Fearless Fighter: The Life of Vera Chirwa

Fearless Fighter: The Life of Vera Chirwa

by Vera Mlangazua Chirwa


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Vera Chirwa's story is one of betrayal, imprisonment, torture and exile. Yet it is also a story of hope, inspiration and extraordinary bravery. This book celebrates her achievements and calls for greater awareness of the risks faced by human rights campaigners everywhere.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842779668
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 12/26/2007
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.06(w) x 7.81(h) x (d)

About the Author

Vera Mlangazua Chirwa was born in Malawi (then Nyasaland) in 1932, became Malawi's first female lawyer, was a founding member of the Malawi Congress Party in 1959, and led the League of Malawi Women. After Malawi's independence in 1961, Orton Chirwa, Vera's husband was a senior figure in the new government. However, factions emerged around the president and the Chirwas suffered years of exile and detention without trial. Following her release from prison in 1991, as a result of major international campaigns, she became a leading voice campaigning for human rights and civil society in Africa.

Read an Excerpt

Fearless Fighter

An Autobiography

By Vera Mlangazua Chirwa

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Danish Institute for Human Rights
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84277-966-8


A Family of Politicians

Vera Means Truth

That day I had decided to disobey.

'Go and get the plates', my grandmother said.

She was cooking. Both my parents were very strict. They brought us up to be obedient, god-fearing and helpful, but on this particular day in 1937 I told myself:

'Let me try to disobey and see what happens. Maybe God will come and do something to me.'

I was five years old and had never tried it before. So I said:


My grandmother was shocked.

'No? The food is ready, now go and get the plates. You know where they are. You always do that!'

'No, I am not going to collect the plates', I said.

She got up, collected the plates from the house and prepared everything herself. I took the food to my parents, uncles and aunts as usual and came back to the kitchen where grandmother and I ate together. She did not want to upset the meal and wanted all of us to eat first.

After the meal I washed the dishes and we went to sit on the veranda with my parents.

'Do you know what Vera did today?' grandmother asked. 'I asked her to get the plates and she refused.'

'Come here, Vera', my father said. 'Is it true that you disobeyed your grandmother?'

I never lie. In secondary school, I wrote a letter to the Scottish doctor who delivered me, because I wanted to know the meaning of my name.

'Write to Dr Stewart', my father said and handed me the address. 'She is the one who gave you that name.'

I wrote to her, and she wrote back to tell me that Vera means truth. Things sort of fell into place then.

'That's why I love the truth', I told myself.

That evening on the veranda, I did not lie either, and my father sent me to the bush. I had seen my mother and father whipping my younger brothers with the branches of a certain tree, and I understood that I was supposed to go and pick some of them. I deliberately picked a large one, and my mother and father laughed.

'You want me to kill you?' my father said. 'Come on. Go and pick a proper whip. Bring me six.'

When I came back with the branches I had to take off my panties and he started whipping me. I did not know that a parent will stop whipping you when you cry. They then feel you have repented, but I was a proud girl and refused to cry. After breaking the second whip, my grandmother wanted him to stop, but he continued till all of them were broken.

'Pick everything up and throw it away in the bush', he told me, and I went into the bush with the six broken branches and a very swollen behind.

'They are never going to see me again. Let me be eaten by hyenas right here in the bush!' I told myself and walked away.

When darkness fell I came back and hid in my grandmother's maize field. I could hear them:

'Is Vera with you?'

'No, I thought she was over there with you....'

They started to look for me and to quarrel. My grandmother was furious:

'This is not the way to discipline a child!'

'You are the one who told us that she had disobeyed', my parents argued. 'We don't want our child to disobey you or anyone else!'

They went to the neighbours asking for help and the whole village started to search for me. From my hiding place in the maize field, I could hear them blaming my parents:

'Are you fond of whipping children? You like that, hah? Now you've lost her. She's probably been eaten by a lion or a hyena by now.'

Around 10 p.m. I decided that I had taught them a lesson. I started to cough a bit and they found me.

'Oh, Vera, Vera, you have troubled your parents and your grandmother so much!'

But I was a quiet child and did not say a word that night. From that day on I did not disobey and they never beat me again.

It was a custom among our Ngoni tribe that the first-born child was taken to the paternal grandparents when it was weaned, in order not to interfere with the birth of younger siblings. I was born in 1932 as an eldest child and spent my early childhood with my grandparents. I really loved my grandfather. He was the first African to be ordained as a reverend in Nyasaland and was stationed in Loudon in the northern part of the country at the Embangweni Mission. My other grandfather was also a reverend in the neighbouring Ekwendeni Mission. I think my mother and father met through the social events that linked the two missions, and married in 1930. My grandfather, Jonathan Chirwa, travelled a lot to other mission stations to preach, and he always brought me local fruit or small things he had found on his journeys, and which he thought might interest a child. We were very fond of each other, but he died suddenly in 1936.

I remember quite vividly that I was sitting in the moonlight with my grandmother in her room, and people were wailing and crying.

'Your grandfather has gone to God. He has gone to Heaven', she told me.

