I turned one year old on a ship sailing across the Atlantic Ocean for Africa.
My parents were going to be missionaries in Southern Rhodesia and I was along for the ride. In 1957, the only way to get from Texas to Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia was by ship, and then car. We were thirty-two days at sea, leaving New York harbor and stopping only once on the island of St. Helena before docking in Beira, Mozambique. Somewhere in the open water I celebrated my first birthday.
The first task of a missionary in those days was language school. Sindabele was the native tongue (one of the Bantu languages) and my parents were told that the first six weeks of their new life would involve nothing but language classes. They hired a woman named Salina to stay with me while they went about their lessons. One of the favorites stories my father tells is getting one of their first vocabulary lists and finding the word “isikwapa” and it’s translation: armpit. My father was livid and said, “I came halfway around the world to tell people about Jesus and the first word you teach me is armpit!”
Fifty years on, it’s the only Sindabele word any of my family remembers.
Sindabele is one of the “click languages,” meaning there are actual clicking sounds connected to the consonants. You don’t just say the letter, you pop your tongue in one of several ways to make the sound. As a little one, who learned the language faster from Salina than my parents did at school, I couldn’t say the word and the click, I would do one and then the other. No wonder I was fascinated when Miriam Makeba recorded “The Click Song” just a couple of years later.
I tell that story because Miriam Makeba died today at 76. Beyond “The Click Song,” the woman known as “Mama Africa” was one of those voices of freedom that has resonance across generations. She is South African who lived through apartheid and saw her Nelson Mandela become president. She died after singing a concert in Italy in support of another artist taking a stand for what matters. She had a long and full life, far beyond what I knew about it. I didn’t follow her career or know too much more of her music than the song that captured me as a child. And that connection is enough to stop, take notice, and give thanks she sang as she did.