There are a number of people who witnessed or participated in the struggle for independence of Malawi. Their stories may not have been told. They are unsung heroes that we need to listen to. Their side of the story may be different but the result is the same: our independence. One of them is Jean Margaret Mlanga, who fought side by side with people like Rose Chibambo and Vera Chirwa, at the onset of the struggle for independence. She talks to our reporter BRIGHT MHANGO.
Tell us about yourself
My name is Jean Margaret Mlanga. I was born on 30th May 1927. I did my primary school at Henry Henderson Institute and Blantyre Girls School. Then I became a teacher. I got married in 1945 to William Mlanga. We had 11 children.
How did you meet Mr. Mlanga?
My parents were very strict. They didnâ€™t want me to marry someone who stayed very far. So, I turned down a lot of men until I met William, a bank clerk, who was a close friend of my brother. I used to call him brother too but somehow we go married. Unfortunately, he died in 1981. I had to raise the kids all by myself after.
You were one of the first women who actively participated in politics before Malawi attained independence. Why did you join politics?
We all wanted the colonialists to go. We had to get involved in activities that would easily frustrate them. I joined the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC), where I was the vicechair person of the womenâ€™s guild. Rose Chibambo was the chairperson. We also had the likes of Mrs Chikafa, Mrs Chavula, and Mrs Mpunga. We used to have meetings at Mrs. Mpungaâ€™s residence in Chigumula or Orton Chirwaâ€™s residence at Yiannakis in Limbe most of the times.
Our role in the NAC was to compose songs, organise rallies, and to mobilise women to be active in politics. Many women during that time took politics as a manâ€™s occupation. Convincing our fellow women, especially those from rural areas, was not an easy task. It is why we introduced uniforms or party regalia so that these rural women would not feel the class difference.
What was your experience of fighting colonialists?
We were fighting them from the underground, but they knew that. We had a passion to attain independence. We were being oppressed. I remember at some point the white policemen arrested us as members of the women committee. We were locked up for some hours but we were released because I was pregnant with my last born child. They told us to disband; otherwise they will arrest us for good.
Didnâ€™t that scare you?
No. It gave us wings. I remember after they had released us they told us to walk home. We refused and told them that since they picked us up in their car when they arrested us, they needed to drop us back. After this incident, we went on with our underground activities, except that we were more cautious.
How was NAC operating?
The men were organising meetings and the women were helping them with the details. We had to form a womenâ€™s guild as a branch of the NAC for efficiency. That way we knew what our roles were, just like the men knew theirs. The movement had a vehicle that we used for transportation during our clandestine meetings.
Tell us about Dr Kamuzu Banda
He came when we were already in the thick of things with NAC underground activities. On the first day of his scheduled arrival we stormed Chileka Airport. But he wasnâ€™t there. On the second day, he was there. We escorted him all the way to Soche where he had a rally.
By then I had quit my job as a teacher to concentrate on raising my children. But Kamuzu sent Aleke Banda to ask me to lead women. I knew my family needed me, but my country needed me too.
But after the 1964 Cabinet Crisis, my association with Kamuzu made me unpopular. Some people came and broke windows of our house in Ndirande. Kamuzu had to send army officers to guard our house.
What sparked the Cabinet Crisis?
Some people were complaining that it was harsh for Malawians to pay a tick (e.g 3 Tambala) at public hospitals. But it was generally just people with intentions of removing Kamuzu Banda from his seat. I was sent to the North to ask if people wanted Kamuzu or not after the crisis when suddenly I got a call via the police to return to Blantyre. I was very surprised and thought my son was in trouble. But when I came to Blantyre, Kamuzu told me at Sanjika that I was to lead all women in Malawi. It was in the wake of the Cabinet Crisis and I knew I was in for a difficult job.
At the same time, I was elected Parliamentary Secretary at Large. My role was more of advisory to various ministries. I also did some other administrative work.
Why did you rally behind Kamuzu when some people rebelled against him?
I saw that blindly copying what others were doing was not good. We actually went around asking those that rebelled against him as to why they had done so. I concluded that it was all designed to disrupt Kamuzuâ€™s plans. I saw that most of the people that made the allegations only wanted to topple him so that they could assume his office.
There were a lot of mysterious stories about Kamuzu. Did you not fear him?
Kamuzu was a good teacher, and a good man. If he wasnâ€™t, how come he picked me into a high office when I had only attained Standard Three education? I didnâ€™t fear him. He never once lashed out at me. However, I remember at one time, he shouted at ministers who had brought their mistresses to a function at a hotel instead of their wives. Kamuzu threatened to throw them out of a function next time. He applauded me for being exemplary. Then I saw that the ministers were really afraid of him. He could discipline anyone, including Cecilia Kadzamila.
