Tenthani: Unpacking the Muckraker

Just like your children about whom it is difficult to state categorically who your favourite is, I won’t be able to tell you which of my entries is my best.

Suffice to say, however, that two ‘muckraking’ moments shall remain distinct in the nine yearsMuckraking on Sunday has been running non-stop.


But, before we get to that, let me first appreciate some people in the ‘muckraking’ community who shall remain anonymous.

Sometimes we, writers, are hit by what is called ‘writer’s block’. You have a blank space in front of you, you have ideas to fill that space with, alright, but words just don’t begin to jump out of the keyboard.

Raphael Tenthani, BBC correspondent and the Muckracker in Sunday Times newspaper
Raphael Tenthani, BBC correspondent and the Muckracker in Sunday Times newspaper

I’m sometimes tempted to just to fill the page with anything and damn it! But the calibre of people who call me to comment on what I have written, not necessarily to agree or disagree with me, but to have an intelligent conversation, makes me to always think through my thoughts rather thoroughly.

At the back of my mind I always think that if I spew trash just to fill the page I will waste time for this lady or that gentleman in this city or the other, that town or the other, who look forward to reading me.

In fact, a certain retired lady teacher from Chitipa always makes me ‘mind my language’. Whenever I fluff a verb or a noun she always calls on a Wednesday (may be that’s when she gets her copy) to tell me, “Your argument makes sense, Sir, but we don’t say, ‘It’s high time we start’; we say, ‘It’s high time we started…’!

Hah! Hah!

That said, let me share my most memorable moments now before her next English Grammar lesson comes through!

Prison tales

Firstly, it was the entry I wrote when, on March 17, 2005, it pleased President Bingu wa Mutharika to make me a guest at one of his police cells courtesy of that little ghost story I wrote for the BBC and AP alongside Reuters and NPL journalist Mabvuto Banda.

While Mabvuto was quite a veteran in such misadventures, after being incarcerated once or twice before during his heady days at Blantyre Newspapers Limited, I was quite apprehensive.

Lots of things were going through my mind as the then head of CID, a chatty guy named David Nyongo, was driving us to Lilongwe.

But it turned out quite an enjoyable experience for want of a better term. We were actually treated like rock stars by ‘fellow’ inmates for everyone wanted to tell us everything to tell Bingu.

The Muckraker that came from that experience, Cell Number 2, was an instant hit. In fact Ken Lipenga, who was Information Minister then, quipped, “We should not sympathise with you then; it seems like it was quite an enriching experience for you!”

I actually simply chronicled tales of ‘fellow’ inmates, some of whom were needlessly detained and forgotten (just like Jeffery Archer’s prison book, ‘Cat O’ Nine Tales’).

For example, there was this chap, a bar bottle collector, who was arrested because some drunk police officers were annoyed by his insistence that they return – or pay deposit on – bottles they were trying to take away with them from the pub.

For his insolence, the officers simply bundled him into the back of their Land Rover and dumped him at Lilongwe Police Station. And, because he was undocumented, they forgot him; no one could take him to court for there was no file on him!

The then police chief, Mme. Mary Nangwale, ordered his immediate release after reading the Muckraker! Talk of activist journalism!

Hospital musings

The second memorable ‘muckraking’ moment was in December, 2011, when I made a ‘wrong parking’, as my senior colleague, the late Jika Nkolokosa, would humorously describe traffic accidents.

I was driving alone to Mangochi in the middle of the night when, just before the Liwonde Bridge, I rammed my car into a truck that had no tail lights.

I messed up my car and my face but not my pen, as it were!

Admitted – detained would be an appropriate word – at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital’s Lion’s Eye Clinic, the deadline for submitting my entry was nigh. I had no serious bodily injuries; my hands were working, my brain was not impaired, but my eyes were a mess.

Gerard Msuku, the good doc who runs the clinic, advised me to momentarily avoid reading or simply looking at things, which meant that, after he applied to my eyes his painful liquids, my eyes must stay shut!

But, against the good doc’s orders – sorry Gerard! – I asked my wife to organise my laptop for me. I strained my eyes, tears rolling, and hammered some 1,400 words for my entry!

I’m not sure how many of you realised that I did that in my disabled state!

From ‘musings’ to ‘muckraking’

But, look, this column started like a joke. When the late Hardy Nyirenda, who was based in London then, decided to end his column in The Sunday Times, I was asked to suggest a replacement since I happened to have been the one who convinced Hardy to start the column in the first place.

“Why don’t I just take over the space?” I suggested to then The Sunday Times then acting Editor Vynn Phiri and Features Editor Idriss Ali Nasser.

Perhaps they were panicking to fill the gap, perhaps they thought I had it in me, I will never know. But they did not object to my proposition.

So I called my column ‘Musings on Sunday’.

But after a few runs Idriss said, “You write like the anonymous Zimbabwean author who used to write the Muckraker.”

And then ‘Muckraking on Sunday’ was born!

Actually, I always laugh when people accuse me of always finding fault in my ‘victims’. Muckraking is, as the term suggests, splashing mud around. What business does the Muckraker have in praising people for doing their job? If they, especially those in leadership positions, do a good job, they should not expect unqualified kudos from the Muckraker for that’s their job, for crying out loud!


Bakili Muluzi has come in for quite some mud splashing by the Muckraker. But I must admit I enjoyed writing the column during the first Mutharika reign, especially during the twilight of his life. I mean, the guy had ready fodder for muckraking. You were spoilt for ideas whenever Bingu got out of the doors of State House.

Actually, he was one of my favourite readers. Whilst his apologists would barrage me with angry texts, e-mail or calls, Bingu – whenever he felt compelled to ‘correct’ something I presented on my column, would start his call with: “My First Son, Raphael, you don’t understand…”

I’ll never forget when I went to town on his Nsanje colour dream. I suggested he must consider dreaming in ‘black-and-white’ for he was living in la-la land with his NsanjeWorldInlandPort and the resultant Nsanje metropolis.

Upon which Bingu said, “That term was coined because there were no colour printers then!” He never touched the bulk of my argument!

Actually, I like the feedback my column gets, especially the angry ones. In fact when you get an angry barrage of texts, e-mails, phone calls or whatever just know that your point has reached home.

Nowadays, with the proliferation on online media, my column gets snapped up, oftentimes unauthorised, by online newspapers. I like reading the comments section in such online media, most of which come from anonymous authors. Most of the anonymous correspondents attack the person, not the ideas.

The aim, I know, is to hurt my feelings, to scare me into easing down a gear. But I believe in the football maxim: a bad footballer aims at the leg, not the ball.

When people start attacking your person, most of the time peddling innuendoes and untruths, just know you have hit a ‘home-run’; they can’t stop you.

Let’s continue muckraking into the next decade!

  • The article appeared in the Sunday Times newspaper

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