Goodbye to 'Mama Africa'

In the end, Miriam Makeba got her wish: to take leave of this world right after taking her final bow on stage, the only place where she felt truly at home. It was a grandly operatic ending for a woman whose very life defined drama.

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Going on stage to sing is like stepping into a perfect world. The past means nothing. Worries about the future do not exist. All that matters is the music. I live for this…. My voice is heard by the people when I speak about the evils that are strangling South Africa. Every day there is more and more to say—there is more urgency and more tragedy. The concert stage: This is one place where I am most at home, where there is no exile.

Miriam Makeba, Makeba: My Story

In the end, Miriam Makeba got her wish: to take leave of this world right after taking her final bow on stage, the only place where she felt truly at home. It was a grandly operatic ending for a woman whose very life defined drama. She endured multiple marriages and divorces, domestic abuse, alcoholism and cancer. Then, too, there were the 11-plus car accidents, the plane crash, the murders of her two uncles in the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960; the death of her only daughter, Bongi; the arrests, the banning of her records, the extended exile from her homeland, South Africa.

 

She spent six months of the first year of her life in jail, after her mother was arrested for making beer in their home. She was a teenager when apartheid became the law of the land, not that things were much better before. But under apartheid, she wrote, "things went from bad to worse. [Apartheid] would become one of the most hated words the world has ever known."

 

Tragedy played front and center in Makeba's life, always present, always threatening. She could've become a tragic figure, a Xhosa Billie Holiday. But Miriam Zenzi Makeba was beautiful and regal and radiant, and somehow, through all that grief, she managed to radiate a certain kind of fiercely triumphant joy. There was a reason why they called her Mama Africa. Through her music, through her activism, she was the ambassador for not just her own embattled country but an entire continent.

 

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM