“Maybe I looked like a girl, but I was a 27-year-old mother of three, and I spoke my mind. I think that must have shaken them a bit: an African woman who could understand things, talk sense and find words and reasons for the resentment she felt when confronted by injustice.”– Vera Chirwa, Fearless Fighter
Reading this autobiography was part of my personal reading project to study areas of history which have been looked at mostly from a male perspective and have not acknowledged the role of women. In this case I was interested in reading about Malawi’s transition from colonialism to dictatorship to democracy and looking at women’s roles during these events.
Vera Chirwa, along with her husband Orton Chirwa and a few others, helped liberate Malawi from colonial rule. The Chirwa’s were also instrumental in Malawi becoming a democracy. They were eventually betrayed and thrown into prison for over a decade while Malawi was under the authoritarian rule of Dr. Kamuzu Banda:
“Orton was a lawyer and he was always composed, immaculate and to the book. I was more of an activist and did not hold back. Everything inside me came out.”
The autobiography starts off with a story from Vera Chirwa’s childhood, a story where she decided to test her authority with her grandmother and refuse to wash the dishes. And any African child will tell you that you NEVER disobey African parents or grandparents. This little anecdote introduces us to Vera Chirwa whose fighting spirit has never left her.
Vera Chirwa was the first female lawyer in Malawi (called to the bar in 1966) and a woman I greatly admire after reading her autobiography. Somehow she managed to hold a job while having five children and doing activist work (this is Africa in the 1960s). She was definitely a strong woman and reading about her experiences as a political refugee in Tanzania, her abduction, and her time in prison made me admire her even more for not letting these awful experiences kill her spirit.
This autobiography also highlighted important parts of regional history and showed how connected the countries were (and also how sneaky the colonialists were). It surprised me to learn that apartheid-style governance was being considered elsewhere in Southern Africa:
“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.”
Overall, this is a sad story of betrayal, yet at the same time it’s a very inspirational one. Chirwa’s love for her country despite what she experienced shone through. I couldn’t help but think of Nelson Mandela while I read the book; like Mandela, Chirwa forgave those who had kept her in prison for 12 years, those who killed her husband. Chirwa even formed two organizations, the Malawi Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights (CARER), as well as the Women’s Voice, to further human rights and women’s issues.
Thank you for all your sacrifices, Vera Chirwa.