In 2006, I watched Miriam Makeba perform in Nigeria’s oil-rich but volatile Niger Delta during the Africa Movie Academy Awards. Her voice was enticing and stage presence strong. However, she was thanking and bidding her Nigerian fans good bye. This was part of her world farewell tour with concerts in all the countries she had performed in during career spanning 50 years. After that performance in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, I followed her concerts around the world through the media, waiting for the time she would come to Nairobi. It is now clear that Nairobi will never have its turn in hosting the revered African matriarch of song. She has stopped singing. Miriam Makeba, after half a century on stage, passed away in Italy after a concert on November 10, 2008. She died, OGOVA ONDEGO writes, as she had lived: Singing.
Makeba, who performed a blend of jazz and traditional African melodies, was born of a Xhosa father and Swazi mother in Johannesburg in 1932.
From the time she won the first prize in a talent show at the age of 13, Makeba’s fate as a singer appeared sealed. She honed her skills further by singing at social functions such as weddings. From the age of 20 Makeba sang with The Manhattan Brothers before she formed her all-woman group, The Larks.
While Apartheid South Africa stripped her of her birthright “citizenship” in 1960 after appearing in anti-Apartheid documentary “Come Back Africa” she suddenly discovered the United States of America that had taken her in did not want her after she married Stokely Carmichael, a civil rights activist, in 1968: her US concerts and recording contracts were suddenly cancelled. Thus rejected by South Africa and persecuted by the US, Makeba, like the Sons of Israel and baby Jesus Christ after them, sought refuge in Africa. President Ahmed Sékou Touré’s Guinea Konakry, received her with open arms.
Over the 31 years of her exile, singer and activist Makeba is said to have travelled on nine passports and had honorary citizenship of 10 countries.
For 76 years, Makeba remained true to her African looks, setting fashion standards in dress and grooming and developing a style all her own. Unlike many Africans in showbiz who rush into changing their “Negroid” features through methods such as plastic surgery and having their skin bleached and hair straightened out to resemble that of “Caucasians”, Makeba aged gracefully. One could not have found her dead in a wig.
Makeba, like any other black person at the time, may have faced the racial prejudice and paternalism but she appeared not to succumb to the expected inferiority complex that would have worked against her self-esteem and dignity. This saw her not copy Western lifestyle, worldview, names and hair style. She did not give in to the temptations of the “manufacturers of skin-lightening creams and other cosmetics which,” Dr George Kinoti writes in his Hope for Africa and What The Christian Can Do book, “enable a black man, and especially a black woman, to look less African and presumably more European.” Suffice it to say that Mama Africa popularised the so-called Afro look or the God-given natural beauty of a human being.
Makeba married four times and had a daughter and two grand children.
Upon Miriam Makeba’s appointment as South Africa’s Ambassador to the African Continent in 2003, ESKOM commissioned compatriot Dr Don Mattera to write and perform the poem below in her honour. ArtMatters.Info reproduces it here in celebrating her life:
This fragment of a nation rejoicing
This eulogy of love for a revered Matriarch,
Is for you, Miriam Makeba
Voice of Afrika’s vision and its deepest dreams
We salute you fairest Afrikan Queen
You, who wept against the indifferent moon,
traversing the shores of strange lands
standing attention to foreign flags
alienated, tolerated nomad of the struggle
Marching to the sound of distant drums
Sleeping in the dark folds of an exiled sunset
Waking in glow of a challenging day
You, Miriam, broke bread with revolutionaries
And was honoured by kings
How we rejoiced with you
When you left our dusty townships
To show the world that we too were gifted,
That we too had nightingales that could shake the stars
And we watched you leave, and our hearts ached
With a longing that inflamed our spirits
Burnished the windows of our souls.
And when you could not return,
Again our hearts reached across the dark distances
To that lonely place where love cannot be caged,
And your serene voice ringing out
Pointing the way to the impending harvest
Breaking the fetters of falsehood,
Fulfilling the prophecies of our fallen ancestors.
Yes, this song,
This parchment of praise in this historic place
Once inhabited by the foes of freedom,
Is for you, Mama Afrika
Resonating across the valleys and plains of our land
Echoing beyond the Garib and Limpopo,
Carrying your song to the snows of Kilimanjaro
Where you sang and cried for your
Continent and for your land.
Let your sterling voice speak
For all the nations of the Earth,
Speak for Afrika’s people
Hapless and hesitant, though they stand
At the portals of a New Beginning,
A moment of Resurrection and Renewal;
Speak as only you can speak
From the deep sap of your beautiful being.
This feeble fragment of our rejoicing,
Is for you, soul sister,
Mother, friend and warrior
Words of comfort for the fruit of your womb
You lost in the barren orchards of exile
That young face that freedom could not touch,
Nor the Azanian soil embrace.
By the river and by the sea
Our souls waited for your homecoming
For the fire-glow of your wisdom,
The warmth and tenderness of your motherhood.
And now, most regal ebony Queen,
Belated almost by the slow hands of
Time and recognition,
Our nation places another jewel in your eminent crown
Celebrating your gifts to our freedom
That your Star may shine in the African sky,
And so, light up the earth
With the beauty and fire of your soul.
Makeba, we love you…