Martyrs: Do they really matter?

Martyrs: Do they really matter ?

When we talk of martyrs to many the first thing that comes to mind is the Christians who died for their belief in Jesus Christ and Christianity, and closer to Africa, the martyrs of Uganda, to which most catholic and Anglican churches and establishments derives their names to signify the importance of the actions of the martyrs such as St Kizzito, Charles Lwangwa , St Luke, St Denis among others.

But who is a martyr? To put it simply a martyr is somebody who suffers persecution and death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to comply, obey, and follow what they really believed in or a moral particular cause. Further explanation states that it is a person who suffers very much or is killed because of their religious or political or a believable just cause. These should not be confused with rebellion although to a smaller extent it may link.

…. Martyrdom can be described also as a politically and spiritually explosive performance, done or that happens to achieve a justifiable end.

The questions I would like to ask and try to answer is, do martyrs really matter, are they worthy really remembering, are they worthy to be put in the annuls of history. ? And by extension to the above questions do our own martyr’s closer home Malawi matter worth spending time and thinking about.

 I believe they matter. Take for example our own martyrs of Malawi, as 3rd March was declared a public holiday to remember them. In fact, one would wonder whether martyrs matter anymore and whether the day 3rd March is relevant after this long time?, since what the martyrs died for was their own choice, however going deep into the matter one would have a different opinion and surmise that the event should be used to address many more serious national issues and celebrated as a national event.

It should be noted from the outset that John Chilembwe and his uprising of 1915 is considered as the first Independence Martyr.

The Chilembwe uprising was a rebellion against British colonial rule in Nyasaland (modern-day Malawi) in January 1915. It was led by John Chilembwe, who was educated in America and had seen black American way of life and their struggles. The uprising was based around his church in the village of Mbombwe in Chilazulo. It was centred on the black middle class and encouraged by grievances against the colonial system, including forced labour commonly known as Thangata, discrimination and the new demands on the indigenous population caused by the outbreak of World War I. It is recorded that 40 people were executed by the Police and many more arrested in the revolt aftermath.

Although the rebellion did not itself achieve lasting success, it is commonly cited as a watershed moment in Nyasaland history. The rebellion had lasting effects on the British system of administration in Nyasaland and some reform was enacted in its aftermath.

Today, the uprising of 1915 is celebrated annually and Chilembwe himself is considered a national hero and martyr. The climax of this discussion being the martyrs of 1959 mostly those who died in Nkhatabay.

Over the years Malawians have had different views on this day and issue (martyrs day) some positive for the day others negative, for example on 3rd March 2016 during an interview – Veteran Politician Robson Chirwa decried Martyrs Day’s loss of its significance.

“Well Kamuzu was a disciplinarian and he knew what this day meant to the Malawi nation … “My plea is that this day should be declared as a National Day of Mourning as it was the case … Very few can do that in the current political world.’  To this end he was simply signifying that martyrs do matter in society and Malawi in particular.

However, others have the view that it is a waste of time to remember the fallen martyrs, as they believe things could have changed anyway. (This category perhaps lacks details and a background why they the martyrs should matter ;).

Malawians had been living under oppression under laws that were against their favor as owners of the land and they started mobilizing themselves to seek justice and freedom.

In retaliation, the British Government  arrested Malawians “Operation Sunrise was the name given to a police and military action conducted by the authorities in the Central African country of Nyasaland (now known as Malawi) on March 3, 1959 to detain and intern 350 individuals who were considered a potential threat to law and order. Thirty-three innocent people lost their lives on this particular day and by 4th March several Malawians were arrested and detained.

The British government was calling for tolerance to which the people tolerated all they could but after some time they said enough was enough. Personally, I find it unreasonable for the British to expect from Malawians  tolerance and win win situations what they were entirely unwilling to give.

To further signify the importance of the martyrs, in 2015 third March, martyrs’ day was commemorated in Nkhata Bay district and the day was a Tuesday. To show that Malawi still considers the martyrs with a strong conviction and that they matter a call for, the then Malawi’s colonial master, Britain was asked to compensate 33 families whose relatives died after being massacred by colonial forces in Nkhata Bay district.

At a somber ceremony which was graced by Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, late Dr. Goodall Gondwe as guest of honor, Nkhata Bay Central parliamentarian Ralph Mhone then  asked Britain to compensate the families of the deceased since it is their authorities then who commissioned the massacre of the 33 people.

“The 33 deceased families here are mourning year in and year out. As you all might be aware, in the process of killing their relatives, they created a lot of challenges to families because some of those killed were bread winners.

“It should also be borne in mind that apart from creating economic and social challenges to such families, the mere fact that they were innocently killed warrants compensation from those responsible,” said Mhone.

The parliamentarian further asked Malawi Government to take the MV Mpasa ship to Nkhata Bay district. The ship was used by colonial masters to detain the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) supporters on 3 March 1959, a situation which prompted a mob of Malawians to angrily call for their release and resultant massacre.

Efforts have been made or rather are still being made to make sure the martyrs are compensated for they died for a cause.

To this end Malawians of goodwill must feel that actions through death were necessary to their cause, furthering the truth and their sacrifices cannot be simply a private matter between themselves and their deity, but to the nation as a whole.

It is a fact that with the passing of time things do change and facts become twisted to suit a particular sect of society for their selfish ends but the fact still remains that the issues happened that qualify the victims to be martyrs and to be in the pages of the history of Malawi as issues that matter.

To know that they really matter perhaps we need to see it in the rights and privileges we enjoy today as a people of Malawi their self-belief shaped the course of the nation.

It should not be looked  upon as an occasion for complacent acquiescence that sits uneasily with martyrdom. Further to that, we need to see in the action of the  martyrs an opening up of the possibility of a deeper understanding of what peace and freedoms are, that peace and freedom are not inevitable, but often come at a cost and heavy price as paid by the 1915 uprising of Chilazulo and the 1959 massacre in Nkhatabay.

This is not only  a cost paid first and foremost by a God who loves us so much that he died for us on the cross, but is also paid by his followers who are prepared to follow in his steps, to offer up their lives to uphold the peace and freedom of their own consciences and so to protect the peace and freedom of ours. It is no dispute that their selfless act in making sure their voices were heard makes us proud and proud we must be.

In times of concord and merry making, at least some of us risk forgetting the martyrs in the sense that really matters, but in so doing we risk forgetting the cost that has been paid for our peace and freedom and so risk devaluing the peace and freedom we enjoy. We thank God for the grace of all martyrs, and let us celebrate our peace and our freedom with something of the gratitude that they deserve.

Further to that, to show that we care and that they matter, every year prayers remembering the martyrs are held and the day is a public holiday. Memorial pillars have been erected to signify the importance of the martyrs.

Did they die in vain, did they shed blood in vain? are we wasting out our energies in remembering them? Should we remember them as foot soldiers? In my view they did not die in vain. It is therefore important that they be remembered every year and perhaps a video documentary be done for future generations to understand what it was.

In conclusion, it is my considered view that the martyrs really matter as the events of March 1959 triggered the wheels of change. This should be noted that it was the last straw that broke the camel’s back as from that moment the colonial masters knew that there was no turning back discussions started of giving freedom to the owners of the land. This then means the martyrs did not die in vain.

The question is would we have done the same if we were in their shoes? Would we have continued to chicken out, or we would have sacrificed our lives for future generations?

By Stevie Kauka

The author is a Fellow of IPMM who writes on various topics in his own personal capacity