Rose Chiwambo was born on 8 September 1928 in Mzimba, Malawi during British Colonial rule. She married Edwin Chibambo, the son of Reverend Yesaya Chibambo, one of the first Africans in the protectorate to be ordained as a Christian minister. Rose was an ambitious and intelligent woman. She completed her secondary education at night school in Zomba in 1948 while pregnant with her first child. She had another child in 1951, and four more later. One day, in 1951, Rose, a housewife living in the colonial capital of Zomba, was heading home from the market when she noticed a group of well-known Chiefs gathered at the community hall. She approached one Chief to find out what the issue was and his response was “this is not for women”. That evening she talked about this with her husband. His reply was, It is up to you.
In 1952, Rose became aware of Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) politics during the controversy over the colonial government’s plan to influence local chiefs to endorse the federation of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), South Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland. NAC saw this as a betrayal of the agreement by the government to put the interests of Africans first. Agreeing with NAC, Rose decided that women should be more involved in the struggle and began to organise her friends in Zomba, mostly the wives of civil servants as she felt some issues were specific to women. An example of this was that elderly women were not examined in private in the hospitals around the country but in rooms filled with women of all ages.
In 1953, Rose’s husband was transferred to Blantyre, because of his political activities. While there, Rose joined the local NAC branch and was elected treasurer, the first woman to hold such a senior position. In Blantyre, she joined forces with Vera Chirwa, another influential woman at the time, to form the Nyasaland African Women’s League, closely associated with the NAC. Rose started going from house to house to get support from other women and soon the league grew in numbers. On 23rd March 1959, two days after giving birth to a girl, Rose was arrested and taken to Zomba prison. In April 1959, Jet magazine reported: “The top woman leader of the outlawed African National Congress, Mrs Rose Chibambo, 29, who was arrested after giving birth to her fifth child, has taken the infant with her to jail”. Her fellow freedom fighters, including Hastings Banda (who would become Malawi’s first president), were arrested earlier, on the morning of 3 March when governor Robert Armitage declared a state of emergency. The British later accepted that independence for Nyasaland was inevitable.
On 1 February 1963, Nyasaland gained self-governance, and Banda was appointed Prime Minister. Rose Chibambo won the Mzimba North seat in the 1964 elections and was made Parliamentary Secretary for Community and Social Development. She was the first woman minister in the new cabinet. The country became independent as Malawi later in the year. On 7 September 1964, there was a cabinet crisis, in which Rose Chibambo and others opposed Hastings Banda.
Issues included Banda’s decision to charge for health services and to move slowly in the Africanization of the civil service. This was coupled with a general feeling that Banda was becoming increasingly autocratic. Rose was dismissed from the cabinet the next day and was suspended from the party. She and her husband faced constant harassment until they fled to Zambia in 1965.
Rose Chibambo returned to Malawi in 1994 and was a prominent politician till she died on January 12, 2016, at the age of 86. In 2009 Malawi’s then President, the late Bingu wa Mutharika met Rose Chibambo and honoured her, naming a street in Mzuzu City after her. As of 1 January 2012, Rose Chibambo has appeared on Malawi’s 200 Kwacha banknote.