More than a freedom fighter
A new book about Rose Chibambo lifts the veil of post-colonial romanticism from her story. We get a moving, nuanced portrait in her own words.
- Interview by
- Michelle Chikaonda
Rose Lomathinda Chibambo (September 8, 1928—January 12, 2016) was a prominent politician and well-known figure in Malawi’s fight for independence from colonial rule. After many years as a successful political and public figure, Chibambo was forced into exile only a year after Malawi gained its independence, after falling out with the newly elected leader of Malawi, Dr. Hasting Kamuzu Banda. Both she and her husband were forced to flee Malawi, without their children, to neighboring Zambia in 1965. Chibambo returned 30 years later in 1995, a year after Malawi transitioned to multiparty democracy from one-party rule. Her husband died in 1968, and she thus returned alone, leading a quiet life mostly out of the public eye until her death in 2016.
In 2019, a book chronicling the life of Chibambo was published. Titled Lomathinda: Rose Chibambo Speaks, and authored as a book-length interview by Dr. Timwa Lipenga, it was originally to include several prominent female voices, with several academics in addition to Lipenga being signed to the project. However, after project funding was suspended, Lipenga continued working on the book alone, deciding to focus on the story of Rose Chibambo. The result is Rose Chibambo’s story in Rose Chimambo’s words. A beautiful and critical historical document that also resides squarely within the realm of literature, Lomathinda lifts the veil of post-colonial romanticism from Rose Chibambo’s story, transforming her into more than a freedom fighter on a banknote (she is currently the featured portrait on the 200 Kwacha note).
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell me a bit about yourself: who you are, your academic history, and how long you have been in your particular role, which later anchored your writing of this book.
I am a lecturer at Chancellor College. I majored in English and French literature at university, and I’ve always loved books. Before becoming a lecturer, I was a journalist with The Nation (one of Malawi’s major newspapers.). Then I moved on to Chancellor College, where I teach mainly in the French Department.
Where did the initial idea for the book come from?
Several Malawian academics, all men currently in the Malawian diaspora, approached me and a couple of my women colleagues at Chancellor College to say that they would like to hear more about Malawian voices, especially voices from Malawian women. They felt women would be better placed to research those voices and to speak to people.
So, we were given a list of people to interview and were told to add to the list. We were told that they would find funding for the project if we identified women who we wanted to interview, but finding that funding proved to be difficult, and the project was eventually suspended.
But by the time it was suspended, I had already fallen in love with one of the subjects, from the little that I could dig up on her: Rose Chibambo. And I said, Okay, even if there’s no funding, I’m going ahead with this, because I want to know more about her. And that’s how it started. I read a bit on her, and then I asked people if they knew where I could find her. Once I got in touch with her, I discovered she was also eager to tell her story. So, I would say it worked out perfectly for me in that way.
Why did you decide to structure this text as an interview, rather than a biography?
When the suggestion was made to us—this suggestion to go out and interview the women we had identified—we decided to read around the project, read around what happens in a biography. So, there I was, reading and coming up against debates on whose voice comes through in a biography: whose story is it, really? That really shaped how I did things, because I remember reading one particular book where they said some people write someone’s story, but it’s their own voice in the end. So, I said, Okay, how do I make it her voice? I’ll still have to speak in there, but I want it to be hers. And that’s why I decided to opt for the interview structure.
You speak so many languages. What language did you conduct the interviews in, and why? It is written in English, but that of course doesn’t necessarily mean that the interviews were conducted in English.
From the word go, it was in English. Because when I called her and introduced myself, it just happened that I opened the conversation in English. So, we started speaking in English before we’d even met in person. Then, when I first went to her home, I asked her what language she would be most comfortable in, and again, she said she would be comfortable in English.
I didn’t ask her why, but I think I can figure out why. She came from a community where mostly Tumbuka and Ngoni were being spoken, whereas my own mother is half-Yao, half-Nyanja, and I’ve grown up speaking Chichewa. So, I think there would have otherwise been a conflict of languages! We struck a happy medium with English.
How long did it take? Was it a single interview? Or was it structured interviews over time? And what editorial decisions did you make in deciding what to include?
