Missions In Malawi

3 June 2024
Missions In Malawi - Featured image

A new book about Malawi, its people and their onetime dictator, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, is at heart a classical tragedy, writes IPA Communications Manager Michael Barrett.

Goodbye, Dr Banda: Lessons for the West from a Small African Country
Alexander Chula
Polygon, 2023,

Much like the opera house in Manaus, Brazil, a Renaissance Revival masterpiece in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, Malawi’s Kamuzu Academy is a most improbable building. Established in 1981 to educate the African country’s brightest children in the Western canon, the school aspired to be, and was for a while known as, the ‘Eton of Africa’. But to achieve this, it consumed fully one-third of the nation’s education budget. Its eccentricity of purpose and the resources lavished on it reflect the personality of its founder, the Malawian dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

Banda was at once proudly African and thoroughly Westernised. Forty years spent studying and working in the United States and Britain had imbued him with a love of the classics and he insisted this be central to Kamuzu’s curriculum; to this day Latin is a compulsory subject. The academy, and one young Westerner’s time spent teaching there, is the starting point for Goodbye Dr Banda: Lessons for the West from a Small African Country by Alexander Chula, an Anglo-Thai who, like Hastings Banda himself, has degrees in both the classics and medicine.

Until he became the founding father and inaugural President of Malawi, Hastings Banda had led a blameless life, notable for its quiet tenacity, a rigorous self-discipline, and a remarkable generosity of spirit. Born around 1896, and given a solid education by Scottish missionaries, Banda left his boyhood village in what was then the British protectorate of Nyasaland in his late teens, walking hundreds of miles to South Africa where he worked a series of menial jobs in the hope of one day putting himself through university. The young man was eventually noticed by American missionaries, who arranged for his further education in the US.

Banda would spend the next 40 years abroad, earning a medical degree and working as a much-loved general practitioner in the poorest suburbs of several American and British cities. Significantly, these included communities in the American South, where he saw first-hand entrenched and institutionalised racism—in Nashville he actually witnessed a black man being lynched—while himself being spared mistreatment because of his unusual status as a native African with a university degree.

Malawi under Hastings Banda was not a nice place.

A courteous man of gentle and scholarly demeanour, Banda took an educated interest in the politics of his homeland and his medical practice soon became the salon where exiled compatriots met to chart a path to nationhood. Post-war, as its African colonies become an increasingly expensive anachronism, Britain actively planned for Nyasaland’s independence. The highly educated, seemingly peaceable Banda was the obvious choice to lead the newborn nation.

Once installed as Malawi’s first President, however, Banda soon abandoned any semblance of the democratic ruler. Impatient with parliamentary niceties, he outlawed Opposition parties, ensuring the parliament existed only to pass his laws and praise their author. In due course, the parliament voted Banda ‘President for Life’. Dissent was brutally supressed, with opponents of the regime murdered, imprisoned, or exiled. The only reason Banda is not remembered alongside the likes of Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe is the relative obscurity of the stage he trod. In a region which at the time included apartheid South Africa, Zimbabwe spinning out of control, and Mozambique being savagely fought over by foreign powers, Banda’s relatively stable regime was easily overlooked by the world’s media. But Malawi under Hastings Banda was not a nice place.

Curiously, given his role in the Malawian independence movement, Banda as president remained aloof from the battles for independence raging around him. For this he was feted by the white South African government and the Portuguese administration in Mozambique. He enjoyed the attention, an elegant figure attired in immaculately cut Savile Row suits and carrying his trademark lion-tail fly whisk.

So, this is less a story of cultures colliding than one of cultures decoupling. And of their subsequent fortunes. Malawi briefly booms, Banda’s early economic policies bearing young fruit, before its sharp decline into tyranny and an economic hardship as severe as any in southern Africa. Malawi’s people are to this day among the world’s very poorest.

But Chula touches briefly on Britain’s cultural decline as well. His short account of his time at Oxford, studying classics as an undergraduate, is a scathing indictment of wokeism. An Oxbridge degree in the classics was once a glittering prize, the product of extraordinary intellectual powers honed by scholarship of the highest order. Not anymore. Chula writes:

Ability to write in Latin or Greek had begun to vanish from the university, and the learning of facts, as opposed to opinions, was considered infra dig among arts students in general …

Only the postmodernist school could claim relevance and vitality. Classical texts had to be deconstructed before they could be understood properly as the propaganda of those who wield power. Greece and Rome, it was implied, were the progenitors of the European patriarchy that still exists at every level of our culture. With a postmodernist lens, it is possible to trace the thread of exploitation, racism and misogyny down the millennia from the Bronze Age in Greece to the present day. The classicist’s main duty is to sift the inheritance for evidence of guilt.

Speech day parade at Kamuzu Academy in May 2023.
Photo: Kamuzu Academy/Facebook

Providing the undergraduate “played the game and reproduced the right arguments, it was difficult not to pass your exams”. So unimpressed was he by the calibre of his fellow graduates, and the sort of PR firms and advertising agencies competing for their services, Chula spurned all lucrative offers and instead answered an advertisement for a Latin teacher at Kamuzu Academy. He clearly does not regret the decision, having since returned to the country armed with a medical degree, and now having written a wonderful book about it.


At the political level, it is fair to say Chula believes there is something to be said in defence of the imperial project, and certainly so in the case of Nyasaland. Unlike surrounding colonies, Nyasaland offered little in the way of mineral wealth and its terrain was unsuited to large landholdings. So, the rapacious settler had little if any interest in the place and, from the very outset, the British authorities made it plain their goal was to ready its population for self-government. They did this, in the main, with conscientious efficiency.

The other Westerners seeking to prepare the locals for something better were the Christian missionaries. While some sought to eradicate every vestige of the local customs and beliefs, in a refreshing departure from the postmodern orthodoxy Chula writes glowingly of the others, and notably the Scots, who fought slavery and—often literally—built pre-independence Malawi while respecting its indigenous inheritance.

The West’s secular influence in modern Malawi is largely malign.

While the Royal Navy had been suppressing the trade in slaves since 1815, volunteers from the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) targeted its source: an area centred around modern-day Malawi. In so doing they “committed themselves to self-immolation”, dying at a rate far higher than that of the Somme. Chula lists their causes of death: disease, misadventure, man-slaying beasts, vengeful slavers, and warlike tribes. “A few seem also to have succumbed to loneliness and despair.”

But the achievements of those who did survive were astonishing. William Johnson, for example, would spend nearly 50 years journeying and proselytising around Lake Malawi, mapping the terrain and recording its flora. He mastered at least six local languages and translated the Bible and Book of Common Prayer into Chinyanja. When he went almost completely blind as the result of a tropical eye infection, he continued his travels with the aid of a guide. Although famously irascible, he was loved by the locals:

His memory is still cherished, and the people of his former parish continue to celebrate ‘Saint

Johnson’s Day’, despite official contestation of his sainthood by Lambeth Palace. At Liuli, where he died aged 89 – still hard at work – his grave remains venerated.

The son of an Aberdeen cabinet maker, Dr Robert Laws trained as a medical missionary and arrived in Malawi in 1875. He would establish the settlement of Livingstonia on heights above the malarial flatlands that had claimed so many of his predecessors. Working alongside African labourers, Laws built a township which included roads, a church, houses, workshops, schools, and a hospital. He would lay five miles of pipe to provide residents with running water and, having taught himself the principles of electrical engineering, would construct a small hydroelectric power station.

Laws never lost sight of his mission’s evangelical purpose, and key to this he believed was education. The Overtoun Institute at Livingstonia taught its students literature, history, philosophy, theology, Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew.

The results were spectacular. After 12 years, this warlike region had been entirely pacified without a shot being fired. Thirty-three thousand students had passed through the Institute, and a thousand new master craftsmen had been trained. By 1934, when Laws died at the age of 83, the north of Malawi was claimed to be the most literate and educationally developed province of any country in British Africa. From Livingstonia’s printing presses rolled off translations of the gospels into 12 native languages. From its poets and musicians came vernacular hymnals. And from among the brightest graduates came pastors, teachers, writers and thinkers – learned men and women, independent in mind and spirit.

Chula notes that the colonial authorities strongly supported Laws’ work in Livingstonia, as it produced an educated elite which could be diverted to managerial and clerical posts in Britain’s other African colonies—the “disastrous prototype” of Africa’s modern brain-drain.

These admirable missionaries managed somehow to fuse their Calvinism with one of Africa’s richest indigenous cultures. (Chula’s foray into this culture, and notably the gule wamkulu, an allegorical dance of almost hypnotic power that can terrify the uninitiated, amounts to a short and highly readable work of anthropology.)

