In the freedom fighting legacy of Malawi’s Vera Chirwa, you see the power of emotion and feelings, often devalued in women, as the driver of her activism. You see, also, the feelings and compassion for the people whose freedom she fought for and still the love she held for her own family, while being tortured and violated by the country she stood for.
Vera Chirwa’s story is unique. Not only is it about a fight for justice and human rights, it is also a story of grit, love, motherhood, faith, and passion. That her story is not widely known to Malawi’s younger generation is a pity and emphasizes that history is told by the victors and, in itself, holds nuances of privilege and power. To tell Vera’s story is to acknowledge that her legacy represents many other untold stories.
Vera’s story displays the tensions of motherhood that lie in wanting the best for your family while also pursuing your own dreams, and the sacrifices that come with pursuing a dream as great as freedom for your country. It showcases activism for a country but also for the most marginalized—for the rights of women politically, socially and economically. It puts a spotlight on collaborative leadership that is just as necessary in present-day Malawi as it was during the fight for independence.
Vera’s autobiography, Fearless Fighter, reads as though you are sitting across from her as she casually recounts memories; it is written simply, intimately and chronologically. The reader is invited to track her thoughts and emotions as she experiences the political and social circumstances around her. Her middle name, Mlangazua, translates roughly to ‘truth’ and her commitment to standing true to her name is evident throughout her life.
Vera’s love story with Orton Chirwa began in 1951. Orton was a Malawian freedom fighter, a teacher, political activist and one of the first Malawian lawyers who established the first law practice. He was part of a group of younger Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) leaders that fought for the freedom of Malawian people from the British. Vera’s story stands out as despite the gender relations of the 1950s, her relationship with Orton was one of partnership, friendship, trust and encouraging each other to be their best selves.
In 1958, the NAC members instated a leader, Dr. Kamuzu Banda, who ended up claiming absolute power and crafting a coup against Orton. Orton responded by gathering support from other members to form a new NAC executive. The British, angered by ongoing NAC meetings, framed them as endeavours for a plot to escalate violence and Orton and Vera’s house was raided. During the raid, Vera realized that her husband had a list of a possible new NAC executive that would place him and others in jail or greater danger.
In this moment of tension, you see the strength of their companionship as Vera mentioned: ‘the beauty and uniqueness of Orton’s and my relationship was that we told each other everything so I knew about the list of the new NAC executive.’ She whispered to him to hand over the list quickly and stuffed it into her dress. And as the officers withdrew, the two exhaled as Orton exclaimed, ‘you are a very clever girl, my dear.’
Vera’s book is unique: a story of a dualistic love—a patriotic love for the country she and her husband wanted to see free and progressing, as well as a love shared with her companion that was collaborative, supportive and transparent. It is impressive, the zeal Vera and Orton continuously held when facing challenges of being unjustly imprisoned, beaten, chased from their homes, having their villages burnt to the ground and their children forced on the run while still managing to interweave a deep love and romance.
After being wrongly imprisoned in Salisbury for two months under horrible prison conditions, Vera experienced stirrings of her spirit to invest more in her activist work and created the League of Malawi Women as a support to the new opposition group formed by her husband in September 1959, the Malawi Congress Party. Both groups stood with the three-pronged vision to get political prisoners out of detention, abolish the British federation and fight for independence. What’s attractive about Vera and Orton’s story is its unexpectedness and depth for the time and context in which it occurs—in 1960s Malawi you get to read what is still unique in some modern-day southern African countries—pure patriotism for a country, collaboration for a greater goal between a man and woman and interdependence, support for each other’s goals and transparent communication in a marriage.
In 1961, the MCP won the first democratic elections and formed a collaboration with the British governor to work towards independence. While Banda appeared to not make any moves to pressure for the release of the remaining twelve freedom fighters still detained, Vera organized the League of Malawi Women to campaign through camping and protesting outside the prison. She recalled one of the fighters imploring her to continue saying, ‘You women are our only hope.’ She approached Banda and assertively expressed the League’s desire to stage a sit-down strike in support of the prisoners’ release and a week later Banda announced that he had arranged for the prisoners’ release.
On another occasion, in July 1964 when Vera returned from school in London, she found Banda’s presidency already raising contentious issues, one of them being the introduction of a three-penny charge at government hospitals, which she mentioned was a huge burden for those in poverty. She conducted a nationwide tour with the League of Malawi women to collect stories to present to Banda, from women in villages who were penniless and, her book explains, ‘had been left to give birth on the roadside or been sent back from hospital in a critical situation’.
