By Tafi Mhaka
Remember how satisfying being young, black and African felt in post-independent Zimbabwe in 1983. Once the sensitive black needle touched the 45-inch vinyl record spinning on our golden brown stereo player on any given sunny afternoon and Lou Rawls’ rich and mesmerising baritone voice boomed through the massive speakers fixed on the dark brown carpet in our small living room, a sweet and subtle rush of youthful happiness would proceed to serenade my mind and feed my imagination.
I would always wade through our collection of soul, pop and funk LPs with the fascination of a Motown Records connoisseur and fall deep in love with the music.
As I played “You will never find somebody”, from Lou Rawls, I studied album covers from The Commodores, ABBA, the Jackson 5, Kool and the Gang, Diana Ross, The Manhattans, Jimmy Cliff and plenty of classic albums and singles from the 70s and early 80s. The colourful artwork on the covers, outlandish poses, huge afros and brash clothes fascinated me and formed part of the African-American culture that we loved and had subconsciously adopted.
Without having had lessons in the history of the slave trade I knew for certain (through informal conversations) that blacks who lived in America had somehow come from Africa, and Roots, the gripping TV series about a slave from West Africa called Kunta Kinte confirmed this intuitive knowledge.
I loved the culture and would pretend to be “JJ”, from “Good Times”, and clap my hands in excitement whenever something good was going down. I would mimic “Arnold”, from the family sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, sometimes, and attempt to dance like Michael Jackson. Or, with unschooled humour, I’d often act like “George” from the “Jeffersons”, and do that swift turn of the body he loved to do so much.
The culture became part of our story, the history of Africans settled abroad: so talented Africans such as Lou Rawls, Michael Jackson, Prince, Bob Marley and John Amos were members of our extended African family. They represented the Africans who had been transplanted to far away lands through the slave trade, and the violent and historical reality of their difficult being in America resonated with our colonial struggles.
However, from where I stood, their lives had somehow appeared better than ours, much better than the wars, poverty and repression Africans faced all over the continent, until I discovered an affinity for rap music and listened to Fight The Power from Public Enemy, By All Means Necessary, from Boogie Down Productions, watched Boyz n the Hood, and saw a broken and abused black man called Rodney King pleading for racial unity on TV.
From LA to New York, all the way to Bujumbura, Kinshasa and Johannesburg, Africans had serious problems to deal with, and listening to news on the radio and following the revolutionary imperatives of the times, I had gathered the Africans in South Africa and Namibia remained under the rule of oppressive white men. But, elsewhere on the African continent, the blacks that were supposed to be wholly free and fairly happy, lived under the yoke of black on black subjugation, violence and despotism.
I followed the 1978 – 1992 civil war in Mozambique with disgust and fear and tried to make sense of the strongmen ruling Malawi and the DRC. We would speak about Kamuzu Banda, the longtime Malawian leader, in hushed, fearful tones, for the rumour mill claimed he wielded black magic and could cast a wicked spell on all of his critics.
And word was Mobutu Sese Seko, the former DRC dictator, was a billionaire – and one of the richest men in the world. Yet Zaire, the country he ruled with an iron fist, reeked of state-sanctioned violence, economic thuggery and dreadful civil rights abuses amid shattered African dreams.
I couldn’t work out everything and keep up with all of the electoral drama and vicious murders but life in Africa looked incredibly tough at times, and the revered African gods, our ancestors, our protectors, our givers of life, whom we gave sacrifices to, through traditional healers, didn’t (or couldn’t) help us much. And God, our Heavenly Father, whom we prayed to in our local Anglican Church every Sunday, didn’t help us much either (or couldn’t): Africa was engulfed with debilitating poverty and wasted lives.
We experienced severe drought in 1983 and relied on yellow maize imports from abroad, which we named “Kenya”, after the east African country, where the food relief supplies came from.
So when Michael Jackson, along with Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper and a host of then contemporary music stars, participated in the recording of “We Are The World”, all in aid of helping a food stricken Ethiopia, it felt good to see the world helping our brothers and sisters; helping us: helping Africa.
But, ominously, 36 years after that devastating drought hit the Horn of Africa and led to over 400 000 painful and probably preventable deaths, Ethiopia still needs help, especially with an internal crisis that has displaced 1 million people and highlighted the chilling consequences of tribal based conflict throughout Africa.
Zimbabwe needs help, for 85% of its population have no formal jobs and 63% of all citizens live below the poverty line – in a land brimming with precious natural resources; and South Sudan, the newest African nation, requires peace and economic prosperity, especially for the sake of highly vulnerable women and children who have suffered horrific violence at the hands of armed black men.
And Malawi, a country whose social and economic progress has been smothered by corruption and harmful traditional practices that regularly place women, girls, children and albinos at the risk of illegal, violent deaths, needs help. Once again: Africans need help. Africa needs help. But regrettably: Africa always needs help.
Where our ancestors crossed the Mediterranean Sea bound in chains and wallowing in dreadful, inhumane conditions, today, men, youths, women and young children from across the length and breadth of Africa, elect to embark on similar journeys, and, like 400 years ago, many will perish at sea, all at the hands of ‘slave’ masters of all hues.
We have travelled relatively far in our quest for self-determination and socio-economic wealth, but has Africa freed herself from the chains of mental slavery Bob Marley sang about in “Redemption Song?” Life has changed and the music’s extremely violent, downright sexist and much darker than the soulful sounds I discovered through Lou Rawls, and the culture has been soiled by the unfortunate glorification of drugs, alcohol and abuse of women, and the obstinate adherence to outdated cultural practices has further served to crush African dreams.
Yet, whom do we blame for our current troubles, when we have become both victims of historical injustices and willing slaves to our own devious, corrupt and violent machinations?
In spite of all the menacing odds constructed through slavery, colonisation, apartheid and social injustices, when will Africans get over the fiery slogans, fist pumps and startling inaction and start making things happen for themselves?
The time is now, and as Bob Marley said, way back in October 1980: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”
But how far have we come since Marley made this desperate plea for widespread self-assessment and self-empowerment within the universal black African family?