Thursday, October 05, 2017

What drives Malawian teachers: Thoughts on World Teachers Day 2017

In mid-September, some three weeks ago, I was home in Ntcheu for ziliza (unveiling tombstones for departed relations). I used the occasion to stop by Chikande Primary School, where I started my teaching career. I taught there from January 1990 to July 1993. 

I entered the first classroom I taught in, which was Standard 2 at the time but is now Standard 3. It was unlocked, and I saw that it now has a cement floor. There was no cement floor in 1990, just a mud floor that the students swept daily and moistened weekly.


As we were waiting for the ziliza ceremony to start, a man beckoned to me to go and sit next to him. I needed to go and announce my arrival to other relations, so I motioned to him that I would see him later. He came up to me after the ceremony and wondered if I remembered him. I did not. “You taught me in Standard 3 at Chikande,” he said, and mentioned his name.

I instantly remembered him. That had been twenty-six years ago. He was now a fully grown man. The next person who came to also remind me that I taught him was unmistakable. He too was now a fully grown man but had changed very little. I even remembered his name before he could remind me. Both men went up to Standard 8 at the school, left school, and raised families. They became subsistence farmers.

At the school, save for the cement floor, and a new structure being constructed on the edge of the school forest, very little has changed in the twenty-four years since I left. But the area now has a community day secondary school. In those days the only secondary school in the entire district was Ntcheu.

Bilira had a long running distance education centre which provided an alternative secondary school opportunity to those not selected to Ntcheu, but it was not the same as being selected. There were successive years when no one was selected to a secondary school from Chikande. In lucky years, one would be selected. In luckier years, two.

When I left Chikande in 1993, I went to teach at Gunde, near Khwisa, on the Ntcheu-Balaka border. I stayed there for one term only, before leaving to go and work at the Malawi Institute of Education (MIE). From MIE I proceeded for further studies in teacher education, my current professional and academic occupation.

Most of my students at the Catholic University of Malawi, where I currently am, are student teachers who are either preparing to go into the teaching profession, or are experienced teachers upgrading from a primary teacher’s certificate to a university diploma or degree. Some are already teaching in secondary schools, but those teaching in primary school will soon leave to teach in secondary school upon completion of their studies.

The Catholic University of Malawi’s Faculty of Education offers a weekend option in addition to its residential programme. Teachers arrive on Friday evening, attend classes on Saturday and Sunday, and return to their duty stations on late Sunday afternoon or Monday morning. Some come from as far as Nsanje in the south, and others from as far as Nkhotakota. Colleagues talk about this one teacher who used to come from Chitipa.

These teachers are driven by what once drove me when I was a classroom teacher. I was driven by a desire for higher education. The prestige that comes with higher qualifications was a big factor, but an even bigger factor was the fleeting glimpse of the greater knowledge that lay out there beyond the curriculum we were working with. I see this desire in the teachers who are upgrading today.

They are hoping to escape the dead-end of what life has become for many Malawian primary school teachers. But they are also craving for deeper knowledge of curriculum, pedagogy and research so they can become better teachers. The career path in our country’s primary teacher professional development trajectory is yet to catch up with the desires of these teachers. We remain stuck in a mentality that regards primary education as deserving of only bare, minimum, basic qualifications, and not deeper academic and pedagogical knowledge offered at a university level.

Thus these teachers get their university diplomas and degrees, and the only way to recognise their new qualifications is to send them to teach in secondary schools. Primary schools are thus deprived of better qualified and educated teachers because the system operates on the premise that only secondary schools deserves such teachers. Even the National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development (NSTED), the ten-year policy plan that has guided teacher education and development in this country since 2008, and expires this year, is cognisant of this conundrum. It offers no direct solution.


Talking about policies, we are a nation that specialises in well-developed and expertly articulated plans at the national level. When it comes to implementation, you would be forgiven for concluding that the policies were developed for another planet. This has become the bane of our developmental aspirations. And we do not spend enough time analysing the root causes underlying our failure to implement our plans.

To the extent that when Oxfam held public discussions around its 2016 report on inequality in Malawi, titled A Dangerous Divide, one of the report’s co-authors, Dr. Richard Mussa (RIP), suggested that what Malawi needed was not a National Planning Commission. Rather, what Malawi needed was a National Implementation Commission.

We have ended up with a National Planning Commission, all the same. The nation is waiting, with bated breath, what direction the commission will take the country into. Even more importantly, the nation is waiting to see what new ideas the commission will bring that will transform Malawi into a nation that implements it policies.

Giving a keynote address at a land governance and research conference at the University of Malawi Polytechnic in September, Professor Blessings Chinsinga shared an anecdote what made everyone in the audience wince. A Malawi government delegation is said to have visited Rwanda to learn some lessons in development from the Rwandans. This happened not too long ago.

Opening the meeting, a Rwandan minister wondered why Malawi was coming to learn from Rwanda. After all, Rwanda visited Malawi several years ago, and borrowed Malawi’s Vision 2020. The same anecdote has also been shared about Singapore, who also came to learn from Malawi some decades ago, and today they are so developed they are at par with the so-called developed countries.

We need to exert energy and expend time examining the planning-implementation discrepancy. One possible explanation is what I see as the socially constructed gap between the educated elites and the rest of the population. This is a gap resulting from restricted access to education, best illustrated through numbers of people who survive the education system and those who do not. I have discussed these numbers on this blog before, but it helps to rehash them.

Annual enrolment in Standard one has approached the one million threshold over the last eight years. However by Standard eight, only 250,000 or thereabouts survive the eight-year cycle. Of these, about 100,000 will find space in public and private secondary schools, in conventional and alternative programmes.

From a population of about 5 million learners in primary schools, our secondary school enrolment is no more than 400,000. It gets even narrower at the tertiary level, where it is less than 50,000, to use a generous estimate. To put this in perspective, this year, the four public universities took in 4,600 students.  

These enrolment trends are historical. For much of the colonial and missionary era, the emphasis was on primary education only. There was no secondary school in Malawi until 1941. Even after independence in 1964, despite massive enrolments both in primary and secondary, the rate of increase was not enough to bring drastic, far-reaching changes to the social landscape.

The result is that as of 2016, only 30 percent of Malawians aged 15 and above have attained a secondary school education. the majority, 70 percent, have not. Therein lies one possible explanation for the chasm that characterises the elitism of policymaking and the absence of implementation.

Another possible explanation comes from Dan Banik and Blessings Chinsinga in their 2016 book, titled Political Transition and Inclusive Development in Malawi: The Democratic Dividend. The two professors of public policy, who co-edited the book, argue that Malawi’s institutional characteristics and requirements for development on the one hand, and democracy on the other, are pulling in opposite directions.

In other words, there is a contradiction between our development aspirations and our political practice. Again, this needs further analytical discussion, but as can be seen from how political parties behave when they are in government, political interests overshadow development interests. But these are effects, rather than causes.  

What does this all have to do with the education system, you may be wondering. A lot, I argue. Particularly when we think of World Teachers Day today and its theme, Teaching in Freedom, Empowering Teachers. UNESCO have pointed out that teachers are key to achieving the 2030 Education Agenda, if not the whole SDG agenda itself. Several memes shared on social media today have carried the message that teaching is the “profession that creates all other professions.”

In Malawi, teachers are repeatedly told about how much they are valued, but that is how far it goes. A quintessential moment was when President Peter Mutharika inaugurated Chiradzulu Teachers’ College on 16th September 2015. Said the president:

We must provide teachers with necessary resources and respect them because teaching is the mother of all professions. My government wants to make sure that teachers also live a good life like Engineers, lawyers and doctors as a way of motivating them to mould our children’s future with dedication. Let us be people who raise the flag of our standards very high. We deserve the best and must aspire to be at our best. Education is where we begin the making of a nation.