It was a series of interviews over time. I would call her and say, I am coming this weekend, and would spend both Saturday and Sunday, speaking with her. Then some months would pass, and I would call again and ask to go over again. As all this was happening, I was still doing outside reading about her, and would sometimes call her and ask what she thought about something in the book I’d read. Sometimes she would confirm what was said, and sometimes she would tell me that wasn’t what had actually happened.
Regarding editorial decisions: there were times when she said, “I don’t want these names in the book.” So, when I submitted the first draft to the publisher, I replaced those names with “X.” My publishers made a different decision. They replaced the X’s with pseudonyms. That was something that was done on the editorial side.
There’s a lot of really fleshed out detail in the period up to the point she goes into exile in Zambia. But I noticed that she doesn’t go into nearly as much detail about her time in exile. What are your thoughts on that? Did you get the sense that there was stuff that she just didn’t want to talk about, or that she may have been protecting?
I think there were definitely things she didn’t want to talk about. I think it was a painful period, because of her husband’s death in 1968, the way it happened in particular [that she was not permitted to return with his body to Malawi to bury him]. Her son tried to come and visit them, and he was arrested for that. She did not see her children again until her return in 1995. So, I think there was a lot of trauma in that time; the whole story is traumatic, but there was a particular kind of trauma tied up in the period in Zambia. And I think that’s why she didn’t really want to talk about it that much.
Was the book being published now a deliberate decision? Have you been concerned at all about what it is publish a book that contains critique of Kamuzu Banda now, at the same time that Banda’s party, the MCP [Malawi Congress Party], has returned to power—as part of Tonse Alliance—for the first time in 26 years?
No, it wasn’t deliberate. The book would have come out earlier if not for how long it took to find the right publisher. And back then, we didn’t even know that MCP would be back in power. The book actually came out when the previous government was still in power.
My response to anyone concerned about political critique in the book is this: you will see that she’s not just criticizing the MCP. She’s looking at the country as a whole; she’s looking at what came afterwards, what they had expected versus what actually happened. Yes, the MCP is criticized, but so are the other parties, and so are the other events that took place. She was simply talking about Malawi as a whole.
There were things about Malawi she now found disappointing. She returned and found people weren’t the same people she remembered from the 1960s, who would protest like they did back then. Now they were people who seemed resigned.
There must have been hope, certainly, and the joy of returning home, but there was also the sense of “What did I come home to?” She talked about finally returning, and about the stares she was getting as she was coming in through immigration; the feeling of being regarded with suspicion. But then she also talked about the warm welcome in the family now that she was back, about the joy of seeing her mother and children again, especially. For Chibambo, there was ultimately the determination to rebuild. She literally rebuilt her house, and the rebuilding was what was most important to her.
Rose Chibambo had to fight so hard to be seen, and her womanhood was often used against her. How you have been thinking about this in light of everything going on right now with the activism around gender-based violence in Malawi? How do you place this narrative inside this larger discussion of giving women their fair stage in a society that continues to marginalize them?
I got to learn from one of my colleagues about the whole Herstory movement; how it gave voices to women, and how history at some point focused on women in order to let them tell their story. If you look elsewhere, the idea of Herstory is decades old—but in Malawi we haven’t done it. We’re still in the process of recovering women’s voices. And that is important, and you can never recover them enough.
If we then connect it to the gender-based violence—especially the days of activism—when you hear some of those stories you wonder, are these really happening in this decade? Are they really happening now? Happening during a time when women get university educations and get good jobs? Are there still women who think in a certain way? Or is there still a certain kind of violence that’s perpetrated against women, regardless of where they find themselves?
Only two months ago, I met a woman who talked about having been forced into marriage: how she was actually dragged from home and so on. To her, it was just something that had happened; that’s the life she was living, and she had accepted it. But I said to myself— how many women are going through this, now? How many women today are forced by their families to leave school and get married? You’d have thought by now we would be more evolved. So, we do need all these voices telling women’s stories.
Talking about voices and literature, where do you see this book situating itself in the landscape of Malawian literature, or history, or—to a certain extent—politics?
