The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 24, 2003


A woman unlike most in her time
the letters of Florence C. Malcolm, 1931-38


August 25, 1931

Dear Circle Friends,

Last week the box you sent me some months ago arrived. A dress went to an elderly woman who has had very little clothing since her son, who supported her, died last year. Oh yes, her husband is still living, but he is quite aged, and lost part of one arm in a fight with a leopard. A baby's dress goes today to a new baby whom I have been asked to name. (This is an honor and means that I become a sort of foster mother to the child. I think I shall name her Christina).

Florence Malcolm in Angola, West Africa

Florence Malcolm was unlike most women of her time. She did not marry, earned several college degrees, and chose to leave the secure confines of Carlisle to work as an educator and missionary in Angola, West Africa. Reading her letters allows us insight into the life of an intelligent, professional woman who met each challenge with energy, was tolerant of any inconvenience, and was equally as attached to her adopted home in West Africa as she was to her home town.

August 25, 1931

I think you would be interested to hear what a native woman's daily routine is. It is practically like this: The first thing in the morning she sweeps the dirt floors of her one, two, or three room house, with dried grass. After lighting the open fire in the middle of the kitchen floor, she goes to the river to get water which she brings back in an earthen pot on her head. She cooks the morning meal of corn mush and greens. After breakfast she goes to her field where she works until two o'clock. She comes back carrying in a basket on her head about half a bushel of corn (with the husks removed) also firewood. Then she must go to the pounding rocks to pound the corn, previously soaked and prepared, into fine meal.

Malcolm's students in Kchilesso, Angola

Born in Somerville, Florence Malcolm moved to Stearns Street (now the site of Malcolm Meadows senior housing) in Carlisle in 1911 with her parents and brothers Wilbur and Alan, attending the Highland School and then Concord High School, where she graduated at age fifteen. She attended the Katharine Gibbs School and worked for six years as a secretary before being accepted to Gordon College, where she earned a Bachelor of Theology degree. On her graduation day in 1928, she was appointed to missionary service in Africa by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Prior to leaving for Africa she spent a year in Portugal where she learned both Portuguese and Umbundu, the native language of the Ovimbundu people, with whom she was to work.

May 3, 1935

In every village I received gifts of chickens, eggs, rice — whatever the people had, they gave, bless their generous hearts! In the seventeen villages I received thirty chickens and a sheep. These visits mean a good deal to the villagers. My object is to stimulate more interest in education especially on the part of the parents, to encourage the teachers (many of them are my former pupils), to improve the schools, to know the people and to strengthen them in their Christian faith and living.

When she arrived in Chilesso, Angola, Malcolm was the first educational missionary. She began work organizing a school that would ultimately serve hundreds of local children. As a missionary, she necessarily instructed her students in the tenets of Christianity, but while doing so, she also taught them reading and writing, mathematics, Portuguese, history, geography, basic hygiene, sewing, and gave cooking lessons. But her work went beyond teaching. She secured clothing and medical attention for them, all while introducing them to the wider world beyond the village. In the course of her work she traveled to "outstations." At some of these villages, hers was the first Caucasian face ever seen. These journeys were undertaken in order to introduce literacy and Christianity to those living in outlying areas, but also served to broaden their awareness of the world.
Malcolm's students in Kchilesso, Angola

August 1, 1935

School begins again next week, August 7, and I am eagerly looking forward to the return of the pupils and the coming year's work. These last few months I have been working on new lessons and methods which I wish to try out, especially for beginners. I shall teach them myself, using projects and kindergarten methods, for this is to be a model school to which 50 village teachers are looking for inspiration.

In addition to teaching children, Malcolm's broader aim was to encourage leadership among those she educated. Church literature states that she trained hundreds of Angolans and Rhodesians to be leaders in church, school, and village. A number of her students went on to become teachers, thereby assuring that the work would continue and expand. In 1938, Paul F. Swanson of Carlisle donated the funds to build a school in Chilesso. It was called the Ida E. Swanson Memorial School in memory of his mother and Malcolm was given the position of principal.

January 9, 1936

Yes I am enjoying my little house even though rain comes in the bathroom, store room and pantry, and only constant vigilance keeps the white ants from eating the wood work. These things remind us that this is Africa.

January 15, 1938

Our teaching staff consists of one white teacher (a Portuguese) and four natives, all men; and for the first time, a girl teacher. Education of girls has been and still is neglected, and the common belief that they are inferior in mentality has been a great handicap.

This morning I had an interesting experience. I went to the hospital to watch the first Caesarean Section that has ever been performed in Chilesso. The doctor (from another Mission Station) gave a spinal anesthetic, performed the operation, and saved the life of the mother and child.

During her time in Angola, Malcolm had five furloughs away from her missionary work. During the first she earned a master's degree in Anthropology at the Hartford Seminary Foundation. While home on later furloughs she was a popular speaker, relating to audiences her experiences living and working in Africa.

November 19, 1938

The Board has asked me to postpone my furlough for several months, so I shall not leave here, probably, before August. Yes, Angola is my real home now, but I am a citizen of two worlds and enjoy my residence in each of them while, paradoxically, being a bit homesick for the other.

In 1961 she was refused a visa by Portugal to return to Angola. But in 1962 she was able to resume her work in Chikore, Rhodesia, as director of Christian Education. In all, she was a missionary for the Carlisle Congregational Church for thirty-eight years, retiring in 1967.

Sources used in writing this article:

The Letters of Florence Malcolm. Carlisle Historical Society Collection.
Photos from the Historical Society Collection.
Wilkins, Ruth Chamberlin. Carlisle: Its History and Heritage. Carlisle: Carlisle Historical Society, 1976, 2002.

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito