Today, March 3- like all March 3s- is Martyrs' Day in Malawi. I write about what might have motivated those humans-no-longer-being!
It must be oppression that propels one to the point where their life ends.
No wonder that, when the frontiers of oppression hindered the entry of those we call martyrs into the gates of freedom, only one thing impressed their mind: Death. They had to die, and put a full stop to this trail of oppression!
Capture, for instance, the scene 99 years ago, when Rev. John Chilembwe saw agents of the colonial administration secreting self-importance wherever they went, while treating the natives with contempt in the crop plantations. He could no longer watch the scene with muted fury.
Indeed, as John E. Farley’s book, ‘Majority-Minority Relations: Forth Edition’, rightly observes, the actions of people like Chilembwe were not influenced by a “criminal element” as suggested by the ‘Riffraff Theory’.
To make a martyr
Farley argues: “Another widely believed but incorrect explanation is the so-called ‘Riffraff Theory’. This view holds that most of the trouble was caused by a criminal element and that racial grievances were merely an excuse used by this small minority of blacks. This explanation, too, has been soundly disproved by research.”
The truth, according to him, is that, “There was, however, also an attempt by whites more generally to maintain a system in which whiteness conferred status- a system of ‘social distance’. Under slavery, doing so had been easy; everyone knew that whites were masters and blacks were slaves. This in itself created an unequal relationship from which the whites gained psychological and material benefit. If whites were to maintain such a relationship after slavery, however, they would have to find a new way to proclaim and enforce the norm of racial equality. They did this by establishing segregation- in effect by replacing social distance with physical distance.”
While this scenario largely manifested itself in the United States of America, where Farley places more emphasis than Africa in the book, it is clear that the British colonial masters simply borrowed a leaf from their American counterparts, and applied the same principles in Malawi during the time of Chilembwe.
Not surprisingly, Chilembwe, who worked for fundamentalist missionary Joseph Booth between 1892 and 1895 and, thanks to Booth, went on to study theology at a black theological college, the Virginia Theological College in the USA, quickly grasped life’s simplest lesson that, in order to buy one’s freedom, one has to fight for that freedom.
According to www.about.com/ African History, Chilembwe made up his mind when he came across the works of pan-Africanists such as Casely Hayford, Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington. That knowledge was like a seed buried deep in his heart.
When Chilembwe came back to his motherland in 1900 and founded the Providence Industrial Mission at Mbombwe, the seed was still there- being nurtured by the oppression he saw being inflicted on the natives. As the situation worsened, the seed became a hot-bed of fury.
And, then, the situation could not be controlled anymore, according to the website.
“In 1913, an influx of refugees from Mozambique led to a reduction of employment standards in Nyasaland's plantations. Chilembwe's Baptist missionary work was seen as (a) nationalistic revolution by the plantation owners, and some of his churches were burnt down. Two years later, in response to the cruelty of white plantation owners, Chilembwe led an uprising (of about 200 followers) against British rule,” it says, adding:
“It has been suggested that he was also disgusted by the use of African soldiers against German forces in East Africa during World War I. Chilembwe and his followers attacked the estate of a particularly ruthless white owner, William Jervis Livingstone, killing him and several of the white estate managers. (Livingstone was beheaded in front of his wife and children). Their heads were put on display in Chilembwe's church.”
This, says the website, made Chilembwe one of the first nationalists in the Southern African Development Community region, a position he occupied by sealing his conviction in social justice with his own blood on February 3, 1915.
There is nothing strange with the fact that, for his convictions, he willingly took on the colonial masters and their representatives, and died trying to send home the message that his people were not losers. As Farley observes, “Divisions and competition between poorer members of the majority and minority groups are critical elements in a rigid, competitive system of race relations and are a crucial reason for the emergence of such a system".
What is strange, though, is that his own people (those from other districts) failed to support him.
“Chilembwe failed to gain support from the surrounding districts and his revolt was rapidly quelled. Chilembwe was shot by the police on 3 February 1915,” adds the website, www.about.com /African History.
But, for being forsaken, he got his reward: An appearance on the country’s banknotes, and a day (January 15) celebrated in his memory.
Universality of freedom
While Chilembwe’s actions during the events that have come to be known as ‘The Chilembwe Uprising’ might have the appearance of randomness; but the fact that other Malawians continued the cause for justice after him indicates that, other than being a random occurrence, it is in the psyche of the Malawian to fight for freedom.
