Miriam Makeba: 9 passports, no pass

Passport number 1

According to Dr Vincenza Di Saia, a physician at the Pineta Grande private clinic near Naples, Italy, Miriam Makeba collapsed as she was leaving a stage where she had been performing in a benefit concert. The concert was held for Roberto Saviano, a writer who had been on the receiving end of numerous death threats after writing about organised crime. The details are unclear. Makeba collapsed in the wings after stumbling off stage, mid-song. She collapsed on stage after singing Pata Pata, her hand clutching her heart clutching home. She was still alive in the ambulance. She was still alive in the hospital. Time of death is listed as midnight. Cause of death: cardiac arrest. 

Passport number 2

In a 1988 interview with Roger Steffens, when asked about her calling, the interlocutor (perhaps in playful facetiousness) asks whether she can see into the future. 

Miriam Makeba: “I try to see the future. I may be wrong but I try. And for me, the future is, it has to be, that I will return home. My people will be free and we shall live like human beings, like all other people in the world. Because if I ever stop thinking that way, or looking into the future that way, then it would be very detrimental to me. I may just lay down and die.” 

In another interview: “I will probably die singing”. 

Passport number 3 

You’ve heard this one many times before. Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born on the 4th of March 1932 to Christina and Caswell Makeba. A mere 18 days after the birth of her daughter, Miriam, Christina is arrested for illegally selling umqombothi and is sentenced to six months imprisonment. Christina waits out the entirety of the term with her newborn daughter. At the age of 17, Miriam marries into an abusive, violent union that will give her her only child, daughter Sibongile Angela Makeba. She was conceived the first time Miriam lies with her husband; Miriam is in labour for a full week before baby Bongi appears. Her husband, James Kubay, will beat her; when she catches him in bed with her sister, she leaves, never to see him again.


 Also at age 17, some bumpy uneven lumps are found in Miriam’s mammary tissue. She’s diagnosed with breast cancer. She opts for treatment from her mother, a sangoma.

 James Hall authored her as-told-to autobiography, Makeba: My Story. In a book that is published years later, Sangoma: My Odyssey Into the Spirit World of Africa, he recalls a conversation between the two of them sometime in 1986, when he lived with her for two months in Conakry, Guinea. 

“We sat in the rock garden of her small house as I conducted interviews for her as-told-to autobiography, which I was to write … Miriam’s face, capable of such emotion when she sang, became inscrutable and her large brown eyes focused far away. ‘My mother was special. She could see.’ 

“Something mysterious had come over Miriam, and I proceeded carefully. ‘How?’ ‘She was what we call a sangoma. She had powers. People came to her with problems, and she told them what they were. Then she cured them… She trained to be a healer in Swaziland [Eswatini]. She had no choice but to become a sangoma. The lidlotis – the spirits – wanted her.’”

 These spirits will guide Christina’s hands over her child’s breasts. Kneading, rubbing, praying. Curing. 

1959. Miriam leads in the hit musical theatrical production King Kong. In the same year, she has a bit part in the anti-apartheid film, Come Back Africa. The next year, two of her relatives are murdered in the Sharpeville Massacre. Her mother will also die that year and, while trying to return home for the funeral, Miriam will learn that her passport has been cancelled, effectively banning her from her home country; displacing her, for the second of many times in her life. This is also the year that a nine-year-old Bongi Makeba moves to the United States to join her mother. 

Passport number 4

Miriam Makeba on May 13 in 1964 at the Olympia in Paris. (AFP)

Here there are two canvases. The one is a drum. Hollow. Percussive. A drum is nothing without an instrument to strike it. To beat into it sound. To batter it into aliveness. Dathini Mzayiya provokes the canvass to wakefulness.

 There are fine, fine patches where you can’t see the paint, or the spray or the brush, and then vicious lines chopping through the evenness, just slashing and slashing and panga and machete into the black, and then another black and then a black another. 

On a screen strewn together from the printed dailies, Miriam speaks, her face as now, as it is then. Current affairs, because the newsprint that stains her face tells us so. Current because the context doesn’t change. Because those in power. Because black souls never rest in peace, only pieces. 

Her thesis.  

“There is really no difference in the struggle of the people you have mentioned because we are all Africans. We were just put in different countries by white people who took people from Africa and spread them out. It is true that our problems are the same.” 

It is a face. It is always a face. Slash slash slash for eyebrows. Slash on the left and slash on the right. A curved line made of many tangents. Of explosions. Straight here forming an angle, the line swelled full of itself, distended, and where it should have burst; stopped, slid sanguine back down. 

The lines again. Hacking and hewing and a brush has been used here. Hewing and chopping to say: this is the face of a man who has a difficult life. Look how it has dug into his face. Chisel and hammer. Nail and hammer. Pestle and mortar and hammer. 

Passport number 5

Westwind blow ye gentle
Over the shores of yesterday.
My sun is brown and over
Here within my heart they lay, they lay.
Westwind with your wisdom
Gather all the young for me.
Black cloud hanging over
Nest your bosom strong and free.
So Westwind with your splendour
Take my people by the hand.
Spread your glory sunshine
And unify my promised land.
Unify us, don’t divide us
Unify my promised land
Nina Simone, Westwind 

Sibongile Angela Makeba was born to her mother when Miriam was about 17 or  18 years old. At the age of 34, Bongi has a stillbirth. Ill-treatment at the hospital and close family ties with the embattled, outgoing president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, will drive Bongi out into the streets in a hospital gown, bleeding oceans, searching for the child she lost. She dies there. Miriam buries her, mostly alone. Herself. Her daughter. And a handful of journalists.

Roger Steffens: “Now your mother received two years of instruction in Swaziland (referring to intwaso). You in effect, are a graduate of the instruction, just by the mere fact of your career and are often, as you have said, taken by the spirits in performance, so that you are satisfying the needs of the spirits.” 

Miriam: “I guess so, If I didn’t have that outlet, I’d probably have to go through what she [my mother] had to go through or have some kind of … misfortune.”

Roger: “Do you think your daughter was affected by the fact that she didn’t take instruction?”

Miriam: “I have been told so. She didn’t want to do that and she sang sometimes but she was doing it as a … just whenever she feels like performing. She sang very well. She wrote most of the songs I sing. She used to write beautiful things for me….” 

Among the songs penned by Bongi Makeba are “Westwind”, “A Luta Continua”, “Lumumba”, “Quit It” and “Do You Remember Malcolm?”. 

Passport number 6

Miriam Makeba during a performance in Zurich, 1969 (Getty Images)

The mic’d up canvas. A make-shift border in black. In school we had projectors. We’d pull the screen and secure it in a place by wrapping a loose string attached to its handle around a hook or a nail. A sticker affixed to the screen cautioned when to stop pulling. It read: “Pull until black appears on top”. 

“Now saying that they are a minority, this really means nothing because the white man, wherever he is, whether he is in the majority or the minority, he rules. It just proves to everyone that we just have to keep fighting. We just have to fight that much more. Because it doesn’t matter if he’s in the majority, or the minority, he’s always on top.” 

Before it is a face it is white with a perimeter of black. Black on top, but also on the bottom. Black on both sides. Mzayiya runs his fingers over the body of the blank, the mics pick on the strokes, make each graze a raze in the ground. Each molehill a mountain. This is what they mean when they say amplification. The process of making something more significant, more marked. More more. 

“More more more future”, is a piece by Congolese dancer and choreographer Faustin Linyekula and Studios Kabako located in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Writer Stacy Hardy describes this work as “somewhere between a scream and lullaby”. Linyekula, in his corporeal poetry searches for, in his own words, “other ways of breathing”.
“In the Congo, we like to lose ourselves in music. In the ndombolo, this bastard music, strong of traditional rhythms, comes from both rumba and pop. A big sound that makes the Congolese dance and numbs them, putting on the poverty glitter, of which nothing remains in the morning.”

“Today in my country,” says Linyekula, “we need to dream. Music was one of those spaces. But today I look at Werrason, Fally Ipupa, Koffi Olomidé, Mpiana — all the big shots. They think that the answer is to show off. To say, ‘I am the richest around’ — to sell that dream … Musicians become beggars; glittery beggars, but beggars. Then you realise how tragic our situation is. When you see the moral, intellectual, material misery of the people who should make us dream, then you understand how much shit we are really in. Then you ask yourself what can be the future … ” 

Makeba’s future, the one she dared herself to envision, saw her coming home. Saw her people free. Her idea of personal freedom was inextricably linked to the liberation, of not just the Black people of South Africa, but Black people the world over. Into her songs she imbued not just a future, but a challenge to the future to be more. 

“It will depend on them. We are just worried about ourselves. It is our country. They came from Europe to invade our country. They took it. They have made us suffer. So we don’t have to worry thinking about what will we do to them. What will happen to them. It will be up to them to see fit what they can do when we have won. Just like they see what to do fit right now while they are on top.” 

Passport number 7

It is Christina Makeba, Miriam’s mother, who beat her into life when life tried to beat itself out of her. 

When it mestatised and multiplied in her breasts, it was Christina who crushed herbs for her daughter to drink and drown — to emerge from these fragrant waters on the other side. In The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes, “If we seek immortality, then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.” Understanding that we are born, not immortal in a sense that we can never die, but rather, in that we can never stop living, Christina pulled the hard forever-afters from her daughter’s chest, to give her a longer life here. 

When Miriam’s policeman husband tries to shatter his will and dominance into her face, it is Christina who tells her to move to Johannesburg. 

