For Richard Mussa (PhD)

The news that Dr Richard Mussa has passed on is very very hard to believe. Surely, this is a mistake? I just bumped into him in town the other day! He was alive and well, he looked very healthy. What was this? It took me so long to accept it; heck, I don’t even think I have accepted it yet, to be honest.
So who was Dr Richard Mussa? He was the man I feared most when going into third year; frankly, the reason I wanted to major Sociology instead of Economics. Most Chancellor College students knew Dr Mussa. Social Science students talked about him a lot, even those from other programs. His name carried fear. Before I even met him, I was already scared.

“You think this stuff is hard? Kuli Mussa PhD uku!” they would say.
Fear. Panic. 

But I overcame it anyway. I registered to major economics and took Quantitative Methods after some people talked the fear out of me. ECO 314. Dr Mussa’s first class involved him informing us that he knew people say he is tough. 

“But it’s the course, not me. Ask any student anywhere in the world that has ever taken Quantitative Methods.”

I remember putting some motivational quote on the first page of my hard cover. I would look at that when I’m feeling like the dumbest kid in that Quants class, and I would feel that way every day. I remember I would sit in front, sandwiched by two genius girls, Temwa and Precious. And I would sit there and take down everything he would write on the board. “Maybe I’ll understand when I’m studying this later”, I would encourage myself. Nope. Didn’t understand a thing still.

Quants was that course that required your full attention and dedication. It was tough. And Dr Mussa didn’t baby us. His tests were so hard for me, I didn’t understand the concepts and I was honestly just going with the flow. I heavily relied on ‘madis’ and my prayers were always, “Dear God make this year go by so fast, I’m tired.” But my third year was so long. The days dragged. The two hours of Quants on Monday and Thursday felt like four. No wonder I was almost always on the forefront to ask for a break.

The first time I actually sat down to talk to Dr Mussa was when I miserably failed his first test. I went into his office, almost in tears. I told him how much I’m failing and how I don’t understand a single thing, even though I’m trying with all my might. Here is the thing with Dr Mussa: he was a very very good motivational speaker. He told me it was fear that was holding me back and that if I only remove it, I will be fine. I tell you, I went out of his office that day feeling like I could fly. I was pumped. He made me feel like I was the greatest, and that all I had to do was learn from the mistakes I made prior to this test.
Then it happened again. I failed test 2. I didn’t even get it. I was so mad. I did what he told me to do. I worked hard for this paper! I was so mad! The man who formed this test paper wasn’t the same man I met in his office few weeks back. What was this? This was a different Dr Mussa!! 

Did I mention that Dr Mussa did not baby us?
And that he sometimes told us he would dream the next set of questions for our tests?
Who dreams of questions to set for third year’s in a course as hard as Quantitative Methods?

Dr Mussa did not baby us. He often told us that he wanted us to be the same level as Harvard students. Harvard, you guys! He said he wanted us to be brilliant economists.

The next time I went into his office was after we reopened for our second semester. He was going to lecture us on Quantitative Methods II. I told him I had failed his exam and had to write a supplementary exam. I told him how this was my first ever supp and I was worried I would fail this semester again. He pulled out his laptop and checked my results. He said I did well towards the end. He gave me another great talk. People talk of a certain kind of mouse that bites it’s victims while they’re asleep, and it blows on the wound and it soothes so much that the victim does not feel the sting… that was what Dr Mussa did. He was different from the man who would form those exam questions. Here he was, blowing on my stinging wound again.

But I learnt a lot from Dr Mussa. I learnt hard work. I learnt that things do not come easy. I learnt how to discipline myself, how to humble myself and work with the geniuses to pass the course. I learnt a lot about team work. I also learnt I could achieve anything, if I put away the fear first. My second semester was waaay better than my first, and I know it was because I actually did what he advised me to do.

In Sociology, we used one of his works to talk about policies and planning. I loved his work. “A Dangerous Divide: The State of Inequality in Malawi.” I read this work over five times. I was impressed. I have always been obsessed with inequality gaps, and this work was very clear and eye opening. He was more than just a statistics genius; he did a lot of research for Malawi too, and at a young age! I remember how he always stressed that development plans are not the problem (we are actually very excellent at that as a nation), but the implementation. He stressed the implementation part a lot. I never forget that part.

The last time I sat down and talked to him was when I was looking for my dissertation topic. Some of the lecturers were advising me against my topic. They said they saw no gap, that someone had already written about it. I felt defeated, but I decided to talk to him anyway, just to get one last opinion. His door was always open. He would never tell you he was too busy to help. Such a humble soul. Anyway, he told me my topic was doable, and he gave me direction like where to get the data from. He was the same Dr Mussa that would leave you feeling pumped and motivated after you had failed his test. 

So here we were, in the packed Chanco coaster, on our way to his home village, Balaka. Some women behind me talk about his short illness.. about how he was almost done with the house he was building.
“It’s so huge!” they say, “Can you imagine, he won’t live in the house he’s been building all along?”
And he won’t get to see the fruits from the economists he lectured and mentored. That’s the heart breaking part.
We are at his home, sitting outside. The men are carrying his body to the grave, which is just a few meters from the house. There are sounds of weeping everywhere. I’m with Mercy, his cousin. We hold each other as we weep for this great man. His mother waves at his son and the resemblance of the hand is striking. It is almost like that of Dr Mussa. I can see him write on the board in Room B with the other hand on the pockets of his jeans.
Too soon, sir. Too soon.

– “But reducing inequality will not be a benign by-product of growth under trickle down assumptions. It will only happen as a result of deliberate joint policy efforts, which all Malawi’s government and civil society must unify behind.” From Oxfam’s report that Dr Mussa authored. 


May Dr Richard Mussa’s soul rest in eternal peace.

I took this picture while waiting for the men to return from the graveyard.

Posted in Favourite, Social Sciences and tagged , , .

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *