Nurses fill a critical role in improving the health of their communities. How much more remarkable is that work when these nurses deal with challenging circumstances, such as working in rural South African clinics at the height of apartheid?
Such nurses caught the attention of Leslie Hadfield, associate professor of History at BYU and coordinator of the Kennedy Center’s Africana Studies program. Her research into this topic led her to write A Bold Profession: African Nurses in Rural Apartheid South Africa. “I decided to write this book after hearing about the impressive success that nurses had working with inadequate resources in rural clinics, especially in delivering babies,” says Hadfield. “I suspected there was much for us to learn from their experiences.” Oral histories and archival work revealed how their training, commitment, and working with rather than against African medicine helped these nurses succeed even as they struggled to balance their careers and family life.
For Hadfield, one of the most important parts of the book was getting the cover right, so she reached out to Melissa Tshikamba, a recent graduate from BYU’s illustration program with a multicultural background (her father is from a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and her mother grew up in New England). “I knew it would be important for a Black woman to portray Black women,” Hadfield says. “She could draw on her personal experiences and aesthetics.”
Inspired by reference photos and her own imagination, Tshikamba created a piece that is full of meaning. “I wanted the woman’s expression to illustrate determination, grace, confidence, purpose, and dignity,” she says. “That’s why we had her looking forward, as if she’s looking into the future with hope.” The setting the woman is in has significance as well: “Dawn and dusk are my favorite times of day; I love the calm, peaceful feeling that it evokes, and I thought it was perfect for this image because the nurses would often work relentlessly from dawn till dusk and then walk home. I included the landscape to reflect South Africa, with the protea flower in the foliage because it’s one of the country’s main flowers.”
“To me, the painting embodies what I wrote,” says Hadfield. “She is wearing a nurses’ uniform, and the responsibility and years of work show on her face. The expression on the woman’s face is captivating and the most powerful aspect for me.” In fact, she found the painting so moving that she used it as a source of inspiration as she brainstormed titles for her book.
For Tshikamba, what keeps her motivated in her art is “empowering, eradicating internalized racism, and then enlightening people through imagery; showing people of color, especially Black people, in a divine positive light to combat negative stigmas and stereotypes.” She enjoyed creating the image, she says, because “it’s reflective of what I stand for. I love representing and illustrating Black women and telling their stories. I learned a lot about these amazing nurses who often don’t get noticed or thanked for all the work they do.”
View more of Tshikamba’s work at her website.
—Emily Nelson, 11 May 2021