This week, on 12 January No holds barred to be specific, we lost a great heroine, Rose Chibambo, a fierce freedom fighter. It would be remiss for this column not to dedicate a whole entry to her, considering her distinguished service to this country.
But what do we know about her?
In 1947, she married Edwin Chibambo, a civil servant. In 1948 her husband was posted to the Zomba Public Works department. She completed her secondary school education at a night school in Zomba in 1948 while pregnant with her first child. She had another child in 1951, and four more later.
In 1952, Rose became aware of Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) politics during the controversy over the colonial government’s plan to make Nyasaland part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which the NAC saw as a betrayal of the agreement by the government to put the interests of Africans first.
Rose Chibambo decided that women should be more involved in the struggle, and began to organise her friends in Zomba, mostly the wives of civil servants. Some issues were specific to women, such as the fact that in some stores women could only do their shopping through a wicket, and that elderly women were not examined in private in the hospitals, but in rooms filled with women of all ages.
Chibambo once stated: “You know, we are the mothers. We are the ones who bring out children. They go to Wenela and most of them die there. They don’t come back alive. And then there’s a lot of oppression. There’s this thangata and now with this federation, we are being pushed here and there. We must do something”.
In 1953 Edwin Chibambo was transferred to Blantyre.
Rose Chibambo joined the local NAC branch and was elected treasurer, the first woman to hold a senior position in the NAC. She joined forces with Vera Chirwa to form the Nyasaland African Women’s League, closely associated with the NAC. Executives of the Women’s League would select fabric from which they made matching outfits. The purpose was to show solidarity at public occasions, identifying members as a group.
Chibambo respected the moderate leaders of the NAC but thought some, including the President James Chinyama, had been too cautious. In 1956, Rose Chibambo organised a group of women to protest when the new NAC president James Sangala and secretary T.D.T. Banda were arrested for sedition. Her group was arrested and fined after they travelled by bus to the High Court in Zomba singing: “War! War! War today! We are going to have war. We don’t want, we don’t want, we don’t want federation. We want freedom today!”
Rose Chibambo was, however, quite clear that singing and dancing was not the primary purpose of the women’s meetings. She said in a 1999 interview: “I had this feeling … women should be part and parcel of the whole movement, even of running the country. Women should be involved in decision making. That was my aim”.
In July 1958, Hastings Banda was elected President of the Congress, and began to tour the country speaking out for independence. In 1958, Chibambo organised the League of Malawi Women. The group used the profits from a monopoly on the sale of millet beer to fund their activities. With growing tension between the NAC and the colonial authorities, in a January 1959 Congress meeting it was agreed that if Banda was arrested or deported a general strike would be called.
Rose Chibambo would become a member of a four-person executive committee to conduct the affairs of the congress in Banda’s absence.
On March 3, 1959, the governor Robert Armitage declared a state of emergency.
Over the next 24 hours, almost all leaders of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) – the party that had replaced the outlawed NAC – were arrested. In April 1959, Jet magazine reported: “The top woman leader of the outlawed African National Congress, Rose Chibambo, 29, who was arrested after giving birth to her fifth child, has taken the infant with her to jail”.
After her release from prison, Rose Chibambo won the Mzimba South seat in the 1963 elections and was made Deputy Minister for Hospitals, Prisons and Social Welfare, the only woman in cabinet at the time.
On February 1, 1963, Nyasaland gained self-governance, and Banda was appointed Prime Minister. The country became independent as Malawi in 1964. Elections to the National Assembly scheduled for May 1964 were dropped since the MCP was the only party to nominate candidates, and they took their seats unopposed.
On September 7, 1964 there was a cabinet crisis, in which Chibambo and others were dismissed from cabinet. Issues included the Prime Minister’s decision to charge for health services and to move slowly in the Africanization of the civil service. Chibambo was declared a rebel and a traitor.
She was suspended from MCP, which prevented her from attending party meetings and prevented members of the party from attending her meetings. Her husband and she faced constant harassment until they fled to Zambia in 1965, where they faced the challenge of starting a new life.
Rose Chibambo returned to Malawi in 1994. She became a businesswoman in Mzuzu, and was prominent in politics and church activities. She was a member of the Church Action Relief Development, which assists the orphans of victims of HIV/AIDS, the Christian Service Committee, the Malawi Council of Churches and the Interdenominational Support Group for Prisoners.
In 2009, President Bingu wa Mutharika met Rose Chibambo and honoured her, naming a street in Mzuzu City after her.
Since January 1, 2012, she appears on Malawi’s 200 Kwacha banknote.
Rest in peace, Mrs Chibambo. You fought a good fight.
You faced astonishing challenges in your time, and you rose to confront them all. In our time, the struggle continues. The country is dying in small doses. But one thing we are certain is that you will no longer be there to lead us in the fight. Pitani bwino, ma’am.
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