In a sense, the fate of Rose Lomathinda Chibambo (8 September 1928 to 12 January 2016) is that of the perpetual female outsider, always encroaching into male enclaves, white and black alike. In 1952, she starts organizing women in Zomba, the then capital of Malawi, to protest against the colonial government because the men via the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC, later Malawi Congress Party), including husband Edwin, are not highlighting their plight in the struggle. In 1953, just before the imposition of the much hated Federation which brings under white rule Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, she encroaches into a meeting between chiefs and pro-Federation agents. She protests before she is told of the place of the woman.
Later, two Malawians are put into the Federal Parliament in Salisbury (today’s Harare) to ‘represent’ the interests of Malawians back home. Rose is a vocal critic, calling for their removal, when she is not agitating for the secession of Malawi out of the Federation. As Treasurer of the Nyasaland African Congress – Blantyre branch, she rightly points out that some of the ‘moderates’ leading NAC are still under the Chilembwe shadow, hence their reluctance to remove the two Federal MPs. Chilembwe led the abortive uprising of 1915 against imperial Britain. The response from the latter was harsh.
Five years into the fight against the Federation, Kamuzu Banda is brought back to Malawi to lead the fight for independence. Rose is now in charge of what was to eventually morph into the powerful Women’s League in post-independence days. NAC travels the length of Malawi denouncing ‘the stupid Federation’. Things get out of control and rumours fly that the colonial government is plotting to kill Kamuzu.
In January 1959, NAC calls a secret conference (now called the Bush Meeting) and typically, Rose is the only woman there. After the meet, there is panic in the white settler community because of a rumour to kill all whites if Kamuzu is taken out. The country is ungovernable.
Governor Robert Armitage declares a state of emergency on the 3rd of March 1959 as armoured trucks make their way into the country from Rhodesia. Thousands of arrests follow. Kamuzu is picked up in his pyjamas and driven to the airport where he is given his suit before being flown to Gweru prison in Zimbabwe. Rose is spared because she is heavily pregnant. Still, she continues the fight, visiting political prisoners and plotting.
On the 23rd of March, Rose delivers a baby at a mission hospital in Thyolo District. The next day, her husband Edwin is arrested at home. Two days later, Rose is paid a visit by two white officials, a man and a woman. She collects her belongings and her two-day old baby girl and they are thrown into a jeep. Four jeeps are in front, five are at the back, all full of soldiers brandishing their guns. She is driven to Zomba Prison, where she is joined by two other women, Mrs Mthenda who led NAC activities in Zomba and Mrs Mdeza from Thyolo. She names her baby Gadi (guard) due to her prison circumstances. Kamuzu later names the baby Mtamayani, after his sister. A Good Samaritan, Mrs Kayes, brings Rose baby food and clothes throughout her 13 months stay. Back in the British Parliament, her arrest is highlighted by the Labour Party. She is released when negotiations for independence start in 1961.
Malawi is independent in July 1964, Kamuzu is the prime minister and Rose Chibambo serves as the only woman member of parliament and the parliamentary secretary to Kamuzu in his role as minister of several portfolios. Two months later, she is a backbencher, fighting to defend her name against the same Kamuzu in the now famous Malawi’s Cabinet Crisis of 1964.
Kamuzu was invited back to Malawi by young radical politicians like Masauko Chipembere and Kanyama Chiume who needed a father-figure to rally Malawians behind NAC’s goals. Kamuzu’s conservatism was bound to clash with his young emissaries. It was all a matter of time. Post-independence, pragmatic Kamuzu makes alliances that are anathema to his young cadres: diplomatic relations with apartheid South Africa, who pay Malawi handsomely by, among other things, building the capital of Lilongwe; recognizes Portugal, ‘owners’ of neighboring Mozambique; and recognises Formosa (Taiwan) instead of Peking (Red China). The breaking point becomes the ‘tickey’, a three-pence payment Kamuzu introduces in the public hospitals and reduced perks for some civil servants. Kamuzu is confronted by his young Ministers, threatening to resign in the process. He then calls for an emergency parliament sitting where he gets the vote of confidence. Rose Chibambo finds herself a casualty of this crisis, hearing the news of her dismissal as parliamentary secretary via the radio.
The next day in Parliament, on her birthday, she tries to clear her name (“I was Rose Chibambo before [Kamuzu]” came here) in a speech punctured with rude commentary from her male counterparts. When she tries to raise her voice, the speaker of parliament reminds her that she “cannot shout. This is our House”. Again, that encroaching business.
Soon she, like other freedom fighters on the wrong side of Kamuzu, flees with her family to Zambia, only to return 30 years later after Kamuzu is dethroned. Largely ignored in democratic Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s third president, rekindles her memory by, among other things, inserting her face on the MK200 note, the third powerful bank note after the MK1000 (Kamuzu Banda) and the MK500 (John Chilembwe). Three male faces come after her including, ironically, her Inkosi ya Makosi (Chief of chiefs) the late M’Mbelwa 2.
When news of her death breaks, the youth, mainly in social media, connect with her as “that pretty face on our bank note”, nothing more. In one of the last interviews she gave, ironically to a local youth radio, she lamented how freedom fighters are side-lined in key government events, highlighting the 50-Year Independence celebrations in 2014; inevitably, the 50th anniversary of the cabinet crisis.
Thanks to the legacy of Rose Chibambo, Malawi boasts, in Joyce Banda, Africa’s second female president who pays a tribute. Rose has been buried at the recently established Heroes Acre, in the north of Malawi, in Mzuzu. For once, other heroes will find themselves budging into her enclave. Talk is that Chakufwa Chihana, the freedom fighter who invited Rose back to Malawi in 1994, will be reburied there.
As a Malawian born in freedom (a born free, to borrow Kamuzu’s term) I can but raise a fist to her courage and her legacy.