The Iroko tree has fallen: tribute to Ralph Tenthani
Death can be cruel, infinitely cruel.
Yes, we all have to die and give an account to the Almighty sometime, irreversibly, but when they die young, in their prime and at the peak of their career, it is triple jeopardy for family, for nation and for profession.
That’s exactly what I feel about the untimely, sudden and rather harsh death of a friend, colleague and arguably the best journalism flag carrier, Ralph Tenthani. The media has once again been robbed of a versatile, intensely brilliant and irreplaceable professional.
I will always remember Ralph for his fearlessness and for his faith in press freedom, human rights and for his daredevil audacity to show the dark hidden sides of men and women in positions of authority. Yes, Ralph was no friend, let alone, a favourite of people in power more so those inclined to abusing power, to act corruptly or to compromise their personal integrity.
The outpouring of emotion and moral support to the family is nothing short of astounding. It has become clear Ralph was like the mystic Iroko tree whose splash has echoed nationwide stimulating profoundly emotional reactions from the very top of the national structure.
Many have noted with sadness that Ralph will be missed not least for his skill, zeal, courage and willingness to share his ideas. Vice- President Saulos Chilima said the death of Ralph Tenthani is not only a great loss to the family and the media fraternity but also to the entire Malawi nation.
For four days today, somewhere in the soils of Ntcheu now rests a man who was precocious enough to define his professional path from an early age. He pursued his dream with such determination that he propelled himself to the highest level of achievement.
At the tender age of 20, along with numerous other young people, Ralph was able to publish, taking full advantage of the numerous newspapers ushered in by the dislocation of dictatorship and the start of the journey to freedom of expression.
He rode on the hope and great expectations of the 1994 transition and with time matured into one of the most prolific and quality driven journalists of his generation. He ingeniously combined wit with rare courage and the will to achieve against all odds.
Quick witted and almost experimental at times, Ralph was as constant as the northern star, outrageously creative yet highly disciplined in the conduct of his trade. Ralph was perfectly able to maintain the highest quality in his treatment of content, analysis of complex political, social and personality issues and a smooth style of presentation.
As an avid reader myself and close follower of Ralph’s Muckraking on Sunday, I saw him grow from month to month and year to year. I experienced the depth of his research, the rigour of his analysis and the high sense of purpose in his writing.
At age 43, Ralph was just reaching his peak and growing in all directions of professional possibilities. At this peak, he was not just a writer, but an advisor to presidents, ministers, members of Parliament and civil servants alike. Of this his Times Group Managing Director Leonnard Chikadya says: “His writings were full of wisdom and every person reading his articles was able to draw great lessons from them”.
Following the same train of reaction, Henry Kachaje says: “I can say without any fear that the President of Malawi has lost probably the most objective and fearless adviser in Mr Tenthani”.
Absolutely! His writings not only advised but also set standards for leaders who cared to learn. He projected with zeal and profound clarity public opinion and feelings about leaders, with a uniquely unmistakable tinge of individual mediation that came across with enormous power.
The reactions of political leaders to Ralph’s passing encourage me that our leaders read his writings, in some distinct ways shared much of his reasoning and appreciated his contribution to democracy, leadership and development.
Yes, such was Ralph’s faith in press freedom, democracy and human rights that he endured persecution and arrests but with every experience he came out better and more determined to fight on with pen and paper.
What do his colleagues say?
They looked to Ralph as teacher, mentor and model. Brian Ligomeka, Chief Editor for The Daily Times, says: “Ralph had all qualities of a good journalist — creative, inquisitive, courageous, professional dedication and above all friendliness. Despite being a celebrated journalist he never overestimated his importance”. For Duncan Mlanjira “Ralph was one journalist who only spoke about the good side of what one did and not seeking shortfalls like some always do”.
Here emerges the picture of a humble yet well respected professional, so humble that he worked well with everybody, kept a simple profile in spite of his stature and was always willing to listen and learn. It was such affable, calm almost shy demeanour which set Ralph Tenthani apart.
It is painful — very painful indeed. The media industry has been robbed of an unrivalled, versatile and intensely intelligent journalist, thinker and potential media leader.
If one considers that Jika Nkolokosa and the two Edwards, Chisambo and Chitsulo, are all gone, one feels that the vacuum is growing deeper and wider, one feels quality and maturity are under threat and one does not know where young journalists will learn from.
As we close, I will miss Ralph. I will cherish his coverage of the experience of one Winesi Malichi who regained his sight after two years of blindness with cataract. He became so engaged with work that his person and the trade he loved most melted into each other becoming one.
I do not know what Ralph Tenthani would have become had he been granted just one more decade — just one — But that will never be. Rest well Ralph, I can attest you did your job the best you could.
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