Carleton professor of French and Francophone Studies, Cherif Keita, recently screened two of his documentary films dealing with figures involved in the South African anti-Apartheid movement, “Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa and Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube”.
Keita has a third film coming out entitled Ukukhumbula uNokutela or Remembering Nokutela. All three films explore the lives of individuals who made significant contributions to South Africa’s eventual independence but whose legacies were forgotten over time.
In his first film, Oberlin-Inanda, Keita described the inspirations of John Langalibalele Dube(1871-1946), the co-founder and first president of the African National Congress of South Africa.
The origins for the film trace back to 1999, when Keita led an off-campus study program to South Africa for a group of St. Olaf students. It was there he discovered the history of South Africa and understood better what Apartheid had done to the African people. He traced the roots of the anti-Apartheid movement and learned about John L. Dube’s role in championing social equality for the African people. Keita felt ashamed about his lack of knowledge and thus continued to learn about Dube.
From communicating with Nelson Mandela, Keita learned that John Dube’s history was not as prominent as it should have been and was inspired to make a film about his life. “Very few people knew about John Dube’s story,” said Keita.
However, the lack of research done on Dube discouraged him. That was when fate stepped in. One night Keita was reading a book by Mark Wilcox, the son of the man who mentored the young Dube. The book, Proud Endeavorer, was about the life of William Wilcox and his mission to South Africa.
One line in the book read: “My parents were married in my mother’s hometown of Northfield, Minnesota.” It was then that a connection appeared between the world of Dube and the world of Keita.
This spurred Keita into further research, much of which took place in Northfield. Keita found letters from Ida Belle Wilcox, the wife of William Wilcox and another mentor of John Dube, printed in the Rice County Journal. Keita voraciously researched into the lives of Dube as well as his missionary mentors, the Wilcoxes.
Keita felt a strong moral obligation to undertake this work, not just because he was being endorsed by the president of Carleton as well as the president of South Africa, but also because the story was important in revitalizing the legacy of three pivotal activists in South Africa. Just as John Dube’s story was overlooked in South Africa, the Wilcoxes’ story was overlooked as well.
Their support enabled John Dube to become the visionary leader that he was, however, according to Keita: “They had just been a footnote in the whole story of freedom in South Africa. It was an injustice. People of all races defeated Apartheid. The story is not just a black story, but also a white story.”
Keita wants film-watchers to think differently about the role of missionaries in the colonial world. Missionaries are usually seen in a negative light because of their contributions to the brutal legacy of Colonialism. However, Keita’s film shows a different side of missionaries.
The Wilcoxes were non-conformists in that they radically supported racial equality in South Africa. While they were at odds with many other missionaries, their commitment social justice continued up until their deaths.
Keita’s film-making took over ten years, but not without reward. He received awards at various film festivals and formal gratitude from the South African government. Keita’s goal to make Dube’s story renowned throughout South Africa was eventually accomplished. The South African government, prompted by Keita’s film, officially recognized Dube’s role in the South African liberation and awarded him posthumously the Albert
Luthuli Award Gold on April 27, 2005, the highest honor given in South Africa.
In the film Cemetery Stories Keita stresses the role of a higher power in guiding him, from his first discovery of John Dube’s world to his whole process of research. “I could not have created this situation no matter how clever I am. I believe that I have to be humble. I am just an instrument to tell this story,” said Keita.
In the future, he hopes to write a book about the world of John Dube and its “mysterious” connections to his own. “A film of less than an hour cannot capture everything,” he stated.
Keita encourages other individuals, especially youth, to stay true to their passions. His film-making journey was not untroubled. Keita felt discouraged at times because of comments by others, but persevered to undertake his passion. “I want young people to understand that they can turn their dreams into reality,” exclaimed Keita.
Keita’s two films can be checked out on DVD at the Gould Library. The trailer for his upcoming film is available on YouTube. Future screenings of Cemetery Stories will be at Macalester College (March 3) and NYU (March 14).