Onjezani Kenani eulogises Lucius Banda: “Soldier” Lucius Banda, go well, son of the soil.”

I met Lucius Banda only once, on a cloudy July afternoon in 2002. I was then a staff member of Sunbird, and Lucius was performing at one of our hotels, Lingadzi Inn. To say we met is an exaggeration. I was a star-struck fan whose name he had never known, and although he politely asked me to mention it, I’m certain he forgot it the moment I finished pronouncing it. But a humble man that he was, he never made me feel unimportant. We engaged in a brief conversation, maybe for no more than three minutes, in which I spoke highly of his music, and he modestly accepted my gushing praise.

Legislator Lucius Banda gets his Ash mark

The next time we were to speak was on phone 17 years later, in November 2019, when I launched a massive fight for brand new dialysis machines at the Kamuzu Central Hospital. He called to encourage me and mentioned the struggle dialysis patients were going through at the time.

After that, we spoke many times on phone, for example in 2021 when we executed a massive campaign to save lives from COVID. Our last call was when scores of Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences (MUBAS) students were on the cusp of being withdrawn due to lack of fees. This time, I was the one to initiate the call, as I sought to reach out to him in his capacity as Presidential Advisor on Youth and the Arts. Little did I know that we were never to speak again.

Lucius Banda burst onto the national scene in 1993 with his revolutionary song, “Mabala” (wounds), from his debut album “Son of a poor man,” until that point an unprecedented attack on the 30-year dictatorship of Hastings Kamuzu Banda. “We may have forgiven [your atrocities]” the song went, “but the wounds hurt.” Although the Hastings Kamuzu Banda oppressive machinery was on its deathbed at the time, it still attempted to bite him, and he had to squirrel his life away by hiding in a ditch overnight at some point, an experience he shared with his adoring fans in a song he released in 1998.

From 1993 to the day of his death, every album he released left its enduring mark on the national music scene. If we had a proper music album rating system, such as platinum, gold, silver or bronze, then nearly every Lucius Banda album was either platinum or gold, with very few – if any – silvers but, certainly, no bronze.

Fighting for the marginalized through his music was not the only thing Lucius did so well. He uplifted many little known musicians to national stardom. When, for instance, his friend Paul Chaphuka died before completing “Ndichiritseni” – his only album – Lucius completed it for him. It became a multi-platinum bestseller the likes of which the nation had never known at that point, and I personally consider it the greatest Malawian music album of all time. Lucius thus unselfishly midwifed the legacy of his friend.

Finding the music space as not enough in his quest to fight for the poor, Lucius dabbled into politics, and won a seat as Member of Parliament for Balaka North in 2004. It was the year Bingu wa Mutharika won the state presidency on the United Democratic Front ticket, only to ditch the party and launch his own Democratic Progressive Party in 2005. Frustrated, the party that put him in power embarked on an attempt to remove him, and Lucius Banda decided to cast the first stone by moving a motion in 2006 to have the house adopt impeachment articles. With that move, which I personally disagreed with at the time, he had flown too close to the sun, and the system moved to rein him in. On 31 August, 2006, a magistrate’s court convicted him to 21 months in prison with hard labour for using a fake MSCE certificate. He was to serve for only three of those months, and after several appeals he was released in November that same year.

Although the conviction caused significant damage to his political career, it failed to crush his musical soul. Straight from prison he released “Cell 51 Maximum”, an album that also became a roaring success.

But our lives are a mystery. Where disease comes from to invade our bodies is not always known. Since 2019 or thereabouts, Lucius was open about his being in and out of hospitals, as he struggled to cling to his life.

Sadly, we lost him at the age of 54 in the worst month in the history of our nation, June 2024, when illustrious sons and daughters of Malawi died one after another, as though succumbing to a domino effect.

“Soldier” Lucius Banda, go well, son of the soil. You spoke for many of us for three decades. As others have said, you provided a soundtrack to our lives year in year out. If, as also has been said, one truly dies when they’re forgotten, then you will live forever through your music.

Perhaps it is fitting then to imagine that – from there on the sad height – you’re telling us the words of Mary Elizabeth Frye, in the last stanza of her 1932 poem:

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.


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