A Malian proverb says that in life, “no intermediary(connection) is too small.” This is the reason why in Mali, and maybe across Africa in general, interpersonal relations are sacred, because they are the very building blocks of personhood, mògòya (ubuntu, in Southern Africa). Indeed, if it is true that we are born “human beings,” we can only become a person (mògò) through other persons. And when we finally depart from this world in dignity, it is only thanks to the love and care of other persons, of a community.
In my more than two decades of research about South African history, I thought I had encountered and uncovered the strangest kinds of connections between distant people, and between those distant people and myself and the place where I live. The stories I tell in my trilogy of films about the intellectuals who led in the early stages of the struggle for democracy in South Africa are a testament to that. Yet, in fact, a big surprise was still in store for me.
A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine, a Nelson Mandela Foundation senior researcher contacted me with a question about a few entries in Madiba’s travel journal of 1962. The notes said that when Madiba arrived in Bamako sometime in April of that year—as an important stop in his journey across Africa in search for support from progressive African governments—he was introduced to a senior official of the Mali’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a man by the name of Lamine Keïta, who listened to his story and introduced him to President Modibo Keita(no relation). The rest became history: on behalf of his new nation, Modibo Keita pledged to help the struggle of the people of South Africa as long as he was in power. This generous help never failed, even under subsequent governments. For this help, Modibo Keita was given posthumously the Companions of OR Tambo Award in 2006 by the democratic government of South Africa.
The researcher in question wondered if by any chance I knew Lamine Keita and if he was possibly a relative of mine. To my greatest surprise, after digging around, I discovered that he was indeed an “adoptive cousin” to my father, from the village of Djoliba, where I spent my early childhood. I had known about this important civil servant when I was a very small boy but did not know anything about the position he held in the government of Modibo Keita. He passed away a long time ago, when I was no longer in Mali. Thus, through this long-shot question from the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, I discovered suddenly an unlikely connection between my childhood village of Djoliba (the native village of world-renowned singer Salif Keita) and the first journey across Africa of a man from the village of Qunu, who was destined to greatness through his leadership in a long and uphill liberation struggle.
“Sababu mandògò,” we say in Bambara, “no connection is too small in this life.”
The story of my own connection to Madiba started in 1999, after I visited South Africa for the first time, along with Professor Jamie Monson, as the co-director of a joint Saint Olaf and Carleton College month-long study tour with 17 students around the theme, “Poetry, Performance and the Politics of Identity in South Africa.” During this trip across the country, I discovered for the first time the figure of John Langalibalele Dube (1871-1946), the hero hidden behind the commonly known heroes of South African liberation history. I was deeply intrigued by his story as the co-founder, first President of the ANC and as the pioneering educationist who was inspired by African-American leader Booker T. Washington to build in 1900, in partnership with his first wife Nokutela, the Ohlange Institute—the trailblazing industrial school where Madiba chose to vote for the first time in 1994. Moreover, there was my fascination with an African intellectual who had preceded me and many generations of Africans in studying in the US. I had decided to educate myself about this little-known man and to document in film my journey to trace his footsteps on this side of the Atlantic.
To me, the most obvious place to start was with Madiba, who, as a candidate in the historic elections, had made such a public expression of gratitude to Dube by going to his gravesite on April 27, 1994 to say: “Mr. President, I have come to report to you that South Africa is today free.” Through my connection with the Johannesburg-based correspondent of a major foreign media outlet, I wrote to Madiba asking him for a filmed interview about Dube. He agreed in principle but asked to be sent the questions first, which I quickly did. To my greatest disappointment, after examining my questions, he replied very candidly that he himself knew little to almost nothing about Dube and that he would have to do research in order to answer my questions. He sent along his best wishes on the project. Although I regretted missing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet with Madiba, I saw in his answer both an honor and an enormous personal challenge: to roll up my sleeves, go down into the trenches and find out answers that even he and his generation of leaders were lacking about the origins of the long road to Freedom for the people of South Africa.
Unbeknownst to Madiba and to myself, the following 15 years would see me embarked on what many people in South Africa now see as more than ordinary academic research, a real case of ancestral possession. Indeed, I was soon to discover that in 1887, then 16-year old John Langalibalele Dube was brought from South Africa to the US for education by Reverend William Cullen Wilcox and his wife Ida Belle Wilcox—white missionaries with roots in my hometown of Northfield, Minnesota. In 2007, the story took an even stranger turn when I stumbled on its connection to some old graves in a cemetery behind my house, thus leading to my unearthing of another forgotten pioneer of the South African liberation movement, Nokutela Mdima Dube (1873-1917), the first wife of Reverend John Langalibalele Dube. I subsequently identified her unmarked grave in Johannesburg in 2011 and successfully campaigned not only to erect a headstone on her grave at the Brixton Cemetery, but also to have her honored officially by the government with the Order of the Baobab in Gold in 2017, 100 years after her death.
In 2005, after I completed my first documentary film, “Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube,” I was invited to present it at the Durban International Film Festival. Because of the references I had made therein to Mohandas Gandhi, the neighbor of John L. Dube in Inanda, the film was noticed by His Excellency Mr. Ajay Sawrup, the then Consul-General of India in Durban, who reached out to me with the kind request that a private screening be held at the residence of the ailing Professor Fatima Meer, an important member of the Durban Indian community and a close friend and biographer of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. After viewing my film, Professor Meer asked for a copy that she would instruct her nephew, who served as Mr. Mandela’s lawyer, to hand-deliver to him.
In 2011, I received an invitation to screen my second film, “Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa”(2009) at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory. The research division suggested that the screening take place with Madiba in attendance at his residence across the street. That idea was not supported by the people in charge of his day-to-day affairs given his advanced age. However, they asked that a copy of the film be made for him to watch at his leisure. Although I had once again missed my chance to meet and greet Madiba, I was happy on the day of the event hosted by the late Ahmed Kathrada, his struggle companion, to be just a few feet away from him, physically and in spirit.