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Wed, 06.07.1871

John Chilembwe, Activist, and Educator born

John Chilembwe

*The birth of John Chilembwe is celebrated on this date in 1871.  He was a Black African minister, activist, and educator.  

John Chilembwe was born in Sangano, Chiradzulu District, in the south of what became Nyasaland.  His pre-baptismal name was Nkologo.  Chilembwe's father was a Yao and his mother a Mang'anja slave, captured in warfare.  Chilembwe's granddaughter stated that Chilembwe's father may have been called Kaundama and was one of those who settled at Mangoche Hill during the Yao infiltration into Mang'anja territory, and that his mother may have been called Nyangu: However, other also quite recent sources give differing parental names.  Chilembwe attended a Church of Scotland mission in 1890. 

In 1892 he became a house servant of Joseph Booth, a radical and independent-minded missionary. Booth had arrived in Africa in 1892 as a Baptist to establish the Zambezi Industrial Mission.  He was critical of the reluctance of Scottish Presbyterian missions to admit Black Africans as full church members and later founded seven more independent missions in Nyasaland which focused on the equality of all worshippers.  In 1897 Booth and Chilembwe traveled together to the United States.  Booth introduced Chilembwe to the Reverend Lewis G Gordon, Foreign Missions Secretary of the National Baptist Convention, who arranged for Chilembwe to attend the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, (now Virginia University of Lynchburg).  

The principal was an activist and independent Black, Gregory Hayes.  He and Chilembwe both experienced the contemporary prejudice against Blacks and was exposed to radical American Negro ideas and the works of John BrownBooker T. WashingtonFrederick Douglass, and others. He was ordained as a Baptist minister at Lynchburg in 1899. After completing his studies at Lynchburg in 1900, he returned to Nyasaland in 1900 with the blessing of the Foreign Missions Board and financial assistance from the National Baptist Convention.  Although in his first decade as a minister, Chilembwe had been reasonably successful, in the five years before his death, he faced a series of problems in the mission and in his personal life.

For the first 12 years of his ministry after his return to Nyasaland, Chilembwe encouraged Black African self-respect and advancement through education, hard work, and personal responsibility.  His activities were initially supported by white Protestant missionaries, although his relations with Catholic missions were less friendly. One of the earliest campaigns, a German invasion of Nyasaland and a battle at Karonga in September 1914 caused Chilembwe to write an impassioned letter against the war to the "Nyasaland Times" newspaper.  He wrote that a number of his countrymen, "have already shed their blood", others were being "crippled for life" and "invited to die for a cause which is not theirs". The war-time censor prevented publication of the letter, and by December 1914, Chilembwe was regarded with suspicion by the white colonial authorities. 

The aims of the revolt 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, the use of the theme of "Africa for the Africans" suggests a political motive rather than a purely millennial religious one. Chilembwe is said to have drawn parallels between his rising and that of Brown and stated his wish to "strike a blow and die" immediately before the rising started. 

John Chilembwe died during the Chilembwe revolt on February 3, 1915.  Nyasal and gained independence in 1964, taking the name Malawi. Chilembwe's likeness was seen on the obverse of all Malawian kwacha notes from 1997 until May 2012, when new notes were launched; the 500 Kwacha note still carries his portrait. Since December 2016, the newly introduced 2000 Kwacha note also carries his picture. John Chilembwe Day is observed annually on January 15th in Malawi.  

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