John Chilembwe forerunner and martyr of Malaŵi nationalism

Until some where around mid 90,3rd March was closely associated with John Chilembwe, the 1953 insurgency and Nyasaland’s state of emergency. For sure, John Chilembwe must be given credit historically for his effort to show the British rulers the independent spirit of the people of Nyasaland.
But to the disappoint of most of my pan-African friends, in particular my American based good friend Dr Sharra who at 16 began his social consciousness, sharing a strong feeling of inequality and injustice by powerful nations of the global North against smaller nations from the global South, I have not been able to share the praise and the mellow dramatic nature of heroism often attributed to the legendary acts of John Chilembwe.
The more I reflect on what happened in mid January of 1915 and the tragic events that followed, the more I begin to appreciate the importance of planning .As Dr Banda would say “to be successful in politics, besides determination and leadership, one must have good planning, complete cooperation and dedication to the plan by others, and good timing.
Planning must be perfect down to the last detail and must consider carefully, alternatives or contingencies. Cooperation and dedication is essential between all; no jealousy, no tribalism, no secret cliques and finally there must be a ground-swell of support, complete support of all factions.
When John Chilembwe returned home as a minister, he was arguably angered by the racial divide and its associated injustices on his natives. He wasted no time and quickly organized himself into an army. Since he had no money and armory, his plan was to steal opponent’s weapons and this is where the whole plan cracks me up. We are told; about 12 guns were stolen from Mandala.However a forensic study of pictures of executed Europeans during the uprising revealed that almost all colonial casualties had no bullet wounds, creating an impression that probably the stolen guns had no bullets and I have strong doubts as to whether any of them had any knowledge on how to use a gun. With 12 guns, probably without bullets, and no formal training on the part of the church goers now turned soldiers, war was declared against the white settlers. Believe me, I am a patriot to boot but this does not stop me from detecting a crazy plan.And if you think this was the only crazy military plan on planet earth on how to fight oppression and injustices of the time, then wait until you hear the story of South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma’s fight against white supremacy whilst hiding in Swaziland. Weapons were scarce in those days and the liberation movement needed every gun it could lay its hands on.

Rumor had it that a certain white foreigner who used to go out with young Swazi woman had a pistol. When the boyfriend went abroad, news reached the ANC underground operatives in the area that he had left his pistol with her. And so the leaders of the ANC underground in Swaziland, Thabo Mbeki and Albert Dhlomo, instructed their most trusted cadre, Jacob Zuma, to get the gun. The plan, they told Zuma, was for him to woo her, get close to her and then find ways of acquiring the weapon through his seductive prowess with theft as a fall back position.

Even though “the woman was not beautiful as Zuma would recall, he followed the orders and proposed to her”. Within days, Zuma had charmed his way into her heart. Now as her lover he could freely ask her about her ex-boyfriend and his prized pistol.
The boyfriend had indeed left the gun with her, she told her new lover. But, to Zuma’s horror, she had also sold it just two days before he asked her about it.

Inculcated with modern warfare’s, military strategists of all times like author of the Chinese classic-The art of war –sun-tzu, great army commanders like Yamamoto,
T.E Lawrence,Shaka,Zulu,Genghis Khan,Napoleon Collin Powel and many others would have failed Chilembwe’s war strategy. Firstly, he allowed emotion to run his independence effort. Secondly his was a much localized activity; there was multi-factional or tribal jealousy, leadership rivalry and so many negative factors. But I do give John Chilembwe credit for clearly expressing discontent with the increasingly restrictive rule imposed on his country by the colonial power.

If people are living in terrible conditions for whatever reason, they become desperate and desperate people will risk everything in a fight. Already defeated by circumstances, they have nothing to loose.

In the search for success in life, people tend to rely on things that seem simple and easy or that have worked before. Everything can take away from you and generally will be spent at some point. Your wealth vanishes, the latest gadgetry suddenly becomes passé, your allies desert you and so fourth but when your mind is armed with a sense of pride and personal Identity, there is no power that can take that away. In the middle of a crisis, your mind will find its way to the right solution and there in lies the strength of John Chilembwe.
By 1900,he was already educated and with a little more time in class perfecting his intellect and knowledge, he could have easily joined the wave of earliest African scholars and educationist, the likes of Booker Washington, William Dubois, Martin Hughes, Tolson and James Farmer sr to mention a few.But earning himself scholarly achievements while his natives were being oppressed by a tyranny of a majority elite was too much of a pill to swallow.
He wanted to refuse them the freedom of time and space they need for their mayhem against his natives.
In crowning John Chilembwe as a symbol of martyrdom, we do so in recognition of the latter spirit, the spirit of resistance. As prof. Thandeka Mkandawire once said, “We have a laudable history of resistance”
As anyone can imagine, chilembwe’s struggle for equality met insurmountable challenges. Waging an uprising at a time when the British colonial office was entertaining John Cecil Rhodes’s commercial empire was not easy but his love for humanity taught us something.
In a country where facts were blurred by superstition and denial, where mothers were separated from their children and prevention was hamstrung by divisive racial politics, pulpit ceremonies of loving people, touching them, hold their hands and finally becoming symbol of resistance was by far the greatest of all achievements.
 It took the courage of young Chilembwe a middle income earner to hatch a plan that would change the plight of his peasant natives. They had no capital hill or parliament to discuss it.Future martyrs, the likes of Dunduzu Chisiza,Ching’oli Chirwa,Attati Mpakati,Mkwapatira Mhango,Chief Gomani,John Grey Kufa and many others long gone, were the salt of our new found freedom,Future pillars of struggle for equality.
 Their willingness to challenge the injustices of the time and the inhuman nature of the manner in which their natives were being treated were not ordinary acts.Malawi may not be experiencing the wrath of racism and the degree of imperial injustices of 1915, 1953.1959 and the ninety’s.
 There is no doubt that what Malawi has accomplished within this short period is both impressive and inspiring. Among African nations, we remain a model for representative democracy – a place where many different ethnic factions have found a way to live and work together in peace and stability.
 But for all the progress that has been made, we must surely acknowledge that we have not yet fulfilled our potential – that the hopefulness of the post-colonial era was replaced by repression is a regrettable fact.
 That a post repressive administration was replaced by a decade of corruption and mob justice is another sad reality and that political despair, and that true economic freedom has not yet been won for those struggling to live on less than a few dollars a day, for those who have fallen prey to HIV/AIDS or malaria, to those ordinary citizens who continue to find themselves trapped in the crossfire of political depression needs a united front that brings the nation together.

John Chilembwe
 In each case, what has been required to meet the challenges we face has been good judgment and clear vision from our leader, and a fundamental seriousness and engagement on the part of the Malawian people – a willingness on the part of each of us to look past what is petty and small and sensational, and look ahead to what is necessary and purposeful

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