In the heart of the Malawi wilderness, where lions and hyenas roam free, one can easily envision the ruins of the Kamuzu Academy. Clocktowers collapsing, Romanesque arches crumbling, and wrought-iron gates rusting and bending. The man behind the grand plan was Hastings Kamuzu Banda, known as Ngwazi, or conqueror and chief of chiefs, bore a name derived from a little root plant. Though, beyond his name, Banda was a textbook dictator who thieved the national treasury and imprisoned, or worse, anyone who dared to oppose him. He did, however, have a unique dream: to provide the best classical education to the brightest and most talented children; an education that even Plato himself would have deemed worthy. And thus, the Kamuzu Academy was born- an educational utopia shrouded in wild fairytales that included cricket, blazers and chips.
Banda had a direct pipeline to the state treasuries and would empty it at his will to fund the Academy’s vision and even threatened his critics with ‘food for the crocodiles’. However, in 1994, when Banda was ousted from power, the future of the Academy came under immediate threat. The school was destined for oblivion with no more Banda, no more money, and no pupils. The teachers and pupils fled, the electricity was cut-off, and the paint began to flake. Yet Kazumu is not so easily defeated: a procession of several hundred pupils, teachers, parents, and dignitaries who carried flags up to the auditorium to honor the late dictator, still celebrated the 21st anniversary of the Academy’s foundation.
The school has been transformed into a profit-making, fee-paying institution that provides A-level and GCSE Latin and Greek lessons to Malawi’s community’s wealthiest children. Despite controversy, some staff members compare their story of success to Julius Caesar’s Gallic wars or Homer’s Odyssey. However, a world of esoteric pursuits might seem like it could have come from the pages of Harry Potter, with one significant difference: no one accuses wizards of promoting tyranny and elitism.
The Kamuzu Academy was built under the tree where Scottish missionaries taught Banda to read and write at the beginning of the 20th century. When it opened its doors in November 1981, it had the significant portion of the educational budget – £25m- that was allocated towards building dormitories, piano lessons, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a golf course, uniforms, and a library modeled on Washington’s Library of Congress. Presidents Robert Mugabe and Kenneth Kaunda applauded the institution, the BBC made a documentary, Ronald Reagan donated an inscribed dictionary, and the headteacher of Eton hailed Kamuzu as the Eton of England.
Today, the Kamuzu Academy is still standing, with its weed streets replaced by luscious green grass. A uniformed guard welcomes visitors with a crisp salute, and the institution charges annual £3,500 fees per pupil. At present, the Academy serves 390 pupils aged 11 to 19, with girls holding a slight majority. The institution employs 38 teachers, half of which are from Britain, 17 from Malawi, and one from New Zealand. To manage the crops of maize and tobacco and other facilities, an additional staff of 450 is employed. The Academy has become economically stable and is no longer free since the teachers that stayed took a 20% pay cut, after the death of Dr. Banda, which led to a loss of over 100% of income, with half of the pupils and almost a third of teachers leaving. However, the school is growing stronger year by year, and the mission to nurture one of Africa’s poorest countries continues.
Banda, a medical doctor who was trained in Britain and had a liking for homburg hats, was an Anglophile despite leading the overthrow of British rule in his own country. He ruled autocratically, which spared Malawi from war and economic instability, but poverty worsened, and many of his political opponents disappeared, or were reported to have died in car accidents. Cooke cautiously describes him as an "enlightened despot" and an exceptional leader with vision. Instead of buying two MiG fighters, Banda built a school, which highlighted his priorities.
When asked if Malawi was systematically mismanaged, Cooke pauses before saying, "No, not entirely." He believes it is fitting to honour Dr Banda’s memory with the academy, which is still standing as his country’s memorial.
Although the ban on Malawi teachers has been lifted, the syllabus remains largely unchanged, with compulsory Latin and Greek to GCSE level, but no modern languages or little African history or literature, not even Chichewa, the country’s native language.
Relations with Banda’s democratically elected successor, Bakili Muluzi, have improved since the academy’s founding. Muluzi attended the founder’s day last year, and his portrait now hangs on its walls. Despite no longer being funded by the education budget, the Academy received a donation of $450,000 from the state-owned Press Trust recently.
Classes and sports end by late afternoon, and pupils retire to their dorms, displaying posters of Porsches, Jennifer Lopez, and Heineken on their walls. Most students appear to be the offspring of government officials and executives, and politics is not a popular topic. Walter Miseleni, an eighteen-year-old head boy, warns against speaking out, even in a charity-focused school environment. There are "children of politicians here, you could say something, and next thing you know, your dad is fired." Walter studies engineering in Cambridge and wishes to return to develop Malawi’s minerals. The head girl, Thembi Katangwe, 19, plans on studying medicine in Britain and returning to fight HIV/Aids as a pediatrician.
Although the head boy and head girl praised the academy, they criticized some of the new entrants, who were wealthy but not intellectually gifted. They fear that this group might become an arrogant and selfish "island" in their own country, despite doing regular charity work in poor villages.
The entrance exam was reportedly made easier to accommodate fee-payers, which may result in a decline in A-level and GSCE results. However, teachers disagree, with Andrew Wild, the head of science, stating that his classes of 13 to 20 students are highly motivated.
The staff’s lone concern is the absence of social life, with little to do other than reading, chatting to colleagues in the bar, or watching satellite TV. They would welcome a young female teacher. While the majority of the teachers seem content, they lament their low wages, which are less than £12,000, as well as phone and internet connections that are frequently unreliable.
The day of our visit, a lion that had escaped from a neighboring game park and killed a cow roamed the grounds. Kamusu, the Ngwazi’s ghost, keeps an eye over his legacy, which would have been a waste if Banda’s dream, regardless of whether it was a success or not, had been left to deteriorate. Many students’ parents would have sent them to expensive schools abroad if it wasn’t for Kamuzu. Therefore, they remain at home, realizing a tyrant’s vision of cultivating a unique breed.