Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Miriam Makeba and the African song

Malaika, nakupenda Malaika ….

This kiswahili folk song was a part of my childhood. Strange, then, that I only properly learnt the words a few years ago when I made friends with a real life Swahili speaker. (She also provided the translation.) Even stranger that I have only this morning discovered that the song was performed by that African diva, Miriam Makeba.

Mama Africa, as she is also known, has announced her retirement from performing on the world stage. With all the class and dignity that marks this greatest of African greats, she has thanked all those who have appreciated her music and her struggle. That includes me. Miriam Makeba was the very first performer of whom I had ever heard. I still remember watching her on stage in her long flowing dresses. At that time, I was too young to realise the import of her message. I didn’t know then that as a baby, she had tasted South Africa’s prisons at their very worst, spending six months of her first year jailed alongside her mother. Hardly an ideal introduction to this world, but one that Makeba managed, in later life, to put to the very best use.

After she testified before the United Nations about apartheid, her citizenship was revoked by the South African government. She was even refused a visa to return for her mother’s burial. Cast out into the wilderness by the nation of her birth, she made her home in the United States, and under the wing of Harry Belafonte, continued to speak out against apartheid. (On a flippant note, Makeba’s performance at one of John F. Kennedy’s birthday parties has been eclipsed by that of a notorious model sharing the same initials.) Even as an exile from her nation, she continued to preach the message of peace, freedom and tolerance, receiving the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize in 1986.

Makeba returned to South Africa in 1990, following the release of Nelson Mandela. Her return was celebrated with all the pomp and pageantry befitting an exiled queen. She had for a long time been the voice of many, and a thorn in the side of Apartheid South Africa. Her records had been banned in South Africa during her exile, and the Police were known to have locked up people found in possession of her work.

Makeba’s hardly used first name is ‘Zenzile’, which can be translated to mean ‘you have no one to blame but yourself’. I do not know what history informed the choice of that name, but looking back on Makeba’s life, while there were times of regret and blame, there is plenty to praise and emulate.

So Zenzile Miriam Makeba is retiring from the world stage. She has done well. If her work had amounted to entertainment alone, she would still have been deserving of the highest accolade. Her work, however, has done more than entertain. It has preached, warned, comforted, liberated, and enlightened.

Asante sana, Miriam Makeba. Ome fanya vizuri.
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