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Kamuzu Banda and John Chilembwe

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A few days before this year’s celebration of the Chilembwe Day, a well-known personality in the restored multiparty politics visited me at my office. He brought me a copy of a memorandum he had written to the Public Affairs Committee (Pac) in which he protested against a K2,000 note with the portrait of John Chilembwe. He said it was an insult for Chilembwe to appear on the note when Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda is on a K1,000 note.

To a certain extent, this view was not new to me. I had heard other people saying Chilembwe was not a national leader but a champion of people in the Southern Region who were burdened of the thangata tenancy system. A pastor of a small Christian sect visited me with the message that Chilembwe by killing an innocent white man had brought a curse on the Chiradzulu District which has realised no development ever since. He said he was planning to arrange for a meeting with descendants of William Jervis Livingstone and patch up reconciliation.

I have heard other things said against the Chilembwe Day by people who obviously do not seem to have read such biographies of Chilembwe as Independent African by Professor George Shepperson of Edinburgh University, Scotland, Let Us Die for Africa by D.D Phiri as well as Strike a Blow and Die by George Mwase of Nkhata Bay.

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The purpose of this essay is to give additional facts about Chilembwe which hopefully will enable his detractors to see him differently.

At the beginning of this century, The Sunday Times invited readers to nominate names of Malawians who had achieved a good deal in the previous century. Twenty names were then published in order of greatness. Kamuzu came first and Chilembwe came second. Thus, in the eyes of the public, only Kamuzu is greater; therefore, Chilembwe is not to be equated with the rest of the freedom fighters who m they mention.

When Chilembwe arrived home in 1900, he wrote in the Central African Times forerunner of the Nyasaland Times that his mission was to bring up his people so that they become worthy members of the human race and make them indomitable. How the editor interpreted the word indomitable we do not know. Probably he did not read into it the intention of Chilembwe to prepare his people for independence.

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What we know is that when he was with Joseph Booth, he co-signed a pamphlet “African for Africans” and that Booth was talking to Chilembwe about Africans in the following 20 years and setting up a Christian state.

There are those who say Chilembwe revolt was a mere reaction to oppression, hence he was not fighting for independence. Such people simply expose themselves as mere speculators not historians. Soon after the rising, the colonial officers directed that a commission of inquiry be set up to find the causes and intentions. After stating various African grievances, the commission starkly stated that Chilembwe wanted to set up a theocracy with himself as the head. The commission arrived at this conclusion after interviewing Chilembwe men who had been spared the noose and the firing squad but instead had been imprisoned.

While interacting with African-American sin the United States, he heard about how Haiti had gained independence from France. I t was while the French were fighting the British. Chilembwe decided to gain independence from Britain while the British were fighting the Germans. To say that Chilembwe had no independence in mind is to make him nihilist or anarchist which he was not.

I spoke to several survivors of the uprising in the early 1970’s. They told me that after he realised the revolt had failed, he said he was going to America and that someone would come from there to complete the job he started.

Chilembwe was a nationalist not a tribalist. His followers included Filipo Chinyama who led the Maseko Ngoni in Ntcheu, Wilson Zimba from the Northern Region who led the squad which went to Magomero estate and John Grey Kufa who was a Chikunda originally from Mozambique. The majority of his fighters were Lhomwe and, of course, there were the Nyanja and the Yao; the tribes to which his mother and father belonged respectively. Chilembwe was pan-Africanist in that he believed that his uprising was part of the general uprising taking place in Africa.

Did Chilembwe revolt have any impact on the political and socio-economic history of Malawi? When on a stormy day an oak tree falls, we tend to attribute this to the gale of that day. But if we look at the root, we notice that many years termites had been gnawing on them. In the same way, we tend to attribute the achievement of independence to the last leader who negotiated with the imperial power and forget the leaders before him who had been harassing the departing rulers.

Chilembwe’s daring act was an inspiration to later leaders who founded the Nyasaland African Congress. His successful establishment of the Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) was evidence that Africans could manage their own affairs without white supervisors.

The PIM has the honour of having sponsored three students to go to the United States for higher education. These were Mathew and Fred Greshan Njilima sons o f Duncan Njilima and Daniel Sharpe Malikebu. Greshan took a bachelor’s in mathematics just before World War I, joined the British army, got pensioned and then came home. Finding no scope for his advanced education, he went to Tanganyika where for many years he taught at Tabora Secondary School. Malikebu in 1919 obtained a medicine degree at Meharry Medical College came back in 1926 and rebuilt the PIM which we see today. The original one had been completely vandalised by security forces.

During that time, mainstream Christian missions were content giving Africans only primary education. Chilembwe was a man ahead of his time, a visionary.

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