Almost any Malawian knows the name John Chilembwe.
And those anxious enough would know that the man whose face is on some of the country’s banknotes was not an ordinary church cleric but a brave person who braved the odds to fight white colonialists, as early as 1915.
This man from Chiradzulu left a legacy that Nyasaland [as Malawi was known then] could wean itself from the pangs of oppression and that the locals could govern themselves.
Some eminent Malawians feel criticising Chilembwe for rushing to propel for African self-governed republic is wrong and an insult to the country’s historic developments.
Archbishop Mark Kambalazaza of the Charismatic Renewal Ministries International feels that what Chilembwe did should even propel Malawians of modern times to realise that the basis of governance in the country was ignited from a religious basis, hence the need to do away with any injustice and evil.
“Nowadays, we need to bail ourselves out from self-defeatism; from corruption for power, money, failure to think and plan for better life, laziness and many more.
“We need to rethink how we can make our education system practical, productive, entrepreneurial and creative of new ideas and invention with new discoveries. This would be real freedom but with God,” he says.
He said it was important to understand that Chilembwe tried to bring awareness to the Nyasaland government, that one day, people will cry and fight for independence.
“This took place after some years, we got independence in 1964, after 49 years. Actions of men and women of God are prophetic in nature, Malawi indeed got freedom before other surrounding neighbours closer and beyond like Zambia and Zimbabwe,” Kambalazaza says.
His sentiments are shared by Anglican cleric and human rights advocate Rev. Macdonald Sembereka, who says Chilembwe’s quest to liberate Malawians from the oppressive colonials was within the jurisdiction of his call.
“Realising that social justice and dignity of his fellow Malawians were at stake, he felt duty-bound to challenge the status call. It might have some ill-timing and shortcomings but was worth the cause,” he says.
Sembereka adds: “Liberation is the work of God and His agents as drivers of the same. He had what is called ‘holy anger’ to liberate Malawians.”
And Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) – a church Chilembwe founded – still maintains liberation as one of its core values.
“The main call of his work was ministry and that he found himself into politics due to the pressures of the time he was serving. And as the minister of the gospel, he had to be a voice for the voiceless and intensified preaching on the liberation of both body and soul. By the time of the uprising, he had already had some churches in Mozambique, Phalombe, Lilongwe and Dedza apart from the centre at Mbombwe in Chiradzulu. He was both a pastor and educationist and a harbinger for political movement of Malawi,” says the Reverend Patrick Makondesa, PIM’s President.
Politician and former Information minister Moses Kunkuyu shares the praise sentiments of Chilembwe.
“Rev Chilembwe made a significant contribution to the shaping of the country both spiritually, socially and politically. He was one example of a man of the cloth who understood how to make livelihood ‘complete’; he knew that feeding the spirit alone would not make the body full, so he engaged in academic activities both for himself and his people,” he says.
Kumkuyu says Chilembwe understood that other forms of hardship like Thangata [forced labour] needed human intervention.
“And as a leader, with spiritual determination and boldness, he faced the oppressors and fought for his people. In modern times, very few leaders can do this. May God help us; he engaged the people in economic activities and farming,” he says.
Bishop Brighton Vita Malasa of the Anglican Diocese of the Upper Shire says the fire that Chilembwe had lit in PIM sent a strong message that the Nyasas were in to claim their freedom.
“For sure that had a bearing on the independence which unfortunately came later in 1964. The lesson we learn here is that we should not give up hope. Though the freedom was to be gained later, the campaign or the whole movement to claim freedom was a long journey which needed perseverance, hope, enthusiasm, teamwork spirit, integrity, patriotism and hard work,” he says, adding: “There is no sweet without sweating for it.”
He says what Chilembwe’s journey achieved underscores the fact that religious leaders have in the country played a big role in fighting for freedom.
“The whole fighting for freedom and attainment of freedom was hatched by a reverend, the whole journey towards education, health services, proclamation of the gospel, fighting slave trade was masterminded by the missionarie (religious people); and the whole idea to re-attain independence from the one-party rule wasn’t it the work of reverends and bishops?” he says.
Bishop Evans Khobidi of Seed of Abraham Church International says whatever the case, history cannot erase the role that Chilembwe played and is still playing in the agitation of better freedom and rights of Malawians.
“For sure, it is our past that determines the future; it is an uncompromised truth that Rev. John Chilembwe played a vital role of transition from colonial rule. By the right fight which Chilembwe had put across the church which he pastored, the Providence Industrial Mission became so instrumental to the transition and we learn about vocational skills, medical skills and some educational skills which were initiated by the church as led by Chilembwe,” he says.
Education activist, Limbani Nsapato, says even though the uprising by Rev. Chilembwe and all the freedom fighters did not go far due to lack of capacity, somehow the fight for the rights of the common person raised awareness about the need for the colonial government to address national issues and guarantee people’s rights including the right to education.
“I can point out, for instance, that during the colonial regime, government paid negligible attention to education. Government left education in the hands of missionaries like Chilembwe’s church to provide education and around the time of the uprising (1913-1916), government spent just £1,000 (equivalent of K2, 000 at the time) annually against total revenue of around £432,990 (K865,980) . The £1,000 (K2, 000) was spent in form of block grants to mission schools,” he says.
He argues that this amount, which was divided among more than 10 mission schools, was much less than what each of the individual missions spent on education.
“However, after the uprising, from 1918, government increased funding from £2,000 (K4,000) in 1918/19 to £4,295 (K8,590) in 1927, and then further to £6,821,177 (K13,642,354) in 1960/61, which shows a significant investment,” Nsapato says.
And the bulk of the people interviewed share the reasoning that the reverend’s quest to bring freedom for Malawi really bared some fruits, as they believe that while the rising did not have an immediate result, the seed for freedom was planted.
Hence the blood of Chilembwe and his counterparts spoke more than their voices.
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