Sunday, 23 November 2008

MIKE SIKAWA-tribute and obituary

...If I was to choose key words to describe the late BBC Tanzanian journalist Mike Sikawa would be: brave, original, genuine, intelligent and opinionated. He danced his own tune and throughout his life followed his own cause.

Typical Mike Mike at the peak of his youth, 1982( Pic courtesy of Che Mponda Blog)

I knew him as a teenager and during those days (and even years later as we worked in Dar es Salaam) he loved music and his most favourite song by African American singer, Johnny Nash
: I Can See Clearly Now, perhaps mostly described his attitude to life:
“I can see clearly, the rain is gone now;
Is gonna be a bright, bright, sunshine day.”

Johnny Nash

During last years our correspondence was a few emails regarding his column “Letter from Johannesburg” written in This Day for which I had high regard. We were school mates at Ilboru Secondary Schoolin Arusha. Though ahead of me, hardly friends yet, we were both beneficiaries of the wonderful literature classes by Mama Victoria Chitepo (wife of the assassinated Zimbabwe exiled leader Herbert Chitepo) during the promising opening of the 1970 decade; she (and Ilboru School in general) was one of the early inspiration for many of us some who became leaders like former Prime Minister Frederick Sumaye; current Director of National Security, Mr. Rashid Othman and managerial executive Mr. Daniel Mshana
Although Mike could be confrontational and argumentative I never once saw or heard him getting into a physical fight; he was a peaceful man whose passion for truth and information was expressed through the pen and free speech.
Growing in the era of Ujamaa
and Mwalimu Nyerere where self expression was stifled and the paranoia of secret services loomed large, Mike would stroll through storm, rain and sun, unafraid to speak out. Whereas Ilboru proved an almost silent, sullen experience for the tall, lanky Meru born teenager at Mzumbe Secondary in Morogoro he blossomed. Again we were school mates, he still in front of me.

Mzumbe Secondary, today regarded as the topmost school in Tanzania.

By now he was constantly talking of his new found first serious love: Helen T. who he glorified and endeared with romantic letters and poems.
For me leaving the familiar surroundings of northern Tanzania to almost semi-arid conditions at the rough ragged Mzumbe boarding school in 1973 was catastrophic. And Mike Sikawa (alongside other Ilboru colleagues) became a kind of elder brother guiding me along. By this time I had found (beside my cravings to be a writer) the guitar and Mike Sikawa was leading singer of Earthquakes one of our school bands at Mzumbe. With South African born exile, Tabiso “Tabs” Leshoai they taught me the science of performance. In those days the great music maestro Mbarakah Mwinyishehe would come play free of charge at our dining hall and Mike would already show his aptitude for communication and fearlessness by chatting and teasing the national star, while we cowered in the background. Mbarakah Mwinyishehe then at the height of his powers would let us use his instruments during breaks and my very first musical concert, with Mike on lead vocals, (the Micky Jagger
and Tabu Ley
of our band) was that night.

Musician Mbaraka Mwinshehe who was to die in a car accident in 1979 in action. Photo courtesy of Bongo Celebrity Blog
Watched by cheering and admiring females from Kilakala Secondary School (our beloved sweethearts) I forgot what we had rehearsed and embarrassed the band. Later Mike followed me in the dormitory: “that was absolutely shit” he charged, point blank. Leshoai the musical director and solo guitarist coached: “Freddy we don’t go on stage to show off but to play music.”
These guys were my true peers and although they did not pursue a musical career, thanks to that incident, I am the disciplined musician I am today.
And Sikawa, Leshoai, Earthquakes was not just about music. They loved the truth: speaking out against injustice.
During the said 1971-73 period, the world was in intense transformation. President Richard Nixon was getting clobbered by the Watergate scandal, dreaded Vietnam War was at its epic end, the Black Panthers challenged racism in America; the CIA toppled the government of democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. In Africa, at their most ferocity, the liberation movements in Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, South Africa worked from Dar es Salaam.
On the educational front, Professor Walter Rodney : released "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa" changing the way African history was taught and regarded across the world.

Late Professor Walter Rodney of Guyana, lived and taught history in Tanzania in the 1970's.

