Who exactly was John Chilembwe?

After the collapse of the MCP dictatorship in 1993, it seems Malawians embraced democracy with as much freedom of scholarly and intellectual analysis of our national history and its figures, as they did with all other aspects of freedom and human rights.

Chilembwe

Chilembwe

The MCP dictatorship was not only an era of political darkness, but also an era of indoctrination where everyone was either conditioned or compelled in one way or another to accept history as it was provided with little or no questions at all, especially on politically sensitive history.

This can be evidenced by the fact that the history of Dr Kamuzu Banda himself was not clear and only few questions were asked and only through cautious whispers. And it seems the history of John Chilembwe and the significance of his life and the 1915 insurgency was not told as it should have been.

And Malawians did not have the freedom to look at this history, and analyze it especially with respect to, who Chilembwe really was given the facts surrounding his involvement in the colonial politics of his time.

With the rise of press freedom since 1994, which promotes the freedom to share or publish even deviant opinions on all matters of national interest, I have read and heard a lot from people who have said a lot about who Chilembwe really was, which many did not share back then.

For instance, some have called Chilembwe a mere rebel while others have called him a murderer, and similar labels which have robed him of his usual and generally accepted heroic and patriotic accolades.

But what I find interesting the most until today, is what President of the United Independence Party, Hellen Singh who was also presidential candidate in the 2014 Elections told me in late November 2013. I had a chance of chatting with this brilliant lady at her office in Blantyre. During our chat, which lasted more than an hour, the longest I have ever had with a politician, we diverted to Chilembwe, after she had argued that Malawians celebrate the wrong heroes.

Singh eloquently and intelligently – she is an intelligent and eloquent lady- narrated the story of Chilembwe to me, just brief enough to drive her point home, and said, “John Chilebwe was a Trade Unionist.” I had never thought about Chilembwe as a Trade Unionist, and I did not see that coming.

Upon noticing that I needed a little more convincing on the matter, she said, “ JohnChilembwe was not a freedom fighter, he was a Trade Unionist because he was only fighting against poor wages of Nyasaland Africans working on the plantations of the White colonialists.” I knew she was talking about the infamous “Thangata.” “You don’t call such a person a freedom fighter.” She summarized while I inquisitively nodded my head.

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21 thoughts on “Who exactly was John Chilembwe?”

  1. Kkkkkkkkk says:

    Wat a stupid and narrow minded journalist.

  2. Stevoh says:

    For wat so ever little he fought for hero he become hellen back to school immedieatly

  3. Aubrey Mwale says:

    Very sad indeed. Malawians are very much acquainted with the history of Europeans than they are with their own history. Is it not John Chilembwe who seeing the conscription of his country men to fight for the British in the first world war had to pen the Queen of England and her government asking whether after the war a black man will as well become recognised and enjoy due respect and freedom?……..and were these not some of the ‘red flags’ that the colonial masters notice in Chilembwe as the makings of a potential trouble maker and rebel?……Seriously Hellen Sighn to reduce such a figure to a mere trade unionist is very insulting to his courageous spirit and it is very laughable indeed! And Mr journalist do not be an idiot, please do research and write from an informed point of view. For Chilembwe please read this book written by a European….The Independent African.

  4. Coco nyoni says:

    The writer has to go back to school and start al over again! Leadin standard eight books makamaka a Dzuka

  5. Mark Saoneka says:

    During the said Kamuzu Banda’s tyrany era, History was plainly and clearly taught right from primary schools and Malawians have known Chilembwe as freedom fighter not as a unionist as Hellen Singh suggests. Why degrading Malawian historic heros like that? History writers were wiser than her.

  6. chithaphwi says:

    I feel what mrs Sing is trying to do is to tell a black man that he is is nothing compaired to a white man. Racism at its best. period! how much did this reporter get to write this nonsense. Can Nyasatimes remove this immediately

  7. Winston Msowoya says:

    With due respect,I would like to dispute Singh’s assertion that Chilembwe was not a freedom fighter,but a Trade Unionist.It seems Hellen Singh is confused a bit in that John was fighting to liberate his fellow Nyasalanders from the exploitation of man by man and therefore,realistically,he was a freedom fighter period.Being surppressed by an avaricious and implacable capitalists these poor people needed the help of such people like John Chilembwe.In fact,if Singh,were in similar situation,she could seek the help from
    John.Reading from Helen’s last name,it implies to me that she cares less if black human beings suffer humiliation under white coloured people.So,to her,John was just a mere Trade Unionist,but to the majority of our people,look at him as a freedom fighter,so I beg to differ from Singh and strongly insist that John Chilembwe was our liberation hero otherwise,I could betray my own conscience.

