Kamuzu Academy Has An Old-School Tie to Its Namesake, Who Also Runs the Country

updated 11/26/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1984 01:00AM

It could easily pass for one of Britain's posh public schools. Neat uniformed students in boaters and green-and-yellow ties stroll to classes across wide lawns perfumed by bougainvillea and magnolia blossoms. Stately medieval-style brick buildings rise above the 400-acre campus, surrounded by lakes, squash courts and playing fields.

But comparisons with Eton and Harrow end at the gates of Kamuzu Academy. Outside is the undeveloped bush of Malawi, one of Africa's poorest countries, a geographical sliver nestled between Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. The school is the idiosyncratic vision of Malawi's 78-year-old president for life, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who spent $17 million building a place that would educate the brightest children in his nation of 6 million people, whose annual per capita income is about $230. In 1981 the autocratic leader began picking Malawi's top pupils, based on scores from national tests. Those students, some hailing from mud-hut villages, others from the modern capital of Lilongwe, arrive at Kamuzu each September to begin the six-year regimen that will prepare them for British and U.S. universities. They rise to reveille at 5:30 a.m., attend compulsory religious services (Scots Presbyterian) and follow a classics-laden curriculum that includes a four-year Latin requirement. At last year's opening ceremony, Banda himself instructed his protégés: "Everyone here is chosen on merit, not on who they know but what they know. Remember that, because if you fail, you will not get another chance."

If Kamuzu seems oddly out of step with Malawi's native traditions, it mirrors Banda's personal history and philosophy. Born into a poor farmworker's family around the turn of the century, Banda grew up in what was then British Nyasaland, and went to work in Rhodesia and South Africa before spending his savings for a boat ticket to the U.S. There Methodist contacts sent him to Wilberforce Institute in Ohio. He moved on to Indiana University before finishing at the University of Chicago with a degree in philosophy. He later graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville and practiced as a GP in England for 12 years. During that time he witnessed the introduction of the "eleven-plus" exam, which enables every British child, whatever his family's means, to compete for admission to secondary school.

Banda returned to Africa in 1953 and later took over leadership of the anti-colonial black nationalist movement. He was imprisoned for a year by the British before finally leading his country to independence in July 1964—vowing to eliminate Malawi's pervasive illiteracy. Says one former colonial administrator: "He had to battle every inch of the way to achieve his particular recognition. He did it without anything like Kamuzu Academy. This is his way of saying 'I am giving you what I did not have, what I was denied. It is up to you to do what you are able.' "

But Banda's Anglophile vision doesn't always sit well with his African compatriots. Having forgotten his native tongue during his 40-year absence, Banda demands that English be spoken at Kamuzu, where the 35 teachers have all been imported from Britain and the only black employees work in a nonteaching capacity. The education minister of one African state came away from a visit declaring Kamuzu a "moral obscenity" and comparing it to other schools in Malawi, which were short of paper, writing materials and books. But Banda countenances no criticism from his countrymen, and those at Kamuzu risk none. "He pays the bills, and he makes the rules," says headmaster Michael Gledhill, who taught previously in Zambia and Tanzania.

Though the culture shock experienced by new students is seismic, it is downplayed by Kamuzu's staff. It is relatively common for child brides to leave their own children with tribal families while they attend Kamuzu. "These students are totally undemanding, and we don't ask too many questions," says one teacher. Says the mother of a male pupil: "He is one of the chosen ones. He will become famous, and we will be proud of him."

In keeping with Malawi's pervasive Banda personality cult, many of Kamuzu's students seem determined to follow the president's example of triumph over primitive circumstance. Nineteen-year-old Jansen Moyo, who must travel three days through the bush to get to his family's farm, is studying to become a mechanical engineer. "The first thing I will do," he says of his eventual return to his village, "is build a decent road to my home."

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