It is Christina who takes her body on the stage, sings with her voice till she, trance-like, escorts us all into a world that tastes like freedom. 

The strength, I get it from my people. I get it from my mother. My ancestors. Because to us, even those who have died are still with us. They live among us. We talk to them. When I am in deep trouble I kneel down, I say to my mother and my father and my grandmother ‘you’ve gone to the other side. Wherever you are, ask the superior being to help me, and help me to be strong’. And that’s what I do all the time, I think [I] get my strength from that.”

 Was Christina there when her daughter gasped in pain in the dying notes of Pata Pata? Did she walk her into the wings, rubbing her brow as the ambulance cried in mourning through the rough-hewn, cobbled streets in Italy?

 Did she tell her: “It is okay, my child. This death is not one you have to fight. We will fight from the other side.” 

Passport number 8

Miriam Makeba circa 1970. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

I have become intimately involved with violence. She has decided to be my constant companion. Often I find myself crying, “Why me?” Always I hear myself responding, “But then who?” 

The political is deeply personal. Today, like yesterday, I fight for my life. I take my medicine in the form of words and herbs.
1) From water, I learn to soak in herbs and wash away grey things. From water, I learn that sometimes I might be required to live there, in the underneath.

2) In the library of the University Currently Known as Rhodes I find a book on a shelf on the third floor. It’s a little bruised, a little tattered, pages dog-eared and ink running thin. It’s an anthology by one Jerome Rothenberg, titled the Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania; a collection of texts that dances at the intersections of engineering , language and spirituality.

3) From the writer Daniel Borzutsky I learn that there is no technology outside ourselves to interpret the screams of others. To interpret the screams of others I become not the other, but the scream. He says, “To be alive is a spiritual mission in which you must get from life to death without killing yourself.” I share this joke with my supervisor but she doesn’t find it funny. He says “You can die from so many stories.”

4) I am always dying.

5) Selah Saterstrom is a writer and hoodoo card reader. One day we’re sitting on a bed with white sheeting, when she says to me I have wounds that are not my own. I am dying from so many stories.
A friend texts me and asks If I’ve ever heard of umkhokha?

“What I mean is, has anyone in your family ever had the experience of being robbed, of being killed in a robbery?”
There is uncle. Stabbed footsteps from his house, the unintelligible story writ in blood from the gatepost to the street. A 30cm incision from below his third rib bone pouring down. The men in my family have strange ways of dying and the setting rarely ever changes. Always almost home, but never quite. Always a shebeen a stumble away. In the street, alone, no one to catch the final wheezing, to give that breath a direction, a way home. 

6) There is uncle. There is me. There are others. 

7) He explains that umkhokha is like a recurring family incident. A trauma that plays itself in sets and loops, travelling by genome and bloodstream. “You have to do a ceremony yokuvala umkhokha; you have to close the loop.” 

Passport number 9

Now without a mother, the mother of a daughter she committed to soil and ash, we scream at her from stadiums and headlines, “Mama Africa”. 

She explains: “I often wonder why they call me that. It was, I think, in Guinea. Some Swiss people came to do a profile. No. In Europe they have, in the French-speaking countries, they have every year, they have a French television show from either Switzerland, France, Montreal … all the French-speaking countries in Europe … They choose one French-speaking country in Africa to do a film, on something. And they take those films to a competition. And this particular year, the Swiss-Roman Television came to Guinea and they chose me as the subject, to do a film on how I live in Guinea. And when they asked people and children what they thought of me, the people said that I am/was Mama Africa. When that film was shown all over French-speaking Africa, it was called Mama Africa.” 

The madonna-whore complex is one of few theories forwarded by Sigmund Freud that hasn’t been dismissed for its (concerning, with reference to) blatant misogynoir. Which is not to say that it isn’t patriarchal, but that the ways in which society reinforces this prejudicial concept remain unchanged and largely unchallenged outside feminist circles. This concept describes a system of hostile compartmentalisation that dichotomises womanhood. The woman is either the saintly feminine archetype (madonna) or the perceived opposite: lustful, depraved and un-nurturing (whore).

By bestowing her this title, did we leave Miriam sexless? The curves of her chest places for us to suckle, homes for cancer, robbed of any sensuality? 

This piece was initially commissioned for herri.org.za.

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Lindokuhle Nkosi
Lindokuhle Nkosi
Lindokuhle Nkosi, a writer from South Africa whose work textual work often merges with installation and performance. She has written for Mahala, Chimurenga, Africa Is A Country, City Press, Elephant Magazine, Red Bulletin, and Timeslive, and she has curated exhibitions and projects at galleries and in the public space. While floating across different genres – journalistic, reflective, experimental – her work is consistently insightful, rich in textures, and engaged with realities.
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