A Southern Cross Love Song: Remembering Nelson “Madiba” Mandela :: by Lisa-Jo Baker

by admin

Every Friday, our friend Lisa-Jo Baker hosts a sort of flash mob for writers. They all write for just five minutes on a single prompt. This week, we are honoured to host her beautiful meditation on the prompt: “REFLECT.” This post is Lisa-Jo’s much-longer-than-five-minute contribution. She welcomes you – and we encourage you – to link up your own writing and visit the community of word artists at her place.

…by Lisa-Jo Baker - writer, mother, super-hero, tea-drinker, and friend to Deeper Story

This is just one small version of a memory belonging to one woman. When really he is a man who belonged to the world. And it’s more a love song than a memory, more a prayer than an anthem of how it was. If this post had a soundtrack, this would be it.

There’s a song that’s haunted my childhood.

Born under a Southern Cross sky, I was the white toddler with dusky blond wisps learning to ululate before she lisped her first clicks and guttural pronouns deep in the mango groves of Zululand, back before it was Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Fresh out of medical school and into their marriage vows my parents raised me those first three years on the red dirt of a mission hospital far from the conventional borders of what South African society dictated in the 70s. They preached the kind of gospel that looks like refusing to live behind the barbed wire lines that preferred neat pockets of color all in one safe spot, like so, and so, and so.

They walked into the heart of community, my dad preaching in the chapel on Sundays and treating the malaria and the TB and all the tooth aches that the Sangoma couldn’t disappear during the week. When we moved to Philadelphia before my fourth birthday so he could pursue his M.Div. I would ask my dad one day at CHOP if I’d be getting an “umjovo” and my dad would have to translate for his colleague that no, injections were not part of the agenda.

I’ve never wanted to meet a celebrity.

Never been interested in having dinner with the famous or the massively photographed.

And have never considered myself overly involved with the lives of the people we observe through the lens of the television or Internet microscope.

Then why is this white girl a long way from South Africa tonight crying over an old black president she never met?

Homeless, homeless
Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake

And we are homeless, homeless
The moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake

Zio yami, zio yami, nhliziyo yami
Nhliziyo yami amakhaza asengi bulele

There is a song that echoes my homesick love story stranded between these two countries – the cherry blossom northern hemisphere of my now home just outside Washington, DC and the purple, Jacaranda-rain drenched capital city of Pretoria that for years was the dark heart of Apartheid and my home.

It’s been a tale of two trees, trying to find shelter and welcome beneath their bowed backs.

Mandela was home to so many of us who have lived in the in between.

Brave orator, brilliant lawyer, complicated father. Flawed and wildly followable.

The thing is, if you’d told me there was a chance to sit at the very back of a crowded room on a hot and sweltering southern hemisphere night to catch just ten minutes of Madiba live, I would have cashed in whatever currency was in my pockets to race you there.

I would have stood pressed up against a wall-to-wall body of humanity just so I could whisper from the back of the room my thanks.

I watched him walk out of that prison of our own making.

I stood at the TV and watched as he and Winnie walked long slow hours waving their way through the dancing women and Amandla-yodling men to freedom. My high school was still segregated, but change when it came, sounded like a song.

My step mom tells it – how she waited in a long, snaking line for 12 hours to cast her ballot in the first free elections of my country and my own life. This isn’t a history lesson. It was 1994.

Books about his life line my shelves a country away from where the story started. Did you know it was his first school teacher who gave him the name “Nelson,” doling out acceptable and more accessible English substitutions for all her students? Or that he ended up in Johannesburg because he’d run away from an arranged marriage?

His given name, Rolihlahla, literally means “pulling the branch of the tree”, or more colloquially “troublemaker.” And the rest is our history.


(source: CNN)

He was 71 when he walked out of prison.

The mind can’t wrap itself around a 27-year prison sentence. I’ve spent five minutes in his small cell on Robben Island. But it was enough to fall in love, in awe, in profound gratitude for the courage it takes to lead a nation without bitterness.

His birthday is a national holiday and every year for decades he’s celebrated it with orphans – always the least of these.

These are the news headlines my youngest brother grew up with. I watch him with his friends Mandla and Tumi and Meren all going to the movies together like there was never a time when they couldn’t.

I’m raising two boys and a daughter two and a half years and nearly 8,000 miles away from the country that runs in their veins. I need South Africa to be their present as well as their past and their future.

