Every year, on 3rd March, Malawians observe Martyrs Day. Whereas the day invokes sorrowful memories, it is the day we show respect for the magnanimous men and women who braved bullets, suffered imprisonment and all forms of humiliation during the fight for the freedoms and rights we enjoy today. It is the day we remember and honour our freedom fighters and the values and ideologies they envisaged to make Malawi a better country for all.
Apart from 3rd March there are other two days on which we also remember our martyrs; 15th January, Chilembwe Day, we celebrate the life of Reverend John Chilembwe of the Providence Industrial Mission in Chiradzulu who led a dramatic and fierce rebellion against colonialism in 1915 and on 14th May, Kamuzu Day, we remember our first Republican president, Kamuzu Banda.
While Martyrs Day and Kamuzu Day have been there since independence, it was after 1994 when the then president, Bakili Muluzi declared 15th January as Chilembwe Day holiday. In 1944, during the formative period of the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC), George Mwase from Nkhata Bay and other members of the executive committee then, pressed the colonial Nyasaland Government to set 15th January as Chilembwe Day. To no avail.
Malawians experienced many periodic political upheavals during the colonial era, but why did Kamuzu Banda see it befitting to declare 3rd March as a Martyrs’ Day holiday? Kamuzu Banda explained this in his 1974 Martyrs Day message to the nation. It was broadcast on Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) on 2nd March, and published in the Daily Times newspaper of March 4, as follows;
“…… I have stated that tomorrow, Sunday, March 3rd is Martyr’s Day, and that Martyrs’ Day is the day on which we, the people of this country, remember and honour those of our people who sacrificed their lives in order that this country, may be free and independent, and that these men and women were shot dead in cold blood on March 3rd, 1959, in August and September 1953, and between January and May, 1915.
If these men and women were killed in more days than one, why pick March the 3rd? You may ask. March the 3rd was chosen as a day on which to remember and honour those of our people, who sacrificed their lives in order that we may be free, because what happened on that day, 3rd March, 1959, resulted in independence. The independence that the country got in 1964 was a direct result of what happened on March the 3rd, 1959.
What took place in 1915 (Chilembwe Uprising) did not result in freedom and independence. What took place in 1953 did not result in freedom and independence. After the incidents in 1915, the colonial rule became still more entrenched in this country. After the incidents of Thyolo and Domasi in August and September1953, where our people were shot dead in cold blood, the Federation was imposed. And from that time, August and September 1953, to August 1957, when the Nyasaland African Congress held a conference in Blantyre, the Federation was imposed or had been imposed, and foreign rule seemed to be here to stay. But after the incidents on March the 3rd, 1959, nobody, not even the colonial rulers themselves, felt that what had taken place on that day would end there and then”
Kamuzu Banda’s assertions are shared by most historians who have noted that while before March the 3rd, 1959, the British government thought that the Federation was there to stay. However, after that day’s commotions and killings they recognized that the Federation’s survival was doubtful and decided to abandon it altogether. Observers believe that the disturbances on 3rd March, 1959, accelerated our independence which had previously appeared a decade away, and probably a far cry.
While before 3rd March, the colonial government considered Kamuzu Banda as a leader of a few ambitious and possibly misguided political elites, the situation during the state of emergency on 3rd March, 1959 strengthened his position as undisputed leader of not only the Nyasaland African Congress but of all oppressed Africans across the country.
Because of the actions on 3rd March 1959, a historic policy shift by the colonial government was made in central Africa. It is therefore important for us as Malawians to understand and appreciate the choice of 3rd March out of all other days as a day we honour and celebrate all our martyrs.