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Carleton French Professor debuts documentary

<rthfield Premiere of "Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa," a film written and directed by Cherif Keita, Carleton Professor of French, premiered on Wednesday, April 29th in Olin 149.

Keita, a native of Mali, started to work on the movie on an off-campus program to South Africa, when he began to learn about John Dube, the founder and president of the African National Congress. “Cemetery Stories” is a continuation of Keita’s first movie which is on John Dube’s family, the Zulu tribe of Inanda and won high honors at a prominent African Film Festival.

The story started with the influence of William Cullen Wilcox, a protestant missionary in South Africa, and his work and influence among the Zulu tribe of Inanda. Wilcox ran a school and a church in Inanda and helped the people of the Zulu tribe to get an education and to be able to work independently. By selling them land that they could not buy because of the discriminatory laws of South Africa, Wilcox contributed much to their independence and to their struggle for rights. Yet because of his outspoken support of the rights of the native people in South Africa, Wilcox was plotted against, made bankrupt and forced to go back to America at the age of sixty-eight. He and his wife died poor and unknown in California with no one knowing the importance of his life’s work.

As Keita discovered, Wilcox’s life had a profound effect on the life of Dube, who was one of the prominent figures in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. Dube and Wilcox formed a close friendship and Dube came with Wilcox to America and studied at Oberlin College. Dube’s wife was a student of Wilcox’s wife, Ida Belle when she taught at a seminary. Keita tried to connect both the families by finding the descendents of William Wilcox, his 89 year old grandson, his daughter and son in law and traveling with them to Inanda.

While connecting the two families gave Keita immense happiness, he was unable to figure out why he was the person involved in reconnecting these two families. The answer to his question came one day while he was sitting in his home in Northfield reading the diary of Ida Belle Wilcox. He discovered that Ida Belle’s parents were married in Northfield, and on doing further research Keita found that their graves were right behind his house. This amazing coincidence made Keita believe that he had been “chosen” for this quest by the two “unappeased” souls in Northfield.

At the end of the movie, Keita said, “This has been a very spiritual journey for me, and while I have been unable to portray that in the documentary, I would like to write about it.” Keita also said that while religions may be different, “we should learn from any of them how to become closer to the spiritual aspect of life.”

Keita remarked that the journey “had him going thousands of miles without any connection to John Dube or William Wilcox,” but then he found out that it had “roots right in my backyard.”

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