Lessons from John Chilembwe uprising!


Monday was John Chilembwe day in Malawi; a day Malawians across the nation and those in the diaspora remember the 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’s independence and the initial spark that led to Malawi’s own nationhood in 1964.
Here is a 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 such as Alexander Livingstone Bruce. When the colonial powers that despised Malawians wanted the help of the same people who endured slave-like treatment to fight the Germans in the First World War, Chilembwe did not just make noise in the church but took action. He wrote a letter to the colonial administration which 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 District and the surrounding areas. The letter must have brought an expression of hope and optimism that the colonial administration would 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 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.
The clear lessons from the struggle of the Chilembwe uprising for the current crop of leaders in Malawi are immense. 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 endeavors, 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.
C h i l embwe was an implementer. He had a plan and he executed it; he established a network of independent African schools and planted a church built of bricks (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 of life and influence where gathered converts and colleagues debated social and economic issues.
Over the years, Malawi has produced plans and policy documents stashed somewhere in the offices of the countless executives manning our institutions— plans which have recklessly been 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 of success. This week, as we celebrate the fallen hero of Malawi, let us learn from him!

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