One of the enduring creations that were bequeathed to us by Africa’s independence leaders was a plethora of glorious national anthems.
As each country lowered its colonial flag, the new flag soared towards the blue sky and the uniformed service band struck a new anthem that called upon the citizens to renew their patriotism and embark on a collective journey towards the shining city on a hill.
The composers of Africa’s national anthems, some of our continent’s most woefully unsung and forgotten heroes, captured in song the spirit of victory and optimism that imbued the hearts and minds of their newly liberated compatriots.
More than five decades later, one listens to these anthems and sings their lyrics with renewed esteem for the composers’ poetic abilities and gifts of uplifting melodies.
The more one listens, the more one finds it pointless to attempt to rank Africa’s anthems in terms of beauty. They are all very lovely pieces of music. Each and every one of Africa’s anthems offers an aural feast of majestic music whose melodies and rhythms invite the listener to march along, with head high and a proud bearing.
Naturally, one listens to the Ugandan national anthem with a very special feeling, not just out of patriotism and familiarity, but because it is truly a masterpiece by the Honorable George Wilberforce Kakoma (1923-2012), our great psalmist who wrote the complete anthem in just one day.
Likewise, I cannot sing enough praises for Enoch Mankayi Sontonga [1860-1904], the composer of that great melody to which the anthems of Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa are set.
His musical genius gave us Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika, which does not belong to Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa alone, but to all of us. It is the rallying cry for the last major struggle for our freedom.
As one listens to the various anthems, one feels the sense of pride, the confidence and the hope that the composers felt for their newly liberated lands. The opportunities seemed endless; the suffering of slavery and colonialism was behind us; the freedom train had arrived to transport Africans to a bright future of peace, liberty, democracy, unity and prosperity.
Imagine what went through the minds of Ghanaians as they sang their majestic anthem, set to music by Philip Gbeho (1904-1976), on March 6, 1957. They sought God to bless their homeland Ghana, to make their nation great and strong. They pledged to boldly defend forever, the cause of freedom and of right. They implored the Lord to fill their hearts with true humility, to make them cherish fearless honesty, and to help them resist any oppressor’s rule, with all their will and might.
Imagine what Ugandans felt, when they first sang the words of our anthem, laying their future in their motherland’s hand, pledging to always stand together, united and free in the name of liberty.
I was one of those who sang the anthem on October 9, 1962, uttering words whose meaning I did not understand, but whose melody was most uplifting to the spirit of a primary four Mparo Kid.
We sang of a land of freedom, to which we gave our love and labour, and pledged to live in peace and friendship with our neighbors all. We acknowledged the land that fed us, and vowed to always stand for the Pearl of Africa’s Crown.
From Algeria to Angola, from Senegal to Swaziland, Africa’s anthems have a common theme, namely, freedom, peace, unity, service, justice, set to glorious song. And what great songs they are!
So rather than judge our anthems on the basis of their musicality, one finds oneself judging the leaders and people who inherited them. How well have the people of the various countries heeded the exhortations of the great musical poets who penned our marvelous anthems?
Sadly, the vast majority of countries still score poorly. Africa’s myriad dictators and autocrats, monarchs and kleptocrats have faithfully stood up as their national anthems have been played or sung at official functions and ceremonies, even as their armed gangs have harassed, incarcerated and murdered their political opponents.
They have sung the songs of freedom and liberty, to celebrate their swearing in to another term in office, after “winning” their latest fraudulent elections. Citizens have stood at attention, sung their anthems and cheered their rulers while their fellow countrymen were being denied their freedom, and while the rulers have been stealing from them.
For example, one hovers between tears and laughter as one listens to the beautiful anthem of the Republic of Congo [Brazzaville], whose first verse proclaims:
“Congo stands resplendent
A long night is ended
A great happiness has come
Let us all, with wild joyfulness, sing
The song of freedom.”
Congo’s long night continues, her happiness and freedom only to be found in her national song whose words were written by Levent Kimbangu.
Likewise, one listens with sadness to Uburundi Bwacu, the lovely anthem of the Republic of Burundi which was composed by Marc Barengayabo and Jean-Baptiste Ntahokaja. The third verse says:
Worthy of our tenderest love
We vow to your noble service
Our hands and hearts and lives
May God, who gave you to us
Keep you for us to venerate
Under the shield of unity
In peace, joy and prosperity.”
The Barundi have venerated their land with rivers of blood in an orgy of ethnic killings and struggle for power that have taken the lives of 1 million people since independence in 1962.
And on and on it goes. Our anthems have been desecrated, our psalmists have been betrayed. But happily, one comes across several countries whose people have heeded the exhortations of their national song writers, and fulfilled the dreams of those who sang their anthems with hope and pride at the dawn of political independence.
While some of them, such as Benin and Ghana took a detour through the dark alleys of misrule before emerging into the sunshine of democratization, they have now laid a rightful claim to a place at the table of freedom.
One reads the words of Senegal’s anthem, penned by Leopold Sedar Senghor himself, with gratitude that that country has not let him down. And if one must choose the very best anthem on our continent, one whose people’s story so far is in accord with the words of the lyricist, then surely one must find a tie between Botswana and Mauritius.
The Mauritian song, written by Jean Georges Prosper and Philippe Gentil, says:
Glory to thee, Motherland
O motherland of mine
Sweet is thy beauty
Sweet is thy fragrance
Around thee we gather
As one people
As one nation
In peace, justice and liberty
May God bless thee
For ever and ever.
And the Batswana sing, in the words of Kgalemang Tumedisco Motsete:
“Blessed be this noble land
Gift to us from God’s strong hand
Heritage our fathers left to us
May it always be at peace
Word of beauty and of fame
The name Botswana to us came
Through our unity and harmony
We’ll remain at peace as one
Awake, awake, O men, awake!
And women close beside them stand
Together we’ll work and serve
This land, this happy land!”
By all accounts, Botswana and Mauritius, those havens of peace, homes to democracy and sustained economic progress, can rightly claim that their national songs tell their real stories. They make us proud.
If there are words that should be the central rallying cry for all who care about our region and our continent, they are found in the third stanza of the Kenya National Anthem.
“Let all with one accord
In common bond united
Build this our nation together
And the glory of Kenya
The fruit of our labor
Fill every heart with thanksgiving.”
This stanza appears to be the foundation of the East African Community’s Anthem, a three-stanza hymn by Kenya’s Richard Khadambi that rallies us to rise up to our duties of patriotism, unity, hard work and comradeship. It is a call that we must fulfill.