That was 2015, and this is 2017. It is not the last time teachers will hear these sentiments. They have become woven into the rhetoric that forms part of the policy-implementation discrepancy. Thus our education system is ensnared in the complex maze of excellent policies that remain unimplemented.
My students and I marked World Teachers Day today with an educational visit to the Providence Industrial Mission, in Chiradzulu, some 13 kilometres from campus. 



We spent the afternoon touring around PIM and learning about the educational aspirations and achievements of Reverend John Chilembwe. We sat in a classroom at the primary school and listened to a lecture by a primary school teacher, Mr George Nasolo. Mr Nasolo has extensively studied and researched John Chilembwe and the PIM.  I wrote about him in an earlier blog, in January this year.

He is one Malawian teacher who has sought to teach Malawians about John Chilembwe based on empirical evidence obtained from sources that knew Chilembwe and lived in his times. Many of these sources have since passed on, but there is a lot of material that still fascinates audiences.

Mr Nasolo is one example of many Malawian teachers who are talented and have the capacity to produce remarkable knowledge. These are teachers who have the potential to transform the knowledge landscape of this country; teachers who are pursuing intellectual freedom and empowerment in a fractured policy-implementation climate. They are driven by a craving for higher education, and deeper knowledge, for their students and communities. The same cravings that drove me nearly three decades ago.


Thursday, July 06, 2017

Thoughts on Malawi at 53: History, Education and Human Dignity

I would like to preface the thoughts below by offering my deepest condolences to the families of the Malawians, many of them reported to be children, who were killed in the stampede at the Bingu National Stadium today on 6th July. I convey warm thoughts to the injured and extend hope that they will get better soon.

My effort today is an attempt at crystalizing disparate thoughts that I have been pondering for many years, on human dignity. I believe this lies at the core of what we ought to be focusing on as a nation. And I believe the education system, and its origins, are a central narrative to this. In this discussion I provide an overview of what the education statistics looked like at independence, and how, 53 years later, we are yet to seal the chasms created over a hundred years ago. 

Overall, I am concerned with how the adoption of modern education in our country, and the minimal requirements we set for the teaching profession, have meant that huge numbers of Malawians have been stripped of their human dignity.


In 1964, Malawi had just over 3 million people. There were about 360,000 students enrolled in primary school, and about  6,000 secondary school students. Some 1,368 students were in teacher training colleges; 381 in technical and vocational colleges; and 180 in university. These numbers are from the Education Management Information System or, the Education IFMIS (without the cash).

There was no secondary school in Malawi until 1941. That was 66 years after the first primary school, opened in 1875. Not that there was no education system in the land before the missionaries, just that it was not institutionalised the way modern schooling is.

The colonial government opened Blantyre Secondary School in 1941, before opening Dedza Secondary School ten years later, in 1951. Mzuzu Government Secondary School, the third government secondary school, opened in 1959. For the missionaries, their first secondary school opened two years after BSS. This was Zomba Catholic Secondary School, of the Roman Catholic Church, which opened in 1943. For these facts, we are indebted to Kelvin Banda (1982). 

The late establishment of secondary schools meant that secondary school education was a privilege reserved for very few people. At the time of independence in 1964, the gap between primary and secondary school was already very wide. If it were to begin to bridge the gap, secondary school enrolment needed to multiply many times over.

Today, 53 years later, there are about 18 million of us. We have about 5 million primary school students, with girls outnumbering boys by about 6,500. In Standard 1, about 15,000 more girls enrol for school than boys, at least as of 2015. But secondary enrolment still lags very far behind. As of 2015, the most recent official statistics available, we had just about 360,000 secondary school students, with boys outnumbering girls by about 23,000.

In May this year, just over 271,000 students sat the Standard 8 primary school leaving certificate examination. When this class entered primary school in 2009, there were 877,217 of them, according the 2013 EMIS. Only a quarter of that number survived the eight year cycle. More than 600,000 either dropped out, or are repeating. 
 In 2016, that figure was 255,000, for students who sat the PSLCE. They had survived from 850,000, the number that entered Standard one in 2008. Again, 600,000 students had fallen by the wayside over the eight year cycle. It has been that way for decades. 

