Large group of people seated on benchs under trees, facing an individual on raised stand with roof.

NoSuthu Sends Thanks

Reading Voice in A Letter

  • Author: Joanne Ruth Davis (SOAS, University of London)
  • Internal Peer-Reviewing Editor: Adrian S. Wisnicki (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
  • Date (publication and updates): 2021
  1. A Few Introductory Notes on NoSuthu’s Letter
  2. NoSuthu (c.1805-1877)
    1. Christian Metaphors and Symbolism
  3. The Letter in Layers
    1. The First Layer: Anonymous Editor at MRUPC
    2. The Second Layer: Rev. John F. Cumming
    3. The Third Layer: The Teacher at Emgwali
    4. The Fourth Layer: Tause, NoSuthu's Daughter
    5. The Fifth Layer: NoSuthu
  4. Postscript: Caffre and Xhosa
  5. Works Cited/Further Reading
  6. Page Citation
  7. Lead Image Details

NoSuthu (c.1805-1877)

NoSuthu was a Xhosa woman from the AmaNtinde people in the south-eastern part of South Africa. She grew up close to the south-east coast of the country, immediately north of the Inxuba (Fish) River. Her father was named Ngayi, but the identity and history of her mother are unknown (Anonymous 1908; Williams 1978, 1). In the nineteenth century, Xhosa people did not use a surname, instead invoking a patriarchal lineage to define a person’s identity only if required by circumstances and context. Otherwise, a first name would do.

NoSuthu moved north-east to a village two miles from Tyhumi (Chumie) Mission Station when she married. Her husband was Soga, a counsellor to the paramount chief of the AmaRarabe people, Ngqika, as had been his father, Jotelo, who died in 1818 in the Battle of Amalinde. Soga appears regularly in the colonial records from this period because his position as counsellor to Ngqika necessitated his dealing with colonial officers, which officials described in reports and letters.

NoSuthu was Soga’s Great Wife, which meant that her children were heir to Soga and Jotelo’s status, and her counsel informed his important domestic decisions. However, NoSuthu converted to Christianity and, despite her status as Great Wife, it is said that she moved to the London Missionary Society Tyhumi Mission Station, founded by Scottish missionary Rev. John Brownlee in 1820 and later run by Rev. William Chalmers of the Glasgow African Missionary Society. Soga did not live with her because he had not converted. No archival record can yet confirm who lived at the station at that time, but NoSuthu was living there when her letter was written, as readers are informed in the second of two introductions to NoSuthu’s letter, written by Rev. John F. Cumming, who was the missionary resident at Emgwali (Mgwali) just then (Anonymous et al. 1874).

In her letter NoSuthu thanks the United Presbyterian Church for their kind and supportive treatment of her son and by extension herself and the Xhosa people. She acknowledges by name those who she perceives as most involved in her son’s life and in the communities in both South Africa and Scotland. NoSuthu was well known to her readership, as the MRUPC editor notes in the opening sentence of the introduction: “It is now at least one-third of a century since the name of NoSuthu, the mother of the Rev. Tiyo Soga, became familiar to those who then took an interest in the Caffre mission” (Anonymous et al. 1874, 52)

NoSuthu had appeared in Scottish Presbyterian historical records because her son, properly Rev. Tiyo Soga, became the first ordained Xhosa missionary in 1857 following his degree and theological studies in Scotland. She is mentioned in the MRUPC as early as May 1848 in a biographical note about Tiyo, then 17 years old, who was baptised in Glasgow while studying for his teacher’s diploma (Struthers 1848). Scottish congregations had supported him and his mission work by funding his studies and then several stations and schools. His reports and letters were published in the MRUPC. He died of a pleuritic illness two years before NoSuthu's letter was written, and his obituaries from 1872 would have been fresh in their minds.

Christian Metaphors and Symbolism

NoSuthu, her daughter Tause, and the others who frame/edit her letter employ Christian metaphors and symbolism in the construction of this narrative. For instance, NoSuthu links her son Tiyo Soga with Jesus by mentioning that, in his death, Tiyo Soga had gone to prepare a place for them all in heaven (Anonymous et al. 1874, 53). This comparison has distinct Christo-centric resonances which may seem riskily blasphemous to a Christian because of the identification of a person with the Christian God.

