The first African nurse was certified in the Ciskei region of South Africa during the early decades of the twentieth century. Since then, African nurses have played a key role in the expansion and development of healthcare services in South Africa, particularly in rural areas. Using the stories of retired African nurses who worked in the Ciskei between 1950 and 1980, Leslie Anne Hadfield documents and contextualizes the achievements of these remarkable women. Their stories were prefaced by the last decades of British colonialism and shaped by the rise of apartheid and the creation of African homelands. In spite of the racial and economic injustices that Africans experienced under apartheid, nursing allowed many African women to pursue careers that gave them a sense of purpose and some measure of agency, while providing them with a stepping stone into the middle class. The stories collected by Hadfield speak of the rigorous training, long hours and minimal resources that African nurses endured while working in rural clinics; the role they played as brokers between biomedical and Xhosa medical approaches; and as pioneers in the expansion of gender roles, both as nurses and professional women who had to care for families of their own. A Bold Profession. African Nurses in Rural Apartheid South Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 2021) deftly illustrates how the everyday challenges and triumphs of African nurses amounted not only to a substantial expansion of healthcare services in the Ciskei, but were also important in the continuous move towards increasing the opportunities available to African women.
Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia is an associate professor of history at Montclair State University.
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