  8. kk man says:

    please malawians, lets be patriotic , i couldnt expect the so called trained journalist writing this trash, is he really a malawian? how can you as a flag carrier sink so low? i am so worried if this type of stupidity is indeed in some malawians, lets suppport our heroes, they died for us, our parents wents through alot of diffilcuties, it wasnt easy for somebody to stand and critisize as we our doing now, just because that was a treason case with minimum punishment of of death sentence, we are free today because of them, whether john was a yao from south but i always honour him, he deserves respect, the first president of malawi Dr/ H. Kamuzu Banda was always respecting John Chilembwe more than any other President mw has had, so who am i to disrespect Chilembwe. THIS JOURNALIST NEEDS TO APOLOGISE TO THE MALAWIANS if he has morals

  9. Winston Msowoya says:

    With due respect,I would like to dispute Singh’s assertion that Chilembwe was not a freedom fighter,but a Trade Unionist.It seems Hellen Singh is confused a bit in that John was fighting to liberate his fellow Nyasalanders from the exploitation of man by man and therefore,realistically,he was a freedom fighter period.Being surppressed by an avaricious and implacable capitalists these poor people needed the help of such people like John Chilembwe.In fact,if Singh,were in similar situation,she could seek the help from John.Reading from Helen’s last name,it implies to me that she cares less if black human beings suffer humiliation under white coloured people.So,to her,John was just a mere Trade Unionist,but to the majority of our people,look at him as a freedom fighter,so I beg to differ from Singh and strongly insist that John Chilembwe was our liberation hero otherwise,I could betray my own conscience.

  10. abgy says:

    olemba article chindere chakufikapo

  11. chris amdala says:

    Kkkkkkkkkk so you are an educated Jonalist !!? You are even paid for doing such articles!? Hahahahahah bolani kumakaitanila ma Min bus

  12. nachisale says:

    Foolish writing and intellectually shallow article. The worst analysis I’ve ever seen. You haven’t read history because you should have known Kamuzu Banda acknowledged Chilembwe`s struggle but rather used it as a platform to justify why he (Kamuzu) was a bigger freedom fighter than Chilembwe. For instance, Kamuzu made sure the story of Chilembwe was told to the nation, but in it, there was a claim a more powerful freedom fighter would later come and liberate Malawi. On 3 March there was a play, history excepts and songs on MBC about Chilembwe and we were all supposed to respect Chilembwe. Those who didnt were arrested. Chilembwe was a freedom fighter. His fight against labour rights was part of that struggle. So please you better keep quiet with your ignorance and don’t rely on ignorant, self-interested `foreigners` to inform you about our Malawi history.

  13. Concerned Citizen says:

    We have really killed our nation by the white washing of our nations history by our various leaders through history.

    In the same vein, why are you trivialising our nations history.

    John Chilembwe’s history needs to be rewritten.

    This article is in all respects below par and cannot be attributed to the great leader.

  14. eluby chikopa says:

    This is too shallow Mr. Sibande. John Chilembwe was against First World War Recruitment of Blacks and he sent a letter to Germans through Yotamu Saidi Bango. Was this Trade Unionism? His Bell was destroyed when Zungus told him that it could improve its sound and call for more members.Your story is too basic. I would have appreciated if you could have covered life of Chilembwe in USA and later how fellow blacks actually killed him. Please be more ambitious and not too basic.

  15. ellard muwa says:

    It just shows that this so called Sigh knows nothing about Chilembwe. Read properly. So Sibande you just want to discredit Chilembwe just because he was a Southerner?

  16. Chilembwe is not worthy celebrating….why not Chakufwa among otherz….

  17. Guantanamo says:

    Thangata, hut tax or as in SA they had Group Area’s Act – all had to do with labor issues. Then u can as well say Mandela was a mere trade unionist. The same can be said of Malcom X and Martin Luther Jnr who were fighting for equal pay on same job regardless of skin color. Sibande, don’t source ur facts from active politicians. They will distort to their advantage. To understand me better just find a proper definition of the word ‘freedom’.

  18. Nyani wa ku Mwananyani says:

    It would be a grave mistake to bring John Chilembwe down from the top notch to the first step on the ladder. Even if he was primarily fighting for labor rights, that was still ground breaking at that time. And a first step in the fight against colonial occupation. The colonial occupiers, to be sure, knew that JC had a broader agenda. And he surely did.
    Singh’s opinion is but one person’s. What makes the author hold that amateur opinion in such high esteem?
    Ms Singh may be intelligent and eloquent; but that does not preclude her having a bias. Maybe even a racial bias; considering that JC’s campaign pitted one race against another. And Ms Singh may sympathize with the colonizing race, as she may be closer to it.
    Just wondering. NOT lol – as this is a serious matter: John Chilembwe is a hero to most Malawians; and Ms Singh knows that, I bet.

  19. Sapitwa says:

    You and your Helen Singh including those who say John Chilembwe was a murder, a trade unionist and not a political fighter should stop insulting our intelligence at once. If you list all reasons for what political fighters fought for, you will find that irksome labour and poor wages was one of the main reasons. From South African mines to coffee and Tea Plantations in Kenya to Tobacco and Tea Plantations in Malawi, they all fought for this reason amongst other reasons. In Kenya alone, Kenyatta and his gang were hiding in the underground trenches during the day right there in the coffee plantations and uprooted coffee at night from the white settlers’ farms.
    Chilembwe the Reverend had an upper hand just like many other clergy to confront a white man during freedom fighting. There were Tutu, Muzorewa, Banana, Chikane just to mention a few who fought for the same reason though differently from Chilembwe.

  20. Luwunga selewa says:

    Very poor article, very stupid & ignorant writer. Please stop giving deserving Malawian ur trash. Is this howan article ends?

  21. 2016 welcome says:

    So who should be a freedom fighter then. I thought fighting Thangata was the starting point? Don’t you know that some unionists who ended up state presidents? Frederick Chiluba of Zambia is such one example. The opening statement of the article promised detailed content only to realize the whole story is detail-free. It’s a vacuum.

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