Me­mories of Lulu Dube must be a spring­board for teach­ing

The Witness - Wheels - - INSIGHT - CHÉRIF KEITA • Chérif Keita is the Wil­liam H. Laird pro­fes­sor of French and the lib­eral arts, Car­leton Col­lege, Min­nesota.

HE late wise man from Mali, Amadou Ham­paté Bâ, said that in Africa, an old per­son who dies is a li­brary that burns. This is truly the case of Lulu Dube, the last sur­viv­ing child of Rev­erend John Lan­gal­ibalele Dube, the found­ing pres­i­dent of the African Na­tional Congress and his wife, Angeline Khu­malo, who died on May 26, at the age of 84.

If we can­not do much to pre­vent the fall­ing of th­ese gi­ant trees of our African sa­van­nahs and forests, we can at least build li­braries around their me­mories; al­ways to use their me­mories as a spring­board for teach­ing both the young and the not-so-young about key mo­ments in our his­tory.

I met Aun­tie Lulu Dube, as she was af­fec­tion­ately called by all, in Jan­uary 1999, when I first vis­ited South Africa and heard about her fa­ther. My stu­dents and I were on a month­long study tour of “poetry, per­for­mance and the politics of iden­tity in South Africa”. We had just vis­ited the Oh­lange High School, where Nel­son Man­dela fa­mously cast his vote in 1994, and walked around John Dube’s un­kempt and over­grown gravesite on top of a small hill over­look­ing this mem­o­rable African in­tel­lec­tual high-place of yes­ter­year. We were then led to the house of John Dube, where we were wel­comed by the guardian of the tem­ple, Lulu Dube, a charm­ing el­der with a bright smile and mild man­ners. She showed us some mem­o­ra­bilia and de­scribed the photos hang­ing on the walls of her child­hood home. I was touched by both the grandeur and the hu­mil­ity of the place and the spir­its in­hab­it­ing it. This cap­ti­vat­ing mix­ture showed on Lulu Dube’s face as well as in her moth­erly ap­proach to vis­i­tors. I felt a strange sense of at­tach­ment to Oh­lange, as a place of mem­ory, and also to the per­son of Lulu Dube, not sus­pect­ing that I would be spend­ing the next 14 years of my life riv­eted in re­search about John Dube and a con­stel­la­tion of peo­ple who played a pi­o­neer­ing yet lit­tle-known role in the lib­er­a­tion his­tory of South Africa.

I vis­ited Aun­tie Lulu many times over the years to hear sto­ries about her child­hood and about her fa­ther “Ma­fukuzela”, the busy-bee who was of­ten away from the house on fund­notwith­stand­ing Lulu Dube and Jack­son Wil­cox, the 89-year-old grand­son of Wil­liam C. Wil­cox and Ida Belle Wil­cox, who adopted her fa­ther John Lan­gal­ibalele Dube. rais­ing trips for the Oh­lange In­sti­tute, the first in­de­pen­dent in­dus­trial ed­u­ca­tion school built by a black per­son in South Africa.

One day, she re­called when her dress caught fire be­cause she had been too close to a kerosene lamp while study­ing. Luck­ily that night, her fa­ther was home and had man­aged to douse the fire be­fore rush­ing her to the McCord Hospi­tal in Dur­ban. What emo­tion I felt in her voice while she evoked a mo­ment in the life of a fam­ily that his­tory had placed at the fore­front of a mo­men­tous fight for col­lec­tive eman­ci­pa­tion from op­pres­sion. How I rel­ished such mo­ments and the op­por­tu­ni­ties to hug an­other mother of mine on the south­ern tip of the African con­ti­nent.

Over the years, I no­ticed that there was a big gap in Aun­tie Lulu’s knowl­edge about her fa­ther’s his­tory and time in the United States in the late 19th cen­tury. It was the story of how her fa­ther had a unique op­por­tu­nity to study in the U.S. There had been many leg­ends about Dube’s de­par­ture as a young man to the other side of the At­lantic, where few black Africans had gone and re­turned with knowl­edge and pres­tige. Credo Mutwa, the fa­mous Zulu shaman, had even said that young John Dube, so de­ter­mined to get ed­u­ca­tion and spread it among his peo­ple, chose to stow­away on a boat go­ing to the U.S.

