Lots of people told me not to come. Not for love or money. (It was for love.) The back of apartheid had still not been broken. Stories coming out of the country were strange and terrible. “How could you even think to go and work in such a place?” “You will be lumped with the privileged white minority. Can you handle that?” “Aren’t you supporting the regime if you choose to live there?” Some people thought this man had proposed to me, an American, so that he could gain entrance to our most illustrious country and escape the inevitable recompense coming to the oppressors.

I stopped telling people where I was going. I ceased sharing with them about my intended and how he worked in a rural hospital and cared for the poorest of the poor. I stopped regaling others with my story. I knew I was called to marry this man and share his fortune, whatever came. I had no doubts; there was no wavering. I packed up what I could, sold or gave away what I could not take and flew away to the “dark continent.”

I discovered an amazing country, an incredible people, a beautiful natural environment. I found a place filled with colourful and diverse cultures. I also saw huge problems and big issues. But in every concern there were people standing up, challenging the status quo, knocking holes in the national policy. Music was one of the avenues people used to spread their message. And Johnny Clegg was one of the musicians who took up the battle cry. His song “Asimbonanga” caught my attention soon after I arrived and has remained one of my favourites to this day. It also helped me learn a bit of isiZulu.

The song is written about Mandela (and other heroes in the struggle to defeat apartheid).

Asimbonanga (We have not seen him)
Asimbonang’ umandela thina (We have not seen Mandela)
Laph’ekhon (in the place where he is)
Laph’ehleli khona in the place where he is kept)

Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey
Look across the island into the bay
We are all islands till comes the day
We cross the burning water
A seagull wings across the sea
Broken silence is what I dream
Who has the words to close the distance
Between you and me
Asimbonanga (We have not seen him)
Asimbonang’ umandela thina (We have not seen Mandela)
Laph’ekhon (in the place where he is)
Laph’ehleli khona in the place where he is kept)

Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge Neil Aggett
Asimbonanga Asimbonang ‘umfowethu thina (We have not seen our brother/sister)
Laph’ekhona (in the place where he is)
Laph’wafela khona (in the place where he died)
Hey wena (Hey, you!)
Hey wena nawe (Hey, you — and you also)
Siyofika nini la’ siyakhona? (When will we arrive at our destination?)

I learned the words. I sang with lusty gusto. I prayed for my adopted country. I spoke with people and shared my heart and tried to break down the divisions in my own little circles. A little over a year after my arrival, Mandela was released from prison. And four years after that I stood in a long queue to vote in South Africa’s first free and fully democratic election.

I still sing this song. And now I sing because our beloved Madiba has passed into his rest, and I see a still very young South Africa struggling to implement justice for all. Some things we are getting right, some things we are getting terribly wrong. Mandela stands as a beacon for reconciliation and justice for all. So I still sing this song. Only now as I sing I am asking, “Where is Mandela? We can’t see him (in the things that we are doing – in the way in which we are doing them). Asimbonanga. The struggle lives on.



Day Three of Writing 101:  ASSIGNMENT:

Write about the three most important songs in your life — what do they mean to you?

Today, try free writing. To begin, empty your mind onto the page. Don’t censor yourself; don’t think. Just let go. Let the emotions or memories connected to your three songs carry you.

NOTE:  I started writing about Asimbonanga and the 15 minutes (20 actually) just went flying.  I never got to the other songs.  If you would like to listen to the song, go here.