Lessons from John Chilembwe uprising


With Fanwell Kenala Bokosi:

On Tuesday January 15 2019, Malawians across the country remembered one Rev John Chilembwe who in 1915 waged a rebellion against the colonial administration. Chilembwe was a man of action. Although the rebellion was unsuccessful and bloody, the people of Malawi can learn from the pioneer of Malawi independence and the initial spark that led to Malawi’s own nationhood in 1964.

The man of God, who opposed mistreatment of Malawian workers on European-owned plantations and the lack of social, political, and economic promotion of the citizens of Malawi (then Nyasaland). In January 1915, Chilembwe led an uprising against the colonial rulers of Nyasaland.


The fight that Chilembwe started was not only political but economic as well. He was against the mistreatment of Malawians by people like Alexander Livingstone Bruce. When the colonial powers that disposed Malawians then wanted the help of the same people who had slave like treatment to fight the Germans in the First World War, Rev. Chilembwe did not just make noise in the church but took action.

He wrote a letter to the colonial administration which then was headquartered in Zomba. The learned reverend wrote the following “We understand that we have been invited to shed our innocent blood in this world’s war…[But] will there be any good prospects for the natives after…the war? We are imposed upon more than any other nationality under the sun…”

One can only imagine the wild celebrations that gripped the hills of Sangano in Chiradzulu and the surrounding areas. The letter must have brought an expression of hope and optimism that the colonial administration will change the fortunes of the natives as Malawians were then known by their colonial masters. One can imagine the glimmers of the future that must have been going on in their minds. They must have celebrated at the promises of a return of their lands, of an end to the death of their men that left orphans and widows due to a war they did not understand. Chilembwe took on the challenge and did not waste time in complaining and name calling.


Clear lessons from the struggle of the Chilembwe Uprising for the current crop of leaders in Malawi are immerse. Chilembwe did not just compile a list of what the colonial government was doing wrong. He proposed solutions and acted accordingly. Historical records indicate that Chilembwe developed plantations of cotton, coffee, and tea. Through all of these endeavours his aim was to establish a system of justice, equality, and African agency.

The challenges that have affected this country over the years are all too visible and the solutions are also simple and straight forward. The problem in Malawi is not the lack of tools but rather lack of action and correct attitude. Chilembwe was a man of action.

Chilembwe set out to transform the mindset of the natives. Similarly today, mindset transformation and behavioural change are imperative in all government and quasi-government institutions. It should not be business as usual if we are serious about national development. Chilembwe did not do business as usual.

Chilembwe was an implementer. He had a plan he executed, he established a network of independent African schools and planted a church built of brick (no small expense in those days) called Providence Industrial Mission (PIM). Chilembwe did not produce plans and stash them somewhere in his grass thatched house. No! He implemented those plans.

By 1911, PIM had “one missionary, five churches, 800 members, seven native helpers and 625 pupils and its superintendent Chilembwe.” His educational efforts and evangelism made PIM the centre for life and influence where gathered converts and colleagues debated social and economic issues at PIM.

Over the years Malawi has produced plans and policy documents stashed somewhere in the offices of the countless executives manning our institutions which have been recklessly abandoned.

Chilembwe did not have an abundance of resources and, yet, he was able to organise an army from people who had no military training. Compared to the current situation Chilembwe was worse off. This country has all the ingredients for success. This week as we celebrate the fallen hero of Malawi, let us learn from him!

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