Zakes Mda’s tale of Africans paraded as freaks in Europe, US

“This is a story about dignity. Maintaining your dignity or even acquiring dignity despite dehumanisation,” says celebrated novelist, poet and playwright Zakes Mda on his latest novel, The Zulus of New York.

Mda says this piece of work forms part of his broader mission to repatriate African history, the arts and stories, by bringing these narratives back home.

The novelist took story-telling back in time where a group of Zulus travelled first in Europe and then New York around the 1880s, to perform as “human curiosities” or “freak shows”.

This was around the time when the Zulu nation’s fame and popularity was on the rise after their victory over the British at the Battle of Isandlwana (1879).

Mda writes this novel in an effort to give those who were involved identities, inject life into their stories and humanise them.

“This is a work of fiction that is based on historical facts. It looks at a phenomenon that was happening in Europe and New York. This group of Zulus were sent to Europe and then later to America, where they would form part of the ‘human curiosities’ shows. In short, these were freak shows, where they would be displayed either in cages or would perform their dances and so, “ explains Mda.

The group was recruited by William Leonard Hunt, who was also known as The Great Farini.

To give them identities, Mda follows closely the life of one of King Cetshwayo’s best warriors, tracing his lineage as far back as Ondini in KwaZulu-Natal. 

This man had to escape from his place of service, where he was known to have ritually bathed King Cetshwayo in his sacred Inkatha hut, because of the crimes that he committed.

109205870 - Zakes Mda’s tale of Africans paraded as freaks in Europe, US
Nhlanhla Phillips African News Agency (ANA)ovelist, poet and playwright Zanemvula ‘Zakes’ Mda launched his latest book ‘Zulus of New York’ this week. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips African News Agency (ANA)

“He goes to Cape Town where he is recruited by The Great Farini and forms part of that performing troop. We follow this fictional character from London to New York, where he becomes a street performer in many instances, and then he meets his love interests.”

In that way, Mda gives him and the rest of the Zulus in New York identities because of the dehumanisation that took place during those times. His aim is to restore who they were in history, because without identity, you cannot learn of them as they were.

“They were rendered less than human. Therefore, they didn’t have any identities. Mine is to recreate them and show that they were human beings who had lives before being dehumanised, and perhaps, continued to have lives thereafter.

“Without identities, you just hear of them as a group of Zulus or a group of ‘savages’ that just danced, but we have no idea of who they were individually, what their feelings were, what they wanted in life, who they loved or didn’t. The only way was to investigate what their identities were, and then recreate them.”

Mda was captured by this compelling story because of how the Zulus were uprooted from their homes, taken to foreign grounds, dehumanised and demeaned, and how they had to try very hard to maintain their dignity, despite all these challenges.

“Issues of dehumanisation continue, even today, and questions of dignity are important questions even today.

“That is why the word itself appears in our Constitution. So, though it is historical fiction, and the events I wrote about were in the past, but any good historical fiction is about the present. That is what needs to resonate with the reader, that it actually comments about their lives today.”

And what is the message of the story? He says he leaves each reader to investigate and find their own individual message through the pages of his novel.

“One thing about us writers is that we do not write messages, we tell stories. I’m a story-teller, I’m a novelist and not a sender of messages. I tell a story I want to tell, the reader will read and whatever lesson/message they get will be dependent on their experience.

“Each reader comes into contact with any text, bringing his/her own biography and baggage. That is why your interpretation of my book will be different from the next person’s. Whatever you call the message, comes from interpretation. 

"I am telling this story in a novel instead of any other form because a novel is entertainment. I am an entertainer, I must entertain from that story.”

"The Zulus of New York" was launched on Wednesday at the University of Johannesburg.


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