He was more than a luminary in Malawi journalism and had the gravitas to pen eloquent criticisms of the government and its policies. Friends and enemies alike had to admit that Raphael Tenthani was one of a kind.
Ralph’s Muckraking on Sunday column spoke for the little man who was mostly denied a seat at the table. Like a tenacious prosecutor, he hounded those entrusted with power as they failed to fix problems and appeared more interested in staying in office.
Choosing to take positions that invariably would step on toes isn’t an easy thing to do in a place like Malawi where those elected into public office feel entitled. The backdrop to this is the kind of Malawi that existed during Dr. Kamuzu Banda’s 30-year totalitarian rule starting in 1964. In president-for-life Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi, state security agents were used to put the fear of God into dissenters. Today, Malawi is 20 years removed from a political system that couldn’t allow its citizens to say freely express how they wished to be governed but old habits die hard. Ralph was the subject of political attacks when President Bingu wa Mutharika was in office (2004-2012). He was once arrested over an article in which he quoted a presidential advisor saying “strange noises” had forced Mutharika to leave his official residence.
I came to know Ralph at the dawn of multi-party politics in Malawi, back in 1993 when we were both newbies in journalism. We had jumped into journalism with both feet without any training. This was so because Malawi didn’t allow journalism to be taught in schools, by dint of Kamuzu. The majority of reporters acquired their skills on the job and new in the trade, we were always looking for opportunities to learn. At one news event in Blantyre, Ralph had in his hands a local newspaper, a novel and a copy of the latest Newsweek magazine. The magazine helped to break the ice as we engaged and talked about how Newsweek wrote stories.
I talked about a small collection of publications I had, courtesy of a friend of mine who worked for a publishing company that sold books and international newspapers. Every other Friday, I would collect from him back issues of international publications taken off the shelves to create room for fresh ones. Ralph was welcome to come and read the publications. I happened to live right across from where he worked at Janet Karim’s The Independent.
It so happened that after leaving our respective papers – The Independent and The New Express — we worked together for The Nation newspaper where I was amazed at his skills. While some struggled to write, Ralph would breeze through.
“I am a writer, not a reporter,” Ralph told me tongue-in-cheek after I complimented him. I didn’t however take his statement to mean he didn’t respect reporters for he was one but simply to underscore his talent. Indeed, writing appeared to come easy to Ralph, a playwright. If he missed a deadline, editors would get all worked up for nothing because once he filed his report, editors didn’t have to take aspirin to make sense of the report. He made the work of editors easy and if you could find me an editor who wouldn’t relish working with Ralph, you would have merely found one not worth his salt!
Following the liberalization of Malawi, the door opened to Malawian journalists and the country for a moment was probably a favorite destination for outside journalism trainers. Malawian reporters could also travel outside for training, courtesy of institutions dedicated to a free press. During that time, journalists realized one could make decent money writing for international news organizations but few made it.
Mponda, who was my mentor and had been jailed by the Banda regime for bringing copies of The New Expressfrom Zambia where it was printed, was one of the first few successful freelancers. I followed in his footsteps and reported for the Associated Press (AP). After Ralph became a freelancer, he turned upside down the paradigm of freelancing in the country. He just didn’t work for one big name but three respected news organizations at the same time: Pan African News Agency, the BBC and the Associated Press while consulting for a bunch of international news organizations.
One last dance
It had been over a decade and some change that I would work with Ralph again but this time it was in cyberspace at The Maravi Post which I edited until a year and half ago. When publisher Elwin Mandowa, IT wizard Jack Chitenje and I decided to launch the publication in January 1st, 2010, we agreed on putting together a team that would hit the ground running. Heavy hitters Kondwani Munthali, Felix Mponda and Joe Chibewa (pen name) were roped in. It wasn’t difficult for Ralph to understand us. He joined and we all went to work believing that chronically needy Malawi could do better to improve the lives of millions our people. We were, of course, disappointed when some of Malawi’s development partners – we had not approached them for financial help — reached out to us only to decide against their own interests, saying we appeared well-established. Really? Well, if you ask me, Ralph must have helped a lot to make us look good.
My discussions with Ralph always turned to the political and social happenings in Malawi. Ralph would capture what was going on and he gave it to you unadulterated and that was the hallmark of his weekly column.
A few months ago, we talked about risks journalists face. I held the view that some stories were not worth it. I sensed Ralph felt I was dissuading him from something and retorted sharply: “Somebody has to do it.”
The long and short of it is that Ralph decided he would live life on his own terms. If someone had an axe to grind, there wasn’t much he could do about it.
“I am so predictable,” said the man who could be found sitting at the bar counter with his laptop at Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre. It was from that corner where he wrote some of the most brilliant articles and the most scathing criticisms of government policies which as expected didn’t please some in spite of the fact it wasn’t in their place to take government criticism personally. Ralph was however smart enough to stick to the facts and not to personalize issues which I believe has the power to disarm one’s fiercest critics.
A couple of weeks ago we, again, returned to the topic of safety. He was mulling over a subject that would have serious repercussions if exposed. Unrelated to what he was talking about, we agreed that the unsolved murder case of university student activist Robert Chasowa when Bingu, brother to the incumbent, was president, would give one pause.
But Ralph again knew where his heart was, saying: “Bad guys shouldn’t win.”
“Follow your gut,” I said.
Come to think of it, why is it difficult for many of us not to have the courage of our convictions? Do we really expect to succeed if we retreat when instincts tell us that our cause is right and just? If we don’t stand up for the voiceless, who will?
Fade to black
Six months ago, I visited in Malawi and regret not meeting Ralph, the workaholic. The day we were supposed to meet he was on an assignment. I left with our mutual friend Mponda the Ray Charles CD he had requested. I didn’t get Tupac, Peter Tosh and some other artists since they were out of circulation. He was content with Ray for that was the one he wanted most for a project he was working on.
In the early evening of May 16, Chitenje asked if it is was true that Ralph has been killed in a car accident. I quickly asked Ralph on whatsup:
“Dude, you alive?”
Not hearing from Ralph right away was no biggie for me as it was late at night in Malawi. Even though Ralph was a night owl and you would get him very late at night, I told myself it was possible he was busy or he too was in bed. Felix Mponda, I told myself, would have said something. But as I said, it was late at night in Malawi hence I pushed the idea out of mind.
Then the dreaded message came, this time it was Elwin Mandowa confirming the horrible news. My heart dropped into my stomach for the man who at just 43 had left a wife and three children.
Shakespeare addressed my question in All the World’s a Stage: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
Ralph, what a fine and rich role you played in our lives and in our country. In standing up for millions of women, children and men, your cause was just. Rest now, peacefully.