While Fearless Fighter described the political injustices of Malawi, Vera also covered the social injustices Malawian women faced as well as her own experiences as a woman. While pregnant with her fourth child, for instance, Vera still held campaign meetings for the Women’s League and organized branches in different districts across the country. Through her network she found out that the hospital she attended, segregated at the time, actually had the option for African patients to pay a fee for the well-equipped section, although never offered the choice. She shared her surprise and annoyance with how racism was institutionally propagated, and she commented on how, even after having paid the fee herself, ‘all the pregnant white women were sitting in line waiting for the doctor, but they would not sit next to me. When I sat down beside them, they simply got up from their chairs and moved away.’
Vera’s story as a freedom fighter has these intersections of her passion for the freedom of her country and the challenges she faced uniquely as a woman and as a mother that make her experiences distinct from those of celebrated male freedom fighters including her own husband. The struggles that she highlighted of being a mother but also having her own personal, educational and career-related desires are still a stark reality for women across the globe.
By 1967, Vera was ‘a married woman and a mother of five who had a unique career in a man’s world’—she passed her LLM and became the first female lawyer in Southern Africa. Her profile was celebrated on radio and magazines in Tanzania as well as South Africa. By 1973, she took on a position of legal counsel to the East African Community and brought in a good standing of finances for her family as she and Orton had begun to struggle with the kids’ school fees. In this season, Vera stood as the breadwinner for her family and still you see the strength in her marriage as Orton encouraged her to pursue jobs that were best for her and welcomed the support that she brought in for the family.
By 1982, the Vera and Orton continued to receive news of the country suffering under Banda’s reign of terror; Orton decided to form the Malawian Freedom Movement (MAFREMO) for exiles in Tanzania and in some ways, this was the beginning of the end for him. On their way to a MAFREMO meeting in Zambia the two, along with their oldest son, Fumbani, were captured, beaten and blindfolded. On 29 July 1982, the two were charged with treason to kill Banda and taken to what she called ‘kangaroo court’ overseen by three chiefs without legal knowledge, witnesses that were all policemen and no substantial evidence. Vera’s knowledge of law and passion for justice was shown clearly at this time as she oversaw her and her husband’s case for the nine-month trial, often bringing those brought to the stand speechless and consistently uncovering false evidence. Nonetheless by 1983, both were sentenced to death and while the judge tried to appeal to uphold the law, the majority vote superseded his appeal, and both were convicted. Even at the point of conviction, Vera took to the front of the courtroom as her stage and announced that when she dies ‘[her] blood will water the plants of Malawi so they can grow and gain in strength.’
In prison, Vera was not allowed to see Orton or any other visitors. She was not allowed to have pens, papers, books, letters or talk to any other prisoners or guards. She slept on the bare cement floor and her asthma and blood pressure worsened; often, the food she was offered was rotten. In Fearless Fighter, Vera recounted her conditions quite matter-of-factly, but you see her heart break as she described being allowed to see her son, Fumbani, who had been locked up at the time of their trial and tortured with spanners and electrical wires. She reflected on how her son was never the same after being locked up: ‘he has a lot of scars on his body, but his soul is even more scarred.’ In one chapter you see both a powerful activist able to withstand horrible prison conditions for the fight for freedom of her people, but also a broken mother hurting for her son, trying to be strong enough to comfort him. When her son was finally released and brought to her to say goodbye, he broke down and cried and she held her own tears back to comfort him instead assuring him that everything would be okay.
Orton and Vera underwent many trials in prison, one of them being that they did not get to see each other for eight years, until 1992 when a group of British lawyers organized a meeting for them. The lawyers questioned both Vera and Orton about their prison conditions and as Vera heard Orton tell his side for the first time, she was devastated by the greater extent of mistreatment he had suffered—both hands and feet chained so he had to squat to sleep, kept from sleeping, being starved, and suffering from both pneumonia and asthma. She heard his story not just as another activist unfairly imprisoned, as the lawyers heard it, but as a man she loved deeply. The two ended their meeting singing hymns together and Orton hugged and prayed for her leaving her with encouragement to, she wrote, ‘remind them about our visits. Tell them that they have promised that we can see each other once a week. I’ll remind them too, of course, but you’re the activist.’ These were the last words she heard from her husband before he died in prison four weeks later. If Vera can be described as devastated by Orton’s mistreatment, the grief she felt upon hearing the news of her husband far exceeded devastation.
In 1993, Vera was finally released from prison and while eleven years of imprisonment may have inhibited others from continued activism, Vera jumped right back into it. She wrote about her successes, among which was her being offered a job as director of the human rights NGO, the Legal Resource Center (part of the Malawi Law Society). But she also described her difficulties reintegrating into civil society. For instance, she continued to sleep on the floor for weeks at her sister’s house, having become accustomed to it during her time in prison. Consequently, she strikes the reader with both awe and sadness as she pushed forward through good days and hard days readjusting.
