By Peter Alegi | April 23rd, 2014 3 Comments
Guest Post by Hikabwa Chipande (@HikabwaChipande)
LUSAKA—Zambia is mourning football radio commentator Dennis Liwewe, who died on April 22, 2014, at the age of 78.
Liwewe caught the soccer fever on the Copperbelt in the late 1950s and 1960s, an era that led to the emergence of great players such as Samuel “Zoom” Ndlovu, John “Ginger” Pensulo and Kenny Banda. He became the first black football commentator in the early 1960s before Zambia’s independence. Liwewe’s passionate radio broadcasts made him a household name among ordinary Zambians. At a time when there was no television, Liwewe’s enthusiastic and absorbing descriptions of matches helped popularize the game across the country.
By the mid 1970s, he was known as a prominent football announcer in neighboring countries such as Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Botswana. When Zambia reached the final of the 1974 African Cup of Nations finals in Cairo (which Chipolopolo lost to Zaire [now DR Congo]), the Egyptian weekly magazine Al-Musawar labeled Dennis Liwewe the greatest football commentator south of the Sahara. He drew favorable comparisons with the famous Egyptian radio and television broadcaster Mohamed Latif. (Latif had played for Egypt’s national team in the 1930s, then became a referee in the 1940s, before going on to earn the nickname “Sheikh of Commentators” in the 1950s.)
From the 1960s to the early 1990s, football on the radio was synonymous with Dennis Liwewe. His emotionally loaded calls made listeners of all ages in towns and villages around the country visualize what was happening in a stadium far away. He could estimate and explain all free-kick angles, distances to the goal, and the speed of the ball in a vivid and unmistakable voice. He had that distinctive ability to carry listeners with him, bringing enjoyment to their lives and even making them proud to be modern Zambians. It was not uncommon to hear both young and old people reciting and imitating his soccer commentaries, a kind of oral literature. No wonder Zambians felt that broadcasters who did not announce like Liwewe were just not good enough.
Even after the introduction of the Mwembeshi satellites and television broadcasts in 1974, Liwewe’s radio work remained popular. It was common for soccer fans to watch live matches on television with the volume turned down to listen to Liwewe on the radio. Many fans also went to Independence Stadium in Lusaka carrying two-band radios so they would not miss Liwewe’s entertaining narration. My good friend Mtoniswa Banda reminded me that another reason why fans carried radios to the stadium was because Liwewe often exaggerated or made up his play-by-play commentary. Even when the action was dull and distant, he could narrate it as if it were only a few inches from the goalposts! Other Zambian supporters also note that Liwewe became too commercial in his old age, to the point that he demanded to be paid in cash for an interview about the history of the game.
Aside from his radio work, Liwewe was employed by the Mining Mirror as a sports reporter for the Nchanga Consolidated Mines in Chingola. Subsequently, he rose to the position of Director of Public Relations of the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) before retiring in 1985.
Dennis Liwewe’s name in Zambia evokes memories of young people in urban townships and rural villages assembling makeshift radios, repairing (or buying) new ones, putting their old batteries out in the sun hoping to get enough power to listen to their favorite football announcer. History will show that here in south-central Africa his voice, passion, and imagination were not only admired, but loved, like the beautiful game itself.