Miriam Makeba: A woman with 9 passports but no home

Miriam Makeba, who would have turned 81 today, is remembered as the renowned singer and activist Mama Africa. Her exile from South Africa caused a lifetime of pain, but it also led her to lead a life of service and empowerment.

Miriam Makeba would have turned 81 today. Google honored the singer with a special doodle.

In her 30 years of exile, South Africa singer and activist Miriam Makeba gained prominence as a citizen of the world and a fervent opponent of apartheid. She was a woman with nine passports and honorary citizenship in 10 countries.

But Ms. Makeba’s legacy is one of personal sacrifice. After she became a vocal critic of apartheid, the South African government took away her passport, her family, and her home. But she continued her activism and became Mama Africa, the widely celebrated champion of human rights. 

It was 1960 when Makeba learned her passport had been canceled. After touring and living in England and the United States, she was taking a flight to South Africa to attend her mother’s funeral. Officials turned her away at the airport.

Three years later, the singer was asked to appear before the United Nations special committee on apartheid, delivering the first of several addresses on the segregation practices in South Africa.

"Her appearance for the United Nations was unprecedented, and it was really special because she was really a shy person,” says Stephanie Shonekan, an assistant professor of black studies and ethnomusicology at the University of Missouri.

It was a brave moment for Makeba, Ms. Shonekan says. Despite the risks, Makeba crossed the boundaries between singer and activist and spoke against the racial discrimination in her home.

“She knew it was a move that would affect her career, which was at the time really on the rise," Shonekan says, "yet she put her people, her country, her family ahead of her.

South Africa revoked her citizenship and destroyed her records. Several countries, however, came to her aid. She received passports from Ghana, Guinea, Tanzania, Cuba, and other countries, according to the Weekly Al-Ahram

Makeba gained respect from leaders throughout Africa, including those in the Organization of African Unity. She was asked to perform at the OAU inauguration in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, shortly after she addressed the United Nations. The artist also performed at the third OAU conference in 1964 in Accra, Ghana.

Makeba moved to Guinea in 1968, after marrying her fourth husband, Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. She lived there for 15 years, becoming friends with President Ahmed Sekou Ture and his wife, Andrée.

During that time, Makeba addressed the UN General Assembly again and served as the official delegate of Guinea for the United Nations, for which she won the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize in 1986.

While Makeba was widely celebrated in Africa, she became a double exile after moving to Guinea with Carmichael. Her concerts were canceled in the United States, and she was banned in France. But Makeba caught a glimpse of the types of discrimination blacks around the world faced.

Her relationship "further deepened her knowledge of not just African issues, but also Pan-African issues,” Shonekan says. “She was becoming very knowledgeable about the fight for equality across the black world.”

While Makeba found a home in Guinea, Tanzania, Belgium, and other countries, she lamented being apart from her family, Shonekan says. She lost several family members while she was away, including her mother, her brother, and her only daughter.

“It was a step home, but it wasn’t quite home,” the professor says. “She really mourned that.”

It was in 1990 that Makeba was able to return home. Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from jail marked the end of apartheid and of the singer’s exile. Makeba launched a reunion tour of South Africa.

Makeba stayed committed to defending human rights even after she returned home. She and then-first lady Graca Machel-Mandela helped children with HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, and the physically handicapped. Up until her death in November 2008, Makeba served as a goodwill ambassador in the United Nations, fighting hunger and poverty with the Food and Agriculture Organization.

For many, Makeba remains a symbol in Africa of personal sacrifice and activism, Shonekan says.

“Nobody was quite like Mama Africa,” Shonekan says. “I don’t know of any other artist that has had the reach across the sub-saharan continent that Makeba did.”

For more tech news, follow Steph on Twitter: @stephmsolis 

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