John Chilembwe: a new statue celebrates Malawi Pan-Africanist the world forgot

Samson Kambalu is a Malawian conceptual artist, writer and academic, whose sculpture Antelope was installed on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in London in September 2022. The Fourth Plinth was originally designed for a large scale equestrian statue of a British monarch but is now reserved for a contemporary sculpture, chosen every two years. This is is the most significant public sculpture award in the UK. Antelope is a bronze sculpture depicting two figures: John Chilembwe, a Baptist preacher and Pan-Africanist who in 1915 led the first uprising against the British occupation and colonial rule of Malawi (then Nyasaland), and his friend, a British missionary named John Chorley. Its sheer scale and subject matter provide a powerful counterpoint to the imperial iconography of Trafalgar Square. Historian Susan Williams discusses the work with Kambalu.

How did you arrive at the choice of Chilembwe?

Chilembwe’s photograph from 1914 chose me. When I moved to Oxford to pick up a professorship at Ruskin School of Art, the first thing I did was to visit Weston Library, where British colonial bureaucrats deposited documentation of their lives in the colonies. The Malawi-related archives produced the mysterious photograph of Reverend John Chilembwe, of Providence Industrial Mission, wearing a white hat, standing next to a white man, John Chorley, of Zambezi Industrial Mission.

I had wondered why Reverend Chilembwe drew attention to his hat. He is wearing it sideways for effect. It turns out that Africans were forbidden to wear hats in the presence of white people during colonial times, and Chilembwe had created this photograph at the opening of his church as an act of defiance, with support from his friend. Africans were also forbidden to run a mission. Chilembwe would be killed months later, in an uprising against colonial injustices.

When the London Mayor’s office got in touch asking me to propose for the Fourth Plinth, I had the photograph as wallpaper on my phone. I immediately decided that I would propose a work based on the photograph. For me, it is his killing by colonial police months later that dictated the final look of the sculpture. Chilembwe looms over his white friend like a ghost.

Why is it called Antelope?

Chilembwe’s name means “antelope”. It alludes not only to the animal, but also to the Chewa principal mask, Kasiya Maliro, a womb disguised as an antelope. For the Chewa people of Malawi, it’s a symbol of radical generosity. Chilembwe’s photograph very much recalls aspects of Nyau masking, a Chewa secret society marked by prodigious gift giving through play, the Gule Wamkulu. Often transgressive, their purpose is to speak truth to power. Chilembwe hangs on to his African heritage even as he steps forward as a modern Malawian.

Malawi society, where I’m from, is heavily inspired by masking, and Nyau masking is all about critical thinking. When the masks come out from their secretive workshops (or dambwes) in the ancestral graveyards, received knowledge is questioned in unorthodox performances and prodigious gifts, opening up new ways of looking at the world.

Antelope shares Trafalgar Square with other statues which celebrate Britain’s imperial and military conquests, such as Nelson’s Column. The iconography of Antelope might be anti-imperialist, but it is also very much a piece of British history.

What remains of Chilembwe’s memory?

Chilembwe features on Malawi’s banknotes and he is remembered in a public holiday every year on 15 January – Chilembwe Day. But as I grew up in Malawi, the then President for Life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, rendered Chilembwe as a peripheral figure in the fight for Malawi’s independence.

A revisiting of Chilembwe during the research for this sculpture revealed to me a man who was much more critical to the birth of Malawi as a nation. He was the first Malawian to resist colonial rule beyond tribal lines.

Why does this work of art matter today?

The statue will remain on the Fourth Plinth for two years. After that I think it would look good at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. Chilembwe was sponsored by many black churches in America, and taking this sculpture to America after its stay on Trafalgar Square would be Chilembwe returning the gift of liberty, freedom, to the American people. I’d like a copy too in Malawi, and another copy in Britain, and in Europe.

Chilembwe, who trained as a Baptist minister in the US before returning to Nyasaland in 1901, is believed to have influenced Pan-Africanists such as Marcus Garvey. But whereas they are widely known, Chilembwe has remained an obscure figure outside Malawi. I think Antelope will change this.

I hope we can now begin to detail the African colonial experience beyond generalisations of African or black.


