The history of the Jehovah’s Witness in Malawi is not often talked about. The organization has operated freely since 1993 when Malawi voted for a multiparty system instead of the one-party rule that had existed from 1964 till 1992. It was only in 1993 that the ban on the Jehova’s Witness Organization was lifted. However, with the actions that had taken place from 1972, one tends to wonder if Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced to poverty by the first president of the country, Dr. Kamuzu Banda.
It could be misunderstood how members of an organization could have been sentenced to a long life of poverty by one man and his system of government. However, in a time when basic human rights were not afforded to Malawian citizens, it becomes a no-brainer. From the years 1972 till 1993, when the ban on the organization was lifted, many Jehovah’s Witness members were met with horrendous actions from the Malawi Young Pioneers and Malawi Congress Party.
Jehovah’s Witness Crimes
For one to be punished, they ought to have a crime. In this case, the crime committed by the members of the organization was the refusal to buy party cards that showed their affiliation with the ruling party, Malawi Congress Party.
In 1966, Kamuzu Banda moved a motion in parliament to declare MCP as the only legal party in Malawi and have him instated as the life president of the country. The motion was accepted and both were declared. To make sure citizens were obedient, they were forced to buy “party cards” as part of their membership in the party. These cards were used to enter markets, hospitals, boarding busses, and more. Pregnant women were forced to buy cards for their unborn babies too, the most insane thing. Refusal to purchase these cards was taken as treasonous leading to prison life.
Based on the Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, buying the cards meant buying worldly treasures. Thus, they opted not to. This did not sit well with Kamuzu Banda and his followers. Their refusal to buy party cards meant defying the four cornerstones of the Malawi Congress Party, which are Loyalty, Discipline, Obedience, and Unity. Thus, in 1962, the organization was declared illegal resulting in the death and torture of some of its members at the hands of the Young Pioneers and the MCP.
In 1972, another wave of attacks begun after the MYP and the MCP members were given a wave of the hand at an MCP convention. This was the beginning of attacks that left almost 100 members of the Jehovah’s Witness Organization dead while more than 20,000 members fled to Zambia. Unfortunately, many were retracted back to Malawi, some exiled to Mozambique while others were imprisoned and separated from their families.
The members were hunted like wild animals. Their houses were burnt to the ground. Those that were found were forced to drink peppered water, endure beating, raped, left on the scorching sun with no water or food, then left to die.
In 1975, those that had been exiled to Mozambique were forced to announce their support for the FRELIMO government. Again they refused and were retracted back to Malawi. This started another bout of torture and persecution. They were imprisoned as political prisoners.
How were the Jehovah’s Witness Sentenced to Poverty?
Prior to Jehovah’s Witness Organization being declared illegal, most of its members were well to do in the society. They occupied land, had farms, vehicles, and well-to-do jobs. Most of them lived comfortable lives in Malawi.
After their organization was declared illegal, most of them were forced to resign from their jobs. Any company that knowingly hired a Jehovah’s Witness member was at risk of losing its trading license. Employees of the organization were also used as snitches to inform MYP of the members that were still working in their company.
While others lost their houses to fire started by the MYP, others left all their belongings behind when they fled to other countries. A perfect example is of a driver I work with, he fled to Mozambique, leaving behind two houses and a car. When he returned, he found the leader of the MYP in his area living in his house while the other was rented out. His car had become a family car for the MYP leader.
Some of the businesses were seized by the government, some were bakeries that were rebranded to Press Bakeries, a subsidiary of Press Corporation. The Jehovah’s Witness southern region office which was located in Mandala, Blantyre, was also ceased.
When members of the JW organization returned to Malawi, every inch of their lives had been taken from them. Most no longer had money nor houses, they had no jobs, nothing. This was their sentencing to a long-term poverty.
After 1993, when the ban on JW was lifted, not many reparations were given. From the looks of it, the former Ombudsman, Martha Chizuma, released a report titled Malawi’s Unhealed Wounds which detailed how the National Compensation Tribunal was set up, operated, and wound up. In the report, it was noted that at least 15,219 complainants were members of the Jehovah’s Witness Organization and had not been compensated for the trauma they had experienced during the Banda era.
21 years that the people were forced out of Malawi to other countries, exposed to hunger and diseases from refugee camps, and some died from these conditions. Just to come back home and start their lives from the ground up.
That is how we sentenced Jehovah’s Witness members to poverty. While many might have buried this painful past behind, we have to remember this painful truth of our history.
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