Brethren, I would want to imagine Felix Mponda wanting us all to know that his work here is done. Finito! That after nearly 42 years of storytelling, at 64 years young, he got what looks like a lucrative offer. That the new assignment would reunite him with his parents, kinsfolk, friends and colleagues that he’d not seen in a while. And that the job security for this loving husband, father, brother, grandfather, uncle and sage, would be iron-clad. I would also imagine that none of the societal ills he wrote about in his stories while among us, exist over there.
If true, why mourn then? Death has this spooky ability of making us think deep about our own mortality. It gives us reason to question the meaning of life, since it seems all unnatural and unfair that this life we cherish, can just be ended in a flash. Consider this: Don Napuwa, a contemporary of Felix, socialized with him Thursday evening, only to learn the next day that the guy he’d shared a drink with the previous night, was gone, according to Nelson Magombo, another well-respected journalist (retired).
If you can easily wrap your head around that, then surely you can square a circle which I can’t. Going by the accounts of Napuwa and those who interacted with him on social media platforms, such as WhatsApp, prior to his transitioning, there’s no doubt in my mind that Felix wasn’t in a hurry to check out of this world. I would want to believe that there was a lot of work among us that required his set of skills for the jobs to be done properly.
It was in 1993 when Felix came into my life. I was fresh out of college with zero experience in journalism and it appeared as though everyone wanted to publish. I was working at a new, obscure publication that’d produced just two issues at the time not knowing when the next issue would hit the streets.
Having a boss with shallow pockets probably was a blessing in disguise. He feared we would fold up if people didn’t like our product. He wanted us to wait for the “right time” before publishing, which made our stories not relevant anymore. At the market, it was survival of the fittest as each time you turned around, there was a new title.
To beef up, I was joined at the startup by the late Angels Mtukulo, my senior in college, who had some experience but just not quite enough yet. Mponda understood what we were trying to do and dropped some knowledge on us, gratis, giving birth to what would become life-time professional and personal relationships between he and I.
When I met Mponda, he was the stuff of legend. This was after the dark cloud of oppression over Malawi was finally dissipating. There was real excitement in the country. But Kamuzu’s paramilitary wing the Malawi Young Pioneers and the rabid Youth League, known for selling party membership cards and harassing anyone not following diktat, were still intact. That meant the fear factor among Malawians still lingered, yet Mponda had the gall to bring into the country new issues of The New Express, a pro-democracy newspaper, which had been printed in neighboring Zambia. He was arrested on arrival. Post his arrest, at The New Express we would laugh at the way the government responded to queries about his whereabouts.
In a news bulletin on state radio MBC read by Franklin Titani, the official line was: A Mponda akudziwa chimene adalakwa (Mr. Mponda knows the crime he committed). When you come to think of it, the reaction by the government that was in its death throes was expected.
Felix, who had a great sense of humor, later quit as the paper’s editor. His departure also marked an end to his current affairs column, ‘Kauzazi Asks”, which was written with a touch of humor. Sometimes, I would call him “Kau”, which was direct from his column. Kau was yet another moniker — Bureau Chief, the Pen Maestro — worn well by the handsome, bespectacled storyteller.
After leaving The New Express and going solo, he became one of the first few successful freelancers in the country. Whenever you asked him what he was up to, his response, as he adjusted his glasses, included, ‘filing. Busy filing”, a reference to reporting stories for various media houses. The publishing houses included French news agency AFP, Africa Information Afrique in Zimbabwe and Catholic-run news services Koinonia and ANB-BIA in Kenya and Belgium respectively.
Felix wasn’t resourceful just to himself but others as well. He coached me on how to write for the foreign media and whenever he took time off or was in Harare to retool his craft at AFP, I sat in for him. And sitting in for him meant a lot to this budding journalist with a ravenous appetite to learn. This was a good time to practice what had been taught.
And as someone creative, Felix, who did some of his media work under his FM Connection, would assure one “I will connect you”. Prior to 1994, there were no journalism schools in Malawi. On-the-job training was the way many were taught at the time. Felix knew of the hunger among journalists for opportunities to learn whether it was the nuts and bolts of gathering information and disseminating it; or learning from peers. The same year we met, he led a group of media workers to the International Network of Catholic Journalists conference in Tanzania. The conference gave me a good foundation on the role of the press on issues of social justice in society.
One more dance
It was journalism that first connected us and it was journalism that provided another opportunity to reunite on the professional level with my mentor. That opportunity came when online publication The Maravi Post — which I edited for a few years — was launched in the U.S. That was over a decade ago. Felix assembled a small team of heavyweights including the late Ralph Tenthani whom I had previously worked with at The Nation; Kondwani Munthali, formerly of The Nation; and Joe Chibewa, whose real name shall remain anonymous.
If there was a person who lived a simple life regardless of their economic fortunes, that was Felix. If he did something for you, he didn’t expect you to return the favor. Whenever I asked him if he wanted anything specific when I was getting ready to visit home or send him something through someone going home, the answer was obvious: “Anything.” And while I knew not to ask as he would appreciate any gift, when I asked him on my last trip in the summer of 2018, he said: “Okay, get a rosary for Rosemary.” A rosary is used by Catholics for meditation and prayer and Rosemary is now his widow.
Few will disagree on what Felix meant to journalism. Anderson Fumulani is a veteran who also attended the journalists’ conference in Tanzania and knew Mponda’s work ethic.
“Felix was a journalist extraordinaire. He was very focused and inspiring to those around him,” says Fumulani, who was also a foreign correspondent. And Felix, who had previously worked for Malawi News Agency, The Daily Times and Malawi News, must’ve been on a mission when he landed a job at Fumulani’s old employer, MBC. This was the same broadcasting house that had mocked his arrest at the inception of a new Malawi back in 1992. Says Fumulani: “I know he was pushing for reforms because he actually requested for editorial policy, house style and training manuals which I helped develop for MBC.”
Book dream, C19
Although he hadn’t published a book by the time of his death, Mponda selflessly praised those who had done so and encouraged others to take the plunge.
In point of fact, we’d agreed to work on a book project together and I was supposed to travel to Malawi in 2020 so we could put our plan in motion. But Covid 19 (C19), the global disease that has killed thousands of people, threw a spanner in the works. Governments quickly installed travel restrictions to reduce the quick spread of the disease.
With our book meeting postponed, we pushed it back until 2021, but little did we know that there wouldn’t be yet another dance, again thanks to C19 which sneaked up on him.
Does Mponda’s sudden departure to take permanent residence in Zion underscore the fact that life is fleeting and not permanent? Yes. And yes. But at this moment, as we mourn one of Malawi’s best storytellers, I am certain we would be soothed by great lyricist Irvin Berling’s composition: “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.”Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :