The International Dinner Party

In 1979 Judy Chicago opened the exhibition of her “Dinner Party” – a huge sculptured table with place settings for 39 women.  Dinner parties were organized around the world to celebrate the artwork and the concept of honoring women who had inspired us.  I was living in Swaziland and organized a gathering in my home to join in this international event.

I received the invitation of the “International Dinner Party to Celebrate Women’s Culture” in early February.  It was to be held March 14, 1979.  I took it to Sister Henrietta Kanya, the nurse where I worked.  We accepted the invitation and started planning.

We wanted a small group, but over the next few weeks the list grew.  Princess Pholile added several more such as the Assistant UN Representative in Swaziland, Joan Scutt, some Members of Parliament, Princess Ngebeti and others that were out of my social circle.  My friend Mish wanted to invite her friends, Colleen and Eve.  Mary wanted to invite her cousin, Paula, from Zambia.  It was growing in wonderful ways.

We ran into a little trouble with the MPs.  We couldn’t invite just two and leave the others out.  But we couldn’t invite all four, because one was a very senior princess who would have to notify the King – this might cause a delay if he wanted to check out the gathering.  The compromise was to invite three (who didn’t need to report) and notify the fourth so that she wouldn’t feel left out.

Invitations were sent out.  Food was arranged:  chicken, rice, salad, tea, coffee, cookies, and orange juice.  We were ready.

On the 14th, Henrietta came by early to help.  Then the next arrivals were Miss Madros and Miss Malinga from SBS, the Swaziland Broadcasting Service, to make recordings!  I didn’t ask questions, just invited them in.  We chatted.  It seems that Princess Ngebeti and LaScutt (the proper local way to address her) decided it would be nice to have a short recording for their radio shows – both work at SBS.

LaScutt, who ran a local mission school, opened with a prayer.  I explained the origins of the Dinner Party and what we wanted to do, which was to name and tell about a woman who made a difference in our life.  LaScutt read a speech that had been given by Princess Mnengwase at Embo State House several years ago about women and about Gwamile in particular.  Gwamile was the Queen Regent when our King was young in the early 20th century.  The princess told stories about Gwamile and her insistence that the King be educated at a college, which meant leaving the country.  Six people accompanied him, including two women, who also studied at Lovedale.  It was said that from this beginning Swazi formal education included both boys and girls.

LaScutt also told us about laZondi, Mrs. Ngwenya, who founded Ncabaneni Mission School.  Although often laScutt gets the credit for this, she says it was really laZondi, who is now in her seventies and still active at the handicraft center.

I told of Nell Green who helped start and was still active in Sebenta, the adult literacy program.  She used to live in South Africa and was part of Black Sash.

The UN woman chose to praise Swazi women in general for their sensitivity, helpfulness, and discretion.

Most of the Dinner Party guests.

At this point we stopped to get dinner.  While I was getting tea ready, I was told that the police wanted to see me.  It seems they saw all the cars and the SBS car and thought we were having a meeting which would be illegal if we didn’t notify them.  One man, Nxumalo, insisted it was a meeting and that I had invited SBS.  Finally the Princess and laScutt (who has lots of clout too) convinced the police that they had requested the tape recorders.  The police listened to the tape.

I went back in and we continued sharing stories.  I heard only a few talk until I was asked to talk with the police again.  This time they wanted to apologize for the problems caused.  By now I missed the conversation and people were beginning to leave.  Paranoia had set in.  We did manage to get one photo before everyone left.

The next evening the report of the dinner party – without mention of the police – was the first item on the English news report.  On the SiSwati report later, we were second.  It was a long, well written report.  Someone came later in the week to interview Henrietta for one of the women’s programs.  This helped balance the negative feeling left from that evening.

Although it ended too soon – I think a few of us would have liked to sit around and talk – what did take place was good and definitely in the spirit of the event.  We were a group of women of many cultures and we felt connected to the world and the women who inspired us.

I’d like to do it again.

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7 Responses to The International Dinner Party

  1. What a wonderful story to share and a great memory to have. Are you still in contact with any of those who took part?

    • I have contact with one of the women. Most are no longer with us. And I really realized that when I wrote that I’d like to do it again. Time has moved on. Or maybe it’s time to gather with a new group.

      • I think that whenever a replica of something is planned it is perhaps never as good as the original. We have to judge things completely independently. So perhaps a different group, or make it very different in this modern age and have it on line.

        I used to be part of a committee that used to have our meetings on lines. Several of the committee lived in the US and one in New Zealand. We would all sit at our computers, some eating dinner, others breakfast and some a snack in between!

      • Julie,
        I like that idea of the online gathering. It’s a nice image of all of you sharing a meal together!

      • It was quite fun, as we entered the “on line room” we would all say hello, for example – “Julie here. I’m eating lasagne!” it broke the atmosphere in what is quite odd situation!

  2. Aspen says:

    Lovely, lovely story, Donna. Charished memories of a gather of powerful women! I know you ARE continuing to gather powerful women (tho on a much smaller scale).
    I went to Albuq to hear Judy Chicago speak and found out she had connections to T or C through her friendship with Delmas. Saw her several times after that and attended her “Stitich in Time” show in Albuq. Wish I could have seen the Dinner Party. I have the book but I would love to have felt that female creative energy in person.

    • Does the book mention the little dinner parties around the world? They collected info from most of them and I hope they did something with that. I’d love to see the art work!

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