If you think Chilembwe was a fool, then you are as well dead in spirit


FREE EXPRESSION (MalawiTalk) – John Chilembwe anali waphuma. Chilembwe amafuna kuthamangisa azungu 1915? Amwene aja anatilakwira. And so on, and so on …

Such tirades are often spewed, mostly on social media, whenever it’s today, January 15, no matter the year.

Tired tirades mostly from our little read millennials whose source of information is always a poor written paragraph on scandal Facebook page.  Or some angry Tweet.

Sometimes such tirades springs from colleagues that are, somehow, read but inept at interpreting past events for modern relevance.

Now listen…

In understanding 19th Century Malawi, especially the period between 1898 and 1920, you must know two critical stakeholders in the then governance system.

One, the white colonial government, which run the country, on behalf of the British Monarchy in United Kingdom.

And two, the white settlers—these are rich white people who owned vast piece of land and run tea estates—especially in the Shire Highlands.

Fundamentally, John Chilembwe didn’t have issues with the white colonial government. In fact, Chilembwe worked with government in building schools and churches to help locals modernize through western lifestyle.

But it’s the white settlers whom Chilembwe had issues with. The settlers were running vast estates where they treated Malawians with scorn, disdain and disrespect.

The most pressing issue was on how white settlers captured the traditional Thangata System and abused it to their capitalist advantage.

For starters, Thangata [kuthandizana] was a traditional labour reciprocal system. One person would invite the entire village to help him on his farm and after that a feast would follow. In Nkhata Bay, this system is still intact—it’s called Chilimizga.

What the settlers were doing, however, was to mobilize people by force and coercion under the pretext of Thangata System and, then, make communities work every day in their tea estates without food or pay.

Those that resisted stripped off and beaten in public, have their houses torched and, sometimes, evicted from their homes. Imagine!

William Jervis Livingstone was one of the most notorious settlers in the grand scheme of abusing Thangata. Chilembwe had on several occasions met with Livingstone to have him tone down. It didn’t materialize.

He didn’t stop there. He went to government officials to raise similar issues. Still, there wasn’t help.

Chilembwe, however, was determined that Livingstone, who enjoyed support and protection from the white colonial state, had to be stopped. He wasn’t happy with how Africans were being ill-treated by Livingstone and others.

As frustrations heightened with regards to white colonial government failure to address the issues, Chilembwe started turning radical.

Coupled with several other pains and challenges that Malawians, in general, suffered at the hands of the State and the settlers and himself, in particular; Chilembwe decided to strike a blow and die.

His first target, if you read history, was still Livingstone—the notorious settler; government offices were only secondary. To mean, his revolt was about betterment not regime change.

We commemorate Chilembwe, today, because he is the first Malawian who saw injustice against his people and chose to stand up and fight it. That spirit is what defines his legacy today—if you see injustice, stand up and fight it; it’s a powerful message.

  •  Cyril Bini is Editor-at-Large of MalawiTalk. His column  will be called “Free Expression”

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