Elliot Kamwana was a Tonga born near Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi in about 1882. Condemned without trial and handcuffed during the voyage, he was accompanied by a colonial official who carried with him special dispensation- He was exiled for 21 years. Kamwana's crime had been the religious message he preached. Indeed, the teachings he proclaimed in his ministry in 1908-1909 had seemed extraordinary: thousands rushed to be baptised as he cried " kwacha Afrika yuka " ("It is dawn, Africa arise") and transformed American millenarian religious teachings to present an apocalyptic vision of an Africa without whites. Put under house arrest after barely 6 months of his ministry, Kamwana's prophecies about the end of the world in 1914 continued to spread throughout Nyasaland through underground networks distributing religious publications.
In contrast, Kamwana promised "free education and baptism to all"; Kamwana seemed to be offering a Tonga Restoration. After baptismal candidates had memorised the creed and commandments and paid for classes, when they were baptised it was with a symbolic sprinkling of water. Kamwana did so "immersing them deep in the water like... John the Baptist", a return to the Prophetic age. In contrast to the staid missionary services, Kamwana "Baptist joked and laughed with the people.
When being cross-examined at the Inquiry as to his attitude towards Livingstonia's leader, Kamwana replies that he had "brought the name of Christ to this country and I don't despise him"; the Europeans had brought the letter, but the spirit, he seems to imply, lies with the Africans. This is a theme recurrent in Kamwana 's ideas - the need to separate the Christian message from the society which brought it.
Indeed, when Kamwana returned from exile in 1937, barely anyone from his village in West Nyasa would have recognised him. In the intervening period however, Kamwana had continued to spread his teachings, writing letters overflowing with prophetic imagery to his followers throughout central Africa. On his return, he was revered as an nchimi , a prophet and healer, and proceeded to form his own independent.
After Kamwana' s extended imprisonment and exile, one would imagine his following would swiftly drop away. However in 1919 we learn that in the Nyasaland Watch Tower movement, "Kenan Kamwana is still its real leader", members lived in the "confident and keen hope of Kenan's early return". Even when Kamwana did return to West Nyasa it was on strict conditions: he had to reside in the district, and was forbidden from leaving without the district commissioner's approval. Shortly after his return, Kamwana formally broke with the Jehovah's Witnesses (the renamed Watch Tower Society), citing the attempts of the Europeans to influence their teaching; he formed the Watchman Healing Mission. Kamwana describes how his new Church was "born" and 4000 people received a "new name" so the importance of asserting an identity independent of Europeans remained. His home village of Chiwangalumwi became a theological institution and centre for spiritual healing, The rejection of European medicine in favour of spiritual healing is a characteristic common in African Churches but the means by which Kamwana came to these beliefs in his church is interesting.
He attended the Mission school at Bandawe between 1898 and 1901 distinguishing himself until frustrated in his repeated attempts to attain baptism and ordination, he left. Moving to South Africa, he was baptised there and worked as a hospital attendant and preached, experiencing the harsh conditions of migrant labour, before he met a preacher, Joseph Booth in Cape Town in 1907, who introduced him to Russell's Watch Tower teachings; Kamwana returned to Nkhata Bay the following year. He returned to the Nkhata Bay area of West Nyasa and began preaching the Watch Tower message, where he rapidly gained a huge following, baptising 9,126 people in the space of 6 months.
Kamwana's alternative explanation proves just as revealing: Watch Tower is unpopular because "when a native is separate from European charge he is hated by the European". Indeed this points towards the issues at the heart of the Inquiry: power and control. What is so unsettling about the reach of mission education is that the Colonial authorities simply cannot control what Africans are thinking.
Kamwana's teaching does indeed emerge from the contradictions of Missionary and Colonial rule, but it is not simply a 'logical criticism'. What should be emerging instead is a wholly different vision, of a prophetic, charismatic leader seeking to create a community on earth, in preparation for the new kingdom which was approaching.
Kamwana was a civilised' native, political prisoner, traditional healer; despite the multiplicity of his roles, as an individual Kamwana remains an elusive figure, but seen through these Biblical tropes the power of his prophecy and leadership begins to emerge. Kamwana's message was an "argument of images", a supreme of symbols addressing the problems of witchcraft, the failings of the Missionaries and the materiality of Western civilisation by seeking to "return to the whole”
When people were introduced by Kamwana for the first time to the vivid Prophetic imagery of Revelations, or the prevalence of witchcraft and magic in the Old Testament, it is scarcely surprising that they began to agree with him that Europeans had been hiding something from them. The contradiction was that in giving Africans the power to read for themselves, missionaries had surrendered control of the message they took.
The accusation repeatedly levelled at Kamwana in the 1916 Chilembwe Commission of Inquiry is of advocating "criticism of . . . British rule". Judged in the political terms in which the Inquiry is couched, he certainly is guilty of "rebellious" teaching, but his doctrines are "unsettling" just because the Commission cannot understand them. Commissions of Inquiry act as an archival source of colonial concern, marking off certain people as threats to the state. This is embodied in the image of Kamwana journeying into exile, a peaceful preacher standing on deck handcuffed, alongside a colonial Official with dispensation to shoot him.
After the new age began in 1914, people would flock to Africa to hear the word of God there.
References: Donati, H. 2016. 'A VERY ANTAGONISTIC SPIRIT': ELLIOT KAMWANA: Christianity and the World in Nyasaland”. Society of Malawi - Historical and Scientific: The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 64, No. 1 (2011), pp. 13-33