Africans still singing to be freed from persecution

Sam Matambo was a member of the famous Harare township singing quartet of the 1950-60s known as The City Quads.

Sam Matambo was a member of the famous Harare township singing quartet of the 1950-60s known as The City Quads.

In Joyce-Jenje Makwenda's seminal documentary, Zimbabwe Township Music 1930-60, he tells of an incident pregnant with the racial intolerance of the period.

Matambo worked for the Federal Broadcasting Services' African studios in Harare township. Before he could play his troupe's "negro spiritual", a heart-rending lament for freedom in SiNdebele, Lizofika Nini Ilanga Lenkululeko? (When will the day of freedom arrive?), he was asked by his white supervisor to explain the lyrics.

Black agitation was heating up and the whites were not stupid enough to dismiss talk of "freedom" as the drunken ramblings of someone who had no idea what he was singing about.

Matambo's translation was sanitised, leaving out an appeal to God to help abantu abansundu (black people).

I wasn't so lucky, years later, with a song in Shona.

The man in charge was Shona too and under orders: he told us to change the lyrics - or else.

After heated arguments, we did. Our group, the Milton Brothers, did this under protest.

Years later, Thomas Mapfumo, in his first album, Hokoyo, sang of who he would appeal to, as his people were being persecuted by the whites.

Mapfumo sang of "our children walking around without clothes". He was appealing to the unnamed "Mambo", the Shona personification of The Most Powerful, The All-Knowing.

These songs were our own "negro spirituals", our earnest appeal to God to do something drastic about our persecution. In the end, you could say the Lord responded to our appeals - there was freedom all over.

No longer would we sing, as Louis Satchmo Armstrong did, "Nobody knows the \trouble I've seen, but Jesus".

But wait a minute: in most countries in Africa today, including South Africa, ordinary people are marginalised. I heard of a report indicating that more South African citizens were now living on less than one US dollar a day than did before the end of apartheid in 1994.

Commenting on this tragic statistic, a Liberian told a radio station South Africans needed to come to his country to know what real poverty looked and felt like. He could have been singing the refrain in the old Armstrong song, perhaps with the lyrics changed to Nobody knows the trouble all we Africans are in.

African-Americans loved their spirituals, which became gospel in later years. These probably gave them hope that one day their appeals would be responded to.

In a way, Africans must be singing the same spirituals, perhaps with lyrics peppered with violence and bloodshed.

We all know what the problem is: the leadership in Africa is generally unenthusiastic about fighting poverty head-on. So many "action plans" have been hatched at so many conferences, if they had been implemented, there would be no Darfur or Somalia or the permanent strife in the DRC.

The continent is littered with examples of internecine bloodshed over who is "eating" independence more than others.

There may not be permanent peace on the continent for a long time to come, but let there be some stability brought about by the people's contentment with their lives.