Locally, industrial and school strikes (like what we are undergoing through now) were frequent. The new clause from TANU’s guidelines allowed workers to challenge and question bad leadership. For students this hunger for freedom and truth was as fashionable as hip-hop, hoods and hanging trousers are today.
Mzumbe was a tough school. Absent teachers, pathetic food, bullying and homosexual rape amongst pupils; we were fed up. Mike Sikawa and Tabiso Leshoai became part of The Rebel Cause leading riots that climaxed in the police (FFU) coming in; frog marching us back to classes. It ended with 150 of us being suspended. Three months later after a public humiliation by the Government we were pardoned and returned to school; the ring leaders were chucked out for good. One of them was, Mike Sikawa.
This was a crucial moment in the life of the once soft spoken, goody, goody country boy from the green highlands of Njiro, Meru.
The metamorphosis of Mike Sikawa fired up the day he was refused entry back to school, in 1973. Whereas he could be part of the Earthquakes band, centre of school debate, prancing about and teasing the likes of great musician Mbarakah Mwinyishehe or joking with the French language teacher from Senegal; he was suddenly alone. I would meet him during holidays, very angry, intense, focussed. Bright as he was his chance to join University had been quashed. His college, he declared, simply, shall be Life.

Public service and genuine leadership were amongst many issues Mike Sikawa tackled in his writings...
As means, it was to journalism he turned…
The early 1970’s were times of talented thoughtful press critics: Kenyan Philip Ochieng and Jenerali Ulimwengu
had powerful opinion columns in the then Daily News (The Standard) and Nationalist (English version of Uhuru). In the sports page Tommy Sithole (Zimbabwe born) rumbled on. At the head were the editors of the day, former President Benjamin Mkapa (boss when Mike Sikawa joined Daily News); brilliant photographer the late Vincent Urio,Ndimara Tegambwage, Ulli Mwambulukutu, Costa Kumalija and the arts column (Up the Stage) of Frank Mzirai.
One of Mike's memorable and disntinct early news stories was a much talked about debate between Kenyan scholar Professor Ali Mazrui
and Professor Walter Rodney at the University of Dar es Salaam in mid 70’s.
These were days before Wilson Kaigarula, Danford Mpumilwa, Hamidu Bisanga, Leila Sheikh,
and the satirist Adam Lusekelo. Mike Sikawa proved his mettle immediately. His first weekly column: “Roving Reporter” fitted his unique talent, trying exposing corruption, bureaucracy and inefficiency.
He was equally a great listener to foe and friend alike.
Around 1983 for example I recall being at a Kilimanjaro Hotel reception in Dar es Salaam with various government and diplomatic heavyweights. We were chatting and one Minister said something to Mike regarding his critical articles and what the role of a journalist should be. Mike took it on the chin, quietly, his typical sharp eyes with that I Don’t Believe You Sir, glint; saying nothing…

Dr. Asha-Rose Migiro, paid tribute.

By the 1980’s he was a senior reporter and getting the best scoops. We were mesmerised at the way he managed to get a lengthy interview with President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. It is no surprise that UN Deputy Secretary General, Dr. Asha Rose Migiro ( who sent a heartfelt tribute) would be tracked by Sikawa in Lesotho
, for an early reaction after her nomination, twenty six years later.
I always felt Mike Sikawa (and my generation in general) was greatly affected by the economic hardships especially after the war against Ugandan dictator Idi Amin
in 1979. Different people react to situations, differently. It was at the height of early creative powers that Mike started drinking heavily almost becoming a nuisance. I may say (without proper medical justification, though) that might have stirred his diabetes which was to eventually kill him. He was a very sensitive fellow affected not only by personal things but social ills as well. I felt his frustration was seeing the continent going nowhere and him unable to change things, instantly.
However, he did not lose his touch with humanity.
He was especially cordial to women and once said: “When you speak to women it puts them off staring at their chests or legs; look at their faces.”
In 1992 I met Mike Sikawa in London. He had transformed a great deal. No longer drinking, sober, studying journalism at Cardiff, Wales; working forBBC
; mentally still razor sharp, weakened with diabetes.

I visited him in South London where he expressed annoyance with the two faced nature of local prejudice:
“I cannot stand the hidden hypocritical racism in this country; I would rather it was more open like Germany or red neck America”…
He was now a born again Christian and would not allow using bad language. Despite his illness he read a film script I had drafted saying it was not good enough; years later I could see his point.
Soon he left for home.
Conclusively the BBC became his torch from Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg or Arusha where his final steps were as hobbled and strained as his life. Many have spoken or written about his simple straightforward writing style. It is sad that he did not take many photographs. I knew he was quite modest about that and regarded it as showing off : one of his other qualities...
This Day should, as a tribute, turn his brilliant essays into a book.
Young people and students of journalism would learn a lot about the ABC of writing from him.
May His Soul Rest in Peace, Amen.
Mike Sikawa born Meru, Arusha, October 1953
Died Meru, Arusha, 18th November, 2008

1 comment:

Chemi Che-Mponda said...

Kaka Freddy,

Thanks so much for this piece. I knew him well, but the drinking ruined everything. It's sad because he had potential to do even bigger things than he did. He was gifted in journalism, that's no lie. I think the last time I saw him was in the late 1980's when he stopped by the Daily News offices to greet his old colleagues.

May he Rest in Eternal Peace.