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Review of Political Culture and Nationalism in Malawi: Building Kwacha


By Jack Mapanje

Political Culture and Nationalism in Malawi: Building Kwacha. Joey Power. University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY, 2010. Pp. 332. ISBN. 978-1-58046-310-2 (hb). $85.

Of the books that have appeared in recent years on the historiography of Malawi political culture and nationalism Joey Power’s is the most refreshing. Throughout the political career of Malawi’s president, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the history of Malawi for schools, colleges, the university and the general public was blatantly distorted. It began with sketches of three major foreign influences on the people of Malawi: the Arab slave trade, the incursions of the Ngoni from the south, and the establishment of British rule leading to the declaration of Nyasaland as a British Protectorate. Then it traced John Chilembwe’s uprising against the British, pretty much as it was presented by George Shepperson and Thomas Price in their incisive publication Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Nyasaland Rising of 1915. The story of Chilembwe’s uprising was invariably followed by the story of the rise of president Banda and his triumph over the British and his colleagues after the 1964 cabinet crisis of his invention. Every significant personality and historical event between Chilembwe and Banda was expunged from people’s memory for Banda’s convenience.

The new narrative that we imbibed was that in 1958 Banda came back from the UK and Ghana on his own, nobody invited him home; that he fought the British, the Central African Federation and brought Malawi self-rule and independence single-handed. Henry Masauko Chipembere, Kanyama Chiume, Orton Ching’oli Chirwa, Dunduzu Kaluli Chisiza, Ceciwa Bwanausi Khonje, Yatuta Chisiza, Willie Chokani, Augustine Bwanausi, Rose Chibambo, Attati Mpakati and Banda’s other colleagues with whom he broke up the Central African Federation and achieved self-rule and independence were rubbed out of history. That the personalities involved in these historical events would ever be restored to their rightful places in the people’s consciousness and the nation’s history was unimaginable. No historian or political scientist dared to undertake serious research that would rectify the situation; almost everyone feared to broach these ‘proscribed areas of research.’

Joey Power’s Political Culture and Nationalism in Malawi: Building Kwacha, therefore, appears at the most opportune time, setting the agenda for other scholars to follow, develop and extend. This book is an inimitable read. The rigorous research and ingenious interpretation that Joey Power brings to bear on the missing pages of the nation’s history, helps to close the void that was evident, and brings balance to what has been otherwise a one-sided tale. Joey Power is a serious and diligent researcher; she has capitalized on the recent political changes that allow research without borders. A third of her book consists of splendid footnotes, bibliography and index; her use of primary and rare sources, oral interviews, even rumours, as well as her speculative interpretation of Malawi’s culture and politics are original and robust.

Joey Power makes it abundantly clear that in John Chilembwe’s uprising lay the foundation of Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) and the beginnings of nationhood; that NAC members in Nyasaland legislative council battled for the African voice to be heard at all, until its radicals were forced to invite Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda from abroad to help them in the struggle for the break-up of the Central African Federation and the achievement of self-rule and independence; that the British declared the state of emergency, arrested and imprisoned Banda and his supporters because the NAC was becoming an irritant; that the origin of the Malawi Congress Party and the landslide victory at the 1961 general elections that gave Malawi self-rule leading to independence – these and other matters were fraught with anxieties, uncertainties, disputes and blunders.

After Banda’s death in 1997 historians living in Malawi failed to rectify the perverted history of the nation that they had inadvertently accepted – hence the uniqueness of Joey Power’s publication, which re-establishes the significant events and public figures wiped out by Banda’s regime. We can now imagine how the British exploited existing ethnic groups such as North Nyasa Native Association, West Nyasa Native Association, Mombera Association, Blantyre Native Association, the Angoni Highlands Association, the Lomwe Association, Kasungu Native Association, the Achewa Improvement Association, the Ndirande Welfare Club, the Atonga Tribal Council and others – all of which were precursors of the NAC. Without these associations the British could not have successfully introduced their system of indirect rule through the establishment of hierarchical structures of headmen, chiefs, traditional authorities, paramount chiefs, invented ‘tribes’ and asikaris, albeit for revenue collection and easy administrative and economic exploitation of the Protectorate.

Joey Power’s research also indicates that the culture of elimination of political opposition started early. The speculative reasons for Dunduzu Kaluli Chisiza’s death by car accident, which are gathered in chapter nine, and the motives of those who might have conspired to cause Du’s death; the evidence that Joey Power has assembled and sifted to complete a hitherto incomplete story – this is remarkable work. The rumours, speculations and stories Joey Power gathers parallel and resonate with those from other African countries (the assassination of Kenya’s Tom Mboya comes to mind!). And this would suggest the relevance of her book to the history of political culture and nationalism in Africa generally. This book should be published in paperback for students of African history and for the general reader who will definitely enjoy reading it. Final suggestion: Joey Power should abandon the postcolonial framework on which she hangs some of her rich material for the interpretation of her subject – her framework seems forced; it does not add extra descriptive or explanatory adequacy to her well-researched topic.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 128-130]


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