When Wikipedia writes Malawi’s national history

John Chilembwe is Malawi's first great anti-colonial hero. Why do our media outlets mainly rely on Wikipedia to give us “facts” about him?

Yesterday Malawians staged popular demonstrations against egregious rises in the cost of living brought about by the economic reforms made by President Joyce Banda, under orders from the International Monetary Fund. If the spirit of popular protest is alive and well today, it’s no thanks to The Daily Times newspaper, who earlier this week ran an “article” purporting to commemorate Malawi’s first great anti-colonial hero that they’d lifted word for word from Wikipedia.

Every January 15, Malawians celebrates John Chilembwe Day to remember the the first and perhaps the most revered of all the Malawian freedom fighters. Western-educated, Chilembwe returned to Nyasaland (now Malawi) around 1900, after 7 years studying theology in the United States, where he is believed to have encountered the works of black thinkers such as Booker T Washington, advocating black empowerment and pan-Africanism.

On his return, Chilembwe was frustrated by colonial racism and he objected to the British government’s order that the Nyasas should go to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and fight in the First World War against the Germans. His frustrations forced him into an unsuccessful rebellion that came to be known as the Chilembwe Uprising, soon after which he is thought to have died on February 3 1915, as he fled into Mozambique. His burial site is unknown and there is no consensus among historians whether he was indeed killed or simply disappeared.

However, it is his bravery and love for his people that has made him a martyr and a national hero. Everyone learns about him at school and until last year his face was on all Malawian banknotes. Only the 500 Kwacha note (pictured above) now bears his face; other historical figures have been added on the rest of the banknotes, such as Rose Chibambo, a hero of the independence struggle and Malawi’s first cabinet minister.

Newspapers have always carried supplements about Chilembwe’s life for Chilembwe Day — his achievements, vision and whatever lessons media organisations think Malawians can learn from his life. This year was no exception, but it was the first time in nearly ten years that I have read the supplements, as I had always been out of the country during this period.

Malawi has only two daily newspapers: The Nation and The Daily Times. I only bought the latter. It had 24 supplementary pages on the subject — an impressive amount of space that was not matched by the breadth of the articles. The content could have been much better.

What caught my eye, however, was an article solemnly entitled: “Important facts about John Chilembwe. I noticed that this article had no by-line, so I checked at the bottom, where it was indicated that the entire article had been copy-pasted from John Chilembwe’s Wikipedia entry.

The Daily Times has just published a Wikipedia entry? I felt something was wrong, not only because I found it irresponsible to relegate a national history, the story of a national hero, to Wikipedia, but also because I know The Daily Times has a lot of capable journalists who could have done a better job. If not, could the newspaper not ask one of the many distinguished Malawian historians to write on Chilembwe?

This had lack of seriousness painted all over it. Why did The Daily Times not prepare properly for Chilembwe Day? I am aware that Wikipedia is free and that a lack of editorial resources could have forced the decision. Yet I still find it insulting to the national intelligence. Have we stooped so low that we are relying on Wikipedia to give us “facts” about our national heroes? I thought “facts” ought to be verifiable? How do you verify Wikipedia entries that have faceless authors and editors whose expertise is unknown? Shouldn’t we expect more from a national newspaper?

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