Similarly, as NoSuthu thanks the Scottish people for allowing the “blood of your blood” to come and live with Tiyo Soga and the Xhosa people, she links her daughter-in-law Janet Soga (née Burnside) from Glasgow with Jesus (Anonymous et al. 1874, 53). Here NoSuthu reminds the readers that she too is related to them: the communities are all related through the marriage of her son Tiyo Soga to Janet Soga. The symbolism in the idea of “blood of my blood” also serves as a reminder of the fundamental connectedness and global ties which existed between Xhosa and Scottish people.

NoSuthu also inscribes her own meaning into the central tenets of Christianity, as the crucifixion is reintegrated into her milieu through the repatriation of this metaphor of the “blood of my blood” within the cultural expression of this one woman. Surprisingly, this apparent blasphemy is not edited out, but is included and even described as evidence of her “Christian delicacy” (Anonymous et al. 1874, 52). In adapting and adopting Biblical metaphors, NoSuthu has appropriated the Biblical mode of representation, which means that this is an excellent example of transculturation, as explored by Pratt (1992).

The Letter in Layers

NoSuthu’s is one of the earliest of African women’s voices to find expression in this way. In authoring the letter, NoSuthu appears to take a central space on the global stage of meaning-making as she sets out of her own volition to initiate communication on her own terms with a global audience with whom she feels connected through their shared beliefs in Christianity. She is confident of the equivalence and equality of her voice within this medium as inviolate, and she enacts her perception of her unrestricted access to it. She clearly trusts also that her audience will hear her and will want to read her.

Yet readers are unable to read her voice directly here. A striking characteristic of NoSuthu’s letter as an archival source is the polyphony of the five individuals who encode the letter indistinguishably: NoSuthu; her daughter Tause, who serves as amanuensis; the Emgwali teacher, a possible alternative amanuensis; the Rev. John F. Cumming, who introduces the letter within the MRUPC and translates it from Xhosa to English for that audience; and the MRUPC editor who frames it with a second introduction.

The original Xhosa letter is not held with in-bound correspondence for the United Presbyterian Church (UPC) at Cambridge University Library or at the National Library of Scotland and has not yet been located elsewhere. It is thus impossible to discern the extent to which other pens have over- or rewritten NoSuthu’s words, or whether NoSuthu approved the published version of the letter. The letter therefore functions as much as an artefact and expression of NoSuthu herself as of her era and of her contemporaries within the UPC. The letter is structured as four layers around a kernel.

The First Layer: Anonymous Editor at MRUPC

The first voice that readers encounter belongs to the anonymous editor at the MRUPC who prepares the letter for the periodical's audience. The editor provides an introduction of two paragraphs under the heading “NOSUTU, the mother of Soga” containing a general introduction and explanation of NoSuthu’s identity and her family connection to the UPC. This editor also explains that “the composition of [the letter] is entirely her own” and has been translated from Xhosa into English, then describes the translation as a good one (Anonymous et al. 1874, 52). The editor portrays NoSuthu in a maternal capacity by linking her agency and her right to contribute to the broader UPC community to her stout mothering of Christian children Tiyo, Tause and their older brother Festiri. The primary focus of this introduction concerns her maternal role.

The Second Layer: Rev. John F. Cumming

The second layer, or voice with which readers engage, comes from the Rev. John F. Cumming, a United Presbyterian Church missionary who first arrived in South Africa and worked at the Glenthorn Mission Station from 1840 to 1847, at Tyhumi from 1847 to 1868, and at Emgwali from 1868 to his retirement in 1886 after 47 years of service (Slowan 1894, 114-17). Cumming provides a longer introduction of five paragraphs in which he details the circumstances of the composition of the letter and introduces NoSuthu and Tause. He explains that NoSuthu and Tause approached him with the idea to write a letter of thanks to those who had helped her son and that he had expressly sanctioned the idea. He also focuses on NoSuthu’s role as mother to Tiyo and Tause as well as her Christian sentiment (Anonymous et al. 1874, 52-53).

Additionally, Cumming outlines further historical and biographical contexts for NoSuthu and Tause beyond those represented in the letter. For instance, while NoSuthu expresses her gratitude for the lifelong association of her family with the Scottish Presbyterian community and for their support of Tiyo Soga, Cumming portrays NoSuthu as a destitute old woman, suffering from ill health, blind in one eye, and with no means of income. He notes that NoSuthu’s material circumstances have declined since the death of Tiyo Soga, as have those of Tause. They no longer have access to the financial support which he provided (Anonymous et al. 1874, 52).

