Happy John Chilembwe Day

January 15th (I’m late by 2 days) is the Malawian holiday celebrating the life of the Reverend John Chilembwe (1871 – February 3, 1915). Chilembwe was an ordained Baptist minister and an one of the first serious advocates of African independence and self-determination. Educated in Lynchburg, Virginia, he set up a number of schools to educate Malawian children and adults, amassing more than 1000 students, and teaching a message of education, hard-work, self-reliance and abstinence from alcohol.

Chilembwe stage a number of violent uprisings against European plantation owners, who were known to underpay and abuse workers. He advocated killing all male European farmers within Malawi, and later killed a powerful farmer who had burned several of his schools, while forcing his family to watch. Chliembwe was eventually killed attempting to flee Malawi to Mozambique.

While the history of African independence and abuse is complicated and deep, it is this event which, in my opinion stained Chilembwe’s legacy and makes him a complicated historical figure. Had he advocated a non-violent uprising against Colonialists and been successful, the man would have been a giant on the level of Gandhi, or MLK. Agreeably, such a strategy may not have been possible. Regardless, the importance of Chilembwe in inspiring independence movements all over Africa and in spreading a message against racism and exploitation cannot be denied.

Chilembwe is featured on all Malawian currency, and is widely respected throughout the country.

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About Peter Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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