Out of the 271,000 who sat the PSLCE a few weeks ago, about 75 percent or so will pass the examination. Government secondary schools will take in about 80,000 students, and private secondary schools will take in about 20,000. Of the remaining 171,000, a few thousands will enter what has become known as open day secondary school. Previously known as “night school,” the open system accepts any student, regardless of age, as long as they have a Standard 8 certificate. They come in the afternoon and learn for three to four hours.

The tertiary and higher education statistics are even bleaker. The last time EMIS data included tertiary and higher education was in 2011. Then, it was reported that the country had 12,203 university students, 6,105 technical and vocational students, and 10,993 students in teacher training colleges across the country. This showed a total of 29,301 students in all of Malawi’s higher and tertiary education institutions as of 2010.


There have been quite a few remarkable gains over the decades. More girls are getting into school, and are outnumbering boys in the Form 1 selection. In 2015, 37 percent of girls who passed were selected to secondary school, against 35 percent for boys, a trend that started in 2013.

Improvements have also been registered in the teacher training programmes. In 2015 the teacher training colleges enrolled more female student teachers (5,890) than males (4,304), a difference of 1,586 in favour of females. The male-female ratio for primary teachers has also improved in the last five years. From 62 percent male teachers against 38 percent female teachers in 2010, male teachers were now down to 58 percent, against 42 percent for female teachers, in 2015.

However these figures change drastically from upper primary into secondary. In a sample of teachers of English in 100 primary schools and 12 CDSSs in Thyolo district, there were 410 male teachers, compared to just 39 females.

In broader terms, the historical inequality in access to education has persisted over the decades. As the 2017 PSLCE numbers show, the majority of Malawian children who enter primary school never finish the eight year cycle, a trend that goes back fifty three years. As the 2016 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey reveals, almost 70 percent of Malawians aged 15 years and above do not have a secondary school education. The numbers are worse for women, at 74 percent.

All these trends, decades in the making, begin to have a knock-on effect on the kind of nation we have become. Perhaps the most significant, yet intangible effect is on the human dignity of ordinary Malawians. The majority, as the numbers show, have not been given the opportunity to access a commodity that came with Western colonisation and replaced traditional forms of being human and the collective respect accorded to individuals.

And this is not peculiar to Malawi. It is a legacy of global colonialism in many parts of the world. As a species, we have not spent enough time and intellectual resources examining this phenomenon and using the school system to deal with its pernicious legacy.

Consequently, it is not of much surprise that as a country we have significantly low levels of civic involvement, economic participation, and political engagement. A recent book, edited by Dan Banik and Blessings Chinsinga argues that Malawi’s political system is at odds with its development goals. The country’s political system and development agenda are pulling in opposite directions. It is a complex phenomenon that requires careful examination, especially as it infiltrates the education system and influences what is taught and learned, and how.

The historical elitism and exclusivity of the education system extends to language, where the primacy of English has become a virtual proxy for academic pedigree and intellectual acumen, pushing endogenous forms of knowledge into oblivion. As a result, a large population of Malawians are kept outside the dominant knowledge production and political governance systems.

It also means the ways of knowing and living that many Malawians utilise on a day to day basis are excluded from educational, political and economic officialdom, creating a form of arrested development. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere referred to this as “the worst of both worlds” (1967). What he meant by that was that modern Africans had abandoned traditional ways of living and knowing, and were no longer excelling in them. Compelled to adopt foreign knowledge and governance systems, they were not excelling in them either. They are thus neither experts in African ways of being, nor in the newly adopted foreign ways.

Our teacher education system is struggling to keep with the demands of a 21st century education dynamic. Malawian primary school teachers have always received the bare minimum education required, and no more. Although this has been more acute in primary than secondary schools, the majority of secondary schools suffer from the problem of teacher quality as well. In private secondary schools, 72 percent of the teachers were unqualified, in 2015.

