Chilembwe’s story epitomises the leadership Malawi lacks

When the entire southern part of Africa was submissive to the struggles of the oppressive colonial rule, John Chilembwe, in 1915, stood up and instilled a rebellious spirit of change in his people. Ephraim Nyondo shows how that is the leadership which Malawi lacks today.


William Jervis Livingstone—one of the early white settlers and a manager of a big plantation in the Shire Highlands in Malawi—was a harsh, ruthless and powerful man.

Records show that not only did he exploit the obligations of Africa’s reciprocal labour tenancy system called Thangata and underpaid wage labours through use of violent coercion but he passionately denied any mission to open schools near his plantations and burnt down every church built in the vicinity.

This was despite that he was David Livingstone’s grandson.

Even worse, according Professor Robert I. Rotberg, author of that 1965 book The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, Livingstone was oppressively a ‘racist’.

But why did a visitor, Livingstone—who was just a manager of a plantation—wield such powers to abuse locals without being restrained by the State?

The State just watched him unleash all manner of terror on Africans.

What emerges from that is a powerful colonial State—defined by a strong and well-armed police and Army—which, like an organised crime, conspired faithfully with powerful settlers such as Livingstone in a project to loot, exploit and steal labour and resources from Malawians.

Such an organised crime, it should be underlined, was not just confined within Nyasaland. It spilled all over Africa. This means the story of colonial project of looting, exploitation and stealing Africa’s labour and resources through violence and ruthlessness was spread across the continent.

It is not that Africans accepted this colonial project.

The scale of military might the colonial State paraded and the visible ruthlessness of their agents—Livingstone, for instance—suppressed every expression of Africans of their innermost dislike of the colonial system.

The colonial State manipulated the psyche of the locals to believe that the whites were not just untouchable but also invincible.

But how do people convinced of their inferiority stand up to challenge those deemed superior that they can be defeated?

This was a call for a greater leadership—leadership that should not just aim at defeating the enemy.

Most importantly, instilling a spirit of courage on the downtrodden to believe in themselves and also to believe that God did not create an inferior race in His image.

Interestingly, that leadership—when it could not be found in any of the southern Africa countries—emanated from a tall, asthmatic, American-trained Baptist preacher from a small country called Nyasaland, now Malawi.

John Chilembwe’s leadership cause stems from the dream he had for his country. In fact, it is a dream that Joseph Booth, his mentor, saw in him at quite a tender age.

“He always wanted to better his life. You could see it in his desire to learn and write and discover new things,” writes Booth in his biography.

In 1897, Booth—who believed in preaching the gospel of African freedom—travelled with the young John to Lynchburg, Virginia, US.

There, John attended a small African-American seminary, imbibed the ideological ferment of African-American intellectual circles, and learned about John Brown and other abolitionists and emancipators.

When he came back in 1900, Chilembwe, learned and eager to inspire, began to share his betterment philosophy to fellow natives.

And in essay titled Twentieth Century Politics in Nyasaland former Chancellor College history professor John McCracken shows how Chilembwe’s betterment philosophy played out even in his everyday dealings with locals.

“He exhorted people [against] strong drinks…taught adults and children to keep on work, not to lounge about….He liked to see his countrymen work hard…and to see them smart, such as negro fellows he had seen in America….He preached against …murderers, robbers….” he writes.

In his church, Providence Industrial Mission (PIM), planted at Chiradzulu, Chilembwe preached a different gospel from the prophetic gospel advanced by the likes of Elliot Kamwana.

“Chilembwe was lauded for his vocational-education programme, industriousness—quite a deviation from the orthodox Baptist teachings. In fact, he was neither radical nor millennial,” writes Rotberg.

However, despite his betterment drives, Chilembwe began to get dismayed by colonial state’s increased machinations of keeping the African race inferior.

This, arguably, changed Chilembwe’s betterment philosophy: from working with the colonial set to working against it.

Writes McCracken: “Existing economic grievances and discontents against colonial government were deepened by the famine of 1913. The outbreak of the First World War, followed by increased recruiting of the askaris and carriers for service, was a deciding factor.”

In November 1914, he complained about the injustice inherent in forced African plantation.

“Let the rich men, bankers, titled men, storekeepers and landlords go to war and get shot. Instead, the poor African who has nothing to own in this present world, who in death leave only a long line of widows and orphans in utter want and dire stress are invited to die for a cause which is not theirs,” he wrote.

Continued failure of authorities to heed, coupled with his personal problems, Chilembwe, notwithstanding the scale of the military might of the colonial State, instilled a rebellious spirit in the locals to rise against oppression.

A month later, in January 1915, Chilembwe moved the locals to “strike a blow and die, for our blood will surely mean something at last.”

Rotberg writes that Chilembwe spoke to his 200 men and warned them neither to loot nor to molest white women.

On January 23, in different attacks, his men beheaded Livingstone, killed two other white men and several Africans while sparing a number of white women and children, looted an ammunition store in a large nearby town, and retreated to pray.

When the rising failed to arouse local support, a forlorn Chilembwe fled toward Mozambique.

“Unarmed, wearing a dark blue coat, a striped pyjama jacket over a coloured shirt, and gray flannel trousers, he was killed by African soldiers on February 3,” writes Rotberg.

In his death there was a beginning of history.

“That was a great spirit of courage, of confronting the forces that devalue humanity. It is quite interesting to note that even without sophisticated weapons, he had the courage to mobilise and stand up to face the forces he wanted to destroy. That is a spirit worth emulating,” writes George Jawali.

Chilembwe’s story epitomises the leadership Malawi lacks: a principled rebel, serious protester of oppression who will protect Malawi against all odds.

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2 years ago

Peter Mutharika, the clueless president who steals from hard-working Malawians to enrich himself and his DPP cadets. The prince of thieves, Malawi has ever had as president!

2 years ago

But a century later Malawi has a clue-less Mutharika devoid of any leadership qualities and empathy for his people and country!!! We have a Supreme Court Judge willing to sell his soul to clue-less Mutharika. I had all along asked myself why this guy allowed clue-less Mutharika to make appointments he had no mandate for but now know that he is just as clue-less!!!

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