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Loss of a friend and respected researcher: recollections of Ephraim Chirwa

After the sad loss of Malawian colleague, Ephraim Chirwa, Susanna and Beatrice Ouma – who both worked together with Ephraim in recent years on agricultural research in Africa – reflect back on their memories of him.

Susanna and Ephraim take part in an African drumming session at the APRA team dinner in Cape Town, South Africa in January 2018

A few weeks ago, I woke on a Monday morning to receive the sad and shocking news that Ephraim Chirwa, a Malawian colleague had suddenly passed away. A Kenyan friend, and previous communications colleague with the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC), Beatrice (see below) had messaged me. News quickly followed from others in the Agricultural Research Policy Programme (APRA) team, for which Ephraim was Director of Research for Africa.

We shared our sense of extreme shock and sadness at Ephraim’s sudden passing after a brief and unexpected illness – it was hard to take in. Just over a month ago, we had been gathered together at the Institute of Development Studies at the UK University of Sussex for APRA meetings and had been out for a fun and convivial team meal at a North African restaurant in Brighton.

It is over ten years since I first met and interviewed Ephraim in April 2008 in Salzburg at Towards a Green Revolution in Africa conference where he presented his research assessing the Malawi Farm Input Subsidy Programme. At the time, and over the years, Ephraim was not particularly enthusiastic to be interviewed or put in front of a camera. He had plenty of interesting things to say, but preferred not to be the focus of any attention and was very humble about his work, despite accolades at national and international levels.

When he got on the dance floor, however, Ephraim was transformed. During a particularly memorable evening in South Africa at the end of a FAC annual conference, a number of us enjoyed dancing the night away with him. And Beatrice remembers another equally unforgettable evening dancing outside (and getting bitten by midges on the lawn) in Ghana.

During our first work together for FAC, Beatrice and I were fortunate enough to meet Ephraim and his colleague Blessings Chinsinga in Lilongwe, Malawi at their offices in April 2009. On expressing our concern to Blessings and Ephraim at the politically-charged atmosphere they were facing in the country at the time (Blessings had been threatened with jail by the President for his research findings which were not well received by the Government), I distinctly remember the humour that the two shared, and the chuckles, as they shrugged off the concerns. Again, it was not that the situation was not serious, but it was their way to deal with it.

As I write, plans are in place for this year’s APRA annual review to be held in December at Lake Navaisha. Hannington Odame, APRA’s regional director in Nairobi was making particular efforts to have an evening for dancing, where we could all have fun together. Ephraim will be sorely missed, not just for his dance moves, but for his significant contributions to the APRA and FAC programmes and teams. I end with the wonderful words of Beatrice whose tribute says it all.

Beatrice: remembering my dear friend Ephraim

I got to know Ephraim when we worked together in the Future Agricultures Consortium and later briefly for APRA before I left to go on maternity leave. In the years that I worked with Ephraim, I knew him to be such a gentle, caring person, always giving me advice when I needed it. Under his leadership of the Malawi FAC team, we were able to put out a lot of research outputs, blogs and stories emanating from the themes the Malawi team were involved with. Ephraim always had time for me, never complaining when I put in a request for him to assist despite his heavy work load. He was an industrious person, always striving to give his best to those who worked with him. He was also a very good team player, a kind listener.

I also got to know the fun side of Ephraim, this is the side that I choose to remember him by. During out team meetings and conferences, Ephraim was always the one to break the ice, his laughter was infectious, his dancing skills could put my younger self to shame! We always had fun when Ephraim was around. I remember this one time in 2012 during our FAC annual conference in Ghana, Ephraim worked the dance floor until he was the last man standing!

Ephraim cared passionately about his work as an educator and a researcher. He cared about his students and mentoring young researchers. When I first visited him in Malawi, he was in the middle of the 2011 Malawi Academic Freedom protests, advocating for the rights of lecturers and students. He was a champion for what he believed in.

Africa and indeed the whole world have lost a great thinker, a scholar whose work transcends boundaries and generations. We will continue to benefit from his intellect through the works that he put out.

To Ephraim’s wonderful wife Irene and his children, please know that we are thinking of you during this difficult period. We will never forget what a wonderful person Ephraim was, the joy he brought to our lives. We will miss him, but we will also continue to celebrate his rich legacy.

Beatrice Ouma Former FAC and APRA Communication and Networking Coordinator

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