Ordinarily, at this time of the year we, Malawians, celebrate the life of Rev. John Chilembwe, who is generally acknowledged as one of the first martyrs of Malawi’s political freedom. The Uprising he led in 1915 to protest the racist maltreatment of Nyasas by the British occupiers of our land and employers laid the foundation for later protests that culminated in the 1959 mass murders and eventual granting of independence in 1964.
The story of John Chilembwe is astutely told by George Shapperson, David Stuart-Mogg, Dudwa Phiri, and repeated my many Chilembweists. All of them agree that after the attack on the Bruce Estates and the brutal murder and display of the head of a decapitated European, incensed colonial government officials, using local police officers, launched a manhunt to capture Chilembwe dead or alive.
The colonialists knew that Malawians were heavily networked and anyone could have hidden or smuggled Chilembwe across the Ruo River into Portuguese East Africa as Mozambique was then known. But the Europeans understood that with just a small incentive, poor people can easily betray each other. So, on 27 January 1915, a 20 pound (today equivalent to over 2000 pounds or MK2.1 million) bounty was dangled to anyone who would capture John Chilembwe and his nine direct accomplices.
Indeed, as one of the Chilembwesists reports, John Chilembwe was hunted down and killed near the Mozambique border, by Malawian members of the Nyasaland police who included Garnet Kaduya, Kambalame, Naluso, Mandanda and Useni.
According to public records, this is what Garnet Kaduya told the Mulanje court where Chilembwe’s body was brought for identification:
“Private Naluso fired and when we saw that he had wounded the man as he turned round and round and then stood still, then Sergeant Useni fired and hit him again, he still stood, then I fired with Morris’ gun and hit him through the head and he fell dead…. [Chilembwe] was within a few miles of the Portuguese boundary. We then carried the body of John Chilembwe in here as instructed to do in the event of his being killed.”
The Malawian police officers clearly knew the man they were chasing was John Chilembwe. If they had wanted they could have told him to run across the river and save his life. But they did not because in their heads and minds, 20 pounds had better value than the life of their reverend and human rights fighter. The tone of Garnet Kaduya’s rendition of events is celebratory, exuding heroism. ‘I did it, give me the money,’ could summarise his court testimony.
The betrayal of John Chilembwe, like that of Jesus the Christ for three pieces of silver, is a typical example of human fragility. No matter how close people maybe, money can easily break their bond. So, the Chilembweists must review their stories and emphasise the fact that our ancestors sacrificed Chilembwe and killed him for 20 pieces of British silver.
Unfortunately, this year we are not celebrating John Chilembwe because the main event has been cancelled due to Covid-19. Even if the official celebration event were on, we would not attend because this week we feel really downcast. The death of Mohammad Sidik Mia, champion of the poor, friend of the media and a rare politician who always had his boots in the mud to ensure his ministry worked, really touched us and many others, young and old, male and female, Christian and Muslim. We pray that he rests peacefully in Allah’s Kingdom and one day the story his immense contribution to Malawi’s democracy will be told so his soft heart for charity be forever acknowledged and remembered.
So touched, too, were we with the deaths of cabinet minister Lingson Belekanyama, media friend and colleague Maria Chidzanja Nkhoma, academic colleagues from Mzuzu University and many others that have succumbed to Covid-19. We trust they are all resting in God’s eternal peace.
So sayeth Prof. Dr. Abiti Joyce Befu, MEGA-1: “As a nation, we must engage a higher gear to ensure that the vaccines under the COVAX facility reach us immediately. Social distancing, washing hands and sanitizing may be good but not enough to get rid of the virus. Malawi needs herd immunity against the Sars-Coronavirus-2.”