Miriam Makeba
Africa
Jive/Novus
Released: July, 1991

So say the liner notes, "One doesn't necessarily have to understand Ms. Makeba's native tongue, or speak French, to comprehend the depth and scope of this musical blend." Stop reading there; the rest is yap yap yap. This bit is important though. You're probably not going to understand what she's singing, but it's no big deal. Her sound and rhythm are the important parts, she could be singing her grocery list for all I care. After lots of listening, I've started to supply English approximations of her lyrics ("a cheek on my daughter, "poking a goose head.") It's an odd surprise when she starts speaking English on one track, and a worse surprise when what she's saying is a pretty horrible story. Maybe we'll skip that song and go back to the imaginary grocery list.

Her voice tells me everything there is to know about being lithe and fluid. Listen to tracks 11 and 12, and I dare you not to envision a tall gleaming African woman swaying and shimmering on the veldt. I dare you not to want to be her, at least with your hands, like butterflies in the air. Maybe Africa doesn't have butterflies - fine, be a gazelle, be a veldt-y, reedy plant thing, but I promise you, you will imagine yourself there in her village, in the dry African air.

This has always been good afterglow music for me. Mind out of the gutter, Tiger. I just mean, it makes excellent "boy do I ever feel good about this stuff going down in my life" music. Soothing, then peppy, then sexy, she's all over the spectrum, and it's nice.

The instruments are lovely but kept to a respectful minimum - a guitar being plucked, something maraca-like being gently shi-shished. The spotlight is where it should be: on Miriam. I only wish the songs were longer - it seems that just when she's getting into a nice repetition, just when I could almost sing along with her, she's on to another melody. A little frustrating, but also makes me want to listen to it some more, and then a little more. It's one of the very few albums I ever listen to more than once in a row. It works well on repeat; each rhythm builds and flips into the next one, like a paper chain, and the last leads into the first, and you kind of just never want her to shut up, ever. You can tell she's smiling when she sings. I like that.

A surprising dearth of material on the subject here, when there is so much to say!

Africa.

At 11,688,000 square miles (30,271,000 sq km), it is the world's second largest continent, easily three times the size of the United States. It stretches 5,000 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the north to the Cape of Good Hope in the south, and at its widest point is 4,600 miles across. It is bordered in the north by the Mediterranean, coming its closest to Europe at the Strait of Gibraltar, where a little finger of Morocco reaches upward towards Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. On its west is the Atlantic Ocean, curving into the Gulf of Guinea, and on its east is the Indian Ocean, which passes between mainland Africa and the island nation of Madagascar through the 950 mile Mozambique Channel. Above Africa's jutting horn, Asia Minor hangs down, separated from Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Sudan by the Red Sea. Egypt, in the far northeast, possesses a thin land border with Asia.

Roughly 683,000,000 people live there, by 1994 estimates, a number that threatens to be drastically reduced by AIDS, which currently infects 28,000,000 Africans. The bittersweet good that may come of this epic plague is a renewed world interest in Africa, a continent that badly needs a little TLC, and a lot of understanding. The ignorance and shadows surrounding Africa in the minds of the masses are painful to me. Africa is an incredible, intriguing, rich and varied place, and the more I learn about it, the more I love it.

It's hard to make any accurate generalizations of Africa. As Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski says in a note at the beginning of The Shadow of the Sun, his excellent memoir of his experiences in Africa, "The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say 'Africa.' In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist."

Generalizations about Africa do, unfortunately, still abound. Most people in the rest of the world know little, if any, about the history of civilization, struggle, conquest, triumph, and disorder of this continent, to which all of us, black, white, Asian, American, or otherwise, can trace our ancestral lines. Think about the fragmented bones of Australopithecus. Most people in the rest of the world know little, if any, about the incredible cultures of this vastly varying land, where people speak more languages than in any other chunk of the world, where traditional storytellers still weave their tales in thatched huts as they have for a millennia and pyramids cast long shadows across the Giza sand. The present, past, and future of Africa is often overshadowed by the decades of gruesome headlines- and Africa becomes, in the mind of the onlooker, a hot, chaotic swirl of death and famine, rebellion, disorder, poverty, and warring tribes.

Overlooked, not only are the people at the heart of every conflict, who, often in the midst of unimaginable suffering, somehow manage to go on living, but also the successes that occur daily against unimaginable odds. Success stories, unfortunately, seldom make the news, with the exception of, perhaps, South Africa, and its much-publicized victory over apartheid. Said Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, "South Africa is our dream, Rwanda is our nightmare. The dream can be our fate, but not tomorrow." There is hope, even amidst the horror of the harshest parts of modern Africa. And that hope can be nurtured not by demoting Africa from a developing, struggling, and above all, beautiful continent to a 'whole continent of 'Bosnias,' but rather by recognizing it for its value, its wealth of humanity and geography. In the words of Nelson Mandela, "The historically recent tragedies, from Sarajevo to Rwanda, whose images are the lifeblood of the influential electronic media, underpin the importance of respect for human rights in securing our common future."

People see the chaos and the mess that is Africa, and fail to understand that there is more to Africa than that. They also fail to understand how these problems came to be, that the blood is on the hands of the Europeans, who, in their conquests of Africa, pillaged the resources and crippled the psyche of a thousand peoples, turned tribe against tribe, fuelling hatreds and ethnic strife, and pulled out, leaving a broken Africa to heal itself. When many countries of Africa became independent of European rule, they were wholly unprepared to take the reins for themselves. Take, for example, the case of the behemoth Democratic Republic of the Congo- when the Belgians pulled out in the late fifties, the people of the Congo had to fill some 4,000 government offices, drawing from a populace in which only thirty people held college degrees. Its hardly surprising that the Congo and many other countries have fallen prey to one violent coup after another.

In many places, the rivalries were created and fed by the artificial boundaries the colonizers imposed, country lines that fallowed none of the boundaries that divided the African people, be it language, religion, or tribe. As Wole Soyinka put it, "One hundred years ago at the Berlin Conference, the colonial powers that ruled Africa met to divvy up their interests into states, lumping various peoples and tribes together in some places, or slicing them apart in others like some demented tailor who paid no attention to the fabric, color, or pattern of the quilt he was patching together.... And now we see in Rwanda what that absence of African self-redefinition has wrought. If we fail to understand that all this stems from the colonial nation-state map imposed upon us, there will be little chance to correct the situation over the long term... African leaders have been so concerned with maintaining their power and authority within these artificial ponds created by colonialism, they have been so eager to preserve their status as king toad, that they've never really addressed the humanity that is entrapped within these ponds." There you have it- a sweeping generalization, but the best insight into the political problems of modern Africa in a nutshell that I've found.

You can't really understand what Africa is like, where it's coming from and where it's going, without learning a whole hell of a lot that society and a public education has probably neglected to teach you. I heartily encourage you to learn some. For the sake of this node I've made a lot of generalizations even while insisting that generalizations shouldn't be made on this subject, and I'm certainly not an expert here. I'm just a kid who really cares about Africa and its people, and want to see good things happen there. Good things can't happen until there is knowledge.

What follows is a very brief breakdown of the regions of Africa. Please take note, this is Africa as I have divided it, and not everybody would break it down into these regions, or even define the regions as I have- the subject is certainly not cut and dry. Regardless, here it is:

North (Saharan) Africa:

More than a fourth of Africa is occupied by the Sahara, the largest contiguous desert in the world. The Sahara stretches across Northern Africa, a vast, desolate land, melting into the fringes of green Mediterranean coastal regions, where the majority of food is grown and the majority of people live. Pockets of population and agriculture also thrive in scattered oases, and along the Nile River Valley, while hardy nomadic people live throughout the desert. The people of North Africa are predominately of Arab descent; they speak Arabic, practice Islam, and have close ties to the Middle East.

