Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When a Pan-Africanist Library Burns: Kanyama Chiume, 1929-2007

When in 2003 I wrote on the Malawi discussion listserv Nyasanet, asking if anybody knew the whereabouts of Kanyama Chiume, somebody responded and said Kanyama had sold his property around 1996 and left Malawi for good, announcing that he would never be back in Malawi again, unless “in a coffin.” This week Kanyama Chiume, a Pan-Africanist who was at the forefront of Malawi’s independence throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and was later forced into exile by Dr. Kamuzu Banda, will be returning to Malawi, “in a coffin.” Chiume died on November 21, in New York, after a prolonged illness. He died a day before he would have turned 78, according to a website created by his family to commemorate his life.

The passing of Kanyama Chiume is a solemn moment that forces us to rethink what befell a beautiful dream that at its most daring moment ushered a huge part of the African world into freedom from Western imperialism. Kanyama Chiume was an articulate voice of that dream, and his passing pushes us further away from ever coming to grips with what happened to the dreams of independence and Pan-Africanism. Thankfully, though, Mr Chiume was a uniquely gifted individual who used his many talents to leave a cache of his writings from which we can glean a few nuggets towards answering those questions. One of the most authoritative places where we can gain insights into who Chiume was and the role he played in the liberation process for the Sub-Saharan African region is his eponymously titled 1982 autobiography, Kanyama Chiume, published by Panaf Books in their Pan-African Great Lives Series.

Mr. Chiume loved Malawi and Africa, and he dedicated a good part of his life to the struggle for the freedom of African peoples everywhere. It was this dedication to Malawi and to Africa, and his frankness about it, that displeased agents of neocolonialism, who slipped a wedge between Malawi’s first president Dr. Kamuzu Banda and his nine-member cabinet. Three months after independence, Malawi experienced what has become commonly referred to as “The Cabinet Crisis,” a turning point in the history of Malawi which also served as a cog in the giant wrench that stopped the Pan-Africanist movement elsewhere on the continent. It took thirty years for Malawi to emerge out of the dictatorship that followed that crisis.

Born on November 22, 1929, at Usisya in northern Malawi, Chiume wrote of his name as meaning “another piece of meat for you,” a lament from parents who had tired of many deaths in the family. Chiume’s younger brother died two months after being born, and in a tragic twist of fate, Chiume’s own mother died the following day. She was 37, Chiume tells us. His uncle came from Tanganyika, performed the funereal rites, and took Chiume to Tanganyika, now Tanzania. There Chiume quickly picked up KiSwahili, and excelled in the education system there. Chiume went to Dar es Salaam schools in the mid-1940s, at a time when Dar es Salaam was a hotbed for political activity amongst Africans. Influence from Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah came whilst Kanyama was in secondary school. Chiume would become Secretary of the Tabora Upper School Debating Society in his last year there. His debating skills would later blossom whilst as a politician in then Nyasaland, now Malawi. Tabora Upper School was the same school where future president of independent Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, also went. In his capacity in the debating society Chiume was able to invite Nyerere back to the school to debate the topic of whether Africans were better off under colonial partitioning. Nyerere and his team so thoroughly thrashed the opposition, led by white colonial teachers and administrators, that the school threatened Chiume with expulsion back to Nyasaland.

Chiume went to Makerere College in 1949, the only institution of higher learning in the entire East African region, and in 1951 he was admitted into Makerere College’s Medicine School. Chiume later changed his major to Education, after discovering that he “could not stand human dissection” (p. 52). He majored in Physics, Chemistry and Biology. This was much to his uncle’s chagrin, who provided him with everything and deeply wanted Chiume to become a medical doctor. At Makerere Chiume’s contemporaries were people who would in later life become some of Africa’s accomplished scholars and public officials. Some of his college mates include B. Ogot, Kenya’s celebrated historian and Chancellor of Moi University in Eldoret, and the current Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki.

Chiume became president of the Makerere College Political Society, while Mwai Kibaki was a committee member. Later Chiume was joined at Makerere by other Nyasas, Vincent Gondwe, David Rubadiri (who would later become Vice Chancellor of the University of Malawi), and Augustine Bwanausi (who would later become a cabinet minister in Malawi). Chiume was also chairperson of the Makerere College Education Society. Chiume and other students formed a Nyasaland Students Association at Makerere, an association that helped the Nyasaland African Congress by doing research, and by also linking up with fellow Nyasas at Fort Hare College, where Henry Masauko Chipembere, a lifelong friend and political colleague of Chiume’s, went for his own university education.

After graduating from Makerere College Chiume taught at Alliance Secondary School in Dodoma, Tanganyika, and later won a scholarship to study law at Ramjas College in Delhi, India. Upon being approached by the Nyasaland African Congress to stand in the country’s first general election in 1956, Chiume accepted, and decided not to further pursue his interest in law. He had by this time already resigned from Alliance, after quarrelling with the white headmaster who had insinuated that the presence of a pre-adolescent girl in Chiume’s household might create immoral temptations. Chiume was extremely offended by the remark, which further gave him resolve to fight for the dignity of Africans. “I had made up my mind there and then to plunge myself into politics and to help remove the obstacles that lay before Africans who wished to have human dignity. I was determined to try and play my part, however small, to free Mother Africa” (p. 71).

