Every 15th January, Malawians from all walks of life commemorates John Chilembwe Day, a national holiday and day of remembrance for one of the country’s greatest sons.
There are few figures as revered in the country as this former church pastor who in 1915 revolted against the white colonialists.
For years, the conversation over Chilembwe, who founded the Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) church in Chiladzulo focussed on separating myths and facts from Chilembwe’s legacy. But recently, as the country struggle with under development and poverty, 53 years after Chilembwe’s dream of self-rule was achieved, the debate has changed.
Over Chilembwe day, I overheard an interesting conversation by some young people around town.
One of the young men bitterly complained that Chilembwe rushed his uprising, before the country was ready for self-rule.
“Adah a Chilembwe aja anali aphuma (Chilembwe’s move was rushed)” said one of the young men.
He explained: “He could have waited for colonialists to help this country first in (building) infrastructure and other developments. Look at how rich South Africa is and we are just in the middle of nowhere as a country while we wait for donors to be fund us.”
I looked at this guy, likely in his early 20s and asked him what does he know about Chilembwe’s uprising.
He described Chilembwe in his response as “this pastor who was trying to fight with the whites to be a president and got himself killed.”
It’s not a strange for people to punch holes in Chilembwe’s legacy or history.
Some people have criticized Chilembwe for starting the uprising without proper military preparation, citing the fact that it failed.
Increasingly, though, the arguments that is being advanced is that the nation could have benefited from the whites for infrastructure developments.
But the arguments like above are not based entirely on facts.
Such arguments, too, should not be allowed to distract us from the main reasons why we celebrate Chilembwe’s legacy, why he is on the money or deserve to be considered a national hero.
Born in 1871 (he died in 1915), the Baptist trained Pastor had a vision of nationhood way before future anti-colonial fighters came on the scene.
Educated and trained as a minister in the United states of America, he returned to Nyasaland in 1901 to end the near slavery conditions that Malawians were subjected to via the Thangata labour system.
Those conditions were segregation and discrimination of the highest order. They were also humiliating to the victims. They also aimed at discouraging blacks of the idea that they can achieve anything.
History tells us Chilembwe was an early figure in the resistance to colonialism in Nyasaland (Malawi), opposing both the treatment of Africans working in agriculture on European-owned plantations and the colonial government’s failure to promote the social and political advancement of Africans.
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, Chilembwe organized an unsuccessful uprising against colonial rule.
In 1900 Chilembwe returned to Nyasaland, in his own words, “to labour amongst his benighted race”.
Backed financially the National Baptist Convention of America who also provided two American Baptist helpers until 1906, Chilembwe started his Providence Industrial Mission(P.I.M.) in Chiradzulu district and in its first decade, the mission developed slowly, assisted by regular small donations from his American backers, and Chilembwe founded several schools, which by 1912 had 1,000 pupils and 800 adult students.
He preached the values of hard-work, self-respect and self-help to his congregation and, although as early as 1905. He used his church position to deplore the condition of Africans in the protectorate, he initially avoided specific criticism of the government that might be thought subversive.
However, by 1912 or 1913, Chilembwe had become more politically militant and openly voiced criticism over the state of African land rights in the Shire Highlands and of the conditions of labour tenants there, particularly on the A. L. Bruce Estates.
It has also been claimed that Chilembwe preached a form of Millenarianism and that this may have influenced his decision to initiate an armed uprising in 1915.
The whole main reason of his Uprising was to fight for freedom for his people, Africa for Africa. He didn’t like to see his people working in the white’s farm and receive peanuts’, Chilembwe wanted black people to enjoy their rights and be free in their land.
We might not have all the beautiful infrastructures in our country as of now but we can see people speaking their minds dressing the way they want, being in better position without a white a man looking down on us.
We are on the contrary poor and underdeveloped because we have betrayed the genuine spirit of patriotism and self reliance that Chilembwe fought for.
Before we conclude that Chilembwe’s mission failed, let’s remember that all subsequent freedom fighters who followed Chilembwe have cited the pastor as their inspiration.
Chilembwe might have failed militarily but his ideas outlasted him.
The big question now is what have we done with the freedom which Chilembwe longed for?
University of Livistonia political scientists George Phiri argues that whatever position may have, one of Chilembwe’s enviable qualities remains the bravery displayed in the face of the white rule and this was one quality the nation ought to emulate going forward.
Much as everyone is entitled to their opinion, I would still not join the bandwagon in critising Chilembwe.
He did what a leader ought to do. He led by example and did his best with the little resources.
All in all, the life of John Chilembwe is worthy celebrating, as a young person I believe we need people who can act on their dreams and not just talking. There are lessons about courage and sacrifice.