/ 28 May 2020

Stevie, Festac and a grenade

La Perle Zoulou à L'olympia Pour Un Seul Récital
Miriam Makeba on stage at the Olympia in Paris, France on May 13, 1964 (Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

It’s 1977, and I’m in Nigeria for Festac, a festival of arts for black people from all over the world. Since I am African, they ask me to be a hostess. Stevie Wonder arrives, and I am asked to take care of him. Stevie remembers me from the Copacabana show of his when I gave him an African statue because I admired him. I admire him still, and he is quite a success. Stevie is looking like an African now, his hair all braided with beads. For the month, I am his guide. I will see that he has all he needs during his stay.

“Miriam,” he says, “I love you.”

“What? Stevie, I am old enough to be your mother.”

“Miriam, age ain’t nothin’ but a number.”

We all laugh and I go home thinking, “Age ain’t nothin’ but a number.” But age is other things, too. It is wisdom, if one has lived one’s life properly. It is experience and knowledge. And it is getting to know all the ways the world turns, so that if you cannot turn the world the way you want, you can at least get out the way.

But what have I to tell Stevie about the ways of the world? He is on top of it. His album, Songs in the Key of Life, has been nominated for seven Grammy awards. But he doesn’t want to leave Festac to attend the Grammys in Los Angeles. I am in my hotel room when we come up with an idea. Suppose I find a way to get a TV hookup here in Nigeria so he can give his acceptance speech in Africa and be seen in America live?

I go to the nation’s ministry of information, and ask to arrange a satellite connection. “Festac is a festival of all black people around the world,” I tell the officials. “But it’s ignored by the world press. To get them to take notice, we need a personality like Stevie Wonder, who is loved by everywhere.”

It is agreed, and a hookup is made at the National Theatre. Other artists are performing right up to the time of the awards show, which we watch on monitors. Stevie wins his Grammys, and the people in the United States are impressed to see him saying his thank yous from the other side of the world. The setup is considered very innovative and daring. Stevie thanks me. I was glad to help, because he is one artist who gives of himself: not only for black causes, but causes for all people.

Festac is a lot of work, and I am tired when I return to Guinea. There is a ballet performance at the People’s Palace, but I do not attend because I am sick. It is one time that I am thankful to be ill. When the president enters the theatre, an assassin throws two hand grenades at him. One goes off to the right and explodes, killing a man and wounding a woman. The second lands at the president’s feet, but it does not explode. Several people are injured in the ensuing panic. But Sékou Touré is all right. His luck is amazing.

This is an extract from Makeba: My Story, co- written with James Hall. It has been republished from Chimurenga’s Festac ’77 book

To purchase a copy of the Festac ’77 book, please visit this website