My friend, Dr Bob
Written by Anna Macdonald
Remembering Dr Robert Mtonga, 1965 – 2017.
Like so many around the world, I will miss Bob very much. I will miss his cheery smile, his shake of his head when infuriated, and his magical way with words. I will remember his optimism, his resilience, his ability to see the best in people, and his sheer zest for life. In international NGO work, you spend so much time together at conferences and events around the world, literally all your waking hours from breakfast through to late night discussions and drinks are with your colleagues. They become your international family, and Bob was very much at the centre of our international family.
I first met Bob in 2006 when we worked together on a media strategy around introducing the Arms Trade Treaty to the UN. Vividly describing his experience as an African doctor in media interviews, Bob explained how a gunshot victim would take 300 times the resources needed to treat malaria patients, overstretching African hospitals and causing harm beyond each injured person. He talent for storytelling brought to life the devastation wrought by armed violence into communities around the world, and helped communicate this to a wider audience.
Bob gave everything to the causes he worked for. On and off a plane more often in a year than most people are in a lifetime, he attended every international disarmament conference possible, advocating for international arms control, the banning of nuclear weapons, cluster bombs and landmines, and to end the scourge of small arms. Everyone working in disarmament knew Bob. He seemed capable of stretching himself to help every campaign, and support every event. Sometimes I would forget he was a medical doctor. ‘Doctor Bob’ seemed more a nickname than a title. But he was, and had many a story of medical emergencies, and routine practice if asked about it. I think that this medical knowledge and experience of treating the sick, drove his desire to rid the world of weapons and work for peace.
Everyone knew Bob’s way with words. He had an almost Shakespearian style of speaking, sometimes in riddles, often in analogies. When given a speech to deliver at a formal UN function in 2013 however, Bob stumbled. He struggled with the stiffer and more formal sentences, his usual lilting cadence gone. Bob was an artist, and he needed the freedom to create and for his words to flow unstructured. Then he was at his best, bringing calming words to a tense discussion, providing a motivational end to a campaign meeting, or, most often, simply entertaining the room and bringing out chuckles at his wildly descriptive report backs from meetings.
Despite always being busy at conferences, Bob never forgot his family and friends at home. I enjoyed his stories about his wife Mavis, and his five children. He carried a little notebook with him when travelling, which detailed the gifts he would buy for his family, and requests from friends and neighbours. Sometimes in New York we would help him with his shopping, finding the precise toy, dress, ball or game that had been requested, all carefully budgeted for, in neat pencil columns in the notebook.
Just a couple of weeks before his death, we were together in Geneva, at meetings on the ATT. As usual Bob was cheery and positive, cracking jokes in between advocacy meetings with African diplomats, coaxing and encouraging participation in his gently effective way. He looked a little drawn, but he gave no sign of the severity of the illness that was hurting him. We were still working together on a project proposal in Zambia, until days before his passing.
The outpouring of sadness and shock at his untimely passing from all corners of the world show how much he was loved, from Buenos Aires to Wellington and everywhere in-between. The day after his death, my Facebook feed was flooded with pictures of Bob, memories of happy times shared, as well as grief and sadness. Everyone who knew him has a positive memory to share.
Bob gave so much with his 51 years of joyous, meaningful life. He brought a light into each room he entered, and his all to the causes he worked so hard for. We will miss him.
A GoFundMe campaign to support Bob’s family has been established here.