By Alick Ponje
Probably one of the most significant days in the history of Malawi’s liberation struggle, the Martyrs’ Day has often been characterised by solemn speeches and songs by politicians and all those who come together in commemoration of the day.
Yet there are those who believe that the 31 people who were massacred in 1959 after rising up against the British colonial rule could be turning in their graves at their blood shed in vain. It is believed that the number could be as high as 51.
They argue that the usual speeches that politicians make on March 3 have proved to be nothing but predictable accounts whose substance ends there on the papers they are printed on.
Revered historian, Desmond Dudwa (D.D.) Phiri, argues that liberation for Malawi was supposed to culminate in development and equality, not poverty and different forms of discrimination which are characterising the country.
He notes that there are more things happening in this country which are a shame to the liberation struggle which particularly targeted the Federation of Nyasaland and Rhodesia.
“If they were alive today, would the martyrs be happy with the current state of affairs? The answer is no! It is a shame that the ideals for which they died are not being respected,” Phiri said in an interview this week.
And locals in Nkhata Bay, where about 30 natives were brutally killed by the colonial army for attempting to discuss prospects of the liberation, are not happy with authorities who they argue have “sufficiently” thrust into the periphery of human thought the bloody history of the district.
Apart from the memorial pillar standing a few metres from Lake Malawi, there probably is nothing else that the district has to show that it was the epitome of a struggle which should be a significant reference point for development and ultimate freedom.
“Elsewhere, a district like this one could be greatly honoured. It carries particular history of Malawi. In fact, Nkhata Bay should have had several developments with which to attract tourists. Historic places should have such things,” John Chisambi, a resident of the district, asserts.
He further observes that even the way the day is commemorated clearly shows that the country does not accord it some significant attention as was the case in the past.
“From that struggle there is a lot to cherish and the day should be well commemorated to provide some moment of reflection. The blood that was shed should inspire us to change things that remain pathetic.
“But of late, even government seems to be not willing to accord it the honour that it deserves apart from simply observing it as a public holiday and politicians making a few solemn speeches,” Chisambi charges.
According to the Nkhata Bay resident, those who died for revolting against the colonial rule showed the greatest level of patriotism. That, he argues, is missing now, as most people, particularly public servants only concentrate on illicitly accumulating wealth at the expense of other Malawians.
This view is also shared by Phiri, who further argues that that kind of patriotism is no longer there.
Phiri states: “Those people who died in the liberation struggle wanted a country that realises its dream of ruling itself and deciding its own destiny. They envisaged a country of freedom and equality.
“That is no longer the case in Malawi. There is a lot of discrimination among Malawians along tribal lines. People are being given jobs simply because of their tribes at the expense of others who are better qualified. That is not what the martyrs intended to achieve.”
The historian further frowns at Malawi’s poverty as something that overshadows the liberation struggle.
He notes that other countries which were poorer than Malawi before independence have now been developed beyond recognition because of their leaders’ visions.
“Freedom amid poverty is nothing. We are one of the poorest countries in the world simply because we have not put our country first. Countries like Mauritius, Rwanda and Singapore have tremendously developed because of their leaders’ visions,” Phiri said.
And while martyrdom in Malawi has mostly been synonymous with the March 3 massacre, there are those who believe there are others who can also be described as martyrs because of their respective struggles for a better Malawi, whether they are living or dead.
Victims of the July 20, 2011 police crackdown which resulted into the death of 20 demonstrators also died for a good cause and should therefore be considered as martyrs, some people argue.
After the killings, photos and their captions on the social media and other platforms concluded that the 20 had been martyred and should be accorded such recognition.
There were photos of men drowned in pools of their own blood and photos of others attempting to save the lives of the most badly wounded.
Solemn speeches were also made about the July 20 massacre, but it appears there is nothing to be officially recorded from the sad event in martyrdom accounts.
It was the first time since Malawi’s independence for such a number of demonstrators to be killed at once and for those who lost their loved ones, it is clear that no kind of compensation will lessen the pain.
For the Nkhata Bay victims, there was a call that their 33 families should be compensated by the British government for the brutal deaths.
“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,” Nkhata Bay Central Member of Parliament, Ralph Mhone, said during the 2015 commemoration.
It is doubtful if that call will be met in the present generation. Perhaps, to these families, it is even more painful when the ideals for which their relatives were murdered are not being respected beyond the solemn speeches and songs that mark the day year in year out.
As Phiri stresses, if the martyrs who were killed during the 1959 came back to life today, they would frown at what the country is today, 59 years after the crackdown and 53 years after independence.