An artiste, prophet, inyanga all in one
MANY came to know the late Richard Phiri, warmly known as Micah from the early 2000s local hit TV drama series Amakorokoza, as a comedian, or a carefree character who took even the most serious of issues in a light hearted manner.
A comedian by profession, Phiri lived up to his worth in the eyes of his many fans, with his epitome being that of his epic feature on Amakorokoza, where he played Micah, a sneaky and sarcastic farm hand that was always caught up in controversial illegal gold dealings.
. . . But his real life story is one that many people never knew.
Born in 1955 in the City of Kings, Phiri grew up to be a man that many people looked up to, a respectable man in his neighbourhood — Mpopoma, where till the time of his death, was iconised as a distinguished resident, who many could turn to in time of need.
His nephew, Michael Mhlanga (MM), whom he was very close to spoke to Sunday Life’s senior reporter Peter Matika (PM) last Friday about his late uncle’s larger than life character, where he described him as humble but yet adventurous.
PM: It is with great sadness to have to meet under such circumstances. Phiri was a man who was loved by everybody; he had the ability to turn a frown upside down. Many of us never really knew his personal side but knew him as a talented artiste. It would be very humbling to the world to really learn what type of a person he was.
MM: Indeed, he was a great man. He was a father, not just to his immediate family but to his extended family as well. Even to the community. After the loss of our grandfather, he assumed the role of being everybody’s father. He looked after all of us. Back then he was married to Elizabeth Mpala, whom he married in 1978. They had a daughter together Prisca Phiri, who is married and lives in South Africa. As life progressed and with the turn of fate, after I lost my dad, he became a father figure in my family. He worked hard; he paid for our upkeep, paid our fees and always made sure there was food on the table.
PM: That is quite interesting, to learn that a man who always kept a smile on his face carried such a burden on his shoulders.
MM: After he and his first wife parted ways he then remarried. He settled down with Abigail Tshuma, and had two children. She is the woman he was living with till the time of his death.
He carried with him so many burdens but never showed or broke a sweat from it. He was our father in the family and even in the community of Mpopoma.
PM: Besides all that what type of a man was he and what did he do outside the arts?
MM: Outside the showbiz and arts he loved carpentry. Before I go there before that era of his life, he actually was in the army. He enlisted in 1975 but later resigned in 1980 where he focused his energy on carpentry, while pursuing his comedy.
PM: He was such a humble and carefree character, but apart from all that how else did he live his life?
MM: (Laughing) There’s a side of his life that we as a family always make fun of and laugh about.
At one time he founded a church in Kumalo suburb. An Apostolic Faith Church, where he proclaimed himself a prophet and went by the name Baba Nyoni, after he told us that he had an epiphany, were he says he saw the Holy Ghost coming to him in the form of a bird. He ran the church for three years and really had a following. Also he worked as a gardener in Kumalo for a very long time, it was actually from the 80s to the late 90s.
PM: Now that is quite funny. No one would have ever thought that of him.
MM: Thereafter he then claimed to have had another epiphany, where he then became a traditional healer. He called himself Baba Khumalo, after he said he had traced his ancestral roots to the Khumalo family and that the ancestors had spoken to him, telling him to correct himself and answer to his true calling. He was a traditional healer for about two years. After that he then left that life and focused his energy on his Godgiven talent in the arts and showbiz. That is when he joined the Amakorokoza cast.
He also featured on the Ingwebu Iyabhalansa advert.
PM: The man really lived an adventurous and eventful life. He experienced it all.
MM: True, he enjoyed his life. But after he fell ill, his life took a dip. When he first fell ill he was in denial and was at conflict mentally, with him being a traditionalist, he never wanted to seek medical attention. He literally refused to be taken to hospital. He only agreed when I spoke to him and that is when he experienced a severe bout of diahorrea. That was in 2004. At that time he was using herbs to treat himself but they rendered useless. After he recuperated he then stopped taking his medication. In 2007 he then fell ill again. This time it was extreme and we thought he would die. His daughter then came from South Africa to assist. We opened a funeral policy for him, as we were not sure of the outcome. Surprisingly he got better and started working on his comedy again, visiting different schools to make ends meet. However, in 2016 he fell ill again and this time he suffered TB. It rendered him bed ridden and he needed constant care. He was unable to do anything literally. That is when he was now living in Emganwini but we moved him back to Mpopoma. He had lost a lot of weight and was just gaunt. He got better and went back again to comedy walking from different neighbourhoods and schools. He never believed in commuting.
This year he however, fell extremely ill, the neighbourhood, because we believe in family values, joined hands and came to assist till the time of his death.
PM: It is really such a sad scenario to have such a larger than life character having to suffer so much.
MM: Actually on his deathbed he complained and condemned the lack of appreciation of the arts industry in the country. He said if it was as lucrative as other industries artistes wouldn’t die as paupers. He wished the arts would be appreciated and be paying to avoid such instances as his.
PM: True, it is such a sad phenomenon. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
Phiri was born on 8 May 1955 at Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo and learnt at Lukhanyiso Primary and Msiteli High schools in Mpopoma. He worked for the then Rhodesian Army in the signals band and was a self-taught carpenter.
He joined the then Amakhosi Arts Centre in 1992, but his acting career stretched as far as 1968 where he acted with the late comedian Michael Madlez’babayo” Moyo doing street theatre and stage acts in schools and community halls.
Phiri is survived by two daughters, a son and two grandchildren. He was laid to rest last Monday in Bulawayo.
Richard ‘‘Micah’’ Phiri