On John Chilembwe’s Uprising: was it too early?

This is the era of the charismatic leader on whom populations pin their hopes and dreams. Within the African realm names like Paul Kagame and John Magufuli come to mind, names that elicit lively debate both on social media and in face-to-face conversations along the lines of,

“That is a strong leader that one. He will change EVERYTHING! Look at what he has already done!”

Across the seas other names that, for many, are more demagogic than charismatic come to mind: Rodrigo Duterte, Donald Trump…

On the flipside, this is also the era in which national problems can also be pinned squarely on a singular political figurehead; never mind complex local and global contributing factors. Of course many times the figureheads are to blame however; it is the personification of political heroes and anti-heroes that is a poignant trend. Reverend John Chilembwe also finds his name conjured up within this trend.

As John Chilembwe’s legacy continues to span a wide spectrum ranging from a hero-status that culminates in his gracing the bank notes of our (depreciating) currency; to disdain for the perceived hurts he has done to the same currency. This disdain sometimes takes on religious and mystical tones,

for example I once overhead a discussion that went, “Since his face came on there, the Kwacha has fallen. And do you know why? He is cursed. He killed CHRISTIAN colonisers.”

Perhaps a fitting rejoinder would have been along the lines of, “what about them? They killed a Christian too in killing John Chilembwe.”

A somehow related but more persistent expression of disdain is economic in nature and it is in response to this that we must attempt to grapple with the question: did freedom come too early?

The answer to that usually reflects the views of the questioner. On one hand you have those who have a high view of chitukuko, physical development.  Take a look at the charismatic leaders mentioned earlier, praises attributed to them have much to do their respective visions of prosperity. On the other hand are those who have a high view of psycho-social development ufulu, bata, mtendere.  It is my view that the two views rarely overlap although they should. Case in point, we are known as the Warm Heart of Africa – surely that should go on to translate into holistic well-being.

 Was the Burden of Freedom Necessary?

“It’s bad enough . . . when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.” Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions

Looking around the African continent, it is a hard fact that Malawi ranks poorly when it comes to infrastructure and economic might. Worse yet, Malawian people themselves rank comparatively  poor in terms of income, numbers in quality education, access to health, travel and so on. It is a fact that is hard to live with because it forces us to confront the question of the “why”.  When our country appears so often on the world’s poorest lists; it is necessary to ask questions and in the spirit of the current hero/anti-hero narratives. It is tempting, very understandably, to imagine how Malawi would have been miles ahead had we waited to have our independence. Is such an imagination plausible? I propose that we take a critical look…

First off, who is to say that the colonial British administration would have pulled off economic success in what was then regarded as a “Cinderella of the British colonies” – beautiful but poor (sic)?  The factors spurring economic booms for our neighbours or fellow colonised territories at the time were sadly few and far between for us such as mining enterprises, lucrative cross national trade, harbours and skilled labour (some of whom trekked off as economic migrants to neighbouring countries). But supposing that they could have pulled it off, where would the average Malawian stand in that economy? I think we can all agree that people like Chilembwe and his fellow freedom fighters across Malawi sought to recover a dignity lost, suggesting that the status quo at the time was “indigenous Nyasalander last” – indigenous Malawian last. The America’s, the South Pacific and until a couple of decades ago, South and South-West Africa all show us a possible scenario for the indigenous amidst colonial prosperity.

Yet, we must acknowledge that many feel we would have still been better off and the price we have paid for our dignity is too high when we consider whom and what we have lost since our independence that came in 1964. We can think of lives lost due to inadequate health care and social welfare; corruption, the ongoing brain drain due to political and economic instability; exploitation; inequality; erratic service provision and security; fear-mongering. Looked at this way, we have not progressed as our forebears had hoped. However, as the saying goes, let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  There are some things that freedom has honoured us with beyond dignity and we would do well to build on them. In doing so, we can draw from Chilembwe’s leadership model – not that of a messiah or anti-hero but a visionary within challenging circumstances.


Providence Industrial Mission: a model for vision and (sustainable) growth

We can learn from Chilembwe the attitude to progress that has local empowerment at heart while utilising both local and global assets.  He took the opportunity for study presented to him by Joseph Booth and the African-American Virginia Theological Seminary and College. He used the knowledge at home to resist empire and grow his community the best way he knew how, finally paying the ultimate price. He tried to (re) instil “the values of hard work, self esteem and self help in his community”. Of course some of his methods are dated by now and as with many visionaries, not all his ideas were achievable; however, the principle remains that in this ever changing world, there are opportunities within the grasp of Malawi’s sons and daughters. Thus, what input is missing from those among us that have the knowledge, leadership and financial capital to make lasting changes? What teamwork has been replaced by cycles of hero-worship and anti-hero bashing?

Chilembwe’s vision, at its best, has had lasting historical ramifications. His first church building was destroyed but its replacement still stands with its architectural integrity intact.  His uprising, together with the sacrifice of other Nyasaland freedom fighters triggered our kwacha moment that eventually arrived in 1964. His life was cut off but his vision somehow survived. There is an inspiration in there somewhere, that we were once victorious – although his work is incomplete, for we are still under other oppressions chief among them material poverty in an age where cash actually saves lives. Wishing we had remained under the colonial administration changes neither our current reality nor the future. It is also merely an idea and dream because who knows what would have become of us had we remained there. Looking for a messiah-type of leader who will cure all our ills or someone else to pin blame on whether that blame is spiritual in nature or otherwise is helpful either.

Yet we can collectively adopt Chilembwe’s example, his visionary drive for emancipation and expand that vision to us all to empower our participation in creating a Malawi that favours all that call it home.  We have the visionaries, we have the can-do men, women and children.  We can do it. We were once victorious, we can be again.

Thandi Soko is a Malawian PhD student and Trainee Research Assistant in Theology in the Netherlands. She lives in the South of the Netherlands with her husband, a Pastor in the Protestantse Kerk in Nederland (PKN) and their daughter. She has studied, interned and worked in Malawi, the USA, South Africa and the Netherlands.’