Mulumele Shangwe

Contributed by Steve Yates

We have been singing Mulumele Shangwe now for quite a few years but it is easy to forget what this piece of music means, so read along and hopefully I can bring the meaning to light.

The words of Mulumele Shangwe translated literally don’t make much sense… “ I great you with respect and I am not afraid of you. Therefore we can see each other for ten (fingers)”.

Now just imagine you were born in a little village in East Africa. You never knew your parents, they died of a mysterious wasting disease (AIDS) when you were very young. You were brought up by your older sister who was only eight years old when your parents died. She was the head of your household. You were one of seven children but three of your brothers and sisters have died. Now the four of you live in a mud hut that fell down years ago. You have nothing but the clothes you are wearing. You sleep in these clothes because you know they won’t be there when you woke up if you ever took them off.

Every day is the same as the one before. You wake up and all you can do is spend your time trying to get through to the next day. Water is nearly impossible to find but if you walk to the river with an old tin can you can drink. Your sister sometimes finds food for you but if she is not successful that day, you starve. Time has really no meaning for you. Days, months, and years mean nothing at all. A very long time in the future is your ten fingers held up so people can count them.

The only emotion you have ever really known is fear. When you see new people, you know that all they really want to do is take something from you. New people therefore are to be feared. (In fact in Swahili one of the biggest insults you can ever give someone is to tell them you are afraid of them. When you think about it what are you afraid of…good or evil? Telling someone you are afraid of them means you see evil in them. Similarly, if you tell someone you do not fear them, you have told them that you see only good in them).

One day you wake up to a lot of strange noises. Several trucks come into your village and people get out to give you water, food and clothing. They build you a place to live in then send you to a school and teach you how to read, write and take care of yourself.

As you stand there, looking at the these people, well fed, in your new clothes, outside your house, with a future you can look forward to, you can sing Mulmele Shangwe. “I great you with respect. You are a good person and I am not afraid because I see the good in you. Therefore you and I can be friends forever”.