The blood red dust of the Karoo, the ostrich, the meerkat, the hadida. Thick accents and thicker maize meal cooked in three legged black pots over open fires.

And the smell of it all. The smells linger in my memory the longest.

Late winter veld fires burning up the horizon. Smoke and traffic and dust. They grit up the nostrils. But then there’s the jasmine. Sweet promise of spring. When I catch it on the breeze here in the States, miles from home, it buckles the knees and takes me back to my mother’s garden, to my childhood.

And I watch my kids growing up without these sights and sounds and smells and I ache for what they don’t know they’re missing. So we recreate. We build up a library of music and food and photographs. And we dance.

Oh how we dance.

We gumboot dance and stomp and ululate wild to these Northern skies. And we hear a distant echo rise from below the equator bringing greetings from the Southern Cross. We dance and clap wild, lost souls singing their way home across the night sky, feeling our way back into a place that Skype can’t properly capture and that email can’t possibly contain.

As if everybody knows
What I’m talking about
As if everybody would know
Exactly what I was talking about

Talking about diamond dust on the soles of tired shoes. Talking about Ladysmith Black Mambazo and how we are all homeless, moonlight sleeping on the midnight lake. Homeless and dreaming of peace, jacaranda trees, and a rainbow slung across southern skies bridging a nation that one man laid his life down for plank by plank, year by year.

Talking about three blond kids and their mama in a parking lot all hunched over the glow of a cell phone as she reads them the scrolling updates about Mandela. And my first born, my South African born-son that I came home to birth after a decade away, he gasps, eyes wide behind his glasses.

His –no– is long and low and echoes the moan in my own chest.

So we chase it. The song our President, our peacemaker, our legacy has left for all to tell and retell around camp fires and vetkoek, around kitchen stoves and potjie kos pots, around soccer matches and cricket innings, around the braaivleis and the beach and the township shebeen bars – this lilting beautiful truth that we are a people who need one another because of our differences, not in spite of them.

And me and my three – we run and dance and dream ourselves there. Because next week we will walk that steep, steep South African driveway again. And I’m determined it will feel familiar under their feet.


LisaJo_Profile picLisa-Jo Baker is the social media manager for DaySpring, and the community manager for its website, incourage.me, an online home for millions of women the world over. She shares her everyday life lived in between kids and chaos at LisaJoBaker.com, is a contributor to Huffington Post Parents, and her writings on motherhood are syndicated from New Zealand to New York. Born and raised in South Africa, Lisa-Jo currently lives outside Washington, DC with her husband and their three very loud kids.


49 Responses to “A Southern Cross Love Song: Remembering Nelson “Madiba” Mandela :: by Lisa-Jo Baker”

  1. Jennifer Lee December 5, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

    LJB, You make it all so alive. Heartbeat of Mandela here; heartbeat of your home. Praying you there, friend, … praying for you as you head back to the jacaranda and jasmine.


  2. Alece Ronzino December 5, 2013 at 10:58 pm #

    LJ… Your words are ones I’ve been waiting to hear—to linger with—since the news broke. Because I knew that somehow you’d find just the right words to make me see and smell and hear and feel the Africa I love and miss so much. Thank you for bringing me home tonight.

    I will forever stand in awe at the unmatched power of a surrendered life—at the difference “just one” can make—at the unbridled strength of grace to break through walls and set the captives free.

    I’m dancing with you, if you’ll have me, to the song of life and legacy and a continent transformed.

    Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika…

    • Lisa-Jo Baker (@lisajobaker) December 6, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

      I love that we share a love for this country. You living there so much more recently than me. I’ve loved remembering it with you and this man who makes us all family.

  3. Angie Ryg December 5, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

    Oh Lisa-Jo,

    I was in a pageant in high school (oh, such a long story) and I put that one of my heroes was this man. This man I knew of…but the depth of his life…I never knew. I was young…I knew what I wanted to know…but even this has given me a glimpse deeper into this man. For that I thank you!

    “We dance and clap wild, lost souls singing their way home across the night sky, feeling our way back into a place that Skype can’t properly capture and that email can’t possibly contain.”

    Oh, this picture – of freedom – of joy. May your beautiful Christmas at home be filled with these dances!

    Hugs and Blessings,

  4. Kate Wallace December 5, 2013 at 11:11 pm #

    This is so incredibly beautiful. Thank you thank you thank you!

  5. idelette December 6, 2013 at 1:43 am #

    I’m with you …

    “There is a song that echoes my homesick love story stranded between these two countries …” So beautiful, Lisa-Jo. All of this.

