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Spring 2011 (May 6, 2011)

Uncommon Ties

By Tricia Cornell '95

While Carleton professor Chérif Keïta was doing historical research, he discovered a connection between a Northfield family and the South African struggle for independence and democracy—and later produced two documentaries to tell the world about his surprising find.

Late one night in 2000, Chérif Keïta, Carleton professor of French and Francophone literature, was at home, reading about two late-19th-century missionaries whose story has consumed him for the better part of a decade. He came to a sentence that read, as he remembers it, “They were married in her hometown of Northfield, Minnesota.”

Cherif Keita“I put that book down right away!” he recalls. “I put it down and said no, there must be some naughty spirit trying to trick me! And then I thought, I will pick it up again and read that paragraph very slowly. And if it still says that she is from Northfield, only then will I believe it.”

And sure enough, Ida Belle Wilcox, who along with her husband, William, had played a quiet but pivotal role in the African struggle for independence, was a native of Keïta’s own adopted hometown of Northfield. It was yet another thread connecting Keita to a story that at first glance had seemed so distant from his own. Researching that story has taken him across two continents, and sharing that story—in two, and soon to be three, documentary films—has taken him to film festivals around the world.

Keïta, a native of Mali, began looking into the Wilcoxes’ story after leading a group of students to South Africa in 1999. There, he learned that John Dube, the first president of what is now the African National Congress, had studied at Oberlin College in Ohio. Intrigued that one of the key figures in the early movement for freedom in Africa had ties to the United States, Keïta began retracing the steps of Dube’s life.

Dube came to the United States to study at age 16 in 1887, under the care of William and Ida Belle Wilcox, freethinking missionaries who had been his teachers in the colony of Natal (now part of South Africa). He chose not to enroll at the trade school for African Americans the Wilcoxes suggested. Instead, remembering his mother’s insistence that he should go to America to get the same education as white children, Dube chose Oberlin, the Wilcoxes’ alma mater. He later returned to his hometown, Inanda, to found the Ohlange Institute, the country’s first industrial education school founded by a native African. When Nelson Mandela voted for the first time, in 1994, he chose to do it at Ohlange in honor of Dube and his legacy.

“I have no training in South African history,” says Keïta. “I am a Muslim from West Africa telling the story of Christian missionaries in South Africa. For me to be telling this story is an amazing thing. But the story, in fact, found me.”

What’s even more unlikely than Keïta’s immersion in the lives of the Dubes and the Wilcoxes is how he chose to document them. With no experience in filmmaking, Keïta nevertheless knew that this story had to be told on film to reach a much larger potential audience than a book was likely to reach. As director, producer, and chief cinematographer, he completed the first movie, Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube (edited by Aleshia Mueller ’01), in 2005. Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa (edited by Dominic Fucci, formerly an artist-in-residence at Northfield School of Arts and Technology), completed in 2009, focuses on the Wilcoxes.

The films have been screened at U.S. college campuses and at film festivals in the United States, France, Brazil, and South Africa. Together, they capped off the 2010 Cinema Africa festival in Tokyo, marking the centennial of Japan’s official relations with South Africa. Keïta’s documentaries have brought international attention to Dube and the Wilcoxes, who were once little-known historical figures. In 2009 the president of the Republic of South Africa bestowed on the missionaries the Order of the Companions of Oliver R. Tambo, the highest award given to foreign nationals who have helped the people of South Africa in their struggle for multiracial democracy.

While he was doing research and filming, Keïta also orchestrated some touching reunions. William and Ida Belle’s grandson Jackson Wilcox, a retired pastor in his late 80s, traveled to South Africa with Keïta to meet Dube’s great-grandchildren. Later, Jackson Wilcox and his family had tea in Nutting House, where his grandparents had frequently stayed and where Ida Belle had once given a talk to the ladies of Northfield about her missionary work in Africa.

This story, spanning centuries and continents, hasn’t loosened its grip on Keïta yet. He plans to complete his trilogy sometime in 2012 with a film about John Dube’s wife, Nukutela, a talented musician, seamstress, and educator.

“I know the rational reason why I am in Northfield is to teach,” says Keïta. “But the transcendental reason is, as an African, I can be a bridge to link not only 19th-century Northfield and South Africa, but also to link South Africa’s liberation history and the United States and to connect the families of those pioneers.”

Cemetery Stories and Oberlin-Inanda are being prepared for release as a package. Inquiries: ckeita@carleton.edu

And that first late-night discovery? The story gets better—and, as anyone who has taken a class with the animated Keïta knows, it always gets better. He didn’t know it at the time, but Ida Belle Wilcox’s mother and father are buried in the cemetery behind his house, just a few hundred feet from where he was reading. “There were spirits in that book,” he says with a smile. “But they were not naughty.”

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