Rose Chibambo did not fight for women’s space in the emancipation struggle, but gender parity till now. Mzuzu Bureau Supervisor JAMES CHAVULA writes.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Rose Chibambo is not who she was in the first Cabinet when Nyasaland became Malawi in 1964.
The country’s first female in the 1964 Cabinet, who died aged 87 last week, draws undivided tributes largely because she was the poster face of women involvement in the struggle for a breakaway from British minority rule.
“In 1952, I founded the women’s league to help our men achieve what we loved most—independence,” she wrote.
The patriot on the K200 banknote was born Rose Romathinda Ziba on September 8 1928 in Malumbo Ziba Village, a remote setting in Mtwalo, Mzimba, where many girls marry before their 18th birthday.
It would have been easy for the daughter of a teacher at Elangeni, a rural area where the current cadre get a K10 000 hardship allowance each, to follow the unwanted brides.
However, the cover girl of the liberation fight refused to be your ordinary figure: She walked over 15km to get basic education at Ekwendeni Mission of the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia.
She was 19, a year past the present marriageable age, when she married Edwin Chibambo on June 3 1947. Their first born Roy was born together with Malawi on July 6, the following year.
However, it is striking that she became a political activist at 24. Robson Chirwa, one of the freedom fighters, credits her with fearlessly mobilising women to take part in the fight that shattered British rule 52 years ago.
This unpaved path took Chibambo all over the place, recruiting members for the women’s league, stoning cars and colonial offices and campaigning for the release of freedom fighters detained.
In one of the photos that almost went viral following her death, a youthful Rose is visibly on the frontline chanting a protest song hoisting a placard that reads: “Release Kamuzu.”
“She was a fearless fighter, a principled politician and a uniting factor both in the struggle and in the Malawi Congress Party [MCP],” Chirwa says.
He remembers the militaristic contemporary as an empowered woman who refused to hide in the mythical right to silence when men were saying enough with colonial rule.
The founding of the women wings of the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) and its surviving off-shoot Malawi MCP makes the celebrated female political activist the first and foremost campaigner for gender equality and women’s empowerment, says once exiled poet Dr David Rubadiri.
To this school of thought, the struggle for gender parity did not begin with the restoration of multiparty politics when the likes of Emmie Chanika and Seodi White went top of the pack.
Rather, it was the day the firm believer of equality of sexes jolted women not to stand aside and look while men were leading to the struggle.
Rubadiri salutes Chibambo for refusing to remain silent when it was not unusual for Malawians to ask: What good can come from a woman?
“She refused to be confined to a kitchen and decided to stand up for what she believed in,” Rubadiri said in his eulogies.
In November 2014, the two, together with Rubadiri’s wife Gertrude, were among 20 “living legends” immortalised at Karonga Museum.
Among Chibambo’s six children are two who personify the price she paid for joining politics.
First is the fifth born Gadi, named after a Tumbuka slang for ‘jail’, who spent her babyhood in prison having been born barely a day before British forces detained the stubborn lady at Zomba Maximum Security Prison in 1959.
Fighting back tears, Gadi, garbed in a black dress and hat, hushed mourners as she eulogised her iconic mother, thanking God for the honour of being born to the “special woman” who stood up for a national cause “when women had no voice”.
Second is the last born Phumile (Escape), who personifies Chibambo’s exile in Zambia where she admittedly endured three decades of fear and death of her husband having fallen out with founding president Kamuzu Banda in the 1964 Cabinet Crisis.
Chibambo’s other children were Roy, Eliza, Malibase and Khataza.
Edwin, her husband, was not on the frontline because he was a career civil servant, but he was reportedly a youth political activist who used to organise meetings in the evening.
Kapote Mwakasungula says: “This made Rose to keep asking ‘What do you do discuss all night?’ The persistent questions made him confess that they were organising against the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. At that point, she might have asked: ‘Is this cause for men only?’ That partly aroused her curiosity to join in.”
Vice-President Saulos Chilima terms her agony as marks of a true patriot, a rare breed of women in the male-dominated society.
She clearly made women count—for better, for worse.
In the shadow of the Living Legends exhibition at Karonga Museum two years ago, she bared her impassioned participation in the historic battle.
“I firmly believe in the equality of men and women. I was convinced there was no way we would win independence if women, the other half of the population, stayed put,” Chibambo said.
She recounted with stammers numerous indignifying encounters with natives buying goods from a pinhole on the wall of supermarkets while minorities from overseas proceeded to the counter.
“It’s our country. We could not bear being treated like animals or second-class citizens on our own soil. We wanted a free Malawi where all were equal and Malawians were free to decide their destiny and achieve their aspirations,” she declared.
Liberation dawned when the Union Jack finally paved the way for the rising-sun flag of independence, but did it live up to Chibambo’s expectation?
“Far from it,” she said, “we lost the way and the dream vanished when we started glorifying Kamuzu and his excesses. Sometimes, I wonder whether it was worth fighting for things we suffered for.”
It is against this background Chibambo was part of the cabinet uprising along with Orton Chirwa, Augustine Bwanausi, Augustine Nthambala and Kanyama Chiumie. Willie Chokani, Yatuta Chisiza and Henry Chipembere later resigned in solidarity.
Her recollections form the core of ‘Malawi’s Lost Years: The Forsaken Heroes’, an upcoming book by former exile Kapote Mwakasungula and Douglas Miller which highlights the atrocities committed during Kamuzu’s rule and warns against re-glorification of the dictator.
Mwakasungula, who was secretary general of Socialist League of Malawi (Lesoma) in Tanzania and Zambia, spoke of Chibambo’s bravery in the face of killings, beatings, detentions, expulsions and disappearances associated with Kamuzu.
Her faith was confirmed by Livingstonia Synod general secretary, the Reverend Levi Nyondo, who remembered her as a dedicated elder at St Andrew’s Church who taught many Ngoni hymns.
However, her muted return in 1994, after which he joined no other party, remains vivid in the narratives of veteran lawyer Bazuka Mhango, who welcomed her at Kamuzu International Airport and escorted her all the way to Ekwendeni where she was welcomed with songs, dance and thanksgiving prayers.
A member of the inactive Truth and Reconciliation Committee charged with the welfare of returnees, Mhango said: “I knew her as the Amazon of the Women’s League of Malawi, but she was humble.
“She deserved honorary degrees from public universities and government even contemplated giving her a retirement package, but that has eluded all presidents since her return.”
But now she is gone — gone to the ages; now she belongs to history. n