The irrepressible Bob Mtonga
I needed all day for this to sink in. Getting past it will take a lot longer than that. Bob Mtonga was one of the most optimistic, dedicated, and irrepressible peace activists I’ve ever known. Nothing could get him down. Not all the armed violence in the world, not the need to scrape together whatever resources he could find in order to attend all the meetings everyone wanted him at, not the countless times he was rerouted from one airport to another and back again because immigration agents just make it so damn difficult for Africans to travel internationally. He’d eventually get where he was going, and would arrive with a smile on his face, and, if it was freezing cold (or just moderately warm, which is the same thing by Zambian standards), he’d borrow a pair of gloves and a scarf and maybe a sweater and proceed to warm everyone else up with his charismatic presence and an inexhaustible supply of proverbs, most of which I swear he made up on the spot to sound like ancient African wisdom.
I have a confession to make: when I first met Bob, back some 15 or 20 years ago, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. He spoke with this beautiful musical cadence that completely encrypted whatever English words might have been coming out of his mouth. Asking him to repeat himself would help a little, but not always. Over time the situation improved, in part because his English got better with practice, and in part, I like to think, because I really wanted to know what he was saying and learned how to listen.
And Bob definitely had something to say. He had a real knack for finding the kernels of truth in complicated arguments. He knew how diplomacy worked (and how it didn’t), and was a good diplomat himself. He never wavered in his conviction that peaceful solutions were possible and worth the trouble. No goal was too big and no victory was too small. As far as Bob was concerned, you would just start from wherever you were and keep on moving.
Bob was my host and self-appointed guardian during my first and only visit to Lusaka back in 2002. That’s when I came to appreciate his stature and his importance to the social and political life of his community. He would pick me up in the morning and we’d walk a couple of miles to the conference venue. We’d never get there on time, because half the people on the street seemed to know him and would want to give him some news or get his advice about something. My northern anxiety must have been showing, and he explained to me that no one ever arrived anywhere on the clock, because everyone would be making the same frequent and totally necessary stops along the way. That’s how the community held together, and stopping to talk was just as important as starting a meeting on time—usually more important.
For the past couple of years, it was impossible to keep up with Bob’s itinerary. He was constantly in demand at international meetings about small arms and armed violence; he played a key role in ICAN, advising African campaigners for the nuclear weapons ban treaty; and none of us knew where he was going to show up next. Assuming that he would show up, somehow, was always a safe bet.
We knew he was struggling with diabetes, but he always shrugged off our concerns and insisted that he was taking care of himself and watching his diet. When I saw him in December, at an ICAN retreat in The Netherlands, he was looking drawn and tired, but he dismissed that as travel fatigue, insisted that he was taking proper care of himself, and changed the subject back to the ban treaty. I’m told that last week, in Berlin, the signs that something was really wrong were in plain sight.
So he’s gone. But what he brought to IPPNW and into the lives of those of us who knew and loved him will keep us going for a long time to come.