On the afternoon of Tuesday 8th November 2016, I took
my History of Education first year class at the Catholic University of Malawi
to Providence Industrial Mission (PIM). We had read about John Chilembwe as one
of Malawi’s early pioneers in modern education, in Kelvin Banda’s 1982 book A Brief History of Education in Malawi. Being
no more than 10 kilometres away from campus, we decided it was worthwhile to go
and see this historical place.
Our visit had two parts. First, we were given a lecture on
who John Chilembwe was and how he founded PIM. The second part was a tour of
the place. The lecture was fascinating. It was delivered by Mr George Nasolo, a
teacher at the local primary school, a historian of Chilembwe, and a resource
person at PIM. Mr Nasolo has spent a lifetime researching Chilembwe. My
students found it disconcerting that while Mr Nasolo possesses encyclopaedic
knowledge on Chilembwe, he has never written a book on him.
|Mr George Nasolo. Photo copyright Steve Sharra|
There are quite a few books and scholarly articles on
Chilembwe, not to mention scores of newspaper articles published in John
Chilembwe Day Supplements come every January 15th. Most notable
among the books is George Shepperson and Thomas Price’s Independent African, published in 1958, as well as DD Phiri’s Let Us
Die For Africa, first published in 1976 under the title Malawians to Remember – John Chilembwe. There
is also George Simeon Mwase’s 1967 book Strike
a Blow and Die, edited and introduced by Robert I Rotberg.
Amongst the scholarly articles is one by the late Dr. Mekki
Mtewa, published in 1977, which I discussed in a 2007 blog article
. Then there are others by Robert Rotberg
and David Stuart-Mogg,
and many more. DD Phiri published a play titled Let Us Fight For Africa
, based on Chilembwe’s story. Phiri wrote in
his Daily Times
column of Wednesday
January 2017 that Chancellor College Publications had
translated Let Us Fight For Africa
Chichewa, as Tiwombole Africa
That Tuesday afternoon on 8th
November 2016, Mr
Nasolo told us things that have become common knowledge about Chilembwe, and
things that are not well known about him. The remainder of this article is
based on what Mr Nasolo told us, based on his research. It may be corroborated
with what has been published elsewhere, but it may also contradict accepted
wisdom on Chilembwe. Research on and interest in Chilembwe has been growing in
recent years, which means the various Chilembwe narratives will be subjected to
critical appraisal, both academic and journalistic. Malawian film makers Charles Shemu Joyah and Muti Phoya have been planning Chilembwe films in their respective rights.
Early on in his talk, Mr Nasolo corrected an error about
Chilembwe’s birthplace, which says he was born near Mbombwe Hill. He said there
was no hill called Mbombwe, but rather a stream not too far from where we were.
He said Joseph Booth, the white evangelist who groomed Chilembwe and took him
to America, was in fact an Australian. He said he had not been able to
establish how come Booth took Chilembwe to America rather than to Autsralia.
Mr Nasolo said he had also been unable to establish with
certainty that the group Chilembwe sent to steal guns and ammunition at Mandala
actually succeeded in stealing guns. He said at the onset of the first World
War, a war Africans were forced to fight alongside their oppressors, Chilembwe
sent a letter to the German Army in Tanganyika. He sent the letter through
Yotamu Bango, who walked from Chiradzulu to Tanganyika. Chilembwe was seeking the
support of the Germans in his own struggle against the British. Chilembwe never
heard from Bango again, and nothing is known as to what happened to the letter.
Nasolo narrated events leading to the killing of William
Jarvis Livingstone, a cruel estate manager, and grandson of Scottish explorer David
Livingstone, according to George Shepperson’s foreword to DD Phiri’s 1999
edition of Let Us Die For Africa
killing, according to Nasolo, involved the connivance of Livingstone’s African
cook, Lanjesi. Lanjesi was in turn executed by Livingstone’s white colleagues
after he failed to say what he knew about how Livingstone was killed.
According to Nasolo, Livingstone’s house in Magomero stands
to this day. It is said to have a pit inside it, believed to be where
Livingstone dumped bodies of Africans he routinely killed. His grandchildren
visited Magomero recently and asked to perform a rite inside the house,
according to Nasolo. He said the government did not permit them to do so. He did
not elaborate why.
