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103 years after John Chilembwe: Has Malawi changed?

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some people still use makeshift bridges

In January 1915, Reverend John Chilembwe led an uprising against British colonial masters, in what can be described as the beginning of the country’s liberation struggle.
There are varied reasons given for the uprising, with different sources indicating that it was caused by a mixture of social and personal issues.
His resentment against Africans’ participation in the First World War, which largely involved countries in Europe, was very clear. He was not happy with people from Nyasaland dying in the war.
His belief of ‘Africa for Africans’ and dislike for forced labour in estates owned by Europeans led to the uprising.
Today, 103 years down the line, whatever the genuine cause of the revolt might have been, whether it succeeded or not, there is a general feeling that the nationalist ideas Chilembwe advanced laid the foundation for the independence Nyasaland gained in 1964.
As the country continues to celebrate the life of Chilembwe every year, it is clear that the reverend, who is believed to have died in February 1915 following the failed revolt, wanted his countrymen and women to enjoy social, political and economic independence.
Buxton Mpando, Pro-Vice Chancellor Responsible for Administration at Unicaf University, says Chilembwe’s vision was filled with ideas of nationalism.
“I remember him as the first national, in the then Nyasaland, who created awareness of political independence in the people of the country in those days. He is the one who first fought for people’s freedom in the country. We remember him because he pioneered that struggle for independence. Although he lost in the end, his cause was taken over by others who continued the fight to win the independence we have now,” Mpando says.
He adds: “Malawi and Malawians have now benefitted from political freedom which John Chilembwe fought for.”
However, Mpando says there is need to do more to turn Chilembwe’s vision into reality.
“There is need to do more. For a country to be self-sufficient, there is need for political freedom, which we have. We have got our president, we have our ministers, our own government. That is political freedom. But we need economic rights. We should be able to determine the prices of our commodities. We must share the benefits of the country equally. There should be that balance,” he says.
One of his great grand nephews, Wilson Kudemera, says 103 years after his death, it is important to remember Chilembwe by understanding his ideals and letting them be a yardstick to sustain political and economic independence.
“As a family, we advise our political leaders to safeguard the independence we gained. We should not be experiencing the hardships our forefathers faced. We need to continue what Chilembwe fought for,” Kudemera says.
The death of Chilembwe in 1915 gave the people of Malawi, then Nyasaland, a growing desire to rule themselves. But Boniface Samala, a resident of Chinsapo in Lilongwe City, says, despite the country attaining sovereignty, resources belong to very few in the society.
“We don’t have the freedom John Chilmbwe fought for. At the moment, the government is failing to manage the country’s affairs. The economy is in shambles. The gap between the rich and the poor is wide. We have the problem of unemployment. Instead of having such problems solved, we only we hear that public money is being stolen. We don’t have economic freedom,” Samala charges.
Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation Executive Director, Timothy Mtambo, says, much as Malawi is enjoying political freedom, the country has departed from the ideals Chilembwe stood, and died, for.
“The question is: are we living up to the ideals that our forefathers fought for? It is 53 years after independence. If Chilembwe were to come back to life, is he going to feel motivated that our people are living up to the expectations he and his friends had that time? My answer to that is definitely going to be ‘no’,” Mtambo says.
He adds: “Much as we, as a country, have made progress in enacting progressive laws and policies, there are areas that will require improvement.”
Chilembwe’s mark remains indelible in Malawi’s history.
In 1915, there were social, economic and political ills. It is shocking that, 103 years after his passing on, the same problems are rocking the country. Do these problems need a Chilembwe?
For those who were born in the 21st Century, the country’s 500 and 2000 kwacha notes and Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) in Chiradzulu may be the only reminders of Chilembwe.
History has it that Malawi gained independence in 1964, about 50 years after Chilembwe’s death. But one thing that will remain in minds of many is Chilembwe’s courage and sacrifice to free Nyasaland from the grip of colonial rulers.

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