“With what is happening, I will keep on fighting for the people.” – Dr. Vera Mlangazua Chirwa
Octogenarian Dr. Vera Chirwa is the first female lawyer from Malawi. Her name ‘Mlangazua’ means truth and she is a fearless woman.
Born the first child to parents from the Ngoni tribe in Nyasaland in 1932, Vera spent her early years after she was weaned with her paternal grandparents as it was customary for the Ngoni. Her grandfather was a reverend – the first African to be ordained in Nyasaland – whom she was very attached to until he died in 1936. Her maternal grandfather was also an ordained minister, while her father was a medical officer.
At a time when the African female child hardly got education, Vera attended schools in Livingstonia and Blantyre. She met Orton Chirwa who was a teacher, shortly after completing her schooling and the two were married in 1951.
Orton Chirwa, a political activist and member of Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) soon left for England to study law, while Vera reared their three children. During this period, Vera worked as a clerk, enduring the harsh racial discrimination in her own land. She joined notable woman activist, Rose Chibambo and they started the Nyasaland African Women League as a counterpart of NAC to push for independence.
Orton returned in 1959, qualified and started the first non-European law practice in Nyasaland. With the country pushing for self-governance, the NAC metamorphosed into the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). A friend of the Chirwas, Hastings Kamuzu Banda had returned to Nyasaland in 1958 and was made leader of NAC and subsequently MCP.
With the MCP winning a landslide in the 1961 democratic elections, Orton became a prominent figure in the government as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General. But, things fell out between the president and some members of his cabinet, and Vera and her husband fled the country as many others who were all declared enemies of the state.
From 1964 to 1981, Vera Chirwa lived with her family in Tanzania. She took time to go to London to study for the Bar, and became the first female lawyer from Malawi, returning in 1966 to take up appointment as a prosecuting state attorney in Tanzania.
On Christmas Eve in 1981, Vera and her husband with their youngest son who was traveling with them in were abducted by Malawian security operatives in Zambia and taken to Malawi where Orton and Vera were charged with high treason. They were both pronounced guilty and sentenced to death in 1983.
In 1992, Vera Chirwa and her husband eventually saw each other again after nine years when some British legal experts were allowed to visit them. It was the last time the couple would see each other as Orton died in prison under unclear circumstances about three weeks later, aged 73.
Vera never got a chance to attend the funeral and pay her last respect to her husband as she remained incarcerated until January 24, 1993 when Banda pardoned her for ‘humanitarian reasons.’ Vera credits her Christian faith for her strength to go on as the twelve years in prison could not break her spirit.
“I am still available, watching with keen interest. If the current government fails, I will certainly stand as a presidential candidate in the next elections.”
Following her release from prison, Vera has been a leading campaigner for human rights and the welfare of the people. She advocated for an end to the death penalty in the country, and was appointed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights as a Special Reporter on prison condition in Africa.
Dr. Vera Chirwa also works with the gender rights organization, Women’s Voice, and she is the founder of Malawi Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights (Malawi CARER), an NGO. In 2004, she offered to stand as presidential candidate for a coalition party, but was turned down.
Afro Tourism salutes this fearless fighter, dedicated wife and mother, political and human rights activist, lawyer and author, strong woman of faith, national icon and African heroine, Dr. Vera Mlangazua Chirwa!
Did You Know?
- Vera Mlangazua Chirwa was born in 1932.
- Being the first child, she grew up in the care of her paternal grandparents, once she was weaned, according to the customs of the Ngoni people.
- Both her paternal and maternal grandfathers were reverends. Her paternal grandfather being the first African ordained a reverend in Nyasaland.
- Vera had her education in Livingstonia and Blantyre.
- In 1951, she married Orton Chirwa, a teacher and political activist who was 13 years older than her.
- Vera’s husband Orton was the first non-European to open a law practice in Nyasaland. He was one of the founders and leaders of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) which replaced Nyasaland African Congress (NAC), and served as Minister of Justice and Attorney General.
- In 1964, Vera Chirwa and her family fled Malawi following a fallout with President Kamuzu Banda.
- She became the first female lawyer from Malawi after her call to the bar in the UK.
- On the eve of Christmas in 1981, while visiting Zambia, Vera and her husband were kidnapped by Malawi security forces and take to Malawi where they were charged with treason and sentenced to death.
- She spent 12 years in prison, separated from her husband who died in prison in 1992, until she was freed in 1993.
- Following her release, she turned down a lucrative position offer from Geneva, and instead took up the appointment as director of Legal Resource Centre of the Malawian Law Society.
- Vera Chirwa is the author of “Fearless Fighter: An Autobiography” published by Zed Books in 2007.
- She founded and led Women’s Voice, and also established Malawi CARER.
- In 2006, the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, South Africa instituted the Vera Chirwa Award.
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