Wilfred Gudu was born probably in the late 1880’s at Machiringa village near Malamulo (Seventh-Day Adventist) Mission in Thyolo district. His early life is not really known but as a young boy he went to Malamulo mission primary school in 1906 where he received some rudimentary schooling. Here he was taught by pioneer black American missionaries Thomas Branch and Joel Rogers and Malawian teachers Philip Masonga and Simon Ngaiyaye.
In 1911 after Gudu had become a full member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church he was given a post as a teacher at a mission primary school. In 1918 while teaching at a school in Msomera village near Limbe he became mentally ill for a while and spent several weeks wandering naked in the bush. Later Gudu was transferred to another Seventh-Day Adventist School at Matandani in the Neno area. There he became actively involved in the struggle against discrimination and injustice. Unsuccessfully, he protested against the Ngoni spirit of superiority by lobbying the support of the other tribes in the school to remove them. The Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries, like many Europeans in those days, did not allow Africans to wear shoes and hats in public, a prohibition Gudu bitterly criticized, wanting to see an end to these rules. In retaliation, the authorities demoted him from teacher to carpenter to prevent him from influencing his pupils.
Disgruntled, Gudu went back home and settled at Mdere, twelve miles from Malamulo Mission where he became a carpenter and part-time preacher for the next nine years. Things went bad again for Gudu when he was suspended by the mission because he had interfered in an adultery case involving a certain boy in the mission, arguing that the case against the boy be settled justly. Instead he was suspended instead of the boy. It seemed the missionaries were in the habit of favouring a few while being hard to others. At the end of his five-month suspension, to his surprise, he was told that he was no longer a member of the church on the same account and also because he had not paid church tax during his suspension.
Following his separation from the Seventh-Day Adventists, Gudu contemplated starting his own church. His church members reported that in 1934 Gudu was caught by the spirit of Jehovah. He retired to the bush where he spent days in prayer, without taking any food. It is reported that snakes came near him without biting him. People however thought he was insane when, in fact, he was being taught another way of worship, names of months and times. He was instructed to call his church “Children of God” (Ana a Mulungu) according to Matthews 5:9, which says, “Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall be called children of God.” A year later (1935), at Kaponda village he founded a quasi-religious community which he called Ziyoni ya Yehovah (Zion of Jehovah). He attracted a good number of followers who, by 1939, had each built a house in neat lines around two sides of a small hill, topped by Gudu’s own house. The little village had a unique combination of industrial activity and religious piety. Each day started with communal prayers after which everyone went to jobs assigned to them by the community. Activities included agriculture, carpentry, tailoring, shoemaking, pottery, cloth-weaving and basket weaving. Everyone also worked in a communal garden and shared the produce thereof. During the day children attended an elementary school belonging to the community. At noon they all met for prayers and later returned to their separate jobs to meet again later at sunset in the kachisi (temple).
People joining Ana a Mulungu church–adults as well as children–were not baptised but had hands laid on them. Seeking employment outside the community was unheard of and everyone had to wear white clothes, a symbol of purity. Discipline was strict with culprits suspended and removed from Ziyoni ya Yehovah. Acting on a revelation he received from God, Gudu and his community adopted the Jewish system of months and times of the day.
Prophet Wilfred Gudu was an impressive sight to see. He was tall and well built, with a light complexion and he spoke forcefully with a Ngoni/Chewa accent. He usually wore a serious look and spoke as if scolding someone. His main attire was a white collarless robe which went down to just above the knees and a pair of white handsewn trousers. Around his neck were two wooden keys, one for opening the gates of bondage here on earth and the other for the portals of heaven.
In all his sermons he claimed to be the only man who had the true gospel from God. He was also very critical of the missionaries. His religious convictions became more outspoken when his plans of engaging in farming to make his Ziyoni ya Yehovah self-reliant ran counter to the regulations of the local chiefs and the colonial government. It was alleged that he and his people had acquired land illegally and they were evicted from it. In the confusion of the land saga, it was said that God visited Gudu in a dream and told him that it was time to separate from the Europeans and that now Wilfred Gudu was the government. Henceforth, he decided not to pay tax because, according to him, tax-payers were sons of evil. He even wrote to the government notifying them of his decision. Thenceforth Gudu developed a non-cooperative attitude toward the colonial administration. For example, he refused to supply information required under the Religious Statistics Rules and in 1937, he and his followers refused to pay hut tax. Because of this he and some of his followers were arrested and sent to prison.
While in prison he spent most of the time reading the Bible and marking passages that had a close bearing on his plight. Towards the end of his sentence his case was reviewed and, for fear that he would cause more trouble after returning home, Gudu was given a four year goal sentence which gave him a house, a table and an annual grant to support him in Zomba. His duty was to preach the word of God in the neighbouring villages. Through this he made many conversions. After this Gudu was a free man for the next ten years and his church grew in number and spread beyond the Thyolo district.
After the first World War, the colonial government began, with some determination, to formulate policies on the issue of soil conservation. The main issue in the policies involved the demarcation of contour bands in selected areas and the construction of storm drains and check-dams. This was not well received by the natives but they complied. On his own, Wilfred Gudu refused to cooperate, objecting on “conscientious” or religious grounds. For him, the Bible never said anything on bunding and ridging: to support his claim he quoted the verse, “The waters of the earth shall run free.” He and his followers refused to make bunds and even went so far as to demolish the government-made bunds on their land,–an incident which led to his arrest. Upon his release he was deported from Ziyoni ya Yehovah to another place where he also got into trouble on the issue of land with a tea growing company called Central Africa Company. He was not allowed to cultivate any fields and had to depend on the common funds of his followers.
Wilfred Gudu eventually divorced his wife Maggie and married four other women corresponding, as he put it, to the four corners of the world. This move disturbed some of his followers and many left him. He died on 14 March 1963 at Ziyoni ya Yehovah and was succeeded by Gideon Stivin as leader.
Louis W. Ndekha
J. C. Chakanza, Voices of Preacher in Protest (Blantyre: CLAIM, 1998).
Robert I. Rotberg, The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa. The Making of Malawi and Zambia: 1873 -1964 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967).
Albert Kambuwa, “Malawi Ancient and Modern” (unpublished) (Zomba: University of Malawi, n.d.).
R. B. Boeder, “Wilfred Gudu and Ana a Mulungu,” History Seminar Paper No. 3, Chancellor College 1981 - 1982.
M. C. Hoole, Historical Survey of Native Controlled Churches Operation in Nyasaland 1940, compiled for Police Records MNA, file No. 1A/1341.
Annual Report of the Provincial Commissioner for the year ended 31st December 1938 (Zomba Government Printer 1939).
This article, submitted in 2003, was written and researched by Louis W. Ndekha, DACB Liaison Coordinator, under the supervision of R. G. Munyenyembe, lecturer at the Evangelical Bible College of Malawi, a DACB Participating Institution.