Monday, 22 August 2011

Lawrence Chikuwira

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die” – Thomas Campbell.

Bulawayo, 1985 – Lawrence Chikuwira is a big man, expansive, silver-suited, immaculate. A muscular if pot-bellied, good-looking, proud African in his mid-30s when I first strut into his newsroom.
   He is super animated – given to bouncing in his executive, high-backed leather swivel chair behind the organised clutter on his desk; cuttings files, telex sheets torn with a ruler from the roll, copy baskets (diaries/in/out), page plans and of course the ever-ominous spike, a rudimentary yet terrifying steel fang mounted in a crude block of wood.
   So here I sit opposite the jiggling editor of a provincial newspaper in post-colonial Bulawayo, the industrial capital of Zimbabwe. Mr Chikuwira is not agitated because of me – I’m to learn that this is how he always is, he simply can’t sit still.
   He is, in fact, unfazed that I am a long-haired 16-year-old in a scruffy school uniform (preppy Christian Brothers’ College where I’m constantly taking hidings for that long hair and scruffy uniform). He is interested in hearing me out – it’s not every day a shabby white schoolboy waltzes in and asks for a job as a reporter on a predominantly black newspaper.
   The editor asks some probing, no-nonsense questions, then suggests I write something appropriate to my age group. He tells me to go away and think about it – he can’t commit a desk to an unknown quantity. But he’s studiously courteous, laughs good-naturedly at my impertinence, and gets up to walk me to the door, patting my shoulder paternally as he lets me out.
   I have a brainwave. I approach a classmate and friend, the equally unkempt Mfazz Zulu. Let’s write a weekly column about adolescent problems, from the perspective of both black and white teens. We’ll fearlessly tackle such taboo and proscribed subjects as drink, drugs and sex (our article promoting the use of condoms almost sees us expelled by an apoplectic head brother – until Mr Chikuwira steps in and argues our case).
   ‘Bridging The Gap’ runs for 12 weeks, when the editor calls me in to say I can have that desk. He bounces in his chair, using a red bic byro to rap out an urgent tattoo on his desk, desk calendar, coffee mug. Mr Chikuwira says I have the makings of a fine reporter and that I can earn 30 cents per published column centimeter to start. If I prove myself and get a few scoops, he’ll even consider offering me a staff job.
   That’s how it all began. For the remainder of my teenage years, Lawrence Chikuwira was my mentor and father figure (my own ran off with his secretary when I was 14). He forgave my many failings – including a disastrous investigation that led to my arrest and detention as a suspected spy, repeated episodes of intoxication on the job, the extreme insolence and arrogance of youth.
   We laughed a lot and we fought as much, often to the point where Mr Chikuwira almost bounced himself off his chair. Pen lids flew. But he never held a grudge, and always accepted graciously my (not infrequent) apologies.
   Lawrence Chikuwira was a great journalist and a good man. He gave me my start, generously imparting his expertise, defending me as a father should, never demanding the thanks he was due.
   Sorry I gave you such a hard time. Thank you for everything you did for me. Rest in peace, Baba.

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