STLT#171, N’kosi Sikelel’ i Afrika

I started this post thinking it was random thought day here at the Far Fringe, but as I write, I realize I do have some thoughts, largely because what I have learned about the song. So here goes:

First, it’s helpful to know what this song is and where it’s from. It was written in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga, a Xhosa minister at a Methodist mission school. The hymn was originally a pan-African song of liberation and was adopted at different times as a national anthem by various countries, including Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia , and Zimbabwe. It is now part of the South African national anthem and remains the national anthem of Tanzania.

It’s interesting to listen to the South African national anthem, as it is definitely a mashup of several songs in several languages (South Africa recognizes 11 official languages – English, Xhosa, and Zulu are the top three). And recognizing that getting to that moment (in 1994) was hard won, it’s (to me at least) a joy to know that this song of liberation leads off the anthem.

While the hymnal, Between the Lines, and some other sites list this as being in the Zulu language, I have also found references to this being in Xhosa, which are somewhat related but distinct South African languages. I’m not faulting the hymnal commission, because they might be right – I just wonder why there’s some conflict in the information. Is this a byproduct of western imperialism that we can’t even detect what language a song is written in?

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this being included in the hymnal, nor the idea of a bunch of white Americans singing it. I’m glad we have it, and I think because the continent of Africa is the cradle of humanity itself, it’s important that we remember and raise our awareness of the ugly imprint centuries of European colonization have left across the continent. I’m not sure as a European American I can sing this without a great deal of care and preparation. I’d be curious to hear from others on this score. But I am glad it’s here for us to see and hear and think about.

I’ll leave you with this version, with Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon (this has to be in the 1990s, but I’m not clear what this was).

N’ko-si, si-kel-el’ i Afrika,
mal-u-pha-ka-nyi-sw’u-phon-do lwa-yo.
Yiz-wa i-mi-than-da-zo ye-thu.
N’ko-si sikel-el-a.
Thi-na lu-sa-pho lwa-yo.

Wo-za mo-ya, (wo-za mo-ya,)
wo-za mo-ya, (wo-za mo-ya,)
wo-za mo-ya o-wo-yi-ngcwe-le.
U-si-si-kel-el-e.
Us-si-si-kel-el-e.

Bless, O God, our country, Africa,
so that she may waken from her sleep.
Fill her horn with plenty, guide her feet.
Bless our mother Africa.
Bless our mother Africa.

Spirit descend, (spirit descend,)
spirit descend, (spirit descend,)
spirit descend, spirit descend.
Spirit divine,
Spirit divine.

Bless our mother Africa.

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