us tickets. And so she sent them to us. I guess she didn’t send them to us; she was going to keep them for us. And so we got a carload to go over to Swaziland to this big...this big arena for this independence. But we didn’t know until we got there that the invitat...or ‘til we were on the way... that the invitation said in the fine print that, “Ladies were to wear hats and gloves.” Well, at that time, you were wearing hats to church or at least wearing something on your head. Well, we didn’t take any hat with us, and so what were we going to do? We didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb. Well, this lady that had gotten the tickets, she had a sister who lived in a town that we were going through who happened to have a good supply of hats in her house. So [laughs]...we stopped by, and here was this closet completely filled with hats. It was like going into a hat store. And we went in there and tried all these hats on until we could get a hat that would fit. So this was how we went to the Swaziland in...in...independence...borrowing these hats to put on.