In The Shadow of the Dragon's Back

An American Girl in South Africa during the Early Years of Apartheid

by Rachel Odhner Longstaff

The book is the story of a young American girl living in South Africa during the early years of apartheid (1948-1960), the fifth of six children of a Swedenborgian minister who was sent to South Africa to establish a theological school for Africans. 

Come along with me as we run away from a wildfire on the mountain, and join me on a walk through the Durban markets with my mother. Read about our African friends and our Indian gardener. Visit our very British girls’ school, and spend a week of intensive language training at an Afrikaans farm. Don’t miss how I cringe at the sound of a hyena in the foothills, and what it was like to fear the Mau Mau in the dark.

Enjoy our thatch-roofed vacation house in the wilds of the Drakensberg. Join in the fun as we sail across the Atlantic on our way for a quick visit to America. Back in Durban, the family celebrates Christmas with Swedish, German, American, and English traditions, and my brother takes me on a final hike in the mountains. When the family finally re-settles in America, there’s an altercation with my future father-in-law, and a mind-opening year or two at the university.

All this takes place in the growing shadow of a police state, brought to light by the voices of Nadine Gordimer, Helen Joseph, Alan Paton, Dan Tloome, Winnie Mandela, Yusuf Cachalia, Myrna Blumberg, Joseph Gqabi, Peter Randall, Uys Krige, Jean Sinclair, W.B. Ngakane, Benjamin Pogrund, and many, many more, writing in Africa South, New Age, Reality, The Times (London), The Black Sash, Inverell Times, Liberal Opinion, College English, and others. These brave writers will leave you with at least one haunting phrase, such as,

“Put the children in a home.”

“They were told their passes were out of order … now they dig potatoes with their nails.”

 “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa—it is your answers.” (Helen Suzman, Member of Parliament)

“This is a White republic, ruled by the white man.” (Prime Minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd)

“When will I see my son?"  "You will not see your son again.”


The Dragon's Back is the name of one of the mountains in the Drakensberg region of South Africa. That mountain stands as a great barrier, but it can be conquered. Deep childhood fears of some unnamed threat are represented by home invasions, mountain wildfires, and the cry of a hyena.

After returning permanently to America as a teenager—through a confusing and sometimes painful process of discussion and observation—I was finally able to uncover those artifacts of the past that inform my place in the world today.  

Banner photo by Margaret Mary Hulett

“A brave and beautifully written memoir .... Rachel’s memories and musings show that the light of social justice burns brightest in the tall shadows of oppression.”
— Professor Archie Dick, University of Pretoria