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Rebel woman, sister-fire: in memory of Chiwoniso

Chiwoniso Maraire

Chiwoniso Maraire in concert, 2010 Scott Penner under a Creative Commons Licence

Poet, playwright and activist Shailja Patel writes in memory of her sister-friend and fellow rebel woman, mbira player and songwriter, Chiwoniso Maraire, who passed away on 24 July 2013 aged just 37:

Rebel woman. Sister-fire. Fingers that brought down the rain. The power and joy of your voice, a portal to past and future and worlds we could dream in. The light and heart and force of you.

For all the stages we rocked together. Nairobi. Amsterdam. Durban. Blantyre. Capetown. Jozi. Medellín. Quibdó. Harare and Harare and Harare.

For all the conversations – on buses and planes, in cafes, dressing rooms, airport lounges. We talked agents and business, stagecraft and art, love and family. We talked politics and struggle, heartbreak and vision, migration and return, soul-nourishment and soul-poison.

You taught me not to eat chocolate backstage: it creates mucus. We were united in our insistence on getting the sound right, our loathing of sloppy production, our outrage over artists not being treated as professionals. When you were on the programme, I relaxed – I knew that anything I missed in tech, you would catch and fix.

You and Chirikure, hamming it up against the grey skies of Amsterdam. You at HIFA, saying to me, eyes tender: Isn’t it a beautiful country? You onstage at the Harare Book Café: the rest of us had wilted, and you were just warming up. You sang that night down. As you have sung so many nights down. As you have brought the sun up for so many around the world who long for home.

The first stage we shared was Poetry Africa at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, 2007. My first time to hear the mrimba, to be blown away by your virtuosity. I played your CD over and over for weeks after. Of our company that night, three are gone now. Dennis Brutus died in the fullness of his 85 years. Bantu Mwaura, we could not save. But you, Chi? In my body there is a deafening NO. This was NOT your time. Your daughters. Your unwritten songs. The world stages waiting for you.

I don’t know how to say goodbye to you, Chi. I don’t know how to hold the reality that we will never share a stage again, never talk again, never celebrate again on the dance floor. Out of my tiny right to mourn you, I imagine the hugeness of loss and grief for your children, your family, your people.

Rebel woman. Sister-fire. Fingers that brought down the rain. The power and joy and complexity of you. The light and heart of you. You are so deeply and widely loved. For all time.

To see Chiwoniso performing in Chicago in 2011, click here.

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