Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In the Valley, a Genius Rests: Remembering Raphael Kinn L Tenthani

Today, Tuesday 19th May 2015, Raphael Tenthani was supposed to be landing at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, here in Gaborone, Botswana. He was coming to attend a stakeholders meeting of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), which is going to run from tomorrow 20th to 21st May at the Gaborone Sun Hotel. I was going to welcome Ralph at the airport, and he was going to bring me the latest Malawian newspapers and the current issue of my favourite Malawian magazine, The Lamp.

Tenthani interviewing John Tembo. Pic: Tenthani's Facebook Page

He is not coming. He was laid to rest yesterday, and is now peacefully resting in the bosom of Bwanje Valley in Ntcheu. That expansive valley is also my ancestral home, something I shared with him. My last whatsapp message to him was on Saturday 16th May, at 19:32hrs. I was asking him to confirm his itinerary and to assure me everything was in place for his coming. The single grey tick in my whatsapp means he never saw the message. Will never see it. He had probably just started off from his village at that moment, returning to Blantyre. And unbeknownst to himself, nor to us all, he was just a little more than an hour away from the catastrophe that would end his illustrious and extraordinary life, at around 9pm on Saturday.

It was all a malevolent type of de javu from an earlier false alarm. I remember calling Ralph’s younger brother Kizito in December 2011 when a car accident he had had then led to rumours that he had died. Kizito reassured me that he was not dead, but he was badly injured. On Saturday night 16th May 2015, there was no reassurance from Kizito. It was not even a rumour. The Malawian social media machine went into overdrive, and eye witnesses were confirming the dreadful news on Facebook, email forums and whatsapp, in real time.

Ralph and I became friends in our late teens. Some six months older than him, I finished school earlier and went on to Lilongwe Teachers’ College to attend a teacher training programme, then called MASTEP – Malawi Special Teacher Education Programme. We taught during the year, and went to college during the holidays. One month-end afternoon in 1990 or thereabouts I arrived at Ntcheu Boma to collect my salary. Ralph heard the news and sent word through our mutual friend Albert Kalimbakatha, the poet. I should not return to Chikande without visiting him, said the message. Visit him I did, and found that he had pleasantly arranged an impromptu meeting of the Ntcheu Secondary School Writers’ Workshop. There were quite a few eager students at that meeting.

Barely a year out of secondary school myself (I went to Nankhunda Seminary and later Police Secondary School, both in Zomba), I had managed to get myself published in a number of newspapers, and broadcast on radio. I had won an honorable mention in a Florida State University (USA) short ‘short story’ writing competition. A newly-launched Malawian literary magazine, WASI, had published the story. Ralph wanted me to talk about my writing, how I got started, what I was working on, what good writing looked like, and so on. We had a lively discussion that went on late into the night.

At that time Ralph himself had already completed a draft of a novel. His English teacher, a VSO volunteer, had it nicely typed and photocopied. Ralph gave me a copy which I took home and read. You could not believe it had been written by someone still in their teens. The English was not only superb, it was impeccable. He had an incredible talent for painting a scene you thought you were seeing live action. He was hoping to get it published in the then Macmillan Pacesetter series. It was what every one of us was reading at the time.  

Our interests went beyond the literary. We both loved listening to music charts on the BBC World Service. We never missed The Vintage Chart show, John Peel, and such other programmes. In 1993 the BBC World Service ran a contest and was awarding new releases as prizes. I won a new release of Paul McCartney’s album, Off the Wall. CDs were just coming into fashion, but I only owned the good old cassette player. I opted for a cassette tape.

My name was announced as one of five winners, with other winners coming from such far-away places as Malaysia, Argentina and Israel, I think. In Malawi the programme came on very late into the night. Everyone in my village in Mayera was asleep. I doubted there was a soul on the planet who knew me, who heard my name announced. Well, Ralph did. He astounded me with congratulations the next time we met. This was way before mobile phones or email.

It was no surprise then that after Ntcheu Secondary School, he did not struggle to find a job with a newspaper. As Peter Jegwa has movingly described the man and the era, Malawi was beginning to undergo transformative political change. The Catholic Bishops released their epochal pastoral letter on 8th March 1992, and Chakufwa Chihana made his triumphant return to Malawi. He would get arrested just after disembarking from the plane at Kamuzu International Airport on 6th April 1992. Ralph sharpened his pen on the politics of the time and became a first rate journalist in addition to being a first rate creative writer. In 1994 we formed the Malawi Writers Union, and Ralph was a founding member. I was founding treasurer, and later became president after Edison Mpina’s (RIP) sudden resignation in 1996.

In 1995 my children’s book Fleeing the War won first prize in the British-Malawi Partnership Scheme, locally known as the British Council Write a Story competition. It was launched in 1996. Both at the prize-giving ceremony and the book launch, Ralph was present and covered the events. When I gave my acceptance speech, I alluded to something about freedom of expression that was not there during the one-party era. When that statement appeared in The Nation newspaper, I became very apprehensive. The Malawi Congress Party was no longer in power, but the less courageous among us were still cagey with what we said about the regime. I called Ralph and told him I was uncomfortable with how the statement had come out. I asked if The Nation could issue a correction. They did.