In the 1956 general elections Chiume writes that he got the most votes of any candidate, and thereby became one of five African representatives in the Legislative Council. Chiume became deeply involved in not only Malawi’s independence struggle but also the struggles of other African countries. He represented his people at the 1958 Pan African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in Zanzibar, and later that year was a part of the steering committee of the Accra All African People’s Congress, the committee that was working to lay the foundation for a future United States of Africa.

In all his travels to various African countries engaged in the struggle for independence, Chiume did not see individualized nations, separated from one another. Rather he saw one large Pan-Africa. A true Pan-Africanist, Chiume made close personal friendships as well as political and professional contacts with Africans across the continent and beyond. In the short years he was in government, he held several ministerial portfolios, including external affairs, education, and information, positions he took full advantage of in his travels to open up opportunities for Malawians and to cement relations amongst African societies.

When Ghana obtained her independence in 1957, Malawi, seven years away from her own independence, received a huge moral boost, as did many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Malawi’s first president the late Dr. Kamuzu Banda was a very close friend of Ghana’s first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, having known each other in their activist days in Britain where Dr Banda practiced medicine. We owe it to Chiume who described the deep involvement of Dr. Nkrumah in Malawi’s own struggle for independence from colonial rule. According to Chiume, Dr. Nkrumah made available to Malawi financial assistance, ranging from ₤100 to ₤10,000 on various occasions. Nkrumah offered air tickets for Chiume to fly to Ghana in transit between Malawi and Britain, where they continued strategizing and mobilizing resources for Malawi’s independence struggle. In Ghana Chiume was treated as a hero, given triumphant welcomes, and “carried shoulder high amidst shouts and placards to the effect that a Nyasalander murdered is a Ghanaian dead” (p. 122).

Nkrumah was unequivocal about the importance of victory in Malawi’s struggle for independence, expressing to Chiume his “vehement denunciation” of imperialism in Nyasaland. Nkrumah provided the services of a skilled Ghanaian lawyer, Mills Odoi, to come to Malawi and assist in the legal proceedings of extricating Malawi from colonialism.

Chiume saw first hand Nkrumah’s larger vision for the emancipation of all of Africa, outlining the idea of a Pan-African government to Chiume thus: “Nkrumah talked about the urgent need for an All-African government. ‘Many of our troubles, Chiume,’ he emphasized, ‘are due to the fact that we are not united. We must have a continental government to prevent the further balkanization of Africa and, as far I am concerned, when Malawi is finally free and only seven of us are ready, we should just plunge into it. Others will follow.” (p. 167).

In his day Kanyama Chiume was probably the most traveled member of the new Malawi government. Wherever he went in his capacity as minister he never failed to advocate for Malawians and Africans, and was always seeking opportunities to bring back home to Malawians. He was able to obtain assistance in the form of scholarships and material help, from many countries, including Egypt, Algeria, India, Ghana, France, Canada and the United States, among others. When he visited the United States in 1963, his entourage successfully arranged for a meeting with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but King had to cancel at the last minute and without prior warning, going to Louisiana to attend to emerging matters. They requested a meeting with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, but were unable to meet them. They were however able to meet with Dr. Ralph Bunche, the 1950 Nobel Peace laureate, the first person of color to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Chiume’s stay in America widened his Pan-Africanist purview, at once observing the racist society black Americans lived in, and the effects that racism had on their identity struggles. Chiume wrote:

But the majority were treated as though America was not their real home, and they were made to believe that they had no past, no heritage and no history. His African forebears were presented to him as savages who had sold him into slavery. He was discouraged from finding his identity in Africa and yet the struggle he was waging in his adopted country was basically the same struggle that his African brothers were waging. While Africa remained in bondage, I felt, so would the Afro-American remain oppressed in the USA. His real hope for the future lay in him discovering who he was. The black scholar must help rewrite Africa’s history, and the black educationalist must impart the truth about our great continent. In this renaissance the Afro-American and the African must work together (p. 163).

Chiume made sure to bring this message back home from the United States, but he was doubtful if Dr. Banda, who himself had spent many years going to school in the United States, shared this worldview. Dr. Banda was far more interested in consolidating his political relationship with white colonialists in Southern Africa, including the Portuguese in next door Mocambique, and in South Africa. This incensed Malawi’s neighbors, including Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Kaunda, who agreed with Chiume and the other Malawian cabinet ministers that Banda’s liaisons with settler colonies in the region was a betrayal of the struggles the Africans in these countries were fighting against their oppressors. The differences between Dr. Banda and his cabinet ministers grew and became irreconcilable three months after Malawi officially got its independence. Over the years, Chiume would acquire the unenviable accolade of being Dr. Banda’s “enemy number one.”

