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Mama's time in Guinea -nine years in West Africa

By unknown | Nov 13, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

Somewhere in Miriam Makeba's colossal discography is an album called The Guinea Years. It remains rarer than hen's teeth.

According to music boffin Bongani Mahlangu, entertainment editor at Sowetan's sister newspaper Sunday World, the 16-track album can only be acquired by sending for it from abroad.

Makeba lived in Guinea for a full nine years in the 1970s. She settled in the small west African country, just north of Sierra Leone and Liberia, after life in America for her and new husband, controversial Black Power icon Stokely Carmichael, proved untenable.

This marriage soured her reputation with mainstream American media and the music industry.

The couple found a father figure in president Ahmed Sekou Toure, and it was at his invitation that they came to settle in Guinea until their divorce in 1978. Carmichael lived there until his death in 1998.

In the magic that is The Guinea Years, Makeba, who spoke elementary French, sings about, among other tracks, Toure Barika (track 5), Maobhe Guinee (track 8) and the closing track, Sekou Famake.

For those of us who don't speak the language of the European colonisers who took over in 1890 it can be assumed that Makeba was paying homage to Toure, who ruled a free Guinea from 1958 until he died in 1984.

President Toure issued Makeba with a diplomat's passport, allowing her to serve as a Guinean delegate to the United Nations , for which she won the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986.

A true blue Pan-Africanist, Toure consistently spoke against the colonial oppressors and befriended leaders from the African diaspora.

Carmichael was among those who found a padded shoulder to cry on in Toure.

It wasn't surprising he offered the fiery civil rights activist and his South African songstress wife solace against the abuses of Uncle Sam.

Toure is the same forward-thinking president who welcomed president Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana with open arms into Guinea, after Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup in 1966.

Toure offered him refuge and bestowed on him the position of co-president.

For his part, Carmichael returned the favour by changing his own name to Kwame Ture, a combination of the two.

In 1974 Makeba released an album as further proof, perhaps, of the indebtedness she felt towards Toure, called Live in Conakry: A L'Afrique.

The country held a special place in Makeba's heart, a fondness that she takes to the grave with her. In Conakry, the capital, singer and songwriter Bongi Makeba lies buried.

A youthful 35 when she died, Bongi was the only child of Mama Africa. She also had a recorded album: Bongi Makeba, Blow On Wind.

Bongi, born Sibongile, is the source of the very lineage that granted Mama Africa her only grandchildren and great-grandchildren with great names such as Lumumba and Kwame, among other African names.

Would Mama have seen names like Sekou or Toure in her lineage, or were those names already "taken" by Mama Africa's ex-husband, Trinidad-born Carmichael?

While neighbouring Sierra Leone burnt during the insurgency imported by Charles Taylor from across the border in Liberia, hacking people's limbs off in "short-sleeves" and "long-sleeves" attacks, Guinea lay largely unaffected.

Liberia, the land of freed American slaves, also had its turn at hogging the headlines before 70-year-old Ellen Sirleaf Johnson took over as the country's, and the continent's, first woman president three years ago.

But for many South Africans, Guinea will be remembered and commemorated for sheltering her exiles, most notably Makeba and the countless "children of the struggle" like Tsietsi Mashinini and others, who took refuge in Conakry.

In his life, Mashinini married a woman from neighbouring Liberia, a former beauty queen with whom he had children.

When they met in 2006, South African Foreign Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and her Guinean counterpart Mamady Conde, co-chaired the inaugural session of the SA-Guinea Joint Commission of Co-operation in Pretoria.

What else is known about our countries' links?

We know that great opportunity exists for South Africa to co-operate with Guinea in agriculture and mining. Science and technology are other areas to be explored.

Foreign Affairs spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa says Pretoria does not have a presence in Guinea as it is serviced from other countries in the region.

Home Affairs is not aware of the number of Guinea nationals in the country.

We remain indebted to the West African nation

for giving our beloved Empress of African Song a refuge.


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