In later years, I came to regret my fear and to admire Ralph’s courage. While my journalistic escapades were limited to the sports page in The Daily Times and the book review page in The Nation, Ralph was on the front page. When the late Poulton Mtenje called and invited me to meet him at Blantyre Newspapers Limited one evening, Ralph told me I was probably being offered a newsroom job. The intensity of the politics was too strong for me and I decided I was happier editing primary school textbooks at the Malawi Institute of Education, and writing fiction, poetry and plays. And contributing to the sports and literary pages.

Ralph’s decision to quit the newsroom and stand on his own did not come easy. Having been transferred back and forth between Blantyre and Lilongwe, he was reluctant to be transferred yet again. He toyed with the idea of quitting a full time newsroom job and becoming a stringer. I thought he was crazy. True to his character of making bold decisions and not looking back, he took the plunge. He soared to even greater heights, as he was now a correspondent for the BBC, The Associated Press and the Pan-African News Agency. He took on lots of big projects with global media icons such as Brian Williams and Lawrence O'Donnell. And he travelled the world. It became his classroom.

Back on home soil, he ruffled feathers. Political partisans hated him when their parties and their leadership found themselves thoroughly muckraked. He was muckraking even before he launched his famous Sunday Times column Muckraking on Sunday. Aside from his much publicised arrest on 15th March 2005, together with Mabvuto Banda, there were other run-ins with the authorities that he chose not to talk about, expect to his closest friends. Some months after that arrest in March 2005, Ralph got a call from the New State House in Lilongwe. The erstwhile president, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, wanted to see him.

The earlier arrest had come and gone and the issue had been buried. Why did Bingu want to see Ralph again? He alerted a few close friends and asked us not to publicise the issue. He boarded a coach and arrived in Lilongwe. He was driven to State House, and was taken to a waiting room. Unsure what was going to happen to him, we had come up with a plan should there be the slightest indication that some trouble had befallen him. We had gathered direct contacts of individuals and organisations, both at home and abroad, who would be informed instantly.

Thanks to mobile phone technology, Ralph was able to update us every few moments. He was anxious, but he was not daunted. He waited for hours, as we monitored from our computer screens. The afternoon went and evening came. He was finally told that Bingu was too busy for that day, he would see him another day. We breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But the irony of it all was not lost on us. On several occasions I argued and disagreed with Ralph on what I thought was an imperative for African thinkers to defend African leaders from unfair criticism, particularly from the West. Often, the African leaders themselves undermine this very imperative by attacking their own citizens who disagree with them, leaving them no option but to seek protection from the very West itself. Years later, I began to see things from Ralph’s perspective. Although it mattered what the West said about African leaders, criticism from African citizens was meant to spur change in Africa. It was well meaning, and did not depend on what Westerners thought to legitimise it.

Later Ralph’s relationship with Bingu warmed up remarkably, but it did not cloud his judgment. Bingu would call Ralph once in a while to chat with him about his column. One year Bingu invited Ralph to join him on a trip to France. That still did not affect his judgment, leading Bingu to comment one day that the Sunday Times had a column specifically aimed at him.

The last two years of Bingu’s rule were filled with political tensions across the country. People deemed critics of his presidency were receiving threats. There were mysterious fires, some targeting markets, others targeting houses and offices. The then University of Malawi Polytechnic final year student Robert Chasowa was murdered. Ralph’s house was broken into and some effects were stolen. He did not think it was politically motivated, and did not want to discuss the matter further. That was enough to have silenced an ordinary critic, but Ralph did not see himself as a critic for criticism’s sake. He was a patriot. His love was for Malawi first. Everything else came second.

There is a coincidence worth noting that played itself out in Ralph’s last days. Exactly ten years to the day of his arrest on 15th March 2005, Ralph got an anonymous phone call. This was on 15th March this year. “You are stretching freedom of expression too far,” he was told. He did not recognise the voice. And he did not want this shared with anyone. The introvert that he was, as Peter Jegwa has described him, he never wanted to draw attention to himself. But it did not deter him from still adding a joke. “If you hear I’m writing graffiti on some prison wall like the other guy, don’t be too surprised! Hah! Hah!” he messaged me on whatsapp. I told him I would send a tweet, but I would not mention names. He was fine with that. He hoped the issue would die on its own. Apparently, it did.

When Nyasatimes approached a group of us in December 2014 and asked us to nominate Person of the Year for 2014, and to explain why, this is what I wrote about Ralph:

For speaking truth to power. Tenthani is widely recognised as the most important Malawian journalist and columnist writing today. He is a walking barometer of the Malawian political mood. He analyses Malawi’s political leadership with an even-handedness that is as clear as it is penetrating. He is very cool headed, which makes his writing uniquely persuasive. He accepts and appreciates criticism and responds in a calm-headed way, never losing his temper or looking down upon his detractors. He is a walking encyclopaedia of contemporary Malawian political history, remembering facts that are easily forgotten by the public but that have a poignant relevance to day to day life in Malawi’s politics. Presidents have come and presidents have gone, but his talented pen and keen eye for piercing language have always provided level-headed reflections and analyses that speak for millions of Malawians.
His journalism made Ralph a global Malawian, and his death has reverberated around the world. As of a few hours ago Google was returning 50,800 hits on his name, and still growing. There are articles announcing his death in different parts of the world, in languages too many to count. I had hoped to see him again today and for the next two days, but pictures of his stately casket, and of the brown freshly dug earth, tell a different story. A story of a genius resting blissfully in the depths of Bwanje Valley.