“He would have died of thirst or hunger had not a cou­ple of sailors dis­cov­ered him in the hold. They frog­marched him, more dead than alive, to the cap­tain’s cabin. The cap­tain at first did not know what to do with John Dube … should he clap him in irons or throw him over­board? Fi­nally, it was de­cided that the young Zulu could be use­ful aboard the ship and that he would work for his pas­sage to the U.S. as a stoker — feed­ing shov­els of coal to the roar­ing and ever-hungry fur­naces of the great ves­sel. “Ye’re as ugly an’ black as the very devil, my bhoyo,” said the cap­tain to John Dube. “An’ by the Vir­gin Mary, ye’re agonna work like him.”

For her part, Aun­tie Lulu knew that her fa­ther was taken to the U.S. by mis­sion­ar­ies of the Amer­i­can Board. But who were those mis­sion­ar­ies? She was very cu­ri­ous to know. You can imag­ine her joy and sur­prise when a few years later, I brought her the news that I had found a lot of in­for­ma­tion about th­ese mis­sion­ar­ies be­cause, strangely enough, it turned out that they were closely con­nected to North­field, Min­nesota, the town where I lived in the U.S. I told her the gist of their amaz­ing story. Wil­liam and Ida Belle Wil­cox, who had ar­rived in Inanda in 1881 af­ter their wed­ding in North­field, be­came the adop­tive Amer­i­can par­ents of 16-year-old John Dube, when they ac­cepted in 1887, in op­po­si­tion of other mis­sion­ar­ies, to take charge of the ed­u­ca­tion of the 16-yearold Zulu boy and pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties that were closed to him in South Africa be­cause of Bri­tish colo­nial poli­cies. I told Aun­tie Lulu that I had even found the de­scen­dants of th­ese bene­fac­tors, not only of her fam­ily but also of the en­tire South African na­tion.

She de­cided to write a very moving let­ter to Rev­erend Jack­son Wil­cox, the 89-year-old grand­son of Wil­liam C. Wil­cox (1850-1928) and Ida Belle Wil­cox (1858-1940), as a be­lated ex­pres­sion of South Africa’s grat­i­tude. It is from that ini­tia­tive that I brought back mem­bers of the Wil­cox fam­ily from Cal­i­for­nia and Alaska to South Africa in Novem­ber 2007, to re­unite them with Aun­tie Lulu and the de­scen­dants of John Dube, in mem­ory of the exJohn cep­tional friend­ship be­tween a Zulu boy and a white Amer­i­can fam­ily that changed the course of the his­tory of South Africa. This visit was cov­ered by Stephen Coan of The Wit­ness in an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “Not quite your or­di­nary fam­ily re­union” (Week­end Wit­ness, De­cem­ber 8, 2007). It is also the topic of the sec­ond film in my Inanda tril­ogy, Ceme­tery Sto­ries: A Rebel Mis­sion­ary in South Africa.

The last time I saw Aun­tie Lulu was dur­ing an­other big mo­ment of his­tor­i­cal re­trieval, on Au­gust 31, 2013, at the Brix­ton Ceme­tery, where a grave­stone was un­veiled for the late Nokutela Mdima Dube (1873-1917), her fa­ther’s first wife and the woman who built in equal part­ner­ship with him, ev­ery­thing that is known to­day as the Dube legacy: the Oh­lange school (1900), the Ilanga news­pa­per (1903) and to a cer­tain ex­tent, the African Na­tional Congress (1912). This woman, who had been ex­cluded from his­tory for 95 years be­cause she had not been able to give a child to John Dube, was posthu­mously wel­comed back into the Dube fam­ily by Aun­tie Lulu and all the de­scen­dants of John Dube.

May the soul of Lulu Dube rest in peace among the brave fore­fa­thers and fore­moth­ers of the revo­lu­tion, whose legacy she kept alive and pro­tected for pos­ter­ity through her tire­less phi­lan­thropy and her wise lead­er­ship in the Inanda com­mu­nity.


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