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Miriam Makeba: how 'Miss Makeba' became 'Mama Africa'

Miriam Makeba, and the fight goes on (episode 4). Backed up by her success in the United States, the songstress has now become the voice of her people. It did not take long before the whole African continent adopted her, in particular the forefathers of independence. This is how Miss Makeba becomes Mama Africa.

It’s in New York that Miriam Makeba is introduced to the rest of Africa. She makes friends with delegates of the newly independent African countries who sit at the United Nations, and she even welcomes to her own home young students arriving from the continent. She also hosts Tom Mboya, a young Kenyan executive heading for a clerical function in his soon-to-be-independent native country. She embarks on a fundraising trip of America with him to finance scholarships for students in his country (80 of which will have their studies paid for). In 1962, Mboya invited her to Kenya to perform at a benefit show for orphans of Mau-Mau. This is how she comes to set foot in Africa again, three years after leaving South Africa – a country from which she was banished. This trip would lead to many others. It continues to neighboring Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere, learning that the singer has become stateless, offers her a Tanzanian diplomatic passport. A few months later, in 1963, she is invited to the inaugural conference of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa. There she meets Hailé Sélassié, who offers his desk so that she can change clothes before performing for the various heads of state. Political leaders are fully under Makeba’s spell, and Guinean president Sékou Touré sends one of his literary works to her hotel, duly autographed.

Upon her return to America, she falls sick. She is diagnosed with cancer. Wishfully her friends (Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando) as well as African delegates to the UN wait on her hand and foot. In time, the operation is a success, even if it prevents Miriam from having another child, alongside her daughter Bongi. At the end of the year, she returns to Kenya, where Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president, invites her to the official ceremonies of newly-gained independence. Then, she continues her journey to Côte d’Ivoire [Ivory Coast] where she is a guest of the Houphouët-Boigny couple. In order to make them aware of the situation for Black people in South Africa, she lends them a copy of the movie Come Back Africa which turned her famous. She then sends the film on to Sékou Touré, in Guinea.

Not long after, the Algerian president would offer Makeba her second diplomatic passport. Over the years, she would accumulate almost a dozen of these, offered by authorities of African countries that recognize her as the ambassador of her people and the embodiment of a dignified, determined, and struggling Africa. The struggle still however continues.


The struggle continues, there in the United States too

Makeba keeps on fighting, first to denounce the segregationist regime in South Africa – during press conferences she holds before her concerts – and, in 1964, before the UN special committee where she was invited to speak again. Then in the United States. In 1965, Malcom X is assassinated (she would pay homage to him later with the song “Brother Malcom”, written by her daughter). The same year, riots break out in the Black district of Watts, in Los Angeles. Violence reminding her of the escalating situation in South Africa. Her marriage to the trumpeter Hugh Masekela falls apart, as does her companionship with Harry Belafonte. So when Sékou Touré invited her to Guinea for a festival, she jumped at the chance.

In Guinea she meets another African-American activist, also invited to the congress party as a representative of Black people in the USA. His name: Stokely Carmichael, a revolutionary, advocate of the civil rights and supporter of the Black Power philosophy. To the American authorities, Carmichael is seen as a dangerous troublemaker.



It’s with him that the next chapter in Miriam’s life would develop in Guinea. She only understands this when she returns to the United States in 1968, where the now-official couple are harassed by the FBI. The singer herself is followed on all her travels, her concerts are cancelled, and soon a certain number of the Commonwealth countries, which have already banned Stokely Carmichael, let her know that she too is not welcome any longer. In the United States, doors begin to close one after the other. She even fears that her new husband would end up assassinated by Eldridge, a leading figure of the Black Panther Party, an organization Carmichael had come close to, before deep disputes broke out.

Eventually, ten years after arriving in the United States, Miriam Makeba feels it is time to get back on the road. The road of exile, once again. The new destination is an obvious choice: Guinea, where Sékou Touré has been insisting that she comes to settle.

The Guinean period

The Guinean President, the only person who voted against the 1958 referendum proposed by the French government to create a political association with its colonies, becomes almost a secondary father to the singer. When he learns that she is marrying Stokely Carmichael, he organizes their wedding reception in New York.

Shortly thereafter, he welcomes the couple to Conakry with open arms, and invites them to settle down at Villa Andrée, one of the official guesthouses of the Guinean State. Miriam is impressed by the efforts the country makes in terms of culture, organising its famous regional competitions which culminate at Conakry’s National Festival. Dance troupes and traditional music groups, modern orchestras (the Bembeya Jazz; Keletigui et ses Tambourinis; etc.) compete to revitalize their country’s culture, almost killed off by decades of colonial brainwashing. In Guinea, Black Power is staying for good.

Makeba recruits Guinean musicians, and performs regularly at the Palais du Peuple, often at the request of heads of state on official visit to Guinea. Then, without a manager in the United States, the Guinean Presidential Office becomes the main contact for those who want to book her show, wherever they are in the world.