I think it has a place in history. But, interestingly, I’ve had students coming from the Department of English to say they’d like to do their dissertation on the literary devices in the book. So, maybe it’s somewhere in between! Some people will see it as literature, in the sense of African literature; others will see it as history. But the ones who have organized panels at Chancellor College were from the Department of English. So maybe there is more of an interest in the literature.
Did Rose Chibambo ever talk to you about why she was willing to speak now, and willing to speak to you in particular? It’s clear that she had this desire to tell her story, and was so thrilled for you to help her tell it. But did you get a sense that maybe there had been a time when wouldn’t have?
I think she always wanted to tell her story. It’s just that no one had thought of asking! I know that people would interview her when they wanted to talk about the cabinet crisis in Malawi—way before I came in—and she would tell them her story, solely in connection to the cabinet crisis. But I think no one had come and said, “Tell me about you.” She wanted to talk about Malawi; she really wanted to talk about her experiences. She wanted them to count for something.
Way before we even had a publisher, in fact, she would talk about it as “our book.” So, she believed, even before the manuscript was accepted for publication that there would be a book. Even when I told her I hadn’t found a publisher yet, she would talk about that. When she died before I even found a publisher, that was hard. She would have loved to see this. She really wanted to tell her story.
It feels like you’ve started a larger conversation with this book. What other stories do we need to go out and look for? What other voices are out there, that we need to get down before they pass on?
When it comes to voices: some of the stories I attempted to get were rather disappointing. I would go out and approach someone, and the response would be “Just send me a questionnaire!” They wanted no interaction. So, there were women out there who were suspicious, who just thought this person was trying to dig into their private life, and would just clam up. But with Rose Chibambo I was fortunate. She didn’t ask to see the questions beforehand. We would just talk.
Recovering women’s voices remains important. Telling a woman’s story is important. Because behind that silence a lot is happening, and we need to keep speaking out. Even if we look at our society, there are more women than men and yet most of the decision makers are men. And because of that, sometimes, some of them don’t understand when you say certain things, for example around violence. So any voice that can speak out on anything that concerns society is important.
What did it feel like, when the project was done?
An emptying, if that makes sense! There was a point at the end, when I was going through it again and again, asking myself if I had represented her faithfully. And then of course you bring it to your editors, and there’s a process of negotiation around what they want and don’t want in the book, which was its own struggle.
For example—at first, my title was “Lomathinda: Journeys and Interruptions.” But my editors said, “No, that’s too dense: you’re thinking like an academic. I really loved “Journeys and Interruptions,” but I had to give in. So, we found common ground with Lomathinda: Rose Chibambo Speaks.
One thing that I was always insistent on, however, was the idea of the last word. At the beginning of the project, I had said, I want her to have the last word. But at the end there was a chapter that my editors kept insisting needed to be rearranged, I think they had some kind of commentary they wanted to include, but I insisted that she have the last word.
What is the next project? Are you working on anything now, or are you taking a breather? I imagine this project may have opened up other doors with respect to the future direction of your own work.
I am trying to do something academic. I’m reading more on biographies, and what happens if I write a biography, then someone else writes a biography of the same person, and so on over the years? What is it that they are looking for? What do they stay faithful to? I’m actually working on a project where I want to compare four authors who wrote a particular biography on a particular person; I want to see what they kept and what they left out, and why. And I’m trying to specialize in that area.
We’ve talked generally about voice, and about Rose Chibambo, and those particular chapters that were interesting, but there are things that I missed, or things you’d want me to understand more?
Maybe the most poignant parts of the interviewing process. There was a moment we shared when she was talking about the courtship between her and her husband. When she was telling it, she burst out laughing, and I started laughing too. That was quite a moment; I loved that moment.
I also loved the fact that there was no self-pity, where she was involved. She would talk about her suffering, talk about the good times, but it wasn’t “poor me, poor me.” She just told her story. And as a listener, I just encouraged her to speak.
They usually say when you’re writing a biography, you shouldn’t get too close to your subject, because that means you forget how to be objective. And I will confess that was difficult for me—really difficult. Because I just thought she was such a great person!
I definitely had a great experience, yes. Maybe because I do literature, but I had the profound sense of someone passing down a narrative to a different generation. Maybe I just put a romantic spin to it, but it was truly an unforgettable experience.