Cumming is also the translator of the letter. His acumen with Xhosa was at least tacitly accepted by Rev. Tiyo Soga, who critiqued other translators’ expression in Xhosa most severely (Soga [1865] 1866, [1866] 1866; Davis 2018). The mediation of NoSuthu and Tause’s voices in translation from Xhosa to English is most certainly significant. However not enough information survives for readers to understand the full impact of the mediation. No mention is made of the circumstances or processes in the translation or whether it was verified by any Xhosa speaker before it was finished.

The Third Layer: The Teacher at Emgwali

The third voice is that of the teacher named by Cumming as having been the amanuensis to whom NoSuthu and Tause “dictated in Caffre the words” of the letter he presents: “She [NoSuthu] then went with her daughter Tause to the teacher of the boys’ school here, to whom she dictated in Caffre the words which I have endeavoured to translate in the accompanying letter” (Anonymous et al. 1874, 52).

It is possible that the teacher might be identified from a full record of the teachers at Cumming’s mission school at the time, but by 1873 schoolteachers in this part of South Africa were a diverse bunch. Cumming did not use a name or pronoun to refer to the teacher. It is impossible to tell the gender, race, or age of this teacher from this description. Furthermore, the word “teacher” could be translated to mean “preacher” in Xhosa because the title “umfundisi” at the time meant both “teacher” and “preacher.” NoSuthu and Tause may have approached a minister for help in writing the letter. This would also help to explain the strict Biblical references and narrative structure of the letter.

The Fourth Layer: Tause, NoSuthu's Daughter

The penultimate voice is one which is invisible in or absent from the text, that of the first amanuensis. This letter could easily have been written by Tause herself, more so as she is named as an amanuensis in the title of the letter: “Dictated by herself, and written in Caffre by Tause, the next in the family after Mr. Soga” (Anonymous et al. 1874, 53). Tause was actually third in the family, after her eldest brother Frestiri and her second eldest brother Tiyo Soga, the “Mr. Soga” referenced here.

Tause was about forty-five years old when the letter as published. She was a schoolteacher and had worked for Rev. Niven at Uniondale since before 1849, when Tiyo Soga returned to South Africa and was sent as a catechist and teacher to work with him. Tause was also said to have been there at that time, and she would have been trained in a teacher training college, with very good qualifications. Cumming describes Tause as a brave brinkwoman who holds her nerve in protecting missionaries from murder: “It ought not to be forgotten that it was Tause who, during the last war, when accompanying the mission family from Umindal [Uniondale] to Chumie [Tyhumi] in their flight from the impending assault of the infuriated enemy, turned aside the uplifted assegai, already reddened with the blood of the unfortunate military settlers, from our beloved brother Niven, and made the barbarous savage Caffre quail before her” (Anonymous et al. 1874, 52-53).

Given Tause’s role in the composition of the letter, it is likely she and NoSuthu would have discussed the letter’s content and phrasing, so Tause’s role is important. It may appear as if this multivoicedness problematizes the story. The fact that there are two options, however, means that readers do not know, but also cannot pretend this to be the case; rather, these options likewise open up other, unexpected vistas – new horizons and contexts from which to shine light back on the speakers, on the individuals. Indeed this double authorship enhances the authenticity of the narrative by underscoring that it has been agreed by the teller and the amanuensis. The doubled authorship also implies their combined achievement of the meaning, that both are equal participants.

The Fifth Layer: NoSuthu

The final voice with which readers engage in this text and the principal voice that shapes the letter is that of NoSuthu herself. She is the chief author and signatory of the letter. As seen above, it is impossible to tell which words she wrote or thus to describe her expression, literary devices, metaphors, motifs, and other hallmarks of discursive practice. However, the letter’s signature indicates that she was involved and invested in the letter. A striking point of the letter is the way in which NoSuthu signs the letter: “NoSutu Soga Jotelo” (Anonymous et al. 1874, 53). Of the letter’s five writers, only NoSuthu or Tause would have listed these two patriarchal names in that order because the middle name listed, arguably the least important of the three, is that of NoSuthu’s husband, whom she names as immediately next in her lineage. This leaves her father-in-law’s name “Jotelo” as her family name or surname. A writer such as the teacher at Emgwali Mission Station or Cumming himself would have probably defaulted to the Eurocentric patrilineal system and placed NoSuthu’s husband’s name, Soga, in the position of surname, to read “NoSutu Jotelo Soga.”