But the new breed of foreign zealot, Pentecostal missionaries from the US, waggishly tagged the ‘Quivering Brethren’ by one of Kamuzu Academy’s expatriate classics teachers, aims not so much to enhance the physical and spiritual wellbeing of the locals as to thoroughly Americanise them. Similarly, the West’s secular influence in modern Malawi is largely malign; Chula’s short and acerbic references to aid workers make this pretty clear:

They might deprecate ‘voluntourism’, but foreign aid workers often look like they’re on holiday, and the worldliness they claim is closely related to the number of exotic destinations they have managed to visit … [In] the ‘backpacker lodges’ where they gather … Locals are essential for colour, but white people must make up a critical mass: it is to be their safe space – a haven amid Third World dysfunctionality.

Chula contrasts the transience and hedonism of modern aid workers with the lifelong and usually arduous commitment to the country exhibited by the missionaries and colonial officers of old. Chula is also struck by the aid workers’ breathtaking ignorance of the country about which they sermonise. This is a far cry from those servants of empire who were genuinely fascinated by, and extraordinarily knowledgeable about, Malawi, its people, and their culture.


Whether blessing or curse, the presence of aid workers brings us to the causes of poverty, or more precisely under-development, in modern Africa. This is touched upon by Chula as he surveys the forlorn village of Wimbe, which had experienced a moment of inspired development in the early 2000s. As drought-induced famine was killing his fellow villagers, William Kamkwamba realised that if he could only harness the wind, the electricity generated could power a water pump, enabling the irrigation of the land and an additional growing season each year. He then successfully constructed a windmill out of refuse, later recalling this achievement in celebrated memoirs.

The key to African development must be an enabling business environment.

Contemplating this fleeting example of proactive, homegrown development, Chula concludes:

We like to imagine that every problem in the world has its technical solution, if only it can be identified and implemented. But the reality of Wimbe confounded this view, suggesting instead only the wild improbability of progress. To erect a single windmill required a

lightning bolt of originality to strike in the right place, but to raise an entire society needed numberless miracles of this sort to be repeated in close proximity over decades or centuries. And any advance quickly evanesced without vigorous proactivity to maintain it.

As Chula observes the crumbling state into which Wimbe has since reverted, his pessimism is certainly understandable. But is it ultimately valid?

As Senegalese-born entrepreneur Magatte Wade observed at last year’s ARC (Alliance for Responsible Citizenship) Conference in London, the key to African development must be “an enabling business environment” in which enterprising people with good ideas can build their communities, free of such obstructions as government corruption and red tape. This makes sense. What is the history of Western Civilisation if not a history of good ideas—across numberless fields—more often than not occurring in the context of free markets and unobtrusive government?

Given the right economic and political conditions, “numberless miracles” do indeed occur in “close proximity”, and entire societies are raised. A self-styled “African Prosperity Activist”, Wade is abruptly dismissive of the usual explanations of African poverty, saying it has little if anything to do with the colonial inheritance and certainly has nothing to do with racist stereotypes of the intellectually inferior or inherently lazy African.

One suspects the reality lies somewhere between Chula’s weary pessimism and Wade’s ebullient optimism, but surely it is in the interests of the West—and in particular those European countries being targeted by millions of African asylum seekers—to support liberal democracies and free markets across a continent where the failure of Marxism and socialism has been so abject.

The book’s subtitle, Lessons for the West from a Small African Country, begs the question, what lessons? At the personal level, Chula makes clear the point—but never overbearingly or sanctimoniously—that we can learn from the Malawians. They are an almost inexplicably happy people. Despite a post-independence history marked by brutal dictatorship and kleptocracy, despite grinding poverty and the ravages of HIV, despite the absence of any prospect of material improvement in their lives, Malawi’s people celebrate what they do have with an exuberance and gratitude that astonishes.

A village on the banks of Lake Malawi.

At another, higher level, Chula observes that the ‘classics’, be they Western or indigenous, contain and convey timeless truths and lessons from which all societies can benefit. This is reflected in the extent to which Malawi’s great literary tradition—something out of all proportion to its size and population—is attributable to the 19th century Scottish missionaries’ commitment to literacy and education. This, in turn, inspired Hastings Banda’s admittedly eccentric commitment to education and gave rise to a new generation of poets and novelists, professionals and public servants, many of whom would become his harshest and most articulate critics. Banda would lose office in 1994, having been forced by international opinion and a growing opposition movement, to hold a free and fair general election. He died in 1997 having, it is believed, amassed a personal fortune of US$320 million.

At once an engaging personal memoir and a highly accessible history of a country little known to Westerners, Goodbye, Dr Banda is a delight to read. Its narrator is clearly captivated by the land in which he found himself but the story he tells is—appropriately for a classicist—essentially a tragedy. The villain of the story is a man whose very character unaccountably changed on his ascension to power. The doomed hero is the Malawian people, for whom independence brought no joy and who deserved—and deserve—much better.