  6. Bethany Bassett December 6, 2013 at 3:21 am #

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I spent one summer in Kwa-Zulu Natal during my college years, and it wasn’t enough. I dreamed of moving there. Now I dream of taking my daughters there to smell the smoke and taste the mieliepap and see the unfamiliar stars. Ladysmith Black Mambazo takes me back, and your words today stir up the sweetest kind of sadness. I wish I could have met Mandela too. Even if I never make that dream-trip with my girls, I’ll make sure they know the legacy of the man who led that country on a journey of peace and freedom.

  7. Janis Cox December 6, 2013 at 4:04 am #

    Oh Lisa,
    You make it so real. I have never had an urge to visit Africa until now. I can feel your joy, the pulse of your history. And I think the world is a little sadder today – we have lost a great voice of openness and freedom. May others take up the torch.

  8. Eileen December 6, 2013 at 4:18 am #

    “we are a people who need one another because of our differences, not in spite of them.” What a beautiful truth and beautiful reflection. Thank you for sharing this.

  9. Amy Tilson December 6, 2013 at 6:41 am #

    How much joy I’ve felt for you at this time of homecoming is hard to tell you. It think it is right and was planned by the Almighty that all this would come together at such a time as this for you to be there for the celebration and remembrance of his life. Hugs to you and your countrymen as you, and we all, mourn the loss of a powerful man and his voice. Love you, friend.

    • Lisa-Jo Baker (@lisajobaker) December 6, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

      It’s going to be a wild ride – all those kids and all those flights. But worth it. Worth every single second.

  10. Tonya December 6, 2013 at 7:15 am #

    Tears here. And reaching long arms and wrapping you in a hug. Safe journey friend and may you follow the echo of the song home next week.

  11. Sarah R. December 6, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    Thank you. The first 10 years of my life were spent in Nigeria, West Africa and even though it has been 27 years since I have been there a part of my heart still beats to African rhythms. And yes – certain smells have a way of buckling the knees. And sometimes I grieve over what my kids don’t know they are missing.
    Wishing you a wonderful, filling time in S. Africa!

    • Lisa-Jo Baker (@lisajobaker) December 6, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

      The smells, yes, man they can take you back!

    • Elizabeth December 8, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

      I grew up in Zambia until I was university age. You touched on all the things that move me most: the music, the smells, and the fact that my kids don’t know what they are missing.

  12. emily wierenga December 6, 2013 at 8:51 am #

    absolutely breathtaking. thank you lisa-jo.

  13. AmberC Haines December 6, 2013 at 10:07 am #

    Oh, LJ. This post. That song. All of it. Your story, his story: it belongs to us all, whether or not we know it.

  14. Leigh Kramer December 6, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    Beautiful and poignant, Lisa-Jo. Thank you for sharing this glimpse into your heart.

  15. neesie December 6, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    I have spent the day feeling shut down. I tear up when I hear his voice on the radio and when I see the flags at half mast. My friend said that she feels unsettled in her bones. And having lived through the bad old days…she would not be my friend if not for this man. Thank you for this beautiful tribute. And I pray that you can soak up every second of SA when you come home.

  16. Annie Barnett December 6, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

    I always love hearing more of your story, Lisa-Jo. Grateful for your remembering and your telling it here for us, too.

  17. Diana Trautwein December 6, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    Oh, my. So beautiful, and so word-perfect that I can, once again, see that red dust, smell the mealie-meal cooking over an open fire and picture the beauty that is Africa. Not Zulu clicks where we lived, but soft, liquid vowels and a steady patience that forced my always-in-a-hurry self to s l o w down. Thank you, thank you, Lisa-Jo, for this paean to a person and to a country and to a continent. May you be blessed beyond blessed as you travel home, taking your three blonde beauties with you. This is glory here.

  18. Jamie Gates December 7, 2013 at 8:06 am #

    I found your blog post as a Facebook post from a mutual friend, Kate Wallace. As a fellow MK raised in the RSA on biltong, boerewors, pap en sheba, on Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon, on the complicated space of being a Yankee, in evangelical missions that were reportedly “apolitical,” living a confessional life toward justice and reconciliation, I share your deep gratefulness to Madiba, the homelessness and the homesickness…

    Grace and peace,

    • Lisa-Jo Baker (@lisajobaker) December 8, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

      Jamie – headed home tomorrow for that pap and wors and arriving the same day as his funeral. Home will be especially sweet this time.


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