By October 1992, Banda had released a referendum for multiparty democracy and so, in her post as director of the Legal Resource Center, Vera organized a constitutional symposium to bring in perspectives from interest groups, community organizations, professional associations and traditional communities about a new constitution. Using her standing, she was able to ensure that women were placed in esteemed positions such as chairs, convenors and facilitators of various sessions. The symposium was a huge success and several decisions and recommendations from it formed the foundation of the new constitution for a multi-party Malawi. Once the constitution was written, Vera recognized that the next important step was educating the people about it and believed that women specifically needed to be empowered to ‘claim, defend, promote and protect their own rights.’ By 1993, she created an NGO to promote and protect women’s rights through awareness raising, education programmes and promoting women’s education. She named the NGO, Women’s Voice.
Women’s Voice took on several issues around women’s rights in Malawi, the two highlighted by Vera in her book being rape—as a man is rarely convicted of it in Malawi and women are blamed or forced to forgive—as well as adultery cases, which are similarly prejudiced particularly in patrilineal areas. Vera’s approach was, compellingly, non-binary: as a proponent for Malawian women’s rights, she did not set tradition against justice but expressed that traditions are complex and diverse consisting of both matrilineal and patrilineal communities. As she asserted, ‘some traditions protect women, but we need to get rid of the bad ones—like the traditions of male dominance implicitly invoked in most rape cases.’ She focused especially on traditions that attempted to explain away unlawful or violent experiences or practices. Vera spoke to what remains an ongoing debate, where tradition is pitted against human rights. Instead of demonizing tradition (as a patriarchal, dated standalone concept) she acknowledged the existence of numerous traditions underneath a particular culture.
As her popularity rose, Vera’s colleagues at the Legal Resource Center began to demean her out of jealousy and often turned away women coming in to file complaints telling them that they were not a women’s organization. Subsequently, Vera chose to resign and formed the Malawi Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights (CARER) fulfilling the two dreams she held for a time to create an organization with a focus on women and another for the promotion of human rights and justice. CARER conducted various initiatives from the start including an assessment of human rights needs in rural areas through surveys and interviews with several groups, sensitization programmes for chiefs and a group of paralegals who offered free legal advice and referral services in communities. CARER tackled issues such as domestic violence, property grabbing, inheritance, reproductive health, the under-representation of women in parliament and the translation and dissemination of the constitution.
In 1994, Bakili Muluzi was elected president in multiparty elections and, despite the promises he had made with the introduction of democracy, by 2004 the economy declined, inflation and food prices increased, basic living conditions deteriorated, and Malawi was tagged as famine prone on the international map. Malawi’s political landscape saw a surge in what political analysts refer to as ‘distributive politics’—the distribution of cash handouts to incentivize people to vote or support a certain leader—and chameleon politics—politicians following promises of money and engaging in corruption, flip flopping between parties depending on what holds the best promise. Vera continued her advocacy work from 2001 as the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights’ special rapporteur on prisons. She visited several prisons across Africa urging an improvement in conditions and fundamental requirements as well as a few prisons in Malawi, bringing the newly elected President Bingu Wa Mutharika with her on one visit.
In Fearless Fighter, Vera notes that it took 30 years to achieve Malawian democracy and she hopes it will not take another 30 to make Malawian democrats. By this, she is referring to something beyond the disillusion of democracy brought by past governments; towards the freedoms she and Orton had fought for from the beginning:
Our fight had been a fight for justice and prosperity for our people. We fought to live free from the fear created by an oppressive and intolerant government. We fought to give voice to the many Malawians who remain marginalized and disempowered. We fought to empower women to participate in all aspects of Malawian society. We fought for the right to development and economic equality. We fought for an accountable and transparent government that is accessible and responsive to an electorate.
The freedom fighters that upheld values, dreams and visions in pre-independent Malawi have now long gone. Over the years, Malawi has faced leaders engaging in corruption, nepotism and a selfishness that has driven Malawi into the ground. Today, Malawi remains one of the poorest nations in the world. Leadership is critical now more than ever and many leaders would have much to learn from Vera about compassion, discipline and justice.
Vera is such a unique freedom fighter in that you see the power of emotion and feelings, often devalued in women, as the driver of her activism. You see, also, the feelings and compassion for the people whose freedom she fought for and still the love she held for her own family, tortured and violated by the country she stood for. She is largely unknown by Malawian youth of today and yet her story is impactful as an activist during an independence revolution whose vision, character and passion would be just as applicable and mountain-moving today. While Orton’s is the more remembered, Vera’s story deserves a telling and remembrance, too—for the activist, patriot, mother and wife that she is. She loved deeply—not just Orton and her children but her country—and Malawi could use more leaders stirred with a passion for the people⎈
The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].