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Chilembwe Uprising: When the church pokes into State affairs

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LED THE UPRISING—Chilembwe

By Lesson Masiano:

By 1900, the colonial enterprise in Nyasaland was up and running after Harry Johnson had magnificently set up the administrative structures of the country.

Forced to protect the interests of their missionaries and to use Nyasaland as a labour reservoir for burgeoning Rhodesia territories, the colonial regime set its agenda straight as the whites sought to consolidate their hegemony in the marginalised central African polity.

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Paramount on its administrative blueprint was to have a tight grip on taxation and land policy issues. Imperatively, they were on a collision course with the local people as land was – and still remains — the most levered asset for subsistence survival for most Africans in economies thriving on kinship relations.

And, in 1915, just a year into World War I, John Chilembwe threw the first dice of the independence struggle for Nyasaland as a protest against the colonial pitfalls.

Today, Chilembwe remains an iconic figure in the struggle for independence and the uprising served as a priceless inspiration to the well-known freedom fighters littered in our history books.

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Even though it was sporadic and lacked support from major political stakeholders, the uprising tested the political resolve of the colonial government whose survival depended on exploitation of African labour, expropriation of land and untold repression.

However in a grand scheme of things, we tend to forget that Chilembwe’s church, Providence Industrial Mission (PIM), was a conduit of that socio-political struggle. Behind the uprising, PIM provided the latitude upon which Chilembwe rallied his henchmen.

Having learnt about the ethos of hard work, industry and self-esteem in black history from their American trained pastor, the church was ready to rise up and protect the interests of the natives, regardless of the cost.

It was not going to be easy but it was a task that was cut out for them. To whom could the church delegate that emancipation task? Nobody could fit in into those robes.

As the socio-economic injustices were piling up, as exemplified by the institution of Thangata system, the African Independent Churches were the voice in the wilderness. As Jarvis Livingstone of the infamous Bruce Estate continued mistreating Africans, PIM could not sit back and watch its laity being exposed to the ills under the colonial regime.

It had to act with swiftness and in an unorthodox manner befitting the circumstances. Jarvis Livingstone, the great grandson of the cerebrated missionary David Livingstone, stood as a painful symbol of the repressive colonial regime. He was always standing as a sharp reminder to the Africans that they were made aliens in their own land, bereft of any meaningful socio-economic opportunities.

Feeling duty-bound and with a sense of patriotism, church members of the PIM descended on the headquarters of the huge 163,000-acre Magomero estate on January 23 1915 where Livingstone was beheaded.

To cut off Livingstone’s head was one thing but to bring the head in the church where John Chilembwe preached during a Sunday service, with the head beside him on a pole, was something else. It was a candid way of demonstrating that the church was not relenting on its quest to free Africans from the colonial bondage.

The State and church are inseparable entities that have for ages been at the core of societal affairs. Although at times the relationship between the two becomes hostile and antagonistic, these two entities often serve the same people-only that they represent different organisational forms with different styles and aims of work.

For the fact that the church complements government’s efforts in providing essential social services to the people, it is only fair that they should point at the ills affecting the same people.

The late Nixon Khembo, who was a political science lecturer at Chancellor College, once said that trying to separate the role of the church from the role of government is as good as trying to fruitlessly split the very hairs of one’s head.

In Malawi, since 1993, the church, the Catholic Church in particular, has been the voice of the voiceless, championing the protection and respect of human rights and socioeconomic development in the country.

In fact, it was the 1992 Pastoral Letter, titled ‘Living our Faith’ that sparked the political change the country embraced in 1994. Fearless in their approach, articulate in their message and level-headed in their analysis of the social and political landscape in Malawi, the bishops played a very crucial role in ushering the country into political party pluralism.

However, it has become a routine that, once government is drifting into the abyss, churches release pastoral letters. To an extent, reading the letters and leaving it there is an exercise in futility. Government is not moved that something ought to be done to mend its ways.

The ink and paper alone are not enough to force change. Like PIM of the old, the church ought to explore other practical means through which to make government comply with its demands, which are also the demands of the populace. Leaving the practical aspect of the change movement to civil society organisations alone is not enough.

Just as PIM braved the mighty tides of their time, the church today should also be the beacon of hope when other governance institutions have strangely abdicated their oversight duties.

Perhaps, those thriving on lofty positions of power should be reminded that the church remains an integral part of the overall modern governance structures. The church today might not be required to be as militant as PIM was but it is expected of it to be a voice of reason when people’s rights and liberties are being trampled on.

Today as people stroll along the tarred road leading to PIM, either as tourists or mere residents, the church stands tall as a monumental institution that gave it all to raise the alarm on the governance shortcomings of the colonial era.

Times have changed so too should be the engagement strategies and process with duty-bearers. However, one thing ought not to change: The courage and fortitude of the church to influence change should remain unsullied, always.

If it were not for the Chilembwe Uprising whose breeding ground was PIM church, George Smith, the then Nyasaland governor, would not have thought of taking a series of measures to m e e t what were seen as real concerns among African people.

The author is an analyst of political economy of development.

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