No literary glory for this icon

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

Think of a child let loose inside a toy shop.

To a writer, the titbits making up the life and times of Zenzile Miriam Makeba resemble the glittering wares inside the shop.

What she did with her life, as her isiXhosa name seems to suggest "she did it all to herself" and what hand life dealt her in return is a potpourri of writing material only good books are made from.

It is therefore something of an indictment on the whole body of writers that during her life, Makeba could only inspire three books.

There was a pedestrian attempt by James Hall in 1988 titled Makeba: My Story which did little to improve on The World of African Song, itself a prosaic affair by Quadrangle Books, which came off the press in 1971.

Perhaps as a backdrop, you need to be reminded that some fortunate souls command reams upon reams of copy about them based on no reason other than the fact that they are beautiful. Femme fataleand nubile conjure up wrong images - Makeba was a ravishing beauty.

But this is not why writers should put pen to paper.

She sang, in the words of old journalist Bloke Modisane, who did the first write-up about her, like a nightingale.

Again, this is not why she should be written about. That aspect of her life is well documented, hence the moniker Mama Africa. It did not fall from the skies; she earned it with her voice.

Here's why .

The very manner of her death at 76 - collapsing backstage after a rousing performance in Italy, is a thing of legend.

But in her life, for those who'd consider themselves writers and not morticians, there's a dizzying array of events that are as gratifying as the myriad colours on an artist's palette.

This is the child of a Swazi sangoma, Nomkomendelo Jele who, like all hardworking black women of her time, brewed illegal beer to supplement her family's earnings.

She was arrested and sent to jail - with her child on her back.

"I was six months and 18 days old when we came out of jail," says the lady of song in The Miriam Makeba Story, hitherto the only worthy literary effort about her, written with University of Zimbabwe graduate Nomsa Mwamuka.

With the 16 Days of Activism Campaign upon us, spare a thought for Makeba for the first man in her life, James Kubayi, the father of her only child Bongi. The lout used to beat her black and blue.

Still with the campaigners, ex husband Stokely Carmichael reminds us that added to the pain of exile and harassment from an illegal government, she also "survived a serious onslaught of cancer in the United States".

Back from a gig with the Manhattan Brothers, they were stopped by the fearsome apartheid police. At their wits end, a bright spark in the group decided to tell the police that they are singers, nothing sinister.

The cops make them sing, right there "in the middle of that dark road, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere".

Makeba sang for a mixed masala of audiences, from JF Kennedy to Mobutu Sese Seko. She was the first South African to win a Grammy Award in 1965.

The city of Tuskegee, Alabama, in the US, has a special entry in the calendar - Miriam Makeba Day, declared on March 22 1988.

The city fathers in Newtown, Johannesburg, were late - Miriam Makeba Street already stretches the length and breadth of Moule, Guadeloupe.

She had no less than five honorary doctorates and yet no one addressed her as Dr Makeba, an honour given generously to other mortals with single tributes.

People close to her didn't do the literary world a great deal of good either. Shunna Pillay, whom Makeba married for three months, had a chance to tell their story. What does he do instead? He writes a book of fiction about a young pianist, Dhava Aiengar, whose Indian-ness stands as an obstacle in his music career.

Shadow People, Pillay's book, is an alas-inspiring kind of work where Makeba is only mentioned in the foreword, by Hugh Masekela, another man she should not have married.

Makeba writes, through Mwamuka's pen: "After knowing each other for many years, the mistake Hugh and I made was to get married. Our marriage lasted two years."

Masekela has his own book Still Grazing, work this writer has sadly not had the honour to read.

Does it talk about Makeba? Maybe .

There's a quick book that can come from those who knew her and were wailing at her passing, something like The Makeba I Knew with an essay contribution each from the likes of Sipho Mabuse, Yvonne ChakaChaka, husband and wife duo Katse Semenya and Letta Mbulu, Mara Louw, Abigail Kubheka, Jonas Gwangwa, the list goes on and on.

What about the house in Conakry, Guinea? Who lives there now?

A fascinating book can come from the smells in the house, the people inside it now and how far it is to the cemetery where her only child is buried.

What a pity that, even after throwing a tantrum, the child cannot have all the toys in the store!