Over the course of the spring and summer, when the Covid-19 pandemic had separated people from their normal social circles and political turmoil had increased instances of hostility and unease, Senior Lecturer Betty Dlamini started writing and recording music in order to bring out, she hoped, the best in others.
“What is my part in all of this? I decided what I will share is love,” she explains.
She was considering what her students needed to hear and what lessons she could impart to them. What, she thought, could she contribute in this difficult time?
What came out of those recordings is an album, Ubuntu, recorded in English and IsiZulu, that draws on African philosophy to make sense of what was happening in the country and world.
In the particularly powerful “Bambelela,” she sings, “No matter what storms may come, left, right, or center, just hold on.”
Though the songs are written in different languages and include both original songs and a folk song that Dlamini learned as a child in Africa, they are all connected through the concept ubuntu, which, she says, “espouses respect and compassion for other human beings, regardless class, race or gender.”
Dlamini realized ubuntu’s power to inspire change and reflection across cultures when she returned to IU after giving a lecture on the subject in British Columbia. Back in Bloomington, she attended the Freshman Induction and heard Provost Robel give a speech that strongly resonated with Dlamini’s talk in Canada. “This is an African philosophy, but it is a human philosophy. It could apply anywhere,” she says.
Dlamini doesn’t only sing about these concepts of humility and kindness; she lives them and teaches them. In her courses in IsiZulu, she has asked students to find organizations in Bloomington that display ubuntu and write about those organizations in IsiZulu. By connecting African concepts to local actions to language learning, she is teaching students to enact ubuntu through mutual understanding and a global perspective focused on commonality between people.
She has been a singer since she was a child and as an adult has performed professionally with her sister, but her artistic interests go beyond music. She is an expert in theater arts, and as a creative writer has published over 32 works, including the Macmillan Grand Prize-winning Siswati novel Umsamaliya Lolungile, published in 2008, and Qhu Lafa Igula, anthologized in an award-winning short story collection in 1990. An accomplished translator, she has done Zulu-English translations for BBC Channel 4 and Amnesty International (UK), and in in 2009 a documentary she translated, Rough Aunties, won the World Cinema—Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival.
She began her arts career as a child growing up in Swaziland, now Eswatini, a country of 1.1 million people in Southern Africa. Even still she draws on the lessons of her parents, who taught her to ask, “How do you do this to bring out the good in other people?”
The country itself also taught her about respect between people. At a time when South Africa was overcome by the violence of apartheid, Swaziland displayed “peaceful coexistence of black and white people,” Dlamini says. The nation’s flag, which depicts a black and white shield, symbolizes the way the country acknowledges and embraces its multiracial society.
Dlamini’s interest in creative arts has consistently been matched by a passion for teaching and education, and while she considered majoring in math, she ultimately decided to study English literature and language because of her background in writing. As a student she received degrees from the University of Swaziland, the University of South Africa, Sussex University, and finally the University of London, where she earned her PhD in African Studies.
Living, studying, and working across Africa, England, and the US has reinforced a worldview that emphasizes kindness and respect. She has lived with many different kinds of people, with different religions and different backgrounds, and Dlamini used these experiences to consider points of view different from her own. It was a natural instinct, since she minored in religion as a student.
As she performs songs from her recent album to different audiences online, she knows there are many other creative pursuits that interest her. She has designed and made clothes from a very young age, and she is considering translating some of her short stories into English—an interesting challenge. She is also developing an organization she founded that works in children’s education as she seeks to gain official nonprofit status. Her focus will always be on education, which includes her teaching duties–for which she has received recognition for her exceptional commitment–her translating work, and approach to making art.
Despite all these disparate passions, she doesn’t feel pulled in too many directions or confused about how it all fits together. She has learned to find the positives of challenges, and she enjoys different arenas of expression and engagement. “I’m embracing it because it’s my life story,” she says.
And, after all, ubuntu helps explain how all these activities fit together. “Let’s all be together even if we have different outlooks,” Dlamini says.
She wants to bring people together.