Category Archives: Malawi History

100 years since John Chilembwe ‘finished his work’ (originally published in newspapers on Jan 15)

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“The Death of Jesus

“Jesus knew that by now everything had been completed; and in order to make the scripture come true, he said, “I am thirsty.”

A bowl was there, full of cheap wine; so a sponge was soaked in the wine, put on a stalk of hyssop, and lifted up to his lips. 30 Jesus drank the wine and said, “It is finished!”

Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” – John 19:28-30 Good News Translation (GNT)

 

Rev Kingsley Kaliati, PIM Vice President Photo by Agnes Mizere
Rev Kingsley Kaliati, PIM Vice President
Photo by Agnes Mizere

It is now 100 years since Rev. John Chilembwe’s 1915 uprising and death but his name will never be forgotten or erased from Malawi’s history because of the contributions he made to the struggle for freedom and African independence.

In a nutshell that is when Chilembwe finished his work and began a path towards freedom by freeing his people from the cages of horror.

Chilembwe, during the time Africa was fighting for the right to be free from the clutches of colonialists and he was one of the most educated black African leaders.

He is also known as a brave African nationalist who challenged Europeans without fear or favour at a time when many viewed whites as gods who could not be challenged.

And by dying in the struggle, Chilembwe’s bravery inspired others to continue from where he left on so that we can enjoy the freedom we have today.

Sanjika Rock where John Chilembwe spent time.  Kamuzu's Sanjika Palace also has the same name. Photo by Agnes Mizere
Sanjika Rock where John Chilembwe spent time. Kamuzu’s Sanjika Palace also has the same name.
Photo by Agnes Mizere

This is why Providence Industrial Mission (PIM)’s Rev Syford Chimwaza says there is every reason to celebrate 100 years after Chilembwe “finished his work”.

“Jesus Christ said it is finished when he died and this is something to remember Chilembwe by…in the fruits of his work.  Why did he die?  For the freedom of worship and the freedom of blacks,” he says.

However like others in the church he is not satisfied that some promises made over the years have never been fulfilled by various governments which ruled Malawi.

Amongst these are promises of a tarmarc road to replace the dusty one which gets muddy and not easily accessible during rainy seasons, a technical college to continue Chilembwe’s passion for education and an improved PIM health centre.

But he is happy for other efforts that have been made over the year to recognize and appreciate the contributions Chilembwe made to the existence of Malawi today.

Chilembwe was born near Chiradzulu in the south of what became Nyasaland, probably in 1870 or 1871, and attended a Church of Scotland mission from around 1890. In 1892 he became a house servant of Joseph Booth, a radical and independently-minded missionary.

Booth had arrived Africa in 1892 as a Baptist to establish the Zambezi Industrial Mission near Blantyre. Booth was critical of the reluctance of Scottish Presbyterian missions to admit Africans as full church members, and later founded seven more independent missions in Nyasaland which, like the Zambezi Industrial Mission, focused on the equality of all worshipers.

The dusty road to Malawi Hero John Chilembwe's PIM church.  We had to turn back and get there via Nguludi because it was muddy and could not risk tyres getting stuck in that.
The dusty road to Malawi Hero John Chilembwe’s PIM church. We had to turn back and get there via Nguludi because it was muddy and could not risk tyres getting stuck in that.

In Booth’s household and mission where he was closely associated with Booth, Chilembwe became acquainted with Booth’s radical religious ideas and egalitarian feelings. Booth returned to Nyasaland in 1899 but left permanently in 1902, although he continued to correspond with Chilembwe.

In 1897 Booth and Chilembwe traveled together to the United States. Here, after parting amicably from Booth, Chilembwe attended the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, (now Virginia University of Lynchburg), a small Baptist institution at Lynchburg, Virginia. The principal was a militantly-independent Negro, Gregory Hayes and Chilembwe both experienced the contemporary prejudice against negroes and was exposed to radical American Negro ideas and the works of John Brown, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and others.

“He was ordained as a Baptist minister at Lynchburg in 1899. After his return to Nyasaland, Chilembwe developed close contacts with independent, African-controlled churches, including Seventh Day Baptist and Churches of Christ congregations, with the aim of uniting some or all of these African churches with his own mission church at the centre.

Chilembwe was ahead of his time.  Photo by Agnes Mizere
Chilembwe was ahead of his time. Photo by Agnes Mizere

“Chilembwe also had some contact with Watchtower followers, but the extent of these and the influence of Watchtower’s millennial beliefs on him is minimised by most authors except the Lindens. Although the vast majority of those found guilty of rebellion and sentenced to death or to long terms of imprisonment were members of Chilembwe’s church, a few other members of the Churches of Christ in Zomba were also found guilty”, partly reads online sources.

In 1900 Chilembwe returned to Nyasaland, in his own words, “to labour amongst his benighted race”. Backed financially the National Baptist Convention of America who also provided two American Baptist helpers until 1906, Chilembwe started his Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) in Chiradzulu district. In its first decade, the mission developed slowly, assisted by regular small donations from his American backers, and Chilembwe founded several schools, which by 1912 had 1,000 pupils and 800 adult students.

The work of our Hero John Chilembwe's hands. Photo by Agnes Mizere
The work of our Hero John Chilembwe’s hands. Photo by Agnes Mizere

He preached the values of hard-work, self-respect and self-help to his congregation and, although as early as 1905 he used his church position to deplore the condition of Africans in the protectorate, he initially avoided specific criticism of the government that might be thought subversive. However, by 1912 or 1913, Chilembwe had become more politically militant and openly voiced criticism over the state of African land rights in the Shire Highlands and of the conditions of labour tenants there, particularly on the A. L. Bruce Estates.

However, the aims of the rising remain unclear, partly because Chilembwe and many of his leading supporters were killed, and also because many documents were destroyed in a fire in 1919.

However, use of the theme of “Africa for the Africans” suggests a political motive rather than a purely millennial religious one. Chilembwe is believed to have drawn parallels between his rising and that of John Brown, and stated his wish to “strike a blow and die” immediately before the rising started further read more than 40 sources listed under Wikipedia.

Providence Industrial Mission (PIM)’s Rev Syford Chimwaza telling Chilembwe's story.  Photo by Agnes Mizere
Providence Industrial Mission (PIM)’s Rev Syford Chimwaza telling Chilembwe’s story. Photo by Agnes Mizere

The first part of Chilembwe’s plan was to attack European centres in the Shire Highlands on the night if 23–24 January 1915, to obtain arms and ammunition, and the second was to attack European estates in the same area simultaneously. Most of Chilembwe’s force of about 200 men were from his PIM congregations in Chiradzulu and Mulanje, with some support from other independent African churches in the Shire Highlands.

In the third part of the plan, the forces of the Ntcheu revolt based on the local independent Seventh Day Baptists would move south to link up with Chilembwe.

He hoped that discontented Africans on European estates, relatives of soldiers killed in the war and others would join as the rising progressed. It is uncertain if Chilembwe had definite plans in the event of failure; some suggest he would seek a symbolic death, others that he planned to escape to Mozambique.

The first and third parts of the plan failed almost completely: some of his lieutenants did not carry out their attacks, so few arms were obtained, the group had failed to form and move south, and there was no mass support for the rising.

PIM 100 years after Chilembwe finished his work. -  Photo by Agnes Mizere
PIM 100 years after Chilembwe finished his work