The death of renowned journalist, talk show host, and academic Winston “Babatunde” Witter has reminded me of these potent words uttered by William Shakespeare's Hamlet in the English bard's acclaimed play of the same name as he held the skull of the departed Yorick: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”
Witter, according to his Facebook page, was born on June 17, 1957, which means he would have been 65 years old when his life expired at the University Hospital of the West Indies on Wednesday, February 16, 2022. It is reported that he had been ailing for some time from cirrhosis, which is a chronic liver disease. While one cannot with absolute certainty state what could have caused him to be afflicted by this degenerative ailment, it is commonly believed that cirrhosis is caused by heavy drinking and smoking over a prolonged period of time.
In the years immediatly preceding his death, Witter was a troubled man, subject to much depression, which he shared with me, because he had not been compensated, despite a court ruling in his favour, after a horrendous crash that almost took his life on October 21, 1998. According to him, he had left his Acadia Drive home in search of another place to live. He would have had to complete that task in time to reach KLAS FM 89 to host his then very popular talk show.
In order to achieve that objective, the adventurous (my words) Babatunde 'hopped' a ride on a motorcycle, which would enable the driver to bob and weave through the thick traffic. Things were going reasonably well when they were both hit from the bike, and, according to one report, “sent flying some 30 feet in the sky”. Said Witter in an interview with the Jamaica Observer's H G Helps, “It was one hell of a lick.”
At first, both men were presumed dead but, miraculously, they both survived to tell the tale of their horrific experience. With the help of former parliamentarian and Speaker of the House Pearnel Charles, with whom he would co-host a show, and the late Gordon “Butch” Stewart, both of whom Witter cherished as “two good friends”, as well as former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, Witter's long road to recovery began, but he would never be the same again. For one thing, he oftentimes suffered from memory loss and experienced problems with his cognitive skills.
The moniker, which he used with much gusto and bravado, Babatunde, which in Nigerian means “The father has returned”, was later creatively transformed by him to Tunde Baba when he did a stint on Bess FM entitled Biting Hard Talk, but, although his popularity for the most part remained intact, he had lost that feisty, fiery, in-your-face posture which was his trademark. Anthea McGibbon on her Media Website recalls Bongo Jerry, himself a gritty, no-nonsense talk show host, describing Witter in a forum at The University of the West Indies thus: “Babatunde a the original sage pon di radio weh really sort out the things and deal with mix-up and all dem ting deh.”
On two occasions on his Facebook page, Witter sought help in his bid to find the party that was responsible for compensating him for the suffering and injuries he had endured as a result of the collision. However, it is not known if he was ever successful in getting paid. Suffice it to say that he was in dire need of assistance.
In this vein, Witter's sad demise is a stark reminder of the recurring plight which journalists face, especially in their declining years. It is sad to say that, despite all the glitter and the glamour that frequently accompanies media practitioners in their prime, ensuring that they live out the rest of their lives in relative peace and comfort can become a daunting proposition.
Indeed, it is no secret that many journalists who have fallen on bad times have been left to suffer in silence and abject poverty. It is my considered opinion that the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) has failed most miserably over these many years to address this worrying issue. Yes, there have been some half-hearted attempts from time to time to assist journalists who have fallen on bad times but, for the most part, these efforts have fallen short.
It is well known that journalists are not among the most well-paid professionals, comparatively speaking, in the Jamaican society, despite their high profiles in the print and electronic media. And it is to be noted that the PAJ, unlike several other bodies that represent members of the working class, does not have trade union status, which Winston Witter, at times, bemoaned in conversations I had with him. It is hoped that, with his untimely passing, the executive of the PAJ, outside of just delivering encomiums with respect to his passing, will decide to revisit this issue.
On a lighter side, Winston “Babatunde” Witter was also an unrepentant, unabashed revivalist who would “jump poco” and even get into a trance as he 'reasoned' with his African ancestors. Those of us who had the pleasure of seeing him “turn his roll” and gyrate to the drumming and chanting will forever remember those moments with much relish.
As a lecturer, too, he did much to inspire and guide young aspirants to the profession of journalism, many of whom can attest to his wisdom and sterling advice.
Despite being an ardent supporter of the People's National Party (PNP), this did not deter him from harshly criticising that political body, especially when it was in government. Some will recall his not too flattering comments about then Prime Minister P J Patterson, urging him to come out of his “Pjero” (Pajero) an deal with the people's interests, when many of the callers to his talk show expressed the view that Patterson was not responding to their concerns. But, in the final analysis, he did so with much gest and no ill will, which endeared him to politicians in both the PNP and the Jamaica Labour Party.
As one admirer in social media puts it: “Winston 'Babatunde' Witter was one of the sweetest and kindest persons that ever lived, such a lovely person and so active and vibrant, which makes it even harder to comprehend his death.
Farewell, Babatunde. Walk good and may good duppy follow you.
Lloyd B Smith has been involved full-time in Jamaican media for the past 45 years. He has also served as a Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. He hails from western Jamaica where he is popularly known as the Governor. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.