They write about our great ones


John Chilembwe staged his abortive uprising at the beginning of World War 1 and, at the end of it, his name started appearing in books, very briefly. In the 1930s, George W. Mwase from Nkhata Bay, while in prison, wrote Chilembwe’s biography but did not change it. The manuscript was kept at the National Archives in Zomba.

At the beginning of our independence, a history professor from the Unites States who visited the archives without the knowledge of the archivist made photocopies of Mwase’s manuscripts and then got it published into a book, Strike a Blow and Die. The book was based entirely on oral information Mwase had got outside prison. I read it but it was not in bookshops for very long. The Censorship Board banned it. The government declared the editor a prohibited immigrant into Malawi when he landed at Chileka Airport to do more research. Undaunted at the beginning of the multiparty era, he edited Henry Masauko Chipembere’s autobiography and got it published as The Hero of the Nation.

In his book, Nationalism in Africa, Thomas Hodgson of Britain made reference to Chilembwe. But we, the people of Malawi and those who love reading about African history, owe special thanks to Professor George Shepperson of Edinburgh University who, in 1955 or thereabout, published a comprehensive and massive biography of Chilembwe titled Independent African. Through this book, Chi lembwe and Shepperson put Nyasaland on the map. The book was sold wherever universities and teachers of history were interested in African history. I bought a copy while working and residing in Dar es Salaam.


Scholars the world over, when discussing the rise of nationalism in Africa, would make reference to Chilembwe of Nyasaland and then start searching on the map of Africa where Nyasaland was.

Without Shepperson’s book, I doubt if Malawians would have paid much attention to Chilembwe because those who had taken part in it were communicative. The book went through several editions, including a paperback, under the Kachere series. It inspired me to write a sequel called Let Us Die for Africa, which filled gaps found in Shapperson’s book. He wrote the book when some materials in the archives were not open to scholars and when some of those who had taken part in the revolt were unwilling to talk to strangers. But I was able, in the 1970s, to talk to men such as Wylie Pilgrim Chigamba, Wilfred Mtambo and Mrs Mkulichi who had been involved in the revolts.

The University of Edinburgh is still interested in the great ones of Malawi. On Friday, September 29 2017, a PhD researcher scholar called at my office to gather information on Clements Kadalie. How many people reading this piece have heard of Clements Kadalie and, if they have heard of him, know much about his life and work in South Africa.


About three years ago, a young female teacher visited me at the office to seek advice on how she could become an author. I asked her if she wanted to focus on fiction or non-fiction. She said she was interested in writing biographies. She was from Nkhata Bay but was teaching at a secondary school in Blantyre. I asked her if she knew Clements Kadalie and she said she had never heard of him and, yet, Kadalie was from her own district.

The Edinburgh scholar had already been to South Africa, met descendants of adalie. He told me that Kadalie’s son had deposited a big pile of Kadalie’s documents with the university of Cape Town. He also told me what I did not know; that the Livingstonia Mission had deposited with the National Archives in Zomba documents on Lameck Koniwaka, the original name of Clements Kadalie, the man South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Namibia should not forget. After a two-hour discussion, I had to confess that I had learned from the visitor more than he had learned from me about Kadalie.

Many Malawian scholars have obtained their PhD by thesis, but on subjects which have not attracted the interest of the public or been published. If you visit bookshops such as Central Bookshop at Chichiri, in Blantyre, you will come across biographies of Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Thabo Mbeki but not on our first president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, 20 years after his death. Where are those who claimed, during his lifetime, to be more loyal to him than other people; those who sang: Tidzafa eh/ Tidzafa eh!/ Tidzafa naye/ Tiri pambuyo pa Kamuzu [we will die for Kamuzu/ We are behind Kamuzu]. Do they not realise they have a duty to perpetuate the better part of his legacy by sponsoring someone to write about him if they cannot do so themselves. They loved him so long as he was in a position to prefer them for appointment and rewards. Benjamin Franklin of the United States was right when he wrote in the Poor Richards Almanac that a flatterer cannot be a friend.

Biographies constitute the history of a nation. A comprehensively writ ten biography of Dr Banda would be a mine of information about what happened in Malawi from 1915 up to the end of his regime in 1994. The truth about him should be told by scientific historians; those who will not be guided by emotions.

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