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.