Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Real-Life Childhood Hero Is Dead

“By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

My mother died in 1971, when I was only nine years old. True to our culture, her immediate elder sister, Mrs Grace Banda, came a year later (in 1972) to collect my two sisters and me so that she could raise us up in her home through our turbulent teenage years. I will remain ever grateful and indebted to her for this gesture. She already had eight children and so our arrival meant that she, and her husband, now had eleven mouths to feed—daily!

The first few weeks were very difficult for me because my closest friend had been a foster brother, Musa Phiri, whom my parents had raised since he was in his diapers. He was younger than me by slightly more than a year. Since he was adopted from my dad’s side, my aunt did not feel that she owed him a living as much as she felt about my two sisters and me. So, she left him behind. The last I remembered was him holding his bag in the driveway and weeping his heart out as the car taking us to our new home drove off. It took a few weeks for me to get over that scene emotionally, and it is still etched at the back of my memory.

Upon arriving at our new home on a farm in the outskirts of Ndola, we found four boys (Sabuni Allan, Chibeza Robert, David, and Kamwanga Stephen) and four girls (Mwila Grace, Kabifya Rachel, Mwaba Claire, and Mwape). I cannot quite recall if David and Mwape had second names. The days ahead were soon to become the most memorable days of my childhood. Of all the boys, the one who became my hero was Robert, who preferred to be called “Bob”.

What made Bob stand out?
Partly, Bob stood out because he was the natural leader among us. Allan, the oldest of the four boys, was already working when we got to the farm, and so, although we lived in the same home and occupied the same bedroom (detached from the main house), his round of activities were too far flung for me to identify with. Bob was the second born and was still doing his high school and so he naturally provided leadership for all our childhood pranks.

Bob was also the most gifted among all the four brothers I found in the Banda home. When we went hunting birds in the woods, I normally came back with the emptiest bag and he almost invariably returned with the fullest. He was a top marksman when handling the family pellet gun and I often benefitted from his generous heart. Bob was also very gifted in music. He played the bass guitar, the lead guitar, the rhythm guitar, and the drums, with great prowess. Whenever a new song became popular (by such musicians as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, the Equals, the Witch, the Musi-o-tunya, the Five Revolutions, the Twinkles, etc), he soon taught us how to play the song using dry guitars and homemade drums, and he provided the leading vocals. He also composed his own songs. In the midst of such talent (which the other brothers also had to a large measure) I also learnt to play each of these instruments, though I soon learnt that my gifts lay elsewhere.

Bob was also gifted with the kind of body that would have made today’s glossy magazine editors fall over each other to get him on their front cover. He loved weight lifting and other body building activities. I recall us younger disciples following him in the orchard on the farm as he went before us with bare chest lifting all kinds of iron bars that he kept there, while we remained mesmerized by his muscles and strength. He also loved gymnastics. The acrobatics he performed on a pile of mattresses almost cost me my life when I tried to imitate him. I still suffer from backache from one of those childhood falls.

So, Bob was my real-life childhood hero. I often wished to be like him when I grew up. After my high school days, I left Ndola for Lusaka to do my tertiary education. This also meant that I returned to dad’s home. That is how I parted ways with my childhood hero. Apart from a few glimpses here and there, I was never really to spend any meaningful time with Bob again for at least ten years. By that time, I was in my late twenties, was converted to the evangelical Christian faith, was married, had worked as a mining engineer in the Zambian mines and was now working as a pastor, and I had begun to raise a family of my own.

The day my bubble burst
When Bob walked through my front door, what I saw burst the bubble of my childhood dreams. He had taken to alcohol in a big way and he was paying a dear price for it. He had been laid off from work, been married twice, and was now on separation with his beautiful second wife. Bob could not live without “the brown bottle”. Whereas I can vouch for him that he would not steal or kill to get his hands on beer, I know that he used his fertile mind to come up with schemes by which he got his hands on money, which he quickly turned into alcohol. Stories of his escapades can make the most hilarious primetime movies. Even today, when I tell some of them to my friends, our eyes are wet with tears by the time I end the stories.

