Even a mosquito doesn’t get a pat on its back until it starts working – Komla Dumor.
That sounds like something that the gap in his teeth would make even funnier if he said it in my face. I see hands pat his back as I move between memories, distractions and imaginations.
All praise lavished on Komla’s work from his days at Ghana’s Joy FM to his last at BBC’s Focus on Africa pales when I remember him in a blue suit across Peponi Road in Nairobi’s Westlands. He was the funny giant with a gap on his teeth. Always looked like he was about to tell a joke. Save for the serious face that sometimes appeared grim.
I imagine the songs I would share with him. I would play Gyedu-Blay’s Simigwado for him and watch his reaction. It is a funny song. Quite an obvious introduction to Highlife music, but so was Komla to Africa. I would play him the song because he is a beautiful representation of the continent. Widely travelled and wrapped with cultural influences that made his jokes our jokes. Like Simigwado. Like the gap on his teeth. Like the wisdom he represents in telling stories about the mundane. We’ll listen and I’ll clap, clap, clap everywhere the song demands it in Gyedu’s 1973 rap. The style would influence Ghana’s Hip-hop. Komla loves Hip-hop. I would then start talking about how Africa has always been prophetic in its art. Komla seems like he would love the conversation.
I remember him first on Africa Business Report. I was not interested in the word business, so I would change channels. I saw him often on my father’s television, when the local channels would play BBC because we did not have enough Kenyan content for 24 hours. We still don’t seem to have it. We play international news and Naija movies from 12am sometimes 11:30pm. I also remember him on the campus television when, for some ridiculous reason someone would leave the TV on BBC and not music shows. I recall him again to a time when I worked at KTN in 2009. The screens were always on. One TV for BBC, another for Aljazeera and one for CNN, then depending on the hour, a local rival station some reporter would select. Yet I was glued to Komla. I wondered about his round bald head and accent, and questioned if this is the look I had to have to host a show on BBC. Zero hair. His simple look was also carried in his delivery of news. Komla’s delivery was effortless. Seemingly. I did not know how much work he had put to it. Going to study medicine in Jos, returning to Ghana for sociology and psychology and then Havard for public administration. With all his knowledge and the academic family pressure, his delivery was effortless. Seemingly.
I’m standing opposite him as he goes through what is possibly his live link on the second day of the Westgate attack. Peponi Road is full of local and international media. Komla is on the other side of me. He’s laughing with a colleague. It is a serious matter this story. The Africa Journal cameraman I’m with, Kinyanjui, looks at me and tells me to go say hi. My knees are jelly. I say something incoherent, and continue looking. I imagine the song I would play for Komla.
I would play Tupac’s Do For Love. I heard he is a favorite. Through one of his stories – about passion for football – I think Komla likes the rawness of expression. Like Hip-hop. Like protests. Like a story well told. Africa has brilliant rappers and emcees. I wouldn’t talk about Sarkodie. Instead I’d tell him of Abbas Kubaff. I feel he’s better but just sucks at the business part of going international. Komla would wonder why I’ve put Ghana and Kenya in the same breath and taunt my country’s weak emcees. Then we would argue about systems and how ours just make genius artists paranoid and myopic. I would then change subject because I’m now emotional about Hip-hop in Kenya. He would laugh at me.
Komla is about to go on air on Peponi Road, smile gone and grim face on, about to give the fresh numbers of the dead. May they rest in peace. I hear a Swahili reporter say “Pahala pema peponi.” I carry the tripod to the car, and drive off to look for a vantage point. From there we film Westgate clearly. I have left Komla talking about the siege. His speech sounds raw and basic. He is without what some call a LAFA – Locally Acquired Foreign Accent. Like some of our journalists. Like when I try to speak my mother tongue. I remember the name of his show booming in his voice, forcibly inviting you to watch his performance. His duets with Sophie Ikenye are a divine collaboration. One of those pairings you talk about to your kids. Or not. I imagine a possible duet with him on screen. I imagine a song I would play.
I would play him Mutinda. I’m sure Komla would be open enough to discover the undisturbed Africanness of his accent. I wonder if he would like Mutinda. I would tell him how Mutinda is Kenya’s easiest collaboration with Mali or Côté D’Ivoire. Komla would want to hear why, and I would tell him what my favorite girl said. “He would be a great collabo with Dobet Gnahoré.” He would then ask me what kind of music this Mutinda’s is and I’d say a variant of Benga. He would tell me other Benga artists he knows, because Komla knows his music. He would tell me of tracks he’s collected in his travels but would then say, “That’s enough new music for one conversation.” I would agree and probably pick a call and say I have to go now.
The BBC crew has moved. Komla is no longer on Peponi Road. He is gone. I did not say hi. Kinyanjui makes a joke about me lacking guts to say hi to a journalist like myself. I hate it. I hate that it is true. I want to forget that he is gone and remember saying hi. In reliving this memory, I want to release the old painful one. I want to paint a new one on top of it. Like forgiving myself for these weak knees that could not cross Peponi Road. Like telling him his work was music to me. That each of his stories had a grand melisma on a drone of a note that forms the story of Africa. I want to paint something fresh. To the tune of making this memory a beautiful time with my icon who left with the possibility of my meeting him. The words that would make it okay that I did not cross the road. Like when Stromae recalls being afraid to suggest a duet with Evora Cesaria, and forgives himself in an ode to the barefoot diva.
I imagine a new memory. Where I pat his back for the good work Komla has done.