Tributes have continued to pour in for one of the best known radio commentators from the African continent retired journalist Denis Liwewe. The former BBC Zambia sports correspondent died yesterday April 22 2014 in Lusaka, Zambia. He was 78. Born in Malawi, he moved to Zambia more than 40 years ago where he settled and married his late wife. Denis saw everything in life through the lenses of a football game.
When talking about how he took a long time to woo his wife before she accepted his love advances, Mr Liwewe recounted
” It took me 18 months of continuous wave-after-wave bombardment using a 5-3-2 formation because my wife was a hard nut to crack”. He later described his wife as an extremely beautiful woman who was “ as red as a red card”. Three weeks before his death and already weak following complications with his one remaining kidney, he told BBC reporter Kennedy Gondwe who replaced him as BBC stringer in his usual jovial manner that this “… state of affairs won’t remain like this forever. I will bounce back in the second half using a 4-4-2 formation”.
Sadly, he could not make it to the second half.
He narrowly missed dying with the entire Zambian youthful team whom he christened KK11 in 1993 in a plane crash off the coast of Gabon.
In his retirement in 2009, the BBC Sports programme journalist Farayi Mungazi met Mr Liwewe and asked him some questions and others from listeners across the globe who fell in love with his passionate radio football commentaries.
Football hasn’t lost its appeal to you. Has it?
Liwewe: No it hasn’t. It has actually matured. That’s the game I was born with so to speak. I grew up with it and perhaps might die with it. I can assure you I watch every game – both local and international on television. I still jump in the thick of action but my wife tells me: ‘Ei you are not on air just sit down and watch.’
Why if football such a great game to you?
Liwewe: Football is a great game to me personally because I showed the world that I never played the game in my life, I never knew the game at school because I wanted to get Grade A in English Language so while my colleagues were on the pitch playing I was reading. I was very brilliant – I can assure you. But I decided to take on a new challenge in broadcasting and that was it. I used to record football commentaries from the BBC and then go to the bush to study it and took my own style of broadcasting – the African style of excitement particularly on the radio. I did try television commentary but people said it was a disaster. That is not my style. Mine was radio commentary. The problem I had was that most of the people including the then president of Zambia, Dr Kenneth Kaunda, when they were going to matches at the stadium carried their radio sets to watch matches when I was doing commentary. So one was I aware that all these people were listening and watching at the same time so one couldn’t afford to do mistakes. So preparations had to be very very thorough. So it made me do the job perfectly well.
Dennis is loved by many of us (Zambians). My Dennis we still we need to hear your voice from the commentary box as you calculate the degrees and angles as the players run and turn round with the ball. Will you consider a comeback to the commentary box if Zambia qualifies for the World Cup in South Africa in 2010?
Komani Kaonga, Zambia
Lots of people asking similar questions including: Amos Mumba, Zambia Gilbert Zambika, Zambia
Liwewe: I actually don’t like using the word ‘if’. When Zambia qualifies for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa I will definitely broadcast the matches. Forget about my doctors saying: ‘your blood pressure’. I imagine myself in the commentary box in the opening match of the World Cup with Zambia taking on England in Johannesburg. There is going to be a doctor on my left hand side and a nurse on my right hand side.
What preparation did you go through before games. What tricks did you have for remembering player names and positions?
David Owen, England
Liwewe: Those days it was difficult because the opposing teams were only seen on match days and you had the team sheets one hour before the game. There were no names at the back of the jerseys too so it was tough. But with determination, self-discipline and the eagerness to want to do a good job helped me. I practiced in the shower early in the morning. The constant practice on imaginary matches helped a lot.
What is the greatest match you covered?
Samuel Nkwe, Switzerland
Liwewe: My greatest match was at the 1988 Olympics Games in Seoul in South Korea. The game was Zambia against Italy and we beat them 4-0. The Italian included the famous (Roberto) Baggio in their line-up.
Who is your greatest player?
Justice Kafusha, Denmark
Liwewe: It depends. For the Zambian best I think there is no doubt that Godfrey Chitalu is the best. The present generation may not remember him. He scored 107 goals in one season. I don’t want to forget that Kalusha Bwalya was an incredible player. He played at the highest level and was the African Player of the Year. But for me Chitalu is the best. On the African scene Roger Milla of Cameroon for me is the best.
Do you think the Zambian team that perished in the Gabon air disaster would have gone all the way to qualify for the World Cup in USA in 1994?
Kase Mufwa, London
Liwewe: Definitely. We had a fully-fledged team in every department. We had fantastic goalkeeper, fantastic defenders, attacking midfielders and attackers. These players had been together for six years. They knew eachother for six years and blindfolded they could complete a pass to eachother. Definitely they would have qualified. May their souls rest in peace.
The plane went down off the coast of Gabon killing the 30-strong party of players and officials. That for you was a painful moment
Simon Brown, USA
Liwewe: I don’t think there will be another painful moment like that again in my life. Perhaps when I lose my most fantastic wife. I have been together with my wife for 45 years. But I am telling you, you must understand my point of view because I saw those players grow up as Zambia’s under-14, under-17, under-23. To see them flourish and perish in front of my own eyes is painful. This was a trip I should have been on. The blood pressure problems started and I was under intensive care for ten days. After the tragic incident, the government sent me to South Africa for specialist treatment because they thought I needed a heart by-pass. But out of that, we picked with players from the streets literally and came second at the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia just a year after that tragic accident. That is the Zambian spirit. I know the players at that tournament were playing to please the souls of their departed colleagues.
You said you should have been on that flight to Senegal when the players and officials perished. Do you think someone upstairs smiled on you for not being part of the team?
Liwewe: No doubt about that. I am a very strong Christian. I am actually a canon in the Anglican Church – honorary appointment. Without the power of somebody up there, I wouldn’t have been alive. But at the same time, it must have been done for a purpose. Maybe I was saved from that situation to do something for mankind. That is what I am doing now. I am now a consultant and companies are retrenching workers and they need somebody to tell them the art of survival when they stop getting a monthly salary. When they the terminal benefits of millions, some of them run amok and marry a second wife if not two more and abandon the families, my job as a consultant is to go there before they are given the money to warn them I lost my job 23 years ago and I survived. I tell them the modalities of survival.
As a small boy I stopped doing home work just to listen to your commentary. Why have you not run for a position in the Football Association of Zambia?
Frankson Mumba, USA
Liwewe: It is one of the big mistakes people make. Because you were a big footballer you want to run football. There is nothing wrong with ambition. There is division of labour in life. Some of us are rifle men in military terms. I am not a general – I am not a planner. I am the man who sweats in the commentary box not to administer.
What is the difference between football in the 60s, 70s and 80s and that of today?
John Kitwe, Zambia
Liwewe: In those days football was physical. There were no systems of play. It was exciting and more physical than technical. These days it is more technical as you have to think.
When Dennis Liwewe is gone what do you want people to remember you for? Farayi Mungazi
Liwewe: I want people to remember me as that person who was given the opportunities and used them to the full. On my tombstone I want them to write: ‘Here lies the man who put national interest first above personal interest.’ or ‘Here lies the man who put family interest first above personal interest.’