Mda turns untold history into brilliant novel

Renowned author Zakes Mda during an interview about his latest novel, The Zulu of New York. Insert, book cover/ Masi Losi
Renowned author Zakes Mda during an interview about his latest novel, The Zulu of New York. Insert, book cover/ Masi Losi

Book: The Zulus of the New York

Writer: Zakes Mda

Publisher: Umuzi

Reviewer: S'thembiso Msomi

I have always been curious about the origins of this peculiar obsession with things Zulu in English popular culture as well as in some US movies.

You'd be listening to your folks' old Frank Sinatra LPs and up comes the song Don't Bring Lulu with lyrics that go: "She's the kind of smartie who breaks up every party/ Hullabaloo loo, don't bring Lulu/ I'll bring her myself/ We all went to the party, real hi-toned affair/ Then along came Lulu, wild as any Zulu."

Or you are watching that 2012 mega advert for US imperialism that was Ben Afleck's Argo when one of the characters suddenly goes: "But Warren confided in me that picture's gone over budget because the Zulu extras wanna unionise. They may be cannibals, but they want health and dental."

There are numerous other examples - ranging from a hip-hop group calling itself Afrika Bambaata & The Universal Zulu Nation to a contentious annual parade down the streets of New Orleans organised by the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.

Contentious not because none of this Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club can pronounce Nkandla or do the indlamu like our former president, but because its members - including white ones - blacken their faces with polish during parades. But that is a story for another day.

Part of the reason for this obsession with Zuluness abroad - especially the characterisation of the Zulu as a savage warrior nation - can be traced back to the late 1800s.

This is when Isilo Cetshwayo kaMpande sent shock waves through imperialist countries when his Zulu army defeated the British forces at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879. Although shortlived, this victory made the Zulus famous, especially around the English-speaking world at the time.

It did not take long before some Westerners began to cash in on this Zulu "fame" by importing Zulu men, or anyone who could pass for one, as performers in what were essentially human zoos.

One such "entrepreneur" was William Leonard Hunt, also known as Guillermo Farini or The Great Farini, a Canadian entertainment promoter who had sailed to Cape Town to recruit his would-be Zulu performers.

Novelist Zakes Mda's latest superb work of historical fiction, The Zulus of New York, is set around this period. It is a story of Mpiyezintombi Mkhize who was destined to play an important role in Cetshwayo's kingdom before being forced to flee because of his forbidden affair with one of the young women looking after the king's palace.

His fleeing first takes him to Cape Town, where he is recruited into the Great Farini's troupe, and then to London and finally New York where he and other "Zulus" perform as "human curiosities" for western audiences.

It is in New York where Mpiyezintombi - now known as Em-Pee - performs in popular venues such as Madison Square Garden where he meets and falls in love with a caged Dinka woman named Acol, from what is now known as South Sudan.

Although Mpiyezintombi and Acol are fictitious characters, their harrowing stories give us a glimpse of the horrors visited upon Africans who were uprooted from their native countries - long after the slave trade had been abolished - to be displayed in what were essentially human zoos established mainly to reinforce the racist stereotype of Africans and other people from the southern hemisphere as sub-human savages.

But if Mda's book exposes any barbarism, it is that of a culture that found it okay to cage a young woman and have her displayed in a park as if she were some exotic bird caught in the wild.

However, if you think that the only Zulus, and Africans in general, who were in New York during this period were those who were performers for men like the Great Farini, you would be mistaken.

In the novel, Mda also introduces readers to real historical figures such as John Langalibalele Dube who were in New York to further their studies before returning to SA where they hoped to use their Western education to uplift their people. Dube went on to become the founding president of the ANC.

In one of the interviews Mda has done to promote his new book, he says his intention is to "teach my people about their past...

"I try to make history relatable," he told Michelle Galloway of The Journalist. "The historical record states but fiction demonstrates. History tells us what happened while historical fiction demonstrates what it was like to be in what happened... We can only sympathise with those whose story we know."

In The Zulus of New York, Mda skillfully demonstrates for us the traumatic experience of Africans forced to become part of "freak shows". He also helps us understand why to some in the West, the image of "the ferocious Zulu, the savage warrior" stubbornly refuses to die.

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