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Is John Chilembwe being forgotten?

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By Sharon Jumbe:

Mahatma Gandhi

The year 2018 came and went like tumbleweed tumbling away by the wind but let us reflect on some of the topics deemed controversial in some circles.

One, in particular, is the erection of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue outside Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, opposite a roundabout at Ginnery Corner.

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For a country that usually sweeps things under the rug like dust, I was certainly surprised that Malawi realised the importance of representation, in some cases, when “activists” from all walks of life said no to an image of someone considered a racist and misogynistic by some quarters.

Political analysts and social media enthusiasts joined the fight to stop construction of the statue. It is not clear if the project is on course as, currently, nothing seems to be happening on the site.

Among the many reasons why the statue should not have been considered in place, one stood out for me. Why should Malawi uphold a statue of someone who did not contribute to the independence and development of this country like John Chilembwe?

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And then, at that moment, I remembered the man whose face has been on kwacha banknotes longer than I can hold on to my money before it is spent on something frivolous.

Although not much is documented about him, Chilembwe is someone every Malawian should know about.

Born to a Yao father and Mang’anja mother in Sangano, Chiradzulu District, Chilembwe was a Baptist pastor and educator who organised an uprising in 1915 after he was frustrated with the tortures our forefathers were subjected to by our colonial masters.

The uprising occurred a year after the outbreak of the First World War and some say because Africans served in the King’s African Rifles and fought a war I that had nothing to do with them, Chilembwe’s anger against the colonial masters got heightened.

Although the uprising was unsuccessful, a thing some people in this generation refer to as “an epic fail”, when Malawian history is being studied and analysed in whatever aspect, the name Chilembwe should never be omitted.

However, as every New Year is celebrated and January 15 approaches, one can attest to the fact that the significance of the day is gradually depreciating like tangible property.

If you roam the streets and interact with pedestrians what they know about the brave fighter, 50 percent of the people will tell you bits and pieces about the history and the significance of Chilembwe Day.

Clement Mawumbo from Limbe in Blantyre said that most of his knowledge about Chilembwe was gained from the radio play that was aired every January 15 accompanied by the famous song by Mujura Mkandawire whose first line “Kunali John Chilembwe, mu boma la Chiradzulu, anali m’busa wa mphamvu” (There was a man John Chilembwe from Chiradzulu. He was a strong pastor).

I believe the song creates a somewhat nostalgic feeling for those who grew up listening to it every Chilembwe Day.

But aside from the various radio and TV programmes people have enjoyed for decades, how else is Malawi remembering one of the core contributors and influencers of this country’s freedom?

Commenting on this, Mawumbo says those that hold authoritative positions of service in the country, should do better and push for another way of celebrating what Chilembwe did for Malawi.

But perhaps the country’s seemingly failed way of honouring him rightfully borders on the fact that others do not consider Chilembwe a hero.

From a religious point of view, Chilembwe’s actions came from a point of anger and animosity. He ordered the murders of one of the white colonial masters, William Jervis Livingstone, an estate manager of A.L Bruce Estates.

Some will say Chilembwe’s instructions were in good faith considering the horrible working conditions our forefathers were subjected to.

Practices such as Thangata (labour-rent) saw Africans working on cotton or tea plantations without any pay but instead, rewarded with either health care or produce.

The famine in 1910 worsened the Thangata system and that, coupled with the outbreak of war, Africans were taken en masse to fight against Germany and this prompted Chilembwe to write to the Nyasaland Times in November 1914.

An excerpt from the letter reads:

“Let the rich men, bankers, titled men, storekeepers, farmers and landlords go to war and get shot. Instead, we, the poor Africans who have nothing to own in this present world, who in death, leave only a long line of widows and orphans in utter want and dire distress are invited to die for a cause which is not theirs”.

It was a plea that fell on deaf ears and resulted in an uprising which, in turn, led to the beheading of Livingstone. His head was taken to one of the churches Chilembwe founded as a sign of victory. So, yes it is easy to dislike someone who did what others would consider heinous.

Sometimes, one wonders whether Chilembwe knew the revolt was going to flop and result in his death. But like all heroes, Chilembwe had the welfare of his people at his heart.

But 54, soon to be 55, years of independence later, how is the country preserving his memory and what has been done to remind us about his role in fighting for our freedom?

I know his face has been on the Malawian currency for years now and, the John Chilembwe Highway road was officially opened by President Peter Mutharika three years ago. However, this is not enough and we can definitely do better like constructing a statue in his honour.

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