Nasolo also pointed out that Chilembwe’s descendants dispute
the accepted narrative that Chilembwe was killed. They say he fled to Mozambique. Nasolo said there was no evidence for that version. He said his research shows that Chilembwe was caught as he was about to cross into Mozambique, headed towards East Africa. They shot him dead, and took his corpse to Mulanje boma. There the governor was unhappy that he had been killed, preferring he had been caught alive to answer for Livingstone's murder. His corpse was thrown across from what is today Mulanje Prison, in Esperance Estate. He had a son and two daughters. The son died in 1976, having lived in South
Africa for many years.
|The PIM Church rebuilt between 1928 and 1933|
What Chilembwe built at PIM was destroyed by the
colonialists in response to the 1915 uprising. But PIM still stands to this
day, owing in large part to Dr. Daniel Malikebu. According to Nasolo, Dr.
Malikebu has told his own life’s story in a book titled My Vision. Nasolo explained that Dr. Malikebu also studied in the
United States, having walked on foot from Chiradzulu to Dar es Salaam, from
where he did odd jobs to enable him buy ship tickets to the Britain, and onward
to the United States. He got his medical degree from Meharry Medical College,
When he finished his medical degree, Malikebu announced that
he wanted a wife before returning home to the then Nyasaland. He was taken to
Spelman College, an institution for black women in the US. The women were asked
to line up for Malikebu to choose one. He settled for a Ms Zeto, from Zaire. The
couple were denied entry into Nyasaland in 1921. They went to Liberia instead,
where Malikebu practised medicine. A number of Africans petitioned the
government to allow Malikebu and his wife into Malawi, and they arrived on 3rd
June, 1926. It was under Malikebu’s leadership that PIM was rebuilt. The magnificent
church that stands at PIM today was constructed by the Africans themselves.
This year, 2017, marks 102 years since the Chilembwe
Uprising. It is a part of Malawian history that has been subjected to growing
research, revision, and renewed interest. But there has also been a growing scepticism
and ambivalence amongst some Malawians. Criticisms have been levelled at
Chilembwe for the violence he resorted to against European brutality. There have
also been claims that Chilembwe did not have a nationalist vision, as his struggle
was localised to his immediate environs in Chiradzulu.
In today’s Sunday
, Eston Kakhome has written a strongly-worded argument against holding
up Chilembwe as a hero. He argues that Kamuzu achieved much more than
Chilembwe, and is more deserving to be on the newly introduced K2000 note, than
Chilembwe. He calls the elevation of Chilembwe into a national hero, with a
national holiday and his face on Malawi’s highest currency denomination, a
distortion of Malawi’s history. Other attacks on Chilembwe’s legacy are
appearing on social media with increasing frequency.
|Sanjika Rock, where Chilembwe is said to have spend countless hours studying and praying.|
Photo credit Steve Sharra
These are criticisms that appear to come from people who
have not read deeply into Chilembwe and the era he lived in. In his
introduction to Let Us Die For Africa,
DD Phiri writes that that the title is taken from Chilembwe’s speech delivered
on the eve of the uprising. That alone shows how Pan-Africanist Chilembwe’s
worldview was. He has been called a Pan-Africanist by scholars who have
researched his story, including Shepperson.
That Chilembwe used violence against the settler
colonialists sounds unpalatable to our 21st
but this must be analysed in the context of the Africa Chilembwe lived in. Africans
were subjected to physical and psychological violence every day of their lives,
by foreigners who invaded their lands and dehumanised them. He may have made
mistakes, but the broader vision of his struggle far outweighs his shortcomings
as a leader.
Comparing Chilembwe to Kamuzu is to judge two different
people who lived into two different epochs. A more productive exercise would be
to look at the ways in which the two men contributed, in their different ways,
to the founding of the country we have today. Chilembwe was driven by a
profound desire for dignity for African people. There are things that Kamuzu
did that dehumanised Malawians and flew in the face of what Chilembwe fought
Today, Africa’s struggle is for human dignity, long denied through
educational, political and economic systems that glorify and reify Eurocentrism at the expense of the continent.
It is not uncommon to hear young Malawians today say Chilembwe acted too soon;
he should have allowed the whites to continue “civilising” and “developing” us.
Too many Malawian elites go about life oblivious of the history that gave us
freedom from colonial rule. Too many Malawian elites have no shared
appreciation of Chilembwe’s struggle for the dignity of Africans, and how that
struggle continues to this day.
Note: Since publishing this piece, I have heard from Arthur Nanthuru, a Malawian attorney, who reports being in possesion of , in his words, "a copy of an inquest report on Chilembwe's death. He and his brother were identified during the inquest which took place on 4th February 1915 at Mulanje boma. They had been shot dead the previous day by Constable Garnet Kaduya."