There are many untold stories of women in history, who have shaped discourse and made contributions that are felt to this day. One of those women is Nokutela Mdima-Dube, a visionary, author, musician and scholar.
Her story is being highlighted and brought to life in a Legacy Creates project titled Amagama kaNokutela, a collaboration with magazine editor, stylist and creative director Asanda Sizani; photographer Thalente Khomo; several writers, including poet Siphokazi Jonas; and actress Nokuthula Mavuso as Nokutela.
Nokutela, whose work was first published in the US when she was 10 years old, was a qualified teacher who founded Ohlange High School in Inanda. She was an established individual before marrying the ANC’s founding president, Rev John Langalibalele Dube, in 1894.
She continued her selfless life of service even after leaving her marriage in 1914. She passed away at 44, due to a kidney infection in 1917.
Insider spoke to Sizani about the photo series and the life of Nokutela.
What I find intriguing about this project is how only a few people knew about Nokutela Mdima-Dube. How long was the process of telling her story, in full?
I first discovered the name “Nokutela Mdima” in 2016, but it was only this year that I found, and now own, a copy of her 1911 songbook, Amagama Abantu, A Zulu Songbook. This led me to a decision to relook at the information I had on her, dig even deeper, then consolidate my research with the aim of creating a body of creative work which seeks to educate, archive and present the findings publicly.
Over three months I approached and collaborated with a few brilliant scholars and storytellers in producing a photo series, an upcoming short film, a mini-documentary, a 96-page print publication, music and an art series. There are many unanswered questions, therefore the process of telling the full Nokutela story is not complete. This, however, is a very strong and necessary start, as previously no biography or consolidated research existed.
How was the project conceived?
It was impressed upon me that something needs to be done to shine a light on Nokutela’s fascinating life and legacy. We need to document her life, create new material and remember her.
The project was also conceived from the frustration of constantly being directed from pillar to post when, out of sheer curiosity, I initially wanted to find and read her original interviews, essays, music, artefacts and work. I had studied and worked in media publishing for many years, yet she was never part of the curriculum and never introduced as a key literary figure, despite the fact that Nokutela was an essayist and the co-founder of Ilanga LaseNatal.
I reached out to Professor Chérif Keïta who found Nokutela's unmarked grave in 2011 and found Nokutela's living descendants who had not known of her previously. I then approached four women in the arts – Florence Masebe, Siphokazi Jonas, Masasa Mbangeni and Busi Sizani – to collaborate on this long-term vision of honouring Nokutela's life and legacy through multiple forms of storytelling.
Was there something about her story that surprised you as you were busy with the research?
Researching Nokutela became spiritual work. I don't think I was aware of just how profoundly she would affect me. I was moved to tears when I first opened the pages of her songbook. I was again overcome with emotion when I visited certain rooms at Ohlange High School for the first time, which became one of our shoot locations. Her presence is palpable, and she had a profound effect on every aspect of this journey thus far.
I was surprised by the discovery of valuable, rare material I had never seen before, such as a 1910 manifest where we see Nokutela on a passenger list of a boat arriving in New York. I was surprised to see her marriage certificate from 1894, revealing that she was married by JJ Jabavu in a Wesleyan chapel in Pietermaritzburg, and not, in fact, at an Inanda Church like some of the articles I had read years ago.
Is this the start of something you will do annually – retelling the stories of African women who were exemplary and yet not fully celebrated?
Absolutely. Our passion is Black women's stories and legacies. Nokutela is only one of many hidden figures whose erasure is very deliberate. I say that because of some experiences our team encountered during the production of this first phase of Amagama ka Nokutela. Our vision is to tell more stories, but currently, Amagama ka Nokutela is the long-term, multipronged project we are focusing on. Our short film and documentary will be released in January. Nokutela passed on January, 25, 1917.
Why did you choose Nokuthula Mavuso involved in re-enacting/embodying Nokutela? What was it about them that made them perfect for the project?
"Nokuthula as Nokutela" has a nice ring to it. She is an incredible performer who isn't afraid to strip herself bare. I credit Masasa Mbangeni for specifically casting Nokuthula and bringing her on board. She agreed without any hesitation. Her resemblance to Nokutela is uncanny. Nokuthula had also tweeted in 2017 about her wish to one day play Nokutela Mdima. In addition to this, I discovered that the lyrics to one of Nokutela Mdima's 31 compositions has a line which states: "Baze bahlale benokuthula." This affirming, parting message, published in 1911, gave me chills. Nokuthula was in Nokutela's lyrics long before we came.
This article first appeared in Sunday Insider, Dec 19, 2021