“It is even more important today, in light of Donald Trump’s comments about African countries, to celebrate John Chilembwe day. Prove or disprove.”
This was the question I posed to my TEEM class on John Chilembwe Day, January 15, 2018. I am teaching a group of students “Introduction to English Language and Communication” and this was an exercise designed to get them to outline a potential essay. I broke them up into small groups. For 15 minutes they debated, mostly in Chichewa, so I had no idea what they were saying.
All groups came up with at least one point that was the same: John Chilembwe, widely recognized as the first Malawian to stand up to the white colonial powers, was a hero. In the shadow of WWI, Chilembwe led about 200 of his followers in an uprising aimed mostly at the unjust working conditions on tea plantations. “Thangata” is the Chichewa word used to describe the near slave like conditions he was protesting. The uprising was not particularly successful and Chilembwe remains a bit of an enigma, but all the students agreed it is important to remember his actions.
One group had a version of the above point as their opening argument. Then they went into a biography of Chilembwe including where he was born, his parents name, the name of his church and so on. None of it was connected to an argument. It was fine descriptively, but it was not worthy of an essay.
Their third point was succinct due to time. It was something like, “Donald Trump is like William Jervis Livingstone.” Livingstone was the estate manager who exploited “thangata” and thus was the lightning rod for Chilembwe’s righteous anger. After the uprising, an inquest was called for and run by the white colonial government. Even they concluded that Livingstone and his “management” were inhumane. This is saying a lot considering that many did not consider black Africans human. The most “successful” part of the uprising was the fact that Livingstone was beheaded. Chilembwe preached the day after the violence with Livingstone’s head impaled on a pole right beside him. To say that Trump is like Livingstone is to make a pretty strong statement.
Three things arise from this outlining experiment. First, these Malawian students had a great deal of knowledge to draw on. One student in particular seemed to recite most of the “standard” kind of history. Occasionally there was a Chichewa debate about whether what he had said was accurate or not. They were genuinely pleased that I seemed to know more than they thought that I would about Chilembwe. There was something illicit about a white man telling them the crimes of other white men. There were details they clearly talked about in Chichewa, like the beheading of Livingstone, and they debated telling me. When I volunteered it they broke out in smiles. They knew a lot and were able to formulate a good first point to an essay.
Second, they don’t have enough general knowledge to make sense of all the biographical details that they know. For instance, Chilembwe had been helped by a Baptist missionary, John Booth, to go the United States for college. In the 1890’s Chilembwe attended a small Baptist school in Lynchburg, Virginia. There he studied, among other things, the writings of John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington. He seemed particularly taken by Booker Washington’s arguments about self-respect and education, hard work and personal responsibility. In addition to learning about how blacks in another place were contending against white power, he also suffered the racism of Jim Crow Virginia. It was after his US experience that Chilembwe returned to Nyasaland, what is now Malawi, and started a church that included schooling and vocational training.
My students did not understand the potential implications of Chilembwe studying in the US. They did not know about the black thinkers he encountered or the racism that was rampant in Jim Crow America. If they did, then the section on his biography would have more bearing to their argument. They would be able to connect the disparate pieces together to not only show the context in which his uprising arose, the first point, but also why it was Chilembwe and not someone else who led it. They could also have struggled with the complicated relationship that Malawi has had with the United States. Chilembwe’s Scottish Presbyterian education here in Malawi did not prepare him for this kind of leadership. Quite the opposite. It wasn’t until he encountered the white John Booth and his trip to America that he was empowered to truly shepherd his people.
Third, while I agree that Donald Trump is as odious as William Jervis Livingstone, I don’t think either deserve beheading. The students don’t think so either, but they struggle to make analogies between the past and present. Surely there are similarities between then and now but what they are makes all the difference. It requires a disciplined thinking and a creative imagination to bridge the gap between the past and today. Picking up on the Booker T. Washington inspiration, is that advice enough? Was it then? Should “shithole” countries like Malawi forget about America and its racist president? What does self-respect look like now? These are the kinds of questions that my students should struggle with.
All of this is actually not to debate the relative merits of the case my students made. Honestly, they didn’t do great. They rocked point 1, lost it on point 2, and could have recovered on point 3 but didn’t execute. No, all of this is to say that “Introduction to English Language and Communication,” while perhaps not seeming like a course worth teaching, is actually one of the most important. It does not teach content so much as a way of thinking. That way of thinking is critical and informed, both characteristics required if piqued moral consciences are going to make a difference. It is not sufficient to proclaim Chilembwe a hero because in some ways he was a failure. What is required is clear thinking because that can lead to clear and decisive action. Clear thinking should lead to the truth and the truth is a powerful tool.