Tanzania: Sadly, Here I Am Writing Kabendera's 'Obit' and Hoping He Will Write Mine

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Being considerably older than Erick Kabendera, I secretly always hoped that he would one day write my obituary, both as a friend and professional colleague.

We worked together, laughed together, drove across vast Tanzania - just two of us in the car, taking turns at the wheel. I have seen him grow as he has seen me age. But now, I write Erick's obituary first, hoping he will also write mine when my time comes to go.

HOW I MET KABENDERA

When I first heard that Erick was being investigated over his citizenship, I laughed because I know his royal descent. Though Tanzania abolished and forgot royalty long ago, royal descendants like Erick live on and reproduce. So I had no fear that his Tanzanianship can be disproved.

But when charges against him started being upgraded, through sedition to money laundering and organised crime, I realised anything can happen. Suppose it gets to treason or espionage, which fetches death or life sentence? So I have to write my younger friend's obituary.

I first met Erick in 2004, when Nation Media Group deployed me to Dar es Salaam to start Tanzania's premier newspaper, The Citizen. I was warned by James Nangwala, Kampala's celebrated lawyer who has passionately defended journalists three decades, that it wasn't going to be a walk in the park. We were happily working out in a suburban gym when James bluntly said my task would be "as easy as starting a Kiswahili daily in Kampala."

James did not exaggerate; among other problems, Dar's local skills were then scanty. On his final inspection visit before we launched The Citizen, I tried to talk NMG's then group CEO Wilfred Kiboro out of a seven-day frequency per week until we had stabilised, but he asked me the meaning of the word "daily" so I shut up and went to work, praying I could get better manpower.

I had personally interviewed more than a hundred journalists and recruited 64 of them in different editorial roles. A few days after launching The Citizen, someone brought me four fresh journalism graduates, whom I just accepted, assigning them to fellow Citizen pioneer, features editor Loy Nabeta. One of them, a young man called Erick Kabendera, soon stood out as industry, getting better by the day. His command of the English language, uncommon in the Dar of 2004, also served him well.

UNSTOPPABLE

I left Dar in 2005, but kept noticing Erick's progress. His turning point was getting the David Astor fellowship, and off he went to the UK for practical experience. From then, Erick became unstoppable as an investigative international journalist, reporting from the UN, South Africa and even Europe.

I returned to Tanzania in 2009 on another pioneering mission, promoting unpopular developmental beats in the media, concentrating on agriculture.

Based at Reginald Mengi's IPP media, whom do I find? Erick Kabendera, a boost as I created Kilimo Kwanza publications.

He demonstrated that young Tanzanian journalists could tackle difficult beats and make them interesting.

A year later, Erick quit employment to become freelance, first constructing a decent house to secure his young family. And now his freedom is no longer secure.

Whichever way things go, Erick has contributed immensely to Tanzania's journalism. I have mentored and supervised journalists in many countries, from Brazil to Bangladesh, Nigeria to Mozambique. Erick is simply the most thorough. Tanzania must be proud of him.

Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist.

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