Regionally, our neighbours, and much of the world, have moved toward university diplomas and degrees for primary school teachers. In the world’s best education systems, the minimum qualification to teach in primary school is a masters’ degree. We are stuck with the age-old certificate, given after one year of theory and one year of practicals.  There have been efforts to move in the direction the rest of the world is moving, but the size of our economy, coupled with dizzying levels of waste, remain a stumbling block.  

There is an insatiable appetite amongst teachers with a primary teacher's certificate to obtain diplomas and degrees. Because our teacher development system is yet to find a way of handling this, those who obtain higher qualifications are pushed out of primary schools into secondary schools or other jobs outside the teaching profession. It is as if we do not believe that primary schools deserve well educated teachers.

Yet the teacher education policy expresses a clear desire for a highly educated and well prepared cadre of teachers. The National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development (NSTED) 2007-2017 observes that the best primary teachers always shift from primary school to secondary schools. This, the NSTED argues, has “weakened both primary and secondary sub-sectors” and quality both in primary and secondary schools “has been compromised”.

The reason this has been happening is the absence of a mechanism to recognise and reward higher qualifications so teachers who upgrade can stay and continue teaching in primary schools. That would allow our primary school children to be taught by well qualified, highly educated teachers. But a deeper reason is the absence of an education philosophy that recognises the central importance of highly qualified teachers at the earliest stages of the education system.

The origins of this absence of a philosophy of teacher excellence right from the nursery stages go back to the introduction of modern education in Malawi. When the missionaries established the first modern school in Malawi, in 1875, the primary purpose of education was to teach people how to read the Bible and thereby spread Christianity. 

Thus there was rapid expansion of primary schools offering basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic, with a little technical education. Secondary and tertiary education were not available in Malawi; people had to travel to other countries in the region. Thus, secondary and tertiary education are still relatively new in Malawi. This has had an effect on how we have envisioned who can become a teacher. And being a teacher in Malawi brings issues of human dignity to the fore.  


Human dignity is hardly talked about in public discourse, in Malawi or elsewhere. It is not an attractive topic in public policy even at the global level. But that is what more than a century of colonial subjugation and Western epistemological dominance has wrought. What makes it more insidious and therefore hard to comprehend is the English language that I am using to express all this. Being “educated” in today’s world, in this part of the world, means being inextricably bound up with a globally dominant colonial language.

English derives its dominance and sustained support from elites because it accords “educated” people a form of human dignity stripped from the egalitarian norm which tradition placed on every individual. The sense of exclusivity gained from the education system resides in the particular ability to speak a language that bestows global privilege on one and sets one apart from the rest of one’s folk. This explains the extent Malawian elites will go to prove what they believe to be the uselessness of Malawian languages.

No one is disputing the importance of English. That is beyond debate. It is amazing how dichotomous the debate quickly becomes. The dominance of the English language in all of government and commercial business restricts participation to the estimated less than 10 percent of Malawians who are conversant with the English language. We need to think about the remaining 90 percent who do not use English. What Malawi needs, looking ahead, is an active agenda to make translation the centre of knowledge production. Our country needs to make global knowledge available to ordinary Malawians, in their own languages, and to make Malawian knowledge available in global languages.

That would enable transfer of knowledge at a scale that would catalyse self-empowerment, economic growth and socio-economic development.  A two-way transfer of knowledge between global languages and Malawian languages would mean that knowledge of mathematics, science and technology would be available to the majority of Malawians, including the 70 percent who do not have secondary level education. That would change the fortunes of the many Malawians historically denied access to education. Ultimately, it would proffer Malawians the dignity stripped from their humanity by colonial subjugation. That is what would put us on the way toward genuine independence.



Sunday, January 15, 2017

Chilembwe’s continuing struggle for African dignity

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 11th January 2017 that Chancellor College Publications had translated Let Us Fight For Africa into 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. The 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, in 1911.

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 Times, 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 century sensibilities, 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 for.

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."