Oh beloved Zimbabwe… I remember you, when crossing the border from South Africa in 1994, I was entering a land of peace and quiet harmony with the Earth, and the feeling of being in the abundance of towering baobabs and ancient stone ruins and all that we imagine is the graceful, loving beauty 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 Maurice White and his band Earth, Wind & Fire in the 70s; Maurice called his instrument the kalimba, and he even called his music publishing company Kalimba Music. In the face of such a great loss, what else can one say except thank you so much for the wonderful music you left us, Chiwoniso… God bless your great journey in Heaven.
I can’t help feeling more sadness and pain at Chiwoniso’s death because the Zimbabwe of today is nothing like the Zimbabwe I first came to know in July 1994… Crossing the border 19 years ago, I was struck by feeling a sudden sense of calm, stillness and joy, leaving South Africa. At the time, South Africa had squeaked through its first all-race, one-person-one-vote elections that of course established Nelson Mandela as the first president of a truly democratic New South Africa. But the new nation was fraught with anxiety, violence and confusion, with conspiracies abounding about black-on-black violence fomented by “third force” old apartheid security forces determined to throw a monkey wrench into the democratic process. On April 27, 1994, the day of the elections, a flurry of bombs went off in black township taxi ranks, intended to strike fear into the hearts of Africans seeking to exercise their new right to vote. Right-wing white Afrikaner militias were organizing openly, and a few were dramatically and brutally killed by black security forces – broadcasted live on South African television – after making an excursion into the Bophuthatswana African homeland. Zimbabwe felt like it was a million miles and several lifetimes away from that madness and violence. Zimbabwe seemed like an almost perfect blend of traditional Africa – grand wildlife and scenery, charming villages with lovely folk art and welcoming people – with Harare’s modern business district and skyline, stately suburbs, quaint restaurants and jazzy nightclubs. The tranquility of Zimbabwe was like a balm, an antidote to the uncertainty of South Africa’s violent conflicts; Zimbabwe had already been through its own bloody wars of white minority rule and appeared to represent the future goodwill that South Africa could look forward to. No one had any inkling that the future would painfully change in dramatic ways for so many people, black and white. It’s ironic that South Africa now has a massive Zimbabwe refugee problem, and the image and relationship of the two regimes, in that context, is in somewhat of a role reversal.
So 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 great music, and somewhere in that sound is the true heart of Zimbabwe, a pure heavenly song.