A Zulu Woman’s Encounter with the American Press: Nokutela Dube in New York
By Chérif Keita,
“They are very busy—always engaged—but they do not work as my Zulu women do. They must be taken care of too well or they will complain. They hurt their bodies with their clothes, and they will not bother with children. They are no use in the house kraal and they have too many clothes. American women are always busy--every day, they go shopping, and always for something to wear. Never do they wear anything until it is gone. That is not better than my savage people who wear none. I do not wish the Zulus to become like that. It would make many unhappy kraals.”
After Nokutela puts forth such an insightful criticism of American society, one can easily imagine the demeanor of the gentlemen reporters gathered around her. They finally begin to take this “uncivilized woman” seriously. Calmly, she goes on to tell them the real reason behind her presence in America: her great desire, which she shares with her husband, John Langalibalele Dube, to educate their people and equip them with the knowledge of science and the industrial arts:
“I will tell you why we are here…. We do not want to teach them all your civilization, only enough to better their condition, not to make them unnatural or unhappy. The Zulus are not dull. They are intelligent, but they do not know how to do things for themselves. They think it is only white men who can make houses and cities. The women attend to the business and they do all the labor. They dig the ground and plant the crops, build the huts for storing them, and do all the heavy work.”
Had Nokutela been more inclined to speak about herself, she would have told her listeners about the leadership she and her husband John had already shown in the education and uplifting of the black races in South Africa, even before coming to New York to further their own studies. In fact, in 1894, the couple, as newlyweds, had undertaken to build a school and a church on the hilltop of a small village called Incwadi, Natal, making them the first black people to build a school in South Africa. She would have said how hard she and her husband worked to raise funds in America between 1896 and 1899, to expand their pioneering educational project, by crisscrossing the East coast of the United States, lecturing and singing the click songs that were so mesmerizing for American audiences.
By the end of this one encounter among many Nokutela had with the American press during her 3-year stay in the United States, it became clear that she had convincingly dispelled the myth of the ferocious and savage Zulu, because, in an article that was reprinted over and over, from New York to Los Angeles(The LA Times), on January 13, 1899, the reporter came to the following conclusion about her:
“Nokutela is young with blazing black eyes, smooth brown skin and handsome regular features. She speaks English with a deliberation that is charming and in the softest voice in the world. HER MANNER IS GRACE ITSELF.”
 This elementary school, which exists to this day in the small rural community of Incwadi, near Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, deserves to be celebrated today in South Africa as a Heritage site because of its historic importance.
 “Her manner is grace itself.” These are the words inscribed on the headstone that now identifies the newly discovered anonymous and nameless grave of Mama Nokutela Mdima Dube(1873-1917) at the Brixton Cemetery in Johannesburg. How ironical that the woman who was a pioneer in giving a positive image of her people overseas remained unknown to the nation of South Africa until we found her grave in 2011 and made a documentary film about her, titled “uKukhumbula uNokutela/Remembering Nokutela”(2013, distributed by Medialabafrica.com). Among Nokutela and John’s legacy are the historic Ohlange Institute(now High School) built in 1900 after their return from the United States, where Nelson Mandela voted in 1994, saying that “this is where everything started”; the newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal, the first English-Zulu newspaper, started in 1903 on the grounds of their school; and finally the South African Native National Congress(precursor of the ANC), of which John L. Dube was the first President-General, from 1912 to 1917.
A Zulu Sun in the Heart of America:
John Langalibalele Dube
by Cherif Keita