From her performances in Guinea, there exists a famous live in Conakry recorded performance and a few tracks which she recorded at the time for the State-run label Syliphone.


Conceding to the period’s propaganda ruling, she sings the praises of the political leader with “Sekou Famaké” as an example, which she performs in Malinké language. Singing in the local languages ​​of the country she performs in, would become a trademark of Makeba’s – with an exceptional moment at Algiers’ Pan-African Festival in 1969 where she sings a song in Arabic, a habit she would continue over time. She became a grandmother (her daughter Bongi gave birth to the baby Lumumba), and took her grandson along with her. Stokely Carmichael is also invited to the Panaf’, as are the Black Panthers who arrive in numbers. The singer fears for her husband, as Eldridge Cleaver’s threats could become a reality, now that both are present in Algiers. In her autobiography, she tells of how, returning from a concert, she could not find her grandson whom she had left under the good care of Stokely Carmichael. Seized by panic, she cannot reach her husband. Following long hours of waiting, Stokely eventually appears with baby Lumumba… returning from a meeting with his rival from the Black Panthers. Dumbfounded, she then comes to understand that her husband took the child with him to discourage any violent action on the part of Cleaver. Finally, the family returns to Conakry, where life is not exactly a picnic either

Mama Africa

In November 1970, she has a front-row seat for when mercenaries hired by Portugal arrive by sea to terminate the Sékou-Touré regime and the support bases he offered to the PAIGC – African Party for the Independence of Guinea [Bissau] and Cape Verde –  which is about to defeat Lisbon’s colonialist power. She tells how the populations themselves, organized in militia, take up arms, and with the help of the Guinean army eventually defy the invasion (this event is recalled in Bembeya Jazz’s song “Guinean Army”). Shortly after, in 1975, the Portuguese regime would lose their empire and Miriam Makeba would sing in Maputo for the independence of Mozambique, followed by Angola. As she liked to put it, “every time a country gains independence, we call Miriam”. It is at this moment that she receives the nickname “Mama Africa”, the title of a documentary Swiss television devoted to her. No one can be more Pan-African than Makeba. And not only through her songs.

In Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré does not only offer her a diplomatic passport, he sends her to the UN general assemblies as an official delegate of the Guinean delegation, and on two occasions, would ask her to deliver the official speech of Guinea, before many heads of state and government. It is a way to highlight Guinea, embodied by an internationally known figure, and to denounce apartheid which persists in South Africa. Suffice to say that in the mid-1970s, few women in the world had this privilege.


Miriam Makeba’s years in Guinea consist of ups and downs. She is delighted to launch a baby clothing store, which would soon collapse after she decides to sell at a significant loss in order for poor people to be able to afford her products. She then launches a nightclub, Le Zambezi, which would shine for three years before an abusive landlord decides to increase the rent for a skyrocketing price. And above all, her talented daughter is regularly subject to fits of madness. Her youngest child, Themba, son of percussionist Papa Kouyaté, dies while treated at an under-equipped hospital, plunging Bongi into even greater distress. As for Miriam, her marriage to Stokely Carmichael eventually falls apart, as he becomes infatuated with a young Guinean woman. Repeated hard blows endured with sadness, but never ceasing to hold her head up. She takes refuge at times in the house she built in the hills of Fouta Djallon. The house still stands, simple and beautiful, worn by time, and the few remaining pieces of furniture allow the ghost of the diva to continue to float through the air.

The death of Sékou Touré in 1984 marks the end of a happy and prosperous African period, in the shadow of the Guinean president, whom she refers to as her sponsor and mentor. She never had a word to criticize him, his authoritarianism, his paranoia and the political prisoners he sent to die in the sinister Camp Boiro. Likewise, she never spoke of the deterioration of living conditions in Guinea, whose economy at the end of the 1970s was completely drained. This could to some appear surprising. It could be that the hospitality of a man and his country exceeded everything else, and the fight for the freedom of a continent, grappling with imperialism, was worth avoiding any criticism of that would have certainly weakened a much needed African unity. She would always follow this code of conduct, including in Zaire where she does not hesitate to sing the praises of Mobutu during the Rumble in the Jungle (1974) gathering, or even at Festac (World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture) – an event organized by the military junta in Nigeria (1977). No doubt she also believed that she and her country needed the support of all the other countries of Africa in order to end apartheid. An opinion not too far from the views that Nelson Mandela exposed on a television program on ABC channel in 1990.

The change in power in Conakry – with Lansana Conté taking power by force after the death of Sékou Touré – and, moreso, the death of her daughter Bongi, would convince her to hit the road again. “Mama Africa”, while being welcomed with all due respect everywhere in Africa, still cannot return to her own home. This reality strikes her down when she is forced to bury her daughter far from the land of her ancestors and from family she could never meet. At the same time, international pressure on South Africa, where the situation is more explosive by the day, makes her believe that her return may appear soon. In 1985, she leaves Guinea to settle in Brussels, Belgium, and continues the fight…