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Dear brother Paul

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By Mankhokwe Namusanya:

Even in death, men are different.

In burial, they are almost similar. If not buried at sea or in a carnage of a death in the skies, then it is a rectangle of almost similar size world over.

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It is atop that rectangle where differences rise.

For some, it is just a mound. A pile of soil and small rocks. For others, it is an actual monument. A house of some sort. In granite. With their information and messages of adoration imposed in shiny letters. The very honoured, mostly politicians or those sacrificed to the war machines, get a mausoleum or a cenotaph. Often, in societies where the living cannot afford shelter.

Beyond the structures, stand the statues.

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For others, they tower high – like giants – maybe peering into a future that time robbed from them. A distance they will never step feet in. For some, like you, they are dwarfed. Their legacies obliterated by the callousness of geographical bias. Their achievements dented by a production made under the gnawing pain of flesh eating illnesses.

We, again, watched 11 May get memorialised.

In the streets of social media, the first historian reminded us of Bob. They pointed to his Rastafarian faith. His want of peace and love. His song, Zimbabwe, and the tour of the same. These, they said, pointed out to his African-ness.

And, in formal spaces, this death as well was accentuated.

They did not say, at least not loudly, that on 11 May Africa lost its biggest music product. But, in memorial programmes and Facebook posts they threw songs of blackness and images of Africa he conjured.

In the corner, and almost forgotten, stood you: Paul!

I struggle to shake off this image: of a tattered flesh, a daze in the eye, guitar in hand, fear on the lips, staring into a distance – looking at death in the eye. And those moments of breaks you had to take because the voice could not come out.

But, I come not to compare losses, not to contrast legacies. I come to tell stories. For, ‘Ndichilitseni’ told stories.

The first song, the title track, leaves a conflicted legacy. It is Alpha Blondy. And, those who feel slighted that we want to hijack their commemoration of Bob by shining the light on one of us are quick to remind us about that. Like, in some nights we have not slept to ‘Akonda aliyense’.

As if, in the pressures of oppression that define all our relationships here it is not in your words that we have found lifting. That it is the hope of someday the heavens restoring what life snatched that has kept us trying, with hope, in the face of perpetual failures.

It is, perhaps, just not on our conscience. Or, maybe, we want to divorce from the 90s and the recklessness with which men disavowed their own promises. A recklessness that, sadly, still lives with us. Thus, when you remind of vows made in entering into a marriage and how they are abandoned, we find it odd. And outdated. And traditional.

You cannot really fault the most of us. The seasons have changed. The music has changed. And, where back then in downtown beer halls we would dance to ‘Lonjezo’ even on the edge of violating those same vows, today it calls upon us to think and reflect. And respect the talent behind the song, especially considering the way it opens:

“Your behaviour, brother, is embarrassing…”

In these current times, the themes of our music have all crystallised into either love, fake political promises or hate.

Thus, today, with a tamed HIV prevalence, themes of orphan hood sound one million years ago. Akin to footprints of dinosaurs, in the sands of time.

When your voice, sad and fearful, cries and reminds that we are tools in the hands of God and pleads with us to be brother’s keepers, we wonder whom you are addressing. For, even the question of God becomes contentious. We forget how the keyboards of Balaka rallied us to come through and provide to all those who lacked a lot, as an act of divinity.

And caring, even praying, for others seems unusual. That one could, in one song, mourn years lost to dictatorship and pray for the mercy of its custodian sounds too kind. These days, in looking at the dictatorship you kindly and consciously engage in ‘Nkhoswe yanga’, we are either swept into whitewashing it or painting it absolutely black. There is no middle ground.

You were absolute too, in some of the messages. You were preachy, looking at life as either this or that. You said, with finality, there is no love that is forced – at least not from the charms obtained in dirty operation rooms of traditional doctors.

From the homes of such doctors, you pointed at an alternative: Mother Mary. The influence of the Church in Balaka cutting through with ease.

There was sadness, and gloom, in your voice. And songs.

There was death, either hiding between the lines or just imposing itself, in that album.

It is timeless. It is ageless. But, of course, our new problems refuse to find – or maybe to see – guidance in your Tonga words that call for equality in ‘Anyamemba’. A song whose meaning and sense seems to shock every Tonga speaker in my circle when I ask them to actually listen to it and stop jumping to singing along the chorus.

I keep thinking, in most 11 Mays, what you could have sang about these days. In an age of tribal rhetoric, of politics chiselled along regional lines and terrible fears where the cancer that claimed you becomes a default cause for unexplainable deaths, what would you have sang?

It might be years, Paul, but the music you left in that sordid winter of 97 lives.

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