Could you stand up to him?
Yes, like when the issue of buying party cards was rife, we went and told him that people were suffering. They were being delayed to access medication because of the cards. He listened and issued a declaration that buying cards was not to be compulsory.
What do you remember about the first ever independence celebrations back in 1964?
I remember Kamuzu went to open Nkula Power Station. Then, the actual celebrations were at the stadium with various dances from all over the country. I sat near Kamuzu and my whole family was there.
After that, there were district celebrations. We had a party at Blantyre Secondary School. Some women from Salisbury [Harare] joined us. I later took them on a country-wide tour. We visited every district in Malawi.
You obviously were unquestionably loyal to Kamuzu Banda. Is it true that you once said that he who says something bad about Kamuzu should get out of town?
No, I never said that.
Despite dedicating your loyalty to Kamuzu, you were arrested in the 70â€™s? Tell us more.
They just came to my house and took me to prison where I spent 9 months. Unfortunately, my husband was fired from Malawi Housing Corporation. My house in Mount Pleasant was confiscated, and the family moved back to Ndirande. Then they had to further re-locate to Phalula where we used to do some farming. Surprisingly, I was never told what my crime was. Even the police officer who watched over me was surprised about my arrest.
Did Kamuzu know that you were in jail?
He knew alright, whenever I fell sick he made sure that I never went to any other hospitals lest I died. He always sent Dr. Hetherwick Ntaba to treat me. When I got out I went to Sanjika and he called Cecilia and said â€˜look, Margaret is backâ€™.
And then he sent me to the district office to get a badge to show that I was still in the party. But that marked the end of my career in active politics. I decided to retire.
Just like that? No apology? No reinstating you to your position?
Just like that. Kamuzu had his own way of dealing with issues. He was way too strict. It is why he couldnâ€™t clearly define his relationship with Cecilia and I never understood why he had no children, for example.
Was independence resistance worth it?
Oh yes, we got independent. Things changed indeed. I can recall some significant changes. All of us blacks, we used to buy things from shops through a small window. Only whites could get into the shops. After independence we started going into shops. We could not wear cloth with patterns, or flowers. We wore cloth dubbed Satana, Biriwita (black) and Khaki, patterned cloth was for whites only. That too changed.
After 48 years, does Malawi still smell Nyasaland?
Yes, Black people are very jealous and proud. Kamuzu sent me to London once to see how Europeans lived. Since then I have seen that blacks [Africans] do not like seeing fellow blacks do well. The trend is still here. This is what pulls us all down.
What would you advise leaders of today, for example President Joyce Banda?
She should not prefer some ethnic groups over others. Be inclusive, just like Kamuzu did.
Your children went on to become influential people. For instance, Lee Mlanga was a minister during Muluziâ€™s time. Did your former political involvement influence him?
I donâ€™t think so. I just think that the leaders saw that my house had some kind of inborn leadership style. I guess it compelled them to tap from it.
Tell me about your children
I had 11 children, but only three are alive. The first born was Charles Dickson born in 1945, and last born was Mayeso Adziko. Mayeso was born in 1963. I gave him that name because I was pregnant with him during the brief detention I mentioned earlier on. He is the reason we got released. Lee Mlanga is the third born.
Did your husband not get bothered by your participation in politics?
No, he got used to it. He even looked after the children.
Apart from her active participation in helping this nation attain independence, Jane Margaret Mlanga was a very powerful woman in the wake of the cabinet crisis of 1964. This is when the first cabinet got divided due to some misunderstandings. She was sent to counter the rebellious propaganda that the ministers that had resigned from Kamuzuâ€™s cabinet were spreading. She mentioned of holding rallies in Nkhatabay and other places in the north where she was usually told that Kanyama Chiume had already been there.
Her son, Lee Mlanga also shed light on the first independence celebrations. He remembers the football team that played Ghana and got thrashed 12 â€“ nil. The current First Gentleman Richard Banda played in this match.
Mlanga also spoke of how the family suffered for supporting Kamuzu Banda after the fall out of some ministers. They made enemies. After they fell out of grace, some relations distanced themselves and left the Mlanga name.
He remembers that at the time her mother got arrested during the Kamuzu reign, he was studying in England. He was afraid to land on his return. He thought that he was going to be arrested at the airport [as was the case with most people]. The family house was confiscated, his father was fired. They relocated to Phalula.
He suspects that his motherâ€™s arrest came about because someone who was jealous said something bad about her to Kamuzu Banda. Maybe, since there was no evidence to back those claims, she was released.
It is amazing to note that Jane Margaret Mlanga holds no grudge against Kamuzu. But she was one of those few people who got closer to him