Martyr’s day: Tale of every Malawian


Our children may be in the dark. Their children too will be in the dark. Because we know that we know something on martyrs that matter to our Malawian history, we are compelled to share and leave something for the next generation.

Doing this affirms the African adage as propagated by Professor John Mbiti who said ‘I am because you are and because you are, therefore I am’. It is with such background that I want to reflect on this day as a Malawian wanting to talk to Malawians who would value and benefit from the chronicles of our people gone before us. defines a martyr as ‘one who suffers death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle or cause: most commonly a religious belief or causes of social justice.’ In Malawi, martyrs day celebrations have been confined to the remembrance of the people (about forty) who were massacred as a result of the arrests of the resistance leaders on March 3, 1959, when the British forces declared a state of emergency and orchestrated Operation Sunrise, arresting prominent Malawian nationalists and other dissidents.


The people that we remember are mostly those who were killed in Nkhata-Bay during this period of time. Just to put facts into perspective, Malawi (formerly called Nyasaland) was a British colony. Beginning in the early to mid 20th century however, our people then began attempts to achieve independence from British rule.

During the 1950s, Britain united Malawi with the Federation of Northern (Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), a venture that led to widespread resentment of colonial domination. In response, in an effort to attain independence, Malawians formed their own political parties and plotted violent retaliations and acts of sabotage.

It is this event that led to declaring of the state of emergency in 1959. The online encyclopedia reports that a total of 51 people were killed, over 1,300 were detained, and many more were wounded during the state of emergency, which lasted until 1960. Are these the only martyrs that mother Malawi has produced?


Going by the definition of a martyr, we are compelled to extend our acclamation beyond the deceased. We are challenged to put our attention more on the belief or cause and the willingness to face persecution for the same even if the suffering might not lead to the ultimate death of the person.

If we just focus on death, we remove in the picture, equally patriotic martyrs who go through prison and suffer for the very causes of liberation, democracy, and social justice but they survive. To deny their martyrdom because they did not die is equal to ridiculing their survival and nationalism.

As people celebration this day on yearly basis, we need to constantly recall the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest statesmen of all time. He said that it is the cause and not the death that makes one to be a martyr.

Africans in general and indeed Malawians in particular, have inherent bias, probably because of our tradition and culture, to revere the dead more than the living, so much that in death even a thief is unquestionably declared a good man.

However, if we cast our gaze beyond the dead martyrs, there are men and women who walk along our streets undistinguished, yet harbour contentment in their hearts that they lived to live their realised dream of democracy in Malawi. Since the dawn of democracy, Malawians have been arrested and re-arrested just for calling a spade by its name. The people in power relentlessly make today’s martyrs. By reminding somebody to resign for failing to behave to the utmost expectation, one ends up being a martyr.

I wish I were able to mention a few names of individuals who endured and continue to endure persecution behind prison bars for the cause of good governance, yet our nation robs them of heroic credit of martyrs.

I feel every Malawian has a civil obligation to venerate in the highest regard possible, without prejudice, the people who suffer for a just cause. I refute the apparent public disregard of such martyrs that fathered democracy after being apprehended and detained in prison for several years without charge or trial; patriotic men that were denied the comforts of their homes and banished to live as fugitives in exile for their yearn for democracy; martyrs that saw the possibility of a democratic Malawi and announced their blood would fuel the engines of democracy in Malawi should they die in the very quest.

Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister said, “Martyrdom does not end something, it is only a beginning.” The martyrs established the cause, and encouraged the faith in us. We can as well become martyr if our faith and actions are inspired by the so many people who want to see this great nation a better place to live and work.

We are obliged to safeguard the belief and cause for which they suffered and died, and pass it on the next generation. Our children will summon the knowledge of our courses of action when democracy was on the verge of demise.

Will they affirm that we were patriotic enough to change the course of history in their favour or we, with so much cowardice simply threw insults at each other during dark times of political disintegration and economic deterioration that demanded our martyrdom? What precedence are we establishing for the Malawi of tomorrow?

We just take for example: building a company from the ground-up is just simply not for some people. While one is hired for one thing, they have the opportunity to help colleagues in other departments, learning about processes and picking up skills that they would not know otherwise. It is great for their professional development and fulfilling for someone who likes to learn. People of different professions in one company have to be told that they are pretty great.

While everyone has good days and bad days, individuals have to look forward to being part of the team as the company continues to grow and succeed in its mission to really improve.

In our Malawian scenario, we are from different backgrounds with different languages having a mission to develop our country, our lives. If we take ourselves as a company, we will know that all our stories matter and everyone counts. It is not only the publicly dead people but those who suffer for good causes. Those citizens, who worked in different parts of the country and in varying departments but died, are but martyrs of Malawi. Their story is our story, a story of developing this nation as everyone counts.–By Nthezemu

The author is currently working as a pastoral Care Coordinator for St. John of God Hospitaller Services in Mzuzu but writing in my personal capacity

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