National anthems are the standard bearer of patriotism. They’re meant to bind the citizens together, to proclaim that—forget what anyone else might tell you—this country, and only this country, is the best country on earth (often, according to the lyrics, it’s even been given divine approval).
It’s funny, then, how multinational so many anthems are. Britain’s “God Save the Queen” has long been sung by Britons (and citizens of its many former colonies), but several other countries have lifted the tune for their own national anthems. Norway and Liechtenstein still use the melody for their anthems, and Americans singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” the de facto national anthem until 1931 (when “The Star-Spangled Banner,” complete with a tune cribbed from an English drinking song, was officially chosen to replace it), are likewise pinning their patriotism to England’s.
The national anthems of Africa are no different. Tanzanians everywhere rise and sing to “Mungu ibariki Afrika,” (Swahili for “God Bless Africa”), but the song isn’t originally—or exclusively—their own.
Composed in 1897, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“Lord Bless Africa” in Xhosa) was originally intended as a hymn. Its composer, Enoch Mankayi Sontonga, was working at a Methodist missionary school in South Africa (his homeland) at the time, and he penned the first verse and chorus thinking he was creating a school anthem.
The original lyrics reflect the religious origin:
Lord, bless Africa
May her horn rise high up
Hear Thou our prayers
And bless us
Descend, O Spirit
Descend, O Holy Spirit
At the time of Sontonga’s death, in 1905, the song hadn’t reached much further than his schoolroom. But in 1925, the African National Congress adopted the song as its official closing anthem. In 1927, Samuel Mqhayi, a Xhosa poet, wrote an additional seven verses, and the tune quickly spread across the continent.
In 1961, Tanzania was ready to declare its peaceful independence from Britain. What better song for this nascent African nation than “God Bless Africa?”
It’s not known who wrote the adapted Tanzanian lyrics, but in 1961, “Mungu ibariki Afrika” replaced “God Save the Queen” as the nation’s national anthem, with the following lyrics (translated from the Swahili):
God, bless Africa
Bless its leaders
Widsom, unity, and peace
These are our shields
Africa and its people
Bless Africa, Bless Africa
Bless us, the children of Africa
Interestingly enough, it isn’t until the second verse (which begins “God, bless Tanzania”) that the song even references Tanzania by name!
Of course as we’ve already seen, national anthems don’t stay (uni-)national for long; since Tanzania adopted it, slightly-altered versions of “God, Bless Africa” have served as the national anthems of Zimbabwe and Namibia (both countries have since chosen different anthems), as well as Zambia and South Africa (where the anthem is still in use).
Though the lyrics may change country to country, the spirit—and the music—stays the same. Turns out Sontonga’s song really has brought the entire continent of Africa together!