John Chilembwe in African history

Many years have passed since I saw a large book on African struggle for independence which was authored by a Nigerian. It included an extensive account of the Chilembwe uprising, there were photographs of Chilembwe, his wife and daughter as well as that of John Gray Kufa, one of his henchmen.

That a Nigerian should have taken such interest is evidence enough that Chilembwe is a historical figure and here not only in Malawi but Africa as a whole. Some writers on the beginning of African nationalism not only made references to Chilembwe but have averred that Chilembwe put Malawi on the map. They heard the name Malawi after first hearing of the man John Chilembwe who prematurely tried to achieve independence for Malawi.

The management of Inde Bank is on Tuesday January 15 2013 for the first time offering members of the public the chance to visit the spot where the African Lakes Corporation (Mandala) used to keep an arsenal. It was part of the Chilembwe uprising strategy to go and seize the guns and then carry on the uprising in general. There will be an exhibition of the building where the guns were stored and the books relating to the life and deeds of John Chilembwe.

Despite the well researched books on Chilembwe, first by Professor George Shepperson, author of Independent African and D.D. Phiri, author of  Let us Die for Africa, a biography and Let us Fight for Africa, a play based on Chilembwe uprising, there are still wrong conceptions about Chilembwe. His votaries attribute to him miracles which he never performed and his detractors try to bloat his name out of history.

Much effort was undertaken by the Nyasaland Government and the colonial office to disfigure the name of Chilembwe as a misguided native. Indeed, during colonial days, the name Chilembwe was mentioned in whispers.

In his history of the Kings African Rifles (KAR), W. Lloyd Jones tells us that at the end of World War I, in Nyasaland things were pretty quiet though the natives were still nervous on account of the severe measures taken after the so-called Chilembwe rebellion.

Some people have sought my view on the allegations that Chilembwe was not a hero at all. They seem to think of a hero as someone who engaged in high-pitched battles and comes away victorious. Such definition, if adopted, would be too exclusive.

The honours and decorations committee which president Bingu wa Mutharika set up in Office of the President and Cabinet defines a hero as someone who achieves something outstanding and socially useful in any field. Thus, there are heroes in politics, literature, science, business, sports and music or mention it.

They are ill-informed those who think of Chilembwe entirely in terms of the uprising of January 23 1915. The first heroic thing Chilembwe did was to be a successful missionary in his own country. In the early days of colonial rule in Africa, both Europeans and Africans believed that no Africa could undertake any major enterprise without the supervision of the white man. Chilembwe exploded this prejudice by launching the Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) without the white man’s money or expertise. He received some financial and technical support from American blacks, but most of the work was done with money raised locally.  He built a cathedral modelled on that of the Blantyre Mission of the Church of Scotland with subscription from members of his church and their voluntary labour.

He then sponsored three students to go and study in the United States of America: Fred Gresham Njilima came back after World War I with a Bachelor’s degree in Maths. After a brief stay he went to Tanganyika where for a number of years, he was a teacher at Tabora Secondary School, Tanganyika’s top institution of learning.

The other student, Daniel Sharpe Malikebu, qualified in 1919 as a doctor at Meharry Medical College, the first African not only in Malawi but in the whole of the British Central Africa.

For many years, men and women groaning under the serf-dom called Thangata used to come and ventilate their grievances at the PIM. He made representation to the local resident (district commissioner). Sometimes he went to Zomba where officials just ignored his pleas.

When towards the end of 1914 Chilembwe learned that the government had sent all the troops to Karonga to fight the Germans, he decided to capture the government in the manner the people of Haiti had done when Napoleon was fighting the British at the beginning of the 19th century.

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