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.
Her journey started in 1932. In Nyasaland. Modern day Malawi. Vera was born to the Ngoni ethnic group. Her middle name “Mlangazua’ roughly translates to truth. She paid dearly for this self fulfilling prophecy, later. Both of Vera’s grandparents were reverends. Her paternal grandparent was the first ordained reverend in the land. Her father was a ‘medical officer’. Vera was always said to have an assertive spirit, her first documented inkling of it was when she refused to be relegated to the position of dishwasher as a child, opposing her grandmother.
In 1951, Vera fell in love with Orton Chirwa. Orton was a teacher & a political activist, although he was 13-years older, the couple got hitched. Orton also established the first Black law practice in Nyasaland. Around this time too Vera Chirwa joined forces with Rose Chibambo forming the Nyasaland African Women’s League. This congress helped Nyasaland gain separation from the unpopular Federation of Rhodesia & Nyasaland; which were described as ‘self-governing’ British colonies. In 1959, Vera Chirwa became the first woman lawyer in Nyasaland & a founding member of the Malawi Congress Party. Nyasaland gained self-government in 1961, 2 years later it became the independent state of Malawi with Orton Chirwa as Minister of Justice & Attorney General in the new government. All sounds great right? Wrong! This was when the sticky situation commenced. You see, Kumuzu Banda was President of Malawi. After a while he began to proclaim himself as the “president for life” an authoritarian. The Chirwas wanted nothing to do with this, demanding a real democratic government because of this they were dubbed enemies of the state, forced into exile in Tanzania.They lived there for a while, traveling abroad & to neighboring countries. Unfortunately, in 1981, on Christmas eve Vera & Orton Chirwa were kidnapped by Malawian security forces in the East of Zambia. They were taken back to Malawi to face charges of high treason. Continuing the unjust theme the Chirwas were not given any due process & were tried by a “traditional’ court, in which the both lawyers had to defend themselves as defense lawyers weren’t admissible in traditional court. The trial lasted for 2 months with the judges appointed by Kumuzu Banda. Despite the uncanny lack of evidence the Chirwas were both sentenced to death. The Chirwas tried to appeal their case, citing lack of evidence & the tampering with Orton Chirwa’s statement by the police however their efforts were shot down. Vera Chirwa spent 12 years in prison & her husband; Orton died in it. She only saw him once, 8 years into their sentence in 1992, when a delegation of British legal experts were allowed to pay them a visit. Orton died 3 weeks later, in his cell at the age of 73. Vera was not allowed to attend his funeral. On January 24, 1993 Kumuzu Banda pardoned Chirwa for “humanitarian reasons”. Malawi was transitioning to a multi-party state & his long rule had come to an end. Being a political prisoner only stocked Vera Chirwa’s passion for activism. In 2000, she was made the Special Reporter for Prisons in Africa. She founded 2 NGOs called Women’s voice & the Malawi Centre for Advice, Research & Education on Rights. She is also Malawi’s first woman presidential candidate. Vera Chirwa suffered many hardships in the span of her unlawful imprisonment, this included torture, sleeping on the cement floor & even being denied the right to go outside. She didn’t let it break her spirit though & because of this, neither can ours. She inspires.