For classic examples, we just have to go back to the events of 1953 and 1959, in that order. What comes out clearly is the fact that the ‘oppressors’ were always developing plans to strangle freedom. Self-centred, disingenuous, and bursting with surplus machismo, they stood for everything callous!
Everywhere the natives looked- be it North, South, West or East- all they detected was the pervasive presence of injustice, social, political, economic and otherwise. But they were wise enough to know that, beyond the unjust skyline circulated the purer air of freedom. And the likes of Orton Chirwa, Henry Masauko Chipembere, Kanyama Chiume, Kamuzu Banda, among others, rose to the occasion.
These people might have found it hard to look at the injustices without a creeping sadness. ‘This gulf between the races must be bridged’, they might have thought.
So, in a way, they were willing to become the ‘vehicles’ who could negotiate this wilderness of injustice, oppression, and violence!
Historian Melvin E. Page- a history lecturer who has, among other education institutions, lectured at East Tennessee University and worked in Malawi until 1991- writes in a report posted on www.africafiles.org and titled ‘Malawi: Revolution Without Leadership?’ that the events of the 1950s were fuelled by feelings that locals were being excluded from the economic benefits that seemed to “flow to the few, most notably the European elite”.
“In these circumstances, small, scattered, spontaneous demonstrations began. Then in August 1953, a series of riots began in Thyolo district. African resentments spewed out into attacks on European property. The police responded with tear gas and charged the crowd; at least one demonstrator was killed and several were wounded. The disturbances spread throughout the southern portion of the Protectorate and there were more deaths and injuries,” says Page.
However, Page observes that, despite the genuineness of the grievances, the government did not bulge and the majority of those who had participated were rounded up, a development he blames on the lack of “Africans willing to seize the opportunity and offer leadership to the mass of disaffected Malawians”.
He blames it on the inactivity of the National African Congress (Nac).
“Only the emergence of new, younger leaders such as Henry Chipembere and Kanyama Chiume (who had returned from studies in South Africa and Uganda) resuscitated the Congress. And not until Dr. Banda was recalled from abroad did the nationalist movement really take fire,” observes Page.
He adds: “It was part of Banda's leadership genius that he realized the inherent weakness of the NAC and its failure to seize opportunity in 1953. Thus when the NAC was banned by the colonial government in the wake of the massive 1959 detentions, he directed the formation of a new entity, the Malawi Congress Party which was able to fill the leadership vacuum in the country.”
Only then, he says, did the dispirited air among the people recede. The people whose voices had, just a decade before, melted into helpless solicitude were able to replace the unbearable emptiness with the hope for a brighter future.
However, Jonathan Chakalamba, a Chigumula resident in Blantyre, feels that, 50 years down the lane of independence, Malawians are going back to the old days of unbearable emptiness.
“Look at things like the plunder of public resources at Capital Hill, the poverty in the land, and the tendency by our leaders to accumulate worth questionably,” says Chakalamba.
Chakalamba adds that, the way things are moving, it is easy to think that Malawians are taking the “sacrifice” of the Chilembwes and other nationalists “for granted”.
“Where is the sacrifice when our leaders think only of themselves? We have lost that love; that communal spirit of Malawi that peddled us forward, in good or bad times,” says Chakalamba.
It is a point human rights activist Billy Banda seconds.
“Look, how can we be proud to be Malawians when public officers are looting billions of kwacha and getting away with it? How can we claim to promote the cause of the poor when there are no drugs in public hospitals? Where are human rights when people are being denied the right to know how their taxes went missing in broad daylight? We need to put our house in order,” says Banda, who leads the Malawi Watch Human Rights, a local NGO.
All these problems, he says, have meant that the ceiling of freedom- once up and flying high- has now dropped so low that sight has been impinged and the future is dim.
And, among the citizens like Chakalamba, the look on their faces is that of the familiar odd, wan emptiness that spurred others to a fight for freedom.
“Freedom is all we want. We want economic freedom. We want social freedom. We want political freedom. And we want freedom from fear; you know how security has gone to the dogs these days!” Chakalamba sums the situation up.
Everything, it seems, hinges on freedom. Truth is, there have always been calls for freedom: Sometimes loud, sometimes silent!