Taking Humanitarianism Hostage – the Case of Afghanistan & Multilateral Organisations

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Peace, TerraViva United Nations


Women receive food rations at a food distribution site in Herat, Afghanistan. Credit: UNICEF/Sayed Bidel

NEW YORK, Jan 12 2023 (IPS) – Can you imagine what it would be like if women were simply not allowed to step outside of their homes, let alone to work for a living? When women choose to do so, and they can afford it, then it is a matter of choice. When women mostly cannot, as is the case in Afghanistan now, not only is half the population imprisoned, but children go hungry, and communities sink deeper into poverty.

World Bank data (as incomplete as it is), indicates that the average number of female-headed households (i.e. households where women are the primary – if not the only – breadwinners), is around 25%.

What that means is, that on average, a quarter of all households around the world depend on women earning an income. Children, families, communities, and nations –depend on women’s work, to the tune of a quarter of their labour force.

Economists are still pointing to the obvious challenges of counting female labour, which often lies disproportionately on the frontiers of the formal economy, such that women continue to serve as reserve armies of labour and frontline workers during industrialization.

Economists who work to document these specificities, also point out that as soon as these frontiers expand or change, women are expelled or relegated to the shadows of the informal economy and piece-rate labour, identifying this as an all too frequent failure to recognize the importance of the kind of work many women engage in, which both keeps an economy running, and enables its expansion and growth.

The Covid-19 Pandemic should have resulted in a clear realisation that all hands are necessary on deck, with so many women actually needed as first responders–the backbone of the public health crisis – everywhere in the world.

As economies take a nosedive and the realities of recession hit many of us, all economies need to be kept running, if not to expand and grow.

And beyond these very real challenges to counting women’s work – and making that work count – there is another very critical reality: culture. Lest we think only of the vagaries of women who take over “men’s jobs” (whatever that means in today’s world), we need to stop being blind to the fact that women are needed to serve other women.

In fact, in many parts of the world, including the supposedly liberal and ‘egalitarian’ Western world, many women still prefer to receive life-saving direct services from other women – in public health, in sanitation, in all levels of education, in nutritional spaces, and many, many others.

Now let us pause a moment and consider humanitarian disaster zones, where women and girls often need to be cared for – and this can only be done by and through other women.

Then let us envision a reality one step further – let’s call it a socially conservative country, which is facing humanitarian disaster, and is heavily dependent on international organisations (governmental and non- governmental) for the necessary humanitarian support.

How is it conceivable that in such a context, women can be excluded from serving? And yet this is precisely what the Taliban have decreed on December 24, when it barred women from working in national and international NGOs. And this is after they banned women from higher education.

Many international NGOs halted their work in Afghanistan, explaining that they cannot work without their women staff – as a matter of principle, but also as a question of practical necessity. Yet, the United Nations – the premier multilateral entity – continues to see how they could compromise with the Taliban rule, for the sake of ‘the greater good – real humanitarian needs’.

Thank goodness they are letting the UN continue to work with their women employees, runs one way of thinking. We will not fail to deliver humanitarian needs, runs another UN way of thinking.

Of course, humanitarian needs are essential to human survival – and thus, should never be held hostage. But why is the United Nations being accountable for humanitarian needs only?

Meanwhile, the Taliban claim that these edicts about womens’ work and education are a matter of religious propriety, a claim which, as of this moment, is not strongly challenged by another multilateral entity – the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), encompassing 56 governments and members of the United Nations.

While individual governments have spoken out, this multilateral entity has remained relatively silent on the Islamic justice of such a decree. Is it because this multilateral religious entity sees no need to speak to humanitarian needs?

Or is it because it sees no value to hard economic realities where women’s agency plays a central role? Or perhaps it is because there is no unanimity on the Islamic justification behind such decrees?

In light of this hostage-taking of humanitarian relief efforts, a group of women of faith leaders, have come together to ask some simple questions of the two multilateral entities involved. They have sent a letter with over 150 international NGO sign ons.

Multilateralism is supposed to be the guarantor of all human rights and dignity, for all people, at all times. But as governmental regimes weaken, so do traditional multilateral entities heavily reliant on those governments. Time for community based transnational networks based on intergenerational, multicultural, gender sensitive leaders.

Rev Dr Chloe Bryer is Executive Director, Interfaith Center of New York; Prof Azza Karam is Secretary General, Religions for Peace; Ruth Messinger is Social Justice Consultant, Jewish Theological Seminary; and Negina Yari is Country Director, Afghans4Tomorrow

IPS UN Bureau