Last year, King Mswati III, the absolute monarch who governs former Swaziland, announced that the country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique would change its name. To mark 50 years of independence from Britain, the small country (it is the size of New Jersey) would now be known as the Kingdom of eSwatini.
Betty Dlamini, a senior lecturer in the African Studies program at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, was born in Swaziland. She says that even today she sometimes wonders how it is that she, a Swazi girl, gained her own independence and wound up in Indiana. In truth, she learned the answer long ago.
“I am here because of Ruth, an extraordinary woman,” Dlamini explains. “Even living at a time when women were supposed to obey their fathers, she was assertive and could see a way forward when no one else could.”
Ruth was Dlamini’s maternal grandmother. Born in Swaziland in 190?, she had never been taught how to read or write. And yet Ruth knew how to compose her own future. When her father chose a husband for her whom she did not love, Ruth ran away from home with a friend and took refuge in a mission school. She eventually married a husband she herself had chosen, and her children passed on her lesson to their children: “There are no limits.”
Dlamini, who teaches courses in the IsiZulu language and African culture at HLS, has another influential woman in her family history, Labotsibeni Mdluli, the Queen Mother and Queen Regent of Swaziland at the turn of the 20th century. Known as Gwamile, she played an influential role in her country’s political and literary history as well as in the formative years of the African National Congress.
For Dlamini, Gwamile is especially important because she recognized that an English education would be necessary if her grandson, the future king, was to negotiate his country’s future with British imperialists. So, Gwamile sent her grandson to Lovedale, a college in South Africa run by the United Free Church of Scotland. And although an education for women was out of the question at the time, Dlamini proudly quotes Gwamile telling her granddaughters, “You will go too. You will wash and iron your brother’s clothes. But as he studies, you look at his books too.”
One way Dlamini expresses the influence of these powerful women is through her popular course in gumboot dance, which she has taught every spring since her arrival in Bloomington in 2008.
The gumboot dance is named after the tall rubber rain boots that African men wore as they labored in the frequently flooded gold mines in South Africa at the height of the industry in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Under the rigid economic and legal restrictions of apartheid, Southern African men from many cultures and regions had little choice but to work in the mines, under appalling conditions and for very little pay.
To communicate with each other in the dark caverns deep underground and to lighten the crushing work, the shackled miners composed chants. At night, they drew from their many traditions to create a line dance that is one of the predecessors of stepping, the African-American dance form popularized in movies like School Daze and Stomp the Yard.
Only men originally performed gumboot dances, but as a girl, Dlamini always wanted to learn them. So, following the example of the path-breaking women in her family, Dlamini was one of two girls to take part when gumboot dancing was offered as an extracurricular activity at her boarding school.
Her training meant that she was able to broaden and deepen the focus of a gumboot dance club that an IU graduate student had begun offering before Dlamini came to IU. Although gumboot dances are now performed around the world, IU was the first university to offer a scholarly course in the dance’s cultural and historical background.
Dlamini calls her course Gumboot Dance: Beauty From Pain. She challenges students to move beyond stereotypes of a single Africa to learn about the many ethnic groups who mingled in the mines and who created a dance that reflected both their original and new identities.
“I feel that the hybrid nature of the dance reflects my own life. Any person who has moved away from home can tell you that you carry what you already are with you, as well as tapping into other cultures,” Dlamini explains.
The course, which is limited to 60 students, also stimulates interest in the study of African languages such as IsiZulu, which Dlamini teaches. In addition to studying the language with her at HLS, undergraduates can study IsiZulu for a summer in South Africa. Graduate students in other fields also study IsiZulu in order to conduct their research.
Dlamini, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in England after completing her undergraduate studies in Swaziland and South Africa, continues to conduct her own scholarly research, as well as to write novels and poetry in Siswati, her birth language, which is close to the IsiZulu.
She is currently writing a book on the changing position of Swazi women in postcolonial culture, which she hopes to finish in two years. One of her aims is to correct scholarly mistakes that have arisen from literal misunderstandings of the languages of African sources. Such mistranslations only strengthen Dlamini’s belief in the importance of language study, one of the founding principles of HLS.
At the same time that she teaches students how to literally understand unfamiliar African languages and cultures, Dlamini also wants to teach them to “stop thinking about us and them,” so they can embrace the common ties that unite cultures and countries, another mission of HLS.
Earlier this spring, the students in Dlamini’s gumboot dance course performed in the Hamilton Lugar School Shreve Auditorium. In addition to offering IsiZulu language classes, the African Studies program offers classes in Akan, Bamana, Swahili, Wolof, and Yoruba. Students can also earn minors and certificates in African culture through the program.