As Malawi commemorated Chilembwe Day yesterday, some descendants of John Chilembwe, the fallen national liberation icon, have asked government to support them, saying they are living in dire poverty.
But while admitting Chilembwe was a patriot, Minister of Information and Civic Education Henry Mussa said government has no programmes for individuals claiming to be his descendants, saying Chilembwe is recognised nationally, not for individuals.
The minister said that is why the nation has this year commemorated the day under the theme United We Stand at an event graced by President Peter Mutharika at the Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) in Chiradzulu.
Apart from appearing on the K500 and K2 000 notes, government has named the Blantyre-Zomba Road after the hero (Chilembwe Highway) as well as the Nguludi-PIM-Chiradzulu Turn-of.
During former president Bakili Muluzi’s tenure, government also set Chilembwe Day as a separate holiday from Martyrs’ Day.
Wilson Kudemera, 54, is happy that his great-grandfather John Chilembwe is remembered with a holiday, features on the national notes and has roads named after him, but he feels there is more government can do to support the Chiradzulu icon’s descendants.
In an interview last week, Kudemera, whose grandmother Lena was Chilembwe’s sister and wife to Chilembwe’s cook Isaac Chambo, said some of Chilembwe’s descendants are in dire need, especially those who settled at Chikapa Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chikowi in Zomba after the foiled 1915 Chilembwe Uprising.
“I am one of Chilembwe’s descendants as my mother Esnart was a daughter to Chilembwe’s sister. Some of us are okay but it is tough in the village as some of the elderly people are not getting even subsidies, food is scarce and dressing is very poor. Government has done a lot for Chilembwe but for the descendants, life is tough,” said Kudemera, who lives in Ndirande but works as a porter at a hotel in Blantyre.
According to him, they have tried many avenues, including the Office of the Ombudsman, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and presidents Joyce Banda and Peter Mutharika to get government ears on the matter, to no avail.
“We appreciate what government has done for the nation to remember what Chilembwe did in laying the foundation for other freedom fighters. But we thought government could do more for the descendants as they are living in dire poverty. We hope for better houses for the elderly, bursaries for the children and an upkeep allowance,” said Kudemera.
PIM-based historian George Nasola attests that Kudemera’s grandfather Chambo, Jackson Chiwayula and Andrew Mkulichi in 1924 wrote government to ask Daniel Malikebu, the first Malawian medical doctor, to return to the then Nyasaland and restore the mission which was demolished during the revolt.
But Mussa said government is already doing enough to keep the Chilembwe legacy alive.
He said: “He appears on our currency and we have roads named after him. That is, not mentioning the Ida Chilembwe Community College. We honour this patriotic figure who left America to fight imperialism, a dream we keep alive by promoting patriotism.”
Human rights activist Undule Mwakasungula, who acknowledged talking to Kudemera and other relatives in 2007 when he visited the village before the death of Chilembwe’s niece (Alice Alisive Kusimika), on Monday said it is high time government went beyond mere January 15 commemoration.
He said the descendants are in dire poverty, living in houses that leak and lack food to eat.
“I kindly appeal to President Peter Mutharika to look into the plight of John Chilembwe’s relatives, considering the selfless spirit Chilembwe showed when leading the 1915 struggle and opening up for Africa struggle for self-rule,” said Mwakasungula.
He suggested that efforts must be made to trace Chilembwe’s roots, advocating for the establishment of a Chilembwe Foundation.
Group village head Kumitete of T/A Mpama in Chiradzulu, where most of Chilembwe’s other descendants live near PIM, on Monday said they are satisfied with their role at the Chilembwe’s commemoration.
“We are satisfied that government recognises us by allowing us to lay wreath’s at the ceremony. We don’t want to get politics into it since Chilembwe’s political fight was won when this country attained independence. We get nothing more,” she said.
According to various historical sources, Chilembwe was born in 1871 at Sangano Village in Chiradzulu. His father was CheKaundama and his mother was Nyangu.
He was killed on February 3 1915, a week after the colonial government quashed his three-day revolution, which started on January 23 1915.
He was survived by wife Ida, who died of influenza in 1918. His children were Emma, Charlie, Donald and Sylvie. Emma died in infancy, while Charlie died in 1971 and Donald went missing in the 1930’s and is believed to have travelled to America. n
1871: Birth at Sangano Village, Chiradzulu
1892: Employed by Reverend Joseph Booth, the Baptist preacher who infused on him the Africa-for-Africans notion
1897: Chilembwe and Booth go to America where he studies at Virginia Theological College
1900: Chilembwe returns to Nyasaland
1911: Inaugurates the New Jerusalem Baptist Temple for his church, which was demolished in the aftermath of his revolt
January 23 1915: The Chilembwe Uprising begins
January 26 1915: The Uprising is crashed
February 3 1915: Chilembwe killed as he tried to escape to present day Mozambique