Foster Dongozi was an immortal, at least in my doting eyes. Ndugu, as we called him could as well have been a mythical medieval entity capable of defying death.
To me, he could as well have been the guy gifted enough to slap the grim ripper hard enough to have him scurry back to hell. He looked like a man with nine lives.
There was life in the booming laughter he gave followed by a robust but misplaced clapping of the hands. Until his untimely death on Wednesday, Foster was never a guy you associated with death.
Devastatingly, I am learning with much sadness, that Ndugu was human after all.
A mercurial figure, almost an enigma. Imposing like a colossus-yet humble. The man whose fingers crafted the golden words that impacted the deepest strings of our minds. He had a brilliant turn of phrase. A writer par excellence and most of all, a brother to everyone who knew him well.
I met Foster when I was cutting my journalism teeth in the rectangular looking newsroom that housed journalists who worked for The Standard. Fanuel Jongwe had put in a word for me to be employed there. Starting on the arts desk, Foster gave me my first ever diary and during my years at AMH, then Zimind, he was more than kind to offer assistance that helped my career.
I had had the privilege of having worked with him at the Old Daily News while I was on internship. He was a god of feature writing. His pen was unmatched.
But I knew him up close when we met at Trevor Ncube’s stable.
As Tapiwa Zivira, Ndamu Sandu and Sandra Mandizvidza will testify many days his generous hand rescued us from the newsroom poverty associated with rookies.
But perhaps the most touching conversation I had with my mentor was as recent as last month when we met over some UNICEF business we were doing with ZUJ.
“Unoziva mfana John I gave you your first break into Online Journalism,” he had said boastfully before his usual nonsense, “Ndakakubvisa ku Glenview kwawaiita tsafu nekujamba ma sewage.”
He had added: “Life has become more serious, I see that. You finally left your addiction to the newsroom for this new chapter. I am proud of you. I am no longer drinking as much. I am concentrating on doing my goat farming. You never know, I have grown old. I am starting to think about what I should be leaving my kids. When you reach a certain stage you even start to think about death. You must, I see white hair. Wakura mfana”
Foster gave me my first European trip. He paved a way for my online journalism. One day he had called me to his desk, littered with all sorts and a ramshackle desktop computer with an ugly “occiput”.
A computer that was at the end of relentless banter from everyone. He had asked me if I wanted to go to Germany.
Silly question! In between his laughter, he said: “Get ready I am recommending you for a good course at IIJ.”
In a month or two I was in the middle of Berlin-amazed at it all as a 25-year-old who had only visited Hurungwe, my mother’s rural area.
Foster was to recommend me for many other courses I did. Until his death, he always checked on me and my progress in life, asking about my projects and my career. A big brother.
Never angry and a tactician with a lethal laugh. I have to reveal this one.
It was on the eve of a ZUJ election and Ndugu was under attack for personalising the union. The usual “nincompoops” as he called them were all over Twitter and Whatsapp complaining about vote-buying and rigging. Foster had called me for a counter social media strategy and I was putting up one or two strategies.
For two days I was on it. On the third, he called me to cancel my contract. The reason: “Ndugu has evaluated every nincompoop. We are winning this easily.” With that third person reference of himself, he took the election to some hard to reach place and in tow his battalion of freelance journalists from the provinces.
The election was secured and until his death, the nincompoops wanted his head. Recently on some Whatsapp group discussing the funeral of a colleague-he had come to my inbox reminding me of just how “one of the ever bitter ones” had roped in ZUJ disparagingly and to his disgust during a funeral conversation about a colleague.
But If at all we must remember this man, it is for the unwavering desire to strive for a better working environment for journalists who for long have been abused by the employer. He never stopped fighting for every journalist.
Who is going to tell me about those adventures covering President Mugabe in “lands young Mokwetsi, you will never reach.”
I can almost hear you say: “You will never write like Ndugu. Nhai Marwizi (Walter), do you think this young Mokwetsi can spell his name under pressure.
These half-baked journalists from these colleges will kill us. Now I need to do major surgery on his story.” With that, you would laugh endlessly wiping tears before assuring me that my story, if lucky and because you are rewriting it, will probably rest on page 30 of the newspaper.
Rest in peace farmer, legend, maestro, champion, journalist, unionist, mentor, advisor!