The use of this last name places NoSuthu within a lineage that centers on her husband rather than herself, but it indicates the importance which she gave to that relationship. Soga is not a middle name; it is the most significant name to NoSuthu beside her own. The fact that the name Soga, the name of her husband, follows her own immediately indicates her close relationship with Soga and his position as her direct kin. Moreover, none of the other writers would have used this order because it overturns the popular narrative around NoSuthu and her husband Soga's failed marriage (see above). NoSuthu is not named as “NoSuthu kaNgayi” (after her father) or “NoSuthu, convert at Tyhumi,” which would likewise have enabled her to distance herself from Soga’s realm had she so chosen.

However, this name also sets up a problematic positioning for NoSuthu in any western classification system that organises by surname. Fortunately, One More Voice sidesteps this issue on the Recovered Texts page by using the name “Soga,” the second one given, to place NoSuthu in alphabetical order among the other individuals listed on the page. NoSuthu’s forename could also be used.

Postscript: Caffre and Xhosa

In the introductory narratives provided with NoSuthu’s letter, the word “Caffre” is used to denote “Xhosa.” This word is now recognised as a pejorative term and only appears in this essay if in a citation. Jochen Arndt (2017) has discussed the historicity of the term, and many unanswered questions about it remain.

Works Cited/Further Reading

Anonymous. 1908. “Umfikizi uTause Ncapai.” Izwi Labantu, April 21, 1908, 2.

Anonymous, and Nosuthu Soga Jotelo. 1874. “Letter of Gratitude from a Kafir Woman.” Wesleyan Juvenile Offering: A Miscellany of Missionary Info, no. 89 (May): 54, 56.

Anonymous, John Cumming, Anonymous, Tause, and Nosuthu Soga Jotelo. 1874. “Nosutu, the Mother of Soga (Excerpt).” Missionary Record of the United Presbyterian Church, New Series, 5 (44): 53. Also see the excerpt published in the critical edition by One More Voice.

Arndt, Jochen. 2017. “What’s in a Word? Historicising the Term ‘Caffre’ in European Discourses about Southern Africa between 1500 and 1800.” Journal of Southern African Studies 44 (1): 59–75.

Davis, Joanne Ruth. 2018. Tiyo Soga: A Literary History. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press.

Khabela, Gideon. 1996. Tiyo Soga: The Struggle of The Gods: A Struggle in Christianity and the African Culture. Alice, South Africa: Lovedale Press.

Moore, John B.D. 1894. “Appendix: Chronological Table of the Kaffrarian Mission.” In The Story of Our Kaffrarian Mission, by William J. Slowan, 3:113–17. Missions of the United Presbyterian Church Described in a Series of Stories. Edinburgh: Offices of the United Presbyterian Church.

Pratt, Mary Louise. 1992. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge.

Soga, Tiyo. (1865) 1866. “Letter to J. Laing. 7 December 1865.” In The Kafir Bible: Rev. J.W. Appleyard’s Version Judged by Missionaries of Various Denominations and Others, edited by William Govan, 7–9. Lovedale, South Africa: Mission. G.40.b.20. National Library of South Africa, Cape Town. Also in Davis 2018, 273-75.

Soga, Tiyo. (1866) 1866. “Letter to J. Laing. 2 September 1866.” In The Kafir Bible: Rev. J.W. Appleyard’s Version Judged by Missionaries of Various Denominations and Others, edited by William Govan, 9–12. Lovedale, South Africa: Mission. G.40.b.20. National Library of South Africa, Cape Town. Also in Davis 2018, 275-78.

Struthers, John Paterson. 1848. “Notices of Tiyo-Soga and His Family.” Missionary Record of the United Presbyterian Church 3–4 (9): 118–20.

Williams, Donovan. 1978. Umfundisi: A Biography of Tiyo Soga 1829-1871. Alice, South Africa: Lovedale Press.