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CHÉRIF Keita has spent the past decade uncovering the history of John Langalibalele Dube, first president of the ANC, creator of the Ohlange Institute at Inanda and founder of the newspaper, Ilanga lase Natal. And in what can only be called a labour of love he has made two films to bring his findings to a wider audience.
But how did Keita, professor of French and Francophone African and Caribbean literature at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, in the U.S., as well as an authority on the music of his native country, Mali, come to be one of the premier researchers into the life of John Dube?
Keita first visited South Africa in 1999. “I travelled with 18 students to hear stories from South Africans,” he told The Witness during a later trip in 2007. “[There were] heart-rending stories and stories to celebrate.”
Back in 1999, Keita also met Langa and later Zenzele Dube, grandsons of John Dube, who told Keita of how their grandfather’s education in the U.S. had provided the impetus for his life when he returned to South Africa. “When I heard this I thought I had to get the story of Dube in the U.S.,” says Keita, “and bring it back to South Africa as a token of my gratitude for all the stories I heard while I was here.”
Thus began a project that saw Keita make the award-winning documentary film Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube, that linked the story of Inanda to Dube’s education in the U.S. at Oberlin College, Ohio.
Keita followed up with another film, Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa, detailing the previously untold story of the American missionary Reverend William Wilcox, under whose wing Dube first went to the U.S. Keita also organised the Wilcox descendants’ visit to South Africa in 2007 to meet the Dube family.
Keita was last in South Africa in August. “I feel like a local,” he says. “I have been given a Zulu name Zwelethu [it means “our land”, but is used here in the sense that he belongs to the place]. I feel like a child of KwaZulu-Natal.”
During his visit Keita gave the John Langalibalele Dube Memorial Lecture at the Edgewood Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal but spent the rest of his time following another Dube trail, that of Nokutela Mdima who became Dube’s first wife.
“John Dube led me to the Wilcoxes and they led me back to Nokutela,” says Keita. “It’s as if she is crying out for my attention — she has invited me to speak for her. I did what I did for John Dube and for the Wilcoxes, now it’s Nokutela’s turn.”
Keita describes the Wilcoxes as the American adoptive parents of John Dube and Nokutela Mdima. “They both grew up together as mission kids,” says Keita. “They were both moulded by William and Ida Wilcox. Nokutela was Ida’s pupil at Inanda Seminary from 1881 on.”
“In 1882 at the age of about 13 Nokutela wrote an essay titled ‘My Home-Africa’ which Ida sent to the Rice County Journal in Northfield, Minnesota, her home town,” he says. “It was published as part of a regular series that Ida wrote about her experiences as a missionary and she used Nokutela’s essay to demonstrate the dedication of Zulu pupils in learning English at the Inanda Mission Station.”
The Wilcoxes also provided both youth a role model as a couple, according to Keita. “Ida went everywhere with her husband. They were always together. And together they were strong.”
In 1887, William Wilcox took Dube to the U.S. where he attended Oberlin High School and later the college. When Dube returned to Natal he accepted a teaching post and, in 1894, married Nokutela Mdima. In 1896, the couple went to the U.S. for further education and subsequently made several visits there, mainly to raise funds to realise their joint vision of an independent school for Africans.
“It was a great partnership that generated so much in terms of fundraising and pioneering leadership for South Africa.” says Keita. “And they were valued there as equals. The Los Angeles Times of February 13, 1898, included Nokutela in its feature ‘Women of note’.”
An American journalist described Nokutela as “young, with blazing black eyes, smooth brown skin and handsome regular features. She speaks good English with a deliberation that is charming and in the softest voice in the world. Her manner is grace itself.”
“During the tour of the U.S. with John she was the first black South African woman to have used music to speak about her people, mesmerising audiences in the late 1890s singing click songs.” says Keita. “Miriam Makeba was so excited in November 2001, when I told her about Nokutela and proud to have been on a trail blazed by another young South African woman more than 50 years before her. ‘Alleluia,’ she said, ‘I come along 60 years later and do the same thing.’ Miriam felt she was part of a tradition.”
Right: Nokutela Dube.
Left: John L. Dube.
Keita says Nokutela was a talented musician. “She built up the musical culture that was so much part of Ohlange and with her husband she produced A Zulu Song Book published in 1911. In it there is A Prayer for the Children of Ohlange — it is the tune of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica but with different words; it’s essentially a praise song of Dube.”
“Ohlange was her creation along with John’s and as such she was the first mother of the Children of Ohlange.”
But the powerful partnership of husband and wife was to come to an abrupt end. In 1914, as revealed in Heather Hughes’s recent biography, First President, Dube had a child by a female student at Ohlange. The child died shortly thereafter thus making it easier to prevent the matter becoming public knowledge.
In an interview with The Witness earlier this year Hughes talked about the event, more tragedy than scandal. “It came out of a long, long period of pain, almost mourning, that he and Nokutela couldn’t have children,” she said. “In hindsight we don’t have to moralise or be judgmental. We can explain and understand. It was the end of their marriage and the end of their joint venture.”
Nokutela was so distressed that she left Inanda and went to live on a farm in Wakkerstroom in the then Transvaal. “She left everything. It must have been so tragic for her,” says Keita. “The whole incident possibly led to the breakdown in her health.”
Dube also spent much of his time in Johannesburg, where the Dubes had a house in Sophiatown. When he heard Nokutela was suffering from a kidney infection Dube arranged for her to be brought back to Sophiatown for medical attention. But it was too late, Nokutela died on January 26, 1917, and was subsequently buried in the Brixton Cemetery, her grave recorded in the burial register as CK9763; the CK standing for “Christian Kaffir”.
Three years later, in 1920, Dube married Angelina Khumalo. They had six children, four surviving to adulthood. Dube died in 1946.
The site of Nokutela’s grave was left unmarked and its location forgotten. As Hughes noted in her biography, quoting Doris Lessing: “Women often get dropped from memory, and then history.”
That has been the case with Nokutela. Something that Keita now seeks to redress. During his visit in August he went to Brixton cemetery and assisted by Alan Buff, manager of Johannesburg’s Parks and Gardens and Rufus Moleseng, the cemetery’s caretaker, he was able to locate Nokutela Dube’s final resting place.
Keita is now planning a national tribute to Nokutela Dube to coincide with next year’s Women’s Month in August. This would include the unveiling of a gravestone over her final resting place in Brixton cemetery. He is also in the pre-production phase of a film provisionally titled Gravestone for Nokutela, Woman from Inanda.
“My mission is to exhume her in a figurative sense,” says Keita. “Noku-tela is crying for recognition. Biologically she may have been unable to produce children, but intellectually and spiritually she had many, many children at Ohlange and thousands of intellectual heirs who went on to become pioneers in South Africa.”