Okay, I thought, but then something started to confuse me. In the evenings people used to sit outside around the fire and tell stories, and they would ask me:

'Vera, where's your grandfather?'

'Oh, my grandfather, he has gone to Heaven.' And to my surprise they would all laugh. It went on for some time and one day I asked my grandmother where he really was.

'God took him, my dear. He is now in Heaven and we'll go and meet him when we die.'

'Does that mean I am not going to see him again?' I asked.

'Not on this earth', she said and I finally realised that he had left me and started to cry.

The following day these people asked me again and I said:

'My grandfather will not be seen on this earth. He is with God and I am going to see him when I die', and they never asked me again.

To this day it bothers me that they made a joke out of my misery just because I could not understand where my beloved grandfather was. I was only four years old, but that kind of insensitivity has angered me ever since.

A Family of Politicians

When I was a child, we did not know what the inside of a European house looked like. The Europeans were like gods to us. If you went to see relatives, who were working for them, you could hardly enter the kitchen. But my mother, Elizabeth Chiwambo, stood up against all that. In the church at Ekwendeni Mission there were separate doors and benches for the Africans and the Europeans. There were only a few whites, among whom were Mr and Mrs Larkin, but they nevertheless had their own door. My mother was exceptionally well dressed for an African woman and carried herself in a European way, with hat, stockings and high heels. One day Mr Larkin summoned her after church. She could not enter his house and he confronted her on the veranda:

'Do you want to be like the European women? I see you are dressing up in church and doing your hair like a European. What are you up to?'

'What is your problem?' my mother asked, 'This is my body and I do my hair as I please. My husband buys me dresses and I can dress as I want.'

'Oh, you are being very rude, Elizabeth!' Mr Larkin said.

'No, you are being rude, questioning me like that!' my mother snapped back, and the missionaries soon marked her as a troublemaker who would 'spoil' other African women.

My father, Theodore Kadeng'ende Chirwa, had similar encounters. He was a medical officer in charge of Mzimba Hospital. He had undergone medical training at the mission in Livingstonia, was highly qualified, and had his own practice as a doctor, but his English colleagues did not like him. The British doctors posted in Mzimba were all very young and inexperienced. When they examined a patient together with my father, who was very skilled, they found it difficult to accept his opinion. The white doctor, for example, would prescribe a certain treatment or drug, and my father might say:

'No, this patient needs an operation right away or she will die!' But a white man would not allow a black man to overrule his decision. Sometimes my father would give in and find the patient dead after a few days, but more often than not he would insist on his own diagnosis and challenge his white colleagues. He became increasingly unpopular.

After my grandfather passed away my mother and father and his two younger brothers came to live with us in Loudon, and as a child I often heard my parents talk about politics. My mother always pointed out the evils of colonial rule and in the end it made them leave the country. My father was offered a better job in Congo. He left first, but before my mother followed him her brother, MacKinley Chiwambo, was arrested.

He was a civil servant. African civil servants were educated and able to enlighten the people about colonial oppression, and the Europeans generally did not stop them from being politically active. However, uncle MacKinley was very active and a pioneering member of the Nyasaland African Congress executive committee and he was put in jail for inciting his people to seek self-rule. I have strong memories of going there with my mother to visit him. He was in a bad state. He was sleeping on the bare concrete floor and had wounds all over his body.

'Sister,' he said, 'although you are a woman I'll show you this so you can see how I am being tortured here.'

He pulled down his trousers and his genitals were badly hurt. It was terrible. We both dropped tears. We prayed for him and left. He was released one and a half years later and sent to a mosquito-infested village near Port Herald to rot. We exchanged letters while I was in Blantyre Secondary School.

'We are being oppressed', he wrote to me, 'and now I am suffering because I was trying to point out to our people that this is wrong. I hope you understand.' I understood quite well.

My other uncle on my father's side, whom I stayed with after my parents had left, was also politically conscious and progressive. He ate dinner at the table, had tea at four o'clock and took a stroll in the afternoon, all unheard-of activities for an African at that time. He was very critical of the European oppression of our people. He held the meetings of the local branch of Nyasaland African Congress in his house, and I listened to all their discussions. Even my grandparents, who were sincere Christians, would integrate criticism of the inequalities we were experiencing in their prayers and sermons; for as long as I can remember, my family of politicians has influenced me.

Love at First Sight

I went to stay with my uncle Walter Chiwambo in Livingstonia when my parents left for Congo. I really enjoyed school and I was exceptionally good at it, especially at arithmetic and maths. At that time girls were seldom encouraged to go to school, but my grandmother was remarkably open to the idea.

'If she wants to go to school, let her go to school', she said, and my parents sent the school fees from Congo.

In Livingstonia I was the only girl out of 72 pupils, and when I went to study for the Junior Certificate at Blantyre Secondary School, I was again a lonely girl among 24 boys. It did not go unnoticed when I was home for holidays. After church the local women would surround my grandmother and me:

'What is this education for women? The winner of the bread is the boy. Vera should learn to do domestic work. Why should she go to school? When is she going to get married?'

It was always like that and I did my best to sneak out of church by the side door right after service to avoid their weekly attack.

