Women pioneers’ lives recalled

Shaanaaz de Jager

A LITTLE-known piece of Eastern Cape history is the focus of a new novel which seeks to highlight the Irish “invasion” of South Africa.

The Kennaway Woman by former Eastern Cape resident Daphne Olivier tells the fascinating story of the “Kennaway Girls”.

In the aftermath of the potato famine, workhouses in Ireland became filled with destitute women. These women fled Ireland, joining the Kennaway Scheme which promised them a free passage to Africa and a chance of a new life.

The ships carrying them dropped anchor in the roadstead off East London 155 years ago, on November 20 1857.

Olivier vividly portrays their living conditions onboard a convict transport ship, the wild, rugged country they found themselves in and the hardships and dangers these pioneer women faced.

“The arrival of the Lady Kennaway was keenly awaited by bachelors in the area,” Olivier said.

“Most were German legionnaires who had settled on farms in the Eastern Cape. Few were married. As there was a shortage of white women in the area, the Kennaway Scheme was devised to provide them with wives,” Olivier said.

The Kennaway Woman is set in the Amatolas – where Olivier grew up, learning to appreciate reading from an early age.

“I read everything I could lay my hands on, from biography, fantasy, historical fiction, thriller, mythology, science fiction or the classics. I always enjoyed writing and knew that one day I would write a novel.

“But nursing, marriage, raising a family and farming got in the way and it was many years before I had time enough to achieve my dream. Today I live in Howick, a small KwaZulu-Natal town, with my husband and our two dogs.”

Her first novel, The Peacock Throne, a young adult thriller set on the Wild Coast, made it to the Sanlam Youth Literature Awards final list. She has also written a romance, a thriller and science fiction short stories, but she admits The Kennaway Woman is the book she “enjoyed writing most”.

Her fascination with the arrival of the women inspired her to write the novel.

“Many of my childhood friends were descendents of the Irish-German pioneers who settled in the area. A visit to the museum in East London, which displays a collection of historic memorabilia, inspired me to write a novel based on the life of one of these brave women and the German legionnaire she married.

“I tried to imagine what it was like living in that era.

“I wanted to make sure the background to the novel was accurate, so I spent a lot of time researching history before I sat down to write.

“The more I discovered, the more fascinating the project became and the more my characters came to life.”

The Kennaway Woman is available from the publisher at www.melange-books.comand from the author at dafol@mtnloaded.co.za

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