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How women counted: Story of Vera Chirwa

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Vera Chirwa has the energetic zest and memory of a young woman than her 84 years. The Daily Times’ search for this rather elusive first female lawyer in Southern Africa ended in Sunyside residential area in Blantyre. In that posh residence, yet dull, lives Vera Chirwa, a woman of substance who has lived all the seasons of Malawi politics. She tells The Daily Times how women counted in Malawi’s early freedom fights with the colonial government.

Vera Chirwa saw the colonial British government killing innocent citizens; she saw Dr. Kamuzu Banda becoming Malawi’s first African president and she saw Malawi shedding off from the torpors of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) regime, and at last she saw, Malawi, embracing a democratic form of government. So, she is not much nostalgic about the past.

Vera, the icon of women human rights activism in Malawi and Southern Africa and the widow to one of Malawi’s first lawyers, Orton Chirwa with the late Rose Chibambo, represent the women of many generations.

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Vera first commended The Daily Times for visiting her and she said:

“You have done well to come. I am always worried that history about the March 3, 1959 event and freedom fighters is always distorted. To begin with, even some of the very historians we trust do lie.”

She said on the eve of the declaration of state of emergence, the mood was very definitive of a war coming from a distance. The harbingers of war came from all directions. Blantyre was the epicentre.

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The white British soldiers were staged around every suspicious people and places. A big lamp was set on high ground overlooking Orton Chirwa’s house, to avoid mid night meetings by the banned Nyasaland African Congress (Nac) members.

“This is the time I knew the British are very organised people. Not only in dressing but also in war. They were very organised. We saw them moving around and could not know what was happening. They were silent.

“Some of the soldiers came from Southern Rhodesia. They waited for 12 midnight for the clamp down on the nationalists’ movement that was spread across the country. It was until in the morning that we heard about massive arrests of the Nac executive members. Kamuzu Banda, the newly endorsed leader of Nac, Lali Lubani and many others had been arrested at Banda’s Mudi House.”

And his husband was a lawyer for Kamuzu and Nac.

“Three knocked on the door of our house at Magalasi near Nyambadwe, where I was staying with my husband. That time I was only a housewife. They came early in the morning to ask their lawyer for a possible court bail of the people arrested. The arrest shocked us.”

Orton promised the three men that Kamuzu and the other people arrested would be bailed later in the day. They did not know a state of emergence had been declared.

“We only heard it on the radio.”

And then after, Orton told the men that in a state of emergence, no court bails are granted.

And that was the beginning of trouble for Vera and Orton, as well as the other members of Nac across the country.

“There were massive bloodshed and arrests across the country, Blantyre and Nkhata Bay were the centre of focus, where many Malawians were shot dead.”

Meanwhile, the state of emergence was reaching the climax point. Kamuzu and those arrested with him were flown to Gweru Prison in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

“But my husband was much feared by the British police because he was a lawyer. Of course he always dressed decently, but that could not be the reason that they feared him. Of course he was first Malawian to own a car, but that could not be the reason that they feared him. I think they feared him, because he never feared them.”

After Banda’s arrest some members of the banned Nac on the wanted list, spent two nights in Chirwa’s house. They slept under beds all night long.

“And when all this was happening. I was only a young lady- a mother of one. Our first born – a daughter was taken to live at Orton’s brother, Crosby Chirwa. And Orton asked me: Are you afraid? I said I am not. We are fighting for our land. We are fighting for the marginalised Africans. We are fighting for the rights of the marginalised women. We are fighting for the future of our children.”

And Orton now looked to be in charge of the disbanded Nac members. Immediately, for continuity sake, of the nationalistic movement, Orton Chirwa, called an emergency meeting of the party members, where new names of the acting president, general secretary for the new party, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) were proposed. Orton Chirwa was to become president.

The time for Vera and Orton’s arrest approached. After the arrest of Banda, the Chirwas’ home became the centre of activities of the banned Nac.

But Orton did not expect that his wife would also be arrested. Meanwhile, some members of the MCP came knocking on the door in the morning for the series of the meetings they used to hold after Banda’s arrest.

“And we thought it was our turn for the mass arrests. Orton told me to hide the paper that had the list of the executive members of the new party in my dress, for the British police could not search into my dress.” Oh, it was the British! And we were arrested.

Not only Vera and Orton were arrested but hundreds others were also arrested. Professor David Rubadiri and his wife Gertrude (all are still alive) were also arrested.

Those in the elite club, like Orton Chirwa, Henry Chipembere, Kanyama Chiume and others, were flown on a special aircraft, but the ordinary, were taken to Southern Rhodesia on cars. They were packed like sardines in those cars.

When Orton and Vera reached Southern Rhodesia, they were separated. Gertrude and David Rubadiri were also separated. No love in a state of emergence. They were put in different cells. Yet Vera had thought that they will live in detention with Orton in one room.

“But I will never forget this British police woman who snatched my golden ring, which Orton bought for me in England. He stole it and asked how come I possessed such an expensive ring. And I used to be defiant. I could put on my headgear before the eyes of the British police lady”.

In detention in Southern Rhodesia, things were very bad. Poor diet and poor beddings.

“We found many Malawians there collected from across the Nac party branches. Both women and men were there. We also shared rooms with detainees from Southern and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) as the declaration of the state of emergence extended to the two Rhodesia- the states under British colonial rule.”

While in detention, Vera was told by a British police lady some of the reasons for the declaration of the state of emergence. “She said that men and women in Nyasaland were organising mass protests to kill all the British white settlers, to the extent that some men were wearing long beards, only to shave after mission accomplished. And to avoid that impending danger, a state of emergence was declared.”

And then Vera understood some of the reasons that Gertrude’s husband, David Rubadiri, who was wearing long beards, was arrested. They suspected David had beards for a reason even though he was not.

“But life was hard in Southern Rhodesia especially for us women. We thought it was the end of us. Sometimes, British police came pointing guns to our noses. But I was not afraid.”

After some days and the intervention of the Devlin Commission of Enquiry report, instituted by the British to investigate into the causes of the declaration of the state of emergence, Vera and many others were released.

Later, Orton and those arrested with him were also released. Kamuzu remained at Gweru Prison.

When Orton and Vera were back home- after their house was confiscated by the colonial regime- and almost lost everything, except their life and their lovely daughter, they revived the spirit of nationalism they left at the declaration of the state of emergence.

Orton gathered the broken pieces of Nac and dug the foundation of the new Malawi Congress Party (MCP). He founded the party and handed it over to Banda upon his release from prison.

Meanwhile, 21 people, who were also in detention at Kanjedza police station, were still in custody.

Vera, organised a group of women to protest and fight for the release of these people. And that is why some members in the MCP executive told her: “Our hope is in you women.”

Yet Vera knew quite well; she was putting the lives of fellow women at risk.

For Vera however, the battle for independence was equally fought by thousands of others including women.

“I and my husband were the victims of freedom for the period of about 30 years. I and Orton as lawyers fought strenuous court battles. But justice did not become justice; it cycled viciously, culminating in life jail sentences. But we were only political prisoners,” she said.

And now Vera, an octogenarian, does not only cry for her husband who died mysteriously in prison, before seeing the winds of democratic change blowing across the country. She also cries for women who are abused every day in the family and the society. Now she urges on the new generation of women to continue fighting for their own cause.–By Yokoniya Chilanga

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