I wanted to become a doctor, but I could study no further in Blantyre. The school only had three teachers and pupils had to queue up for the final exam. I had to wait a full year and my father promised to find another school for me, maybe in Uganda or South Africa. But I could not wait at home with all those women nagging me! Luckily, Domasi Teacher's Training Centre opened a higher-grade teacher's course, and my parents sent me there to spend my time sensibly while they were looking for another school for me. That year Orton Chirwa had finished his BA and went to teach in Domasi.

Orton was 13 years older than me. He had finished his primary education in Livingstonia and had married, but he was very keen on continuing his education. His father had a clothing business in Northern Rhodesia and called Orton to go there and work for him. There was no secondary school in Nyasaland at that time and his parents thought all this education business was fruitless.

'You are going to take over this shop, son. You have to learn how to make clothes and settle down', his father told him, and in Africa you cannot disobey your parents.

Orton could not say no to his father and had to accept being placed in front of a sewing machine. But he just kept breaking the needles deliberately, claiming to be doing his best, until his frustrated father finally relieved him of this vocation. He then worked hard as a teacher and saved enough money to take his A levels by correspondence. He managed to get the Nyasaland government to sponsor his BA studies at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he majored in philosophy and obtained a distinction. Orton's then father-in-law was displeased with Orton's long absence and advised his daughter, Emily Nyamuhoni, to divorce Orton. Orton's mother was subsequently charged with the upbringing of their three daughters by Chief Timbiri of Nkhata Bay.

In Domasi I was living with the family of the headmaster of the primary school, Mr Chongwe, who happened to be Orton's friend. Mr Chongwe had offered Orton a place to stay while he was looking for a house in Domasi. I was in the kitchen preparing food for the family when Orton arrived by car. He must have been one of the first Africans in Nyasaland to own one.

'Vera, come and help with the luggage', Mr Chongwe called, and then he introduced us: 'This is Vera Chirwa. She is here as a student. You are going to be her teacher.'

'Oh, I didn't know that there were such beautiful girls in Nyasaland', Orton said, and I blushed.

'No, no, no', said the humour-loving Mr Chongwe. 'This girl is a Chirwa. She's your sister, Orton'.

'It can't be. My sister is in the village.' And they went on joking like that, while I took the suitcase to his room.

I had many offers. Men even wrote to me from Zambia proposing marriage, but I refused all of them. However, with this one, Orton Chirwa, it was love at first sight. I loved him and he loved me right there on the spot.

He moved into his own house and one day after class he invited me for a cup of tea. If he had lived alone, I would not have gone, but he was sharing a house with his friend, David Rubadiri, who was later to become Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malawi. I decided to accept the invitation, but did not dare tell Mrs Chongwe in case she might not allow me to go. We had tea. Rubadiri pretended that he had to leave and left Orton and me alone.Then he proposed to me and I duly refused. It is our custom that decent girls do not say yes too easily. It makes you look cheap. In the North we are taught that if you want to marry properly and keep your family name respected you have to test the men and make sure they do not take advantage of you. I said:


'You know me,' Orton replied, 'I'm a proud man. No woman refuses me. So, is that the end of it?'

'Yes, that's the end of it', I said and went home.

He came back over the next three months and I refused him three times. In the meantime I was taking advice from friends and from my aunt Rose Chiwambo:

'Orton Chirwa, the only graduate in Nyasaland, is proposing to me. What do you think?'

They all encouraged me and said that Orton had a good character and was a modest man. I was also pleased by his manners and he did not smoke or drink. He seemed like a genuine man who would respect my family, and he was well built. Men were wearing shorts then and Orton had nice legs. And he was very active politically.

My awareness of the injustice grew stronger and stronger in my youth, and support for the NAC was rising dramatically around that time. The colonial government wanted to impose an amalgamation, as they called it, of Southern Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi). The white settler communities in Southern and Northern Rhodesia pushed very hard for this amalgamation in order to build a strong settler state with Nyasaland as a kind of 'homeland' for Africans who would supply cheap labour for the mines and the estates of the Europeans. In reality, they wanted to build an apartheid system like South Africa's. The NAC saw through this and mobilised the people; their opposition was strong enough to force the British government to cancel its plans. However, before long they imposed a federation of the three states on us instead.They claimed it was a loose union of independent states, but in fact the settlers were sneaking their agenda in through the back door. Again the NAC rallied the people, this time against the federation. And now we demanded our freedom as well.


Excerpted from Fearless Fighter by Vera Mlangazua Chirwa. Copyright © 2007 Danish Institute for Human Rights. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International
Chapter 1 - A Family of Politicians
Chapter 2 - Against an Apartheid Federation
Chapter 3 - Independence
Chapter 4 - The Cabinet Crisis
Chapter 5 - Exile
Chapter 6 - We Have Got You Today
Chapter 7 - The Will to Live
Chapter 8 - Back in Civil Society
Chapter 9 - Human Rights at the Fingertips
Chapter 10 - Democracy under Threat
Chapter 11 - Human Rights Commissioner
Chapter 12 - The Power to Forgive

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