JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Poet and traditional praise singer Zolani Mkiva spent 13 years traveling alongside Nelson Mandela and performing songs in honor of the now-hospitalized former South African president.
The two men shared planes, meals and cups of tea as Mkiva sang Mandela's attributes for audiences, often dressed in animal skins and other traditional clothing. Mkiva has performed at many of the pivotal moments in Mandela's life — singing his praises at his release from prison in 1990 and at his inauguration as the country's first black president in 1994.
"People came to know me as Nelson Mandela's poet laureate because I had travelled with him throughout the country, the length and breadth of the country, singing his praises. Telling the people who he is, from a cultural perspective," said Mkiva.
Praise singing is a tradition in many African countries, a way of paying tribute to people through verse and music. The art — known locally as ukubonga — has been passed down through the generations in his own family.
Mkiva has now become a part of the Mandela family as well: His wife is a granddaughter of the man they call by his clan name, Madiba. Mkiva says it's been an honor to be able to write about and perform for the "father of the nation." Many of his praise songs are performed in Xhosa, Mandela's native language, though Mkiva also performs in English:
"Well, he is the son of the soil, a brother to the daughters of the land. He has no perfumed lips, but he speaks the truth. He has no cat eyes, but he can see the true colors of this continent. He has no dog nose, but he can smell and distinguish between carbon monoxide and oxygen.
He has no donkey ears, but he can hear what makes sense and what is a nuisance. He may not have soft hands, but he has done his little bit to deliver his people from shame." Mkiva says despite Mandela being a world-revered statesman, he has remained very humble — and used to even make jokes at his own expense. Mandela is also a very good storyteller, Mkiva said.
"He has a way of putting a story to you. And you, sort of, feel that this story happened when you were there," he said. And Mkiva has warm words for Mandela as he battles a recurring lung infection in a Pretoria hospital.
"But even if he's going for a check-up, people are always suspicious that maybe something is wrong," he said. "We believe that he is a great fighter. He will fight all the struggles and he always come out as a victor."