While Chiume’s account of what led to the crisis focuses mostly on the foreign policy and philosophical disagreements between Banda and his cabinet on the country’s relationships with fellow African countries, Henry Masauko Chipembere provides another perspective that is, for one reason or another, rarely mentioned in the analyses of Malawi’s 1964 Cabinet Crisis. The result is that some analyses of how Malawi embarked on the road to dictatorship fall into the stereotypical description of African leaders as being obsessed with simple-minded power grabbing and a cruelty overdrive. While African leaders indeed deserve the lashing and bashing they routinely receive, this analysis provides too narrow a perspective and fails to consider the political context and historical forces within which colonialism was imposed and resisted.
In a paper written by Chipembere and reprinted in Chipembere: The Missing Years (Ed. Colin Baker, 2006), Chipembere provides an account of a sustained, thorough effort by the British administrators to destabilize the newly independent Malawi by driving a wedge between Dr. Banda and his young cabinet. All of a sudden, Dr. Banda began rebuking his ministers in full public view, much to the surprise of the ministers.

Dr. Banda had never been lacking in frankness in his dealings with those of us who worked close to him. He had never been slow to criticize or rebuke when he thought we had made a mistake. But such criticisms had always been made in private. To everyone’s surprise, towards the end of 1963, he developed the habit of doing so in public, and the tone and content of his remarks were often so belligerent as to constitute an attack, challenge, or denunciation of his own cabinet (p. 265).

The answer to this question, Chipembere tells us, did not take long to start showing. It requires a lengthy quote for its full impact to be noticed:

A few weeks later we began to have some idea of the cause of these attacks on us. A colleague of mine and I were visiting a number of neighboring African countries. In one of these, we learned from intelligence sources that the British administrative and intelligence officers who surrounded Dr. Banda felt insecure in their positions as long as those of us who were regarded as radicals were in the cabinet. They feared that we would soon demand that their posts be Africanized i.e. that they should be replaced by Africans about whose political loyalty and dedication the government could be absolutely confident. The officers also believed that we were potentially, if not actually, communist sympathisers and would lead the country into the communist camp. So they were striving to work for our dismissal from the cabinet. To achieve this, they were systematically sowing seeds of suspicion and distrust in Dr. Banda’s mind. They were shadowing us and were covering every meeting we addressed. Intelligence reports submitted to the Prime Minister concerning our activities and speeches were written in a way as to make the Prime Minister believe that we were, to borrow one of his favorite phrases, ‘building ourselves up’ at his expense, trying to project an image equal to, or higher than, that of the Prime Minister (p. 265-266).

Today we know that Malawi was far from the only Third World country that was penetrated and interfered with in this way. We know the forces that were behind the military coup that ousted Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, as well as the elements that instigated the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo DRC. And this interference has never ended, with its long hand suspected and sometimes caught in other conflicts on the continent, including Mocambique, Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere in the Third World. We also know of the complicity of fellow Africans who become entangled in this enterprise, wittingly or unwittingly.

Chiume was lucky to leave Malawi alive, after attempts to assassinate him and the other dissenters. Attempts on his life followed him even outside Malawi. He sought asylum in Tanzania where in September 1975 he launched a political party, the Congress for the Second Republic of Malawi (CSR). He brought that party back to Malawi in the early 1990s when Malawians decidedly told Dr. Banda they no longer wished to be a one-party state. For a brief while Chiume was given positions in the new government that took over in 1994, the most visible one being chair of the state-run book seller, the Malawi Book Service, which soon closed its doors as IMF-driven privatization took a hold on Malawi’s economy. The new freedom did not mean much for Chiume, who found himself marginalized as out-of-touch matchona (exiles) and whose idealism was checked by “obvious tendencies of intolerance, misuse of public funds, the resurgence of political violence and corruption,” according to an October 1996 AFP report.

Chiume was said to have become too disillusioned to continue from where he had left off in the 1960s, and left Malawi again, this time willingly, vowing never to return except “in a coffin.” For a while a few Malawians talked of how the country has never made a real effort to capitalize on the wealth of knowledge and wisdom kept by her huge Diaspora. At one point one Malawian wondered why the University of Malawi could not offer people like Chiume resident professorships where they would impart their world knowledge to future generations of Malawians. It may perhaps not even be too awkward to ask how many Malawians have ever read Chiume’s autobiography, or other writings, owing to the lengthy lists of books, publications and other material that were banned in Dr. Banda’s Malawi.

Note: The opening paragraph contains a factual error, which I have corrected. See the correction and an accompanying apology here


Unknown said...

I have over the years heard of the name Kanyama Chiume, together with Chpembere, the late Orton Chirwa and others like journalist M'kwapatira Mhango (whoy was brutally murdered with his family by Banda's agents in my own backyard of Lusaka) but have never come across anything like your write up, a complete profile really, above. I always thought that Chiume died in the early years of his falling out with Kamuzu Banda. At least I'm glad to know he lived long enough to see Banda out of power.
Tragedy about our continent is that it rewards bootlickers rather than independent minded-people.
May Kanyama Chiume's soul rest in eternal peace.

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help remove the obstacles that lay before Africans who wished to have human dignity. I was determined to try and play my part, however small, to free Mother Africa” (p. 71).