Bob standing next to me in my home in November 2004
In African culture, Bob is my elder brother, and so nature dictates that I throw a veil over many of his shortcomings. In fact, for the purpose of this blog post, it is not necessary for me to go beyond this. Suffice it to say that the extended family, including his beautiful daughter, put in the best of efforts to reverse this downward trend in Bob’s life, but it was all to no avail. I recall pouring out my heart to him about how he was my childhood hero and how I once longed to be like him one day, but even that did not work. I once linked any help from me to his attending a gospel preaching church near his home, but even that finally failed. Bob went through one job after another, but that accursed drink always cost him his job.

In due season, Bob’s health also starting failing. On a number of occasions, he was admitted in hospital and the doctors were very clear that unless he was cured of “the bottle” there was precious little they could do for him. Well, the inevitable finally happened last Tuesday. Bob, my childhood hero, collapsed and died. I was too far away to attend his funeral and have been grieving ever since my wife broke the news to me. Of the four boys I found in the Banda home, he was the last one to die. In other words, I am the only one left from that happy band of young men whose voices filled the boys' bedroom with song and laughter in the 1970s. Above all, I am grieving over the ending of a life that I thought would bring great honour to our family and our nation. Alas, that was never to be. Bob is dead.

What can I say to all this?
Two major thoughts fill my heart and mind as I lay my pen—or keyboard—to rest. Firstly, it is to warn those who are coming behind my generation—especially my sons and nephews. Keep clear of that accursed drink. I know there is such a thing as being a social drinker and many have managed to maintain that to their dying day. But why play Russian Roulette with your life, hoping that you will come out a social drinker and not an alcoholic in the end? Let the sad ending of the story of my real-life childhood hero be a scarecrow to keep you sober till death. Bob would not be where he is right now if he had not taken his first drink.

Secondly, I am filled with gratitude to God. I know that in that boys' bedroom I was the least gifted and the most vulnerable (having lost a mom who was the pillar of our nuclear family). Humanly speaking, I ought to have gone first. But by his grace, on Friday March 30, 1979, God transformed my heart and enabled me to make choices that have kept me on the straight and narrow. To him alone be praise, glory, and honour—both now and forevermore. Amen!

Postscript (added on 31st May): Now that my sons and nephews have read this blog, I need to cushion my "accursed drink" statement a little bit (only a little bit), especially for the sake of my Western readers. Be assured that this is not meant to be a doctrinal statement but a very emotional one. It is not meant to join the moral fray on whether social drinking is right or wrong. When you have lost each one of your four brothers—one after another over a period of fifteen years—to crocodiles while socialising along a nearby river, and you are now left alone, to you that river is cursed. Whereas others may tell their sons to be careful when walking near that river and never to be there alone, you will warn yours to keep a mile away from that "cursed river"—especially when you have just buried your last brother who was also your childhood hero!


  1. I'm a reader at Challies and am so glad he linked to your blog post about Bob and your childhood. It brought tears to my eyes--very touching and sad, while at the same time beautiful to see your love and respect for your family. God's richest blessings to you.

  2. The accursed drink, surely you speak truly. Having grown up in an alcoholic family I know what you are feeling. Both my parents are alcoholics, my dad is also a gambler on race horses & lost our family house & farm due to his habits. They are now divorced & both still drink heavily, my mum tries to disguise her consumption by mixing spirits directly into her Pepsi bottles but my brothers & I know better. God has been very good to me, He saved me 23 years ago through the agency of the girl who became my wife, being the eldest brother by a number of years, my younger brothers hero worshiped me & I was immediately able to start dragging them into church. Honestly I left them very little choice. Praise God, He had plans for the 3 of us & we are all converted, married to christian girls, non drinkers, & active in our respective churches. We still pray for our parents.

  3. It is good to know that someone out there identifies with my emotions at this time!