BLANTYRE - Activists in Malawi are protesting construction of a statue of India's independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. The statue in the commercial capital Blantyre is being erected as part of a deal for India to construct a $10 million convention center. A group of protesters says the statue is an insult to Malawians and Africa because of racial slurs Ghandi made as a young man.
An online campaign in Malawi has collected nearly 4,000 signatures against erecting a statue of India's independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.
Mpambira Aubrey Kambewa, an organizer of the "Gandhi Must Fall" campaign, said Malawians should not honor Gandhi because of racial slurs.
"This also draws back from the time he was in South Africa, when he was an activist, where he based his fight for the rights of Indians based on discrimination of black people. He alluded to the fact that Indians are racially superior to black people," said Kambewa.
Gandhi's racial slights were documented in letters the Indian leader wrote as a young man while living in South Africa in the late 1800s.
In the letters, Gandhi referred to African "savages" and "kaffirs," an insulting term for black Africans, when comparing them with the Indian population.
Gandhi's relatives and supporters note the comments were common parlance at the time and that he made no similar slurs in later life.
Malawi government spokesperson Nicholas Dausi said he does not believe that Gandhi was a racist.
"There is no issue here. This just a storm in a tea cup. It is just being perpetrated by bad people. It is just drawn out of proportion. I don't think we should have such kind of behavior but, the government will proceed," he said.
Malawi's Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the Gandhi statue aims to recognize his role in the struggle against colonialism.
Gandhi's non-violent fight against British rule in India inspired numerous independence and civil rights movements and leaders across the globe - from Martin Luther King in the United States to Nelson Mandela's struggle against South African apartheid.
Rafik Hajat is the executive director of the Blantyre think tank Institute for Policy Interaction.
He argued the Malawi government should admit Gandhi had racist views in his 20s but abandoned them in his 40s in the struggle for civil rights.
"I think one has to shed the love light on the subject before proceeding. Because, otherwise, the philosophy of nonviolent resistance that Mahatma Gandhi embodied will be lost," said Hajat.
Construction of Malawi's Gandhi monument began in August on a street already named after the Indian leader.
Along with the statue, the Indian government is building the Mahatma Gandhi Convention Center in Blantyre - a win for Malawi's economy.
On the streets, Malawians have divided views on the Gandhi monument.
Part of Mahatma Gandhi Street in Blantyre names after the Indian leader years ago. The protesters say people failed to protest against the road because that time there was no freedom of expression.
Rachel Misoya sells second-hand clothes.
"We have countries like America, Britain and we have some Malawians who done great jobs to this country - why not respecting them? We are respecting someone who just did something little to the country," said Misoya.
Grey Massa is a resident of Chimwankhunda township.
"Whether people think Mahatma Gandhi is a racist or not is just an opinion, which each one can have. People can choose to erect statues anywhere as far as it is in according with [the] law of that land," said Massa.
It is not the first time an African monument to Gandhi has been met with protest because of his early views on race.
There was a similar uproar in 2003 against a Gandhi statue in Johannesburg.
In Ghana, a statue of Gandhi in 2016 was relocated off a university campus after professors petitioned against the monument. They said African heroes should be honored first.