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Rose Chibambo: Life of a lioness

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Back in the 1950s, and at a time the colonial masters imposed the federation on Rhodesia and Nyasaland, politics was a civil servants’ game.

Edwin Chibambo, Rose’s husband, was a treasurer of Zomba branch of Nyasaland African Congress (Nac) and he was coming home late often.

Suspecting infidelity, Rose pressed her husband on operations of Nac. She wanted to understand why the husband was coming home late.

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“I became interested but I asked myself why women did not attend such meetings …I set to organise my fellow women. That’s how the Women’s League was born. … I was only 24 and had to talk to bigger ladies,” she told this reporter in 2012 at her Kaning’ina home in Mzuzu.

Today, Rose Chibambo is no more. But she leaves large footprints on Malawi’s political stage.

Rose the girl

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In September 1928, Rose Ziba was born in Kafukule in Mzimba to a father who was a teacher and businessman. She was the first born to her mother and the fifth born to the father.

She attained primary education at Kafukule Village School before being sent to Ekwendeni Boarding School.

She did Standard 1 up to 5 but could not proceed to Standard 6 because a young man by the name of Edwin Chibambo, son of a reverend of the church where she belonged to, insisted that they get married.

The two married in 1947 and the young couple moved to Livingstonia where Edwin worked as a teacher. Edwin quit the teaching job to join NTC Bus Service as station master. He was based at Salima.

He later joined the civil service in Zomba where Rose’s fateful political life begun.

Political activism

Rose recalled how she crashed into a meeting where chiefs were being lobbied to be pro-federation by colonial administrators. She clashed with Chief Chikowi over fears of ‘selling out the nation.’

Politics quickly caught on in Nyasaland. When the white dominated Legislative Council wanted more African faces, Chibambo and her likes in Nac influenced chiefs to elect Masauko Chipembere and Kanyama Chiume to go to the Council. They feared that the whites might elect puppets.

Chibambo said this is where they invited Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda to convince chiefs who could not respect the young opinions of the likes of Chiume, Chipembere and herself. And Kamuzu was only invited because he was always in touch with the people.

As Nac met secretly in the bushes of Soche in Blantyre, white administrators panicked and thought there existed a plot to massacre all whites and Indians and so they arrested all Nac leaders, sparing Chibambo because she was expecting her fifth child.

But she cared less about being heavily pregnant.

“…All I cared for was a free Nyasaland,” she said.

She even drove to Zomba and confronted police and went on to leak information about the arrests to international media.

A day after she gave birth to her daughter at Malamulo Hospital in Thyolo, she was also arrested and taken to Zomba Prison where she was to spend a year.

“We slept on the floor and I shared the cell with other two Women’s League members. Vera Chirwa also briefly spent time with us there. My child cried all night and we named her Gadi because of the circumstances surrounding her birth,” he said.

Cabinet crisis and exile

Rose confessed that she was really close to Kamuzu Banda – organising all his meetings since he was not yet familiar with Malawi after a long spell abroad.

But that would quickly change.

“Kamuzu surrounded himself with people from outside the Nyasaland African Congress executive and the fear of the unknown made him take us as threats, maybe he thought we would stage a coup or something, but we really just wanted to develop Malawi.”

Rose and her husband sent their children to the village and they sought refuge in Zambia. She said she always cried when she thought of her children who she said were being victimised by the State. The first born was briefly arrested for her mother’s sins.

Edwin died in exile and even though President Kenneth Kaunda offered a plane to ferry the remains back home, but the regime refused to let a ‘rebel’ return, even in death.

She listed the death of her husband and the separation from her children as the lowest points in her life

“I wish I gave my children a proper education; you know nobody can replace a mother’s love,” she plaintively said.

Rose only returned in 1994 at the insistence of Chakufwa Chihana who had helped champion multiparty politics in Malawi.

“Chakufwa told Bazuka Mhango to drive me home. He even made a big emotional rally at Ekwendeni where he presented me to the people. I always dreamt of building a house in Mzuzu and I am glad that dream came true.”

And she had a sad analysis of women leaders in Malawi: “I don’t see anybody who can express their real feelings. Politics of today is still that of praising the leader. People don’t seem to think. All they are thinking about is what I can say to praise the leader.”

She attributed her courage to growing up under a disciplined family that taught her to speak up.

“I do not dabble in appeasement. Speaking your mind is not being disrespectful. Malawian tradition has that flaw and it affects women a lot. I believe that nobody should hesitate to speak what they feel,” she said.

She lamented the plummeting economic indicators in Malawi, especially “for us who are not working.”

In 2012, she still had her energies about her, she drove this reporter and spoke of her love for cooking okra. But she indicated she was tired.

“I am now tired, my dear. I used to rear chickens but stopped in 2010. I sometimes go to the women fellowship and we have a prison group, we go to prison to give them soap, sugar, bread and things they don’t usually have,” she said.

Her last words were chilling:

“You journalists must be strong, nobody wants to hear the truth, and you have to be strong because you are speaking for the silent. There are so many people whose chests are full but have nowhere to complain and when you write they feel relieved and hope that someone somewhere might have listened.

“I believe that we all have a destiny in life. If you follow it, God will always reveal things that you should do. Also, never deviate from doing what is right.”

In 2006 Livingstonia Synod named her a political veteran. In 2009, late Bingu wa Mutharika bestowed upon her the Grand Achiever of the Malawi Order of Achievement and named a street in Mzuzu, the ‘Rose Chibambo Crescent,’ after her.

And she will live in the memories of many as her face on the K200 note will serve as a reminder.

Apparently, a life as Chibambo lived is so hard to compensate.

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