There is quite a divide between North Africa and the rest of Africa, so much so that everything beneath the Sahara is often defined as just that: sub-Saharan Africa. An imaginary line running across Africa from Mauritania to Sudan divides the Arab population from the black population. The countries of southern North Africa and northern Central Africa often find themselves straddling a major cultural, ethnic, religious divide, with their population partially composed of Arab, Muslim north Africans, and the rest predominantly Christian, tribally diverse, black Africans. Needless to say, there have been bloody struggles over the years between the two groups.

The countries of North Africa: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara (which is, last I heard, occupied by Morocco).

Large cities include Alexandria, Algiers, and Cairo (the largest city in Africa).

The Horn of Africa:

A large, horn-shaped landform that juts out below Asia Minor, the Horn of Africa is a diverse land, devastated by war, famine, and poverty. Geographically, it contains bits of desert, savanna, and mountains, and is home to the spectacular Great Rift Valley and the Ethiopian and Kenyan highlands. The lowest point in Africa can be found here, in Djibouti's Lake Assal, at 512 ft below sea level.

The countries of the horn: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Eritrea.

Large cities include Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and Mogadiscio.

Western Africa:

The inward curving coast of Africa, along the Gulf of Guinea, is home to many small nations, and a wealth of culture. Historically, this area was known as the Slave Coast, the base for the majority of slave trading in Africa. The grassy savanna melts into dense rain forest, stretching right down to the coastline in many areas; most West African countries own some stretch of Atlantic coast.

The occupants of West Africa are primarily black Africans of tribal descent. Hundreds of different tribes call this area home, some of them displaced peoples from further inland. Like in much of Africa, countries here often fall into the grip of wars, chaos, rebels, and brutal military coups. Some areas of West Africa are quite densely populated, including Nigeria, which is by far the most populated nation in Africa. AIDS is leaving its mark here, not as devastatingly as in some parts of southern Africa, but at a horrible rate nonetheless.

Much of the best literature to come out of Africa has come from western Africa, where many of the tribes have rich oral traditions. Nigeria is home to both Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and Chinua Achebe, the world renowned author of Things Fall Apart and other novels of African tribal life. Other arts have thrived in West Africa, including music, theater, and dance.

The countries of West Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, and Togo.

Southern and Central Africa:

Stretching from the Central African Republic, in the very heart of the continent, down through thousands of miles of jungle, savanna, and scrub forest to South Africa, is the realm of Southern and Central Africa. I probably shouldn't lump these together, but I've always had trouble distinguishing where one ends and another begins.

Central Africa is dominated by savanna and jungle, melting into the southern scrub forests, savanna, and the Kalahari and Namib deserts. The regions are host to a number of large lakes: Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Malawi, as well as Victoria Falls, the source of the Nile, and the Congo River Basin. The Crystal Mountains come down along the west coast, and in the east, other scattered mountain ranges are host to Kilimanjaro, the continent's highest point at 19,340 feet, and a number of volcanoes.

This area is home to the worst of the AIDS crises: many millions are infected, dead, and dying, and millions of children have been orphaned. This is a region dominated and traumatized by the incurable disease, which promises to kill more people than all the ethnic clashes and civil wars that have plagued these conflict-scarred countries. Dealing with the disease and its aftermath is a constant struggle.

Countries of Southern and Central Africa: Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Central African Republic, Comoro, Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Kinshasa), Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

According to Scripture, as Isidore of Seville explained, Africa was named for Afer, a descendant of Abraham (or Ham, a son of Noah from the Bible). In Medieval Christian World T-O Maps, it supposedly had 30 races and 360 towns. But then, those maps also had the Southern and Northern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea as straight lines...

Sources:
Daniel J. Boorstin's "The Discoverers", p. 101; from
Ernest Brehaupt, "An Encyclopedist of The Dark Ages, Isidore of Seville" (1964)

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