There was a time – in the late 1800s – that Zulus, fake or real, were all the rage in New York, says one of the nation’s best-loved novelists, Zakes Mda, who recently revealed the cover art for his new work of historical fiction, The Zulus of New York, due out in February next year.
“A friend of mine, a professor of African studies at Howard University in Washington, Bob Edgar, wrote a paper many years ago about the Zulus in New York in the 1800s,” said Mda of his inspiration for the new book.
“A lot of them were there soon after the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 when King Cetshwayo and the Zulus became very famous because the ferocious savages had defeated the might of the British Empire. So everyone wanted to see these ferocious Zulus.”
One of the main purveyors of exploitative human zoos, or circuses of human curiosities in which people like Sarah Baartman were displayed, was Farini, or The Great Farini as he liked to be called, who travelled to Cape Town after the battle to find Africans “who could pass for Zulus to go to London to dance and display their ferociousness”.
This is where Farini meets Mpi, a character created by Mda.
“Mpi was in trouble over women who belonged to Cetshwayo, so he escaped to Cape Town and meets Farini and goes to London where he performs with other supposed Zulus and they became a very popular act and PT Barnum then imported that troupe to New York City. They were hugely popular and were performing in very big venues like Madison Square Garden.”
It is there that Mpi meets and falls in love with a Sudanese woman in a cage. It wouldn’t be a Mda novel without a love story.
“I have other Zulus as well, in New York,” said Mda. “Except some are actually from New Orleans. New York in those days was full of Zulus, many of them fake, some even white people who painted themselves brown. And then there were others still, such as John Dube, who was there at the same time.”
John Langalibalele Dube was a South African essayist, philosopher, educator, politician, publisher, editor, novelist and poet.
He was also the founding president of the SA Native National Congress, which became the African National Congress in 1923. Dube was taken to the US by missionaries and attended Oberlin College.
“My characters end up meeting with him,” said Mda.
“Among the real Zulus in New York were those recruited by Dube to come and study there. In New York there was much debate on development in South Africa and especially what is today KwaZulu-Natal, so I am also looking at that and not just at exploitation.
“People were trying to survive in a hostile environment, from whites, but also from the African-American world which saw the Zulus as inferior jungle bunnies from Africa.”
Asked how true to history his novel is, Mda replied: “Unlike my other fiction, my historical fiction is always based on real events. The characters must do what they did in history.”