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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

At the heart of the world: stories and songs

I'm sitting in a quiet little room, with music in the background. It is music to die for, and some people did. My husband, who grew up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, is sitting with his mother, an Englishwoman who went to Africa with her husband and four very young children. They are watching "Cry Freedom," the 1987 film about journalist Donald Woods and Steve Biko, black activist. Biko died in detention. Woods escaped to London, England and died there five years ago, August 19, 2001.

So much has changed. South Africa is a different country. The haunting music - including the South Africa national anthem, which is surely the best in the world - sends shivers through me, of a recent hell, but one experienced at a distance.

Nick, my husband, recalls one of those odd anecdotes that makes world history personal. He was a young student, a chess player, who went to South Africa to play chess. He stayed with Donald Wood, not knowing the man was a journalist just beginning to taunt the system.

Years later, young marrieds, we spent a lovely few days on vacation in Kruger Park, in the South Africa that still had apartheid. My husband's sister, who had become South African, was our hostess. She worried about her son, then 14, wondering if he would be drafted into a South African army she couldn't support. We had flown in from Europe. The time difference is minimal, although the flight was 14 hours. We had a very young son, and I was tired and off schedule.

I woke up well before dawn, thinnking it was jet lag. I wandered outside our round thatched park hut, one of several in a circle. Light was beginning to ease away the dark night. Wild bush animals were quiet, waiting for the hour when they would drink together at waterholes, with the first warm rays of day. Buck and lion and zebra and birds, small and large, would go to the water, warily or indifferently, depending on their place in the African scale of things.

The music was low and soft. The harmony was exquisite. Women with brooms swept in front of each of the huts, pushing back the dust from yesterday's bush winds. They never looked up, at each other or at me. They wore faded robes and head wraps in beautiful colors and patterns. They swept. They sang. They broke my heart for a country and a world beyond my understanding. Never before or since has dust tasted so sweet, yet so bitter.

I'd heard of Nelson Mandela. He was a prisoner, not more than that, or vaguely more.

Tonight, in Switzerland, my husband and my mother-in-law watch a fictionalized, but not very, moment of history in South Africa that belongs to them and to so many others.

I can only ache with and wonder at the music.

Another version of the music, lyrics, background.

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