I remember my first encounter with the beloved nation of Zimbabwe, driving across the border from Musina, South Africa, over the Limpopo River in 1994. Among the towering baobabs and ancient stone ruins – while South Africa was in turmoil and still struggling with itself in the aftermath of their historic elections – I felt I was entering a place of peace and quiet harmony of people and the Earth. Perhaps because I had spent so much time in Johannesburg, or perhaps because South Africa’s human conflicts were so prescient – I was caught in a box of consciousness, entranced by the all too human fears, anxieties and unknowns of apartheid in transition. It seems that it wasn’t until I was traveling in the countryside of Zimbabwe that I finally was able to relax, look up and see the great Galactic Chain of the Milky Way above my head. One night, on the road, it hit me – I gazed in awe and I took in the vast brilliant luminescence of the Southern Hemisphere, which is something far more radiant than the starlight on northern side of our planet. In many overt and subtle ways, Zimbabwe spoke to my inner self and took me into her bosom; she appeared to be an archetypal land encompassing the graceful magnificence of Mother Africa.
I recently learned that Chiwoniso Maraire, a great Zimbabwean musician who brought the traditional mbira to urban audiences and contemporary music in the 1990s, passed away a few days ago at the young age of 37. The mbira instrument was also introduced and somewhat popularized in America by legendary producer-composer Maurice White and his band Earth, Wind & Fire in the 70s; Maurice referred to his instrument as the kalimba and he even named his music publishing company Kalimba Music. Chiwoniso was a virtuoso of the mbira/kalimba and a unique ambassador of the instrument’s sound and ancestral timbre. Chiwoniso’s lovely music was captivating and magical; it was tied to her spirit and to the land and people of Zimbabwe itself.
I can’t help feeling that the tragedy and pain of Chiwoniso’s death is magnified because the Zimbabwe of today is nothing like the Zimbabwe I first came to know in July 1994. It seems there is much more to mourn than the loss of a superb artist and a precious human life… Crossing the border 19 years ago, leaving a South Africa that was fraught with violence and confusion, I was struck by feeling a sudden sense of calm, stillness and joy. On April 27, 1994 – the day of the elections – a flurry of bombs went off in African townships, intended to strike fear into the hearts of black South Africans seeking to exercise their democratic franchise. Right-wing white Afrikaner militias were organizing openly and shortly before the election an AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging) group was dramatically killed by black security forces – broadcast live on South African television – in Bophuthatswana, a former apartheid homeland. Zimbabwe felt like a nation of hope, a million miles and lifetimes away from that madness and violence. Zimbabwe seemed to be an almost perfect blend of traditional Africa – grand wildlife and scenery, charming villages with lovely folk art and friendly people – with Harare’s modern business district and skyline, stately suburbs, quaint restaurants and jazzy nightclubs. The tranquility of Zimbabwe in 1994 was a balm to the uncertainty of South Africa’s violent convulsions; Zimbabwe had already been through its own bloody war of white minority rule and appeared to represent the future goodwill that South Africans could look forward to. No one had any inkling that the future would painfully change in disturbing ways for so many people, black and white, and within a few years Zimbabwe’s economy would be ruined. It’s ironic that South Africa now has a massive Zimbabwe refugee problem, and the image and relationship of the two regimes is in somewhat of a role reversal.
Chiwoniso’s death feels like a double-dagger into the heart and the body, a piercing, bleeding wound with salt poured into it. But Chiwoniso’s spirit and presence is eternal through her splendid music; somewhere in that sound is the true heart of Zimbabwe, ingoma yezulu, a pure song of heaven.