Two days ago, we celebrated John Chilembwe, a man recorded in history as one of the first black Africans to stand up against colonial domination in this part of the world. Chilembwe’s uprising was as controversial as the debates it ignites today. Some argue that there is nothing heroic about his actions since the country never attained independence until some 48 years later. Others also fault the motives behind his insurrection and the gains, or lack thereof, of his uprising. Whether one likes him or not, Chilembwe is worth talking about in our history.
The fact that the man’s uprising failed does not necessarily mean that he was a failure. Chilembwe ought to be celebrated for his intellectual rigour and the courage he displayed at a very difficult time in history. For those not in the know, the colonial system was one built on violence and dispossession. The imperialists made sure that Africans remained oppressed by any means necessary and standing up against such a powerful force was almost impossible. Most of those who led the fight against this oppressive system lost their lives, and we can count them in thousands.
Chilembwe’s uprising ought to be seen as a lesson to the oppressed – there comes a time when one must stand up and speak truth to power. Most of those who look down on Chilembwe today have never stood up for anything. It has become our way of life in Malawi, where people step all over us while we suffer in silence. Whenever you speak back to power, the average person on the streets will give you a stern warning. They will tell you that politicians will kill you as if you were meant to live forever. Not even 10 percent of our population takes to the streets when time comes to demonstrate against one form of impunity or another. We are that docile.
It is our docility that has destroyed this nation. We sit back and watch a few individuals ruin our country and we never have the courage to speak up. Some will tell you that Malawi is poor because Chilembwe fought with the whites too early. They ignorantly argue that, had he waited, colonialists could have developed this country to the levels of South Africa, for example. Such people have no basic understanding of history and colonial economics. They don’t understand that the oppressor cannot do anything that benefits the oppressed. Any development that colonialists made in settler colonies was for their own benefit. You cannot stand up today and lament the end of colonialism instead of taking up tools to develop your country.
The only people who can develop Malawi are Malawians. This is our country and we must have its best interests at heart. If we contend that Chilembwe was not a hero in his time, what heroics can we boast of today that have made our lives better? Since independence, we have watched politicians plunder our resources, we have let them go scot-free with serious crimes, and we have listened to them lie to us time and again. Yet every time they take to the podium, we flock there in thousands, burn in the sun and clap hands to the men and women in suits, looking down on us. Very few people have taken the time to ask what sort of heroism we see in modern-day politicians who are only concerned about their own welfare. It is very hard to find a Chilembwe among these crooks we celebrate today.
What John Chilembwe did in 1915 was not easy. His uprising speaks of a man who was ahead of his time and who wished for a better place to live in. The agency he demonstrated is something that most of us lack today. The white man may have killed Chilembwe very early in his tracks, but it is us who have thwarted his heroism. We have not taken the right lessons from the man and we have failed to take up a spirit that came to life a hundred years ago. In Chilembwe, we must learn that people must stand up and fight for what is right. We must not suffer in silence and we must always demand better. Whether we will be successful or not is a question for another day.