From British daily The Morning Star:
Freedom fighter against all odds
(Sunday 25 November 2007)
Vera Chirwa: Fearless Fighter by Vera Chirwa
(Zed Books, £12.99)
Highly educated blacks were treated as “boys,” to be humiliated by less educated white workers. Added to this, black women in traditional societies were regarded as unequal to men and not expected to be educated.
Vera Mlangazua Chirwa, who was born in 1932 in Nyasaland, therefore had a double struggle to obtain an education. She overcame her family prejudices and went to school in Livingstonia and Blantyre. Shortly after leaving school, she met Orton Chirwa, a teacher 13 years her senior. They fell in love and were married in 1951.
Orton went to study law in London, leaving Vera with three children to rear. She got a job as a clerk, paid less than white colleagues and forced to live five miles from her work. She experienced blatant racism and injustice, which fuelled her political activism.
Returning qualified in 1959, her husband opened the first non-European law practice in Nyasaland.
Both were members of the Nyasaland African Congress, which opposed the white colonial Federation of North and South Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
Dr Hastings Banda, a friend of the Chirwa’s, returned from Europe in 1958 to lead the fight for black freedom and was elected president of the NAC.
Fearing a massacre of whites by blacks, the white district commissioners began to imprison NAC members. Orton, who had defended many, was arrested with Vera on a trumped-up charge and they were imprisoned in Rhodesia.
Every humiliation was inflicted on the black female prisoners. Vera withstood them all, claiming political detainee rights with some success. Both were released after six months.
Orton formed the Malawian Congress Party, of which Banda became president. In the first democratic elections in 1961, the MCP won a landslide victory.
The Machiavellian leader Banda then instituted a reign of terror against his fellow freedom fighters.
He also made an alliance with the South African apartheid regime. For this and his suppression of opposition, the Western political Right called Banda a ‘moderate African leader’. A favourite of them, like other dicatators such as Mobutu in Congo, Suharto in Indonesia; and today, Musharraf in Pakistan.
Many fled to Tanzania, including Orton and children, while Vera left for London to study for the Bar. In 1966, she returned to her family and became the Tanzanian prosecuting state attorney.
On the way to Zambia in 1981, Vera, with Orton and their two sons, was kidnapped and taken to Malawi. After a farcical trial before a traditional court, Vera and Orton Chirwa were imprisoned, under sentence of death.
In 1992, a joint British human rights delegation briefly brought them together. Both had been brutally treated, chained and starved. Each thought the other dead.
Four weeks later, Orton was mysteriously found dead in his cell. After a family reunion for his funeral, Vera was released in January 1993.
In June of that year, a successful referendum for multi-party democracy took place in Malawi. Prior to the referendum, Chirwa insisted that a constitution be agreed. A widely based symposium thrashed one out, covering democracy and human rights, but it still is not fully implemented.
She now campaigns for the emancipation of Malawian women and empowerment of their rights and, as an African human rights commissioner, carries on her work throughout Africa.
The Danish Institute for Human Rights and Amnesty International, which sponsored this book, deserve praise for making Vera Chirwa’s courage known to the world.
Malawi: Big Tobacco and child labour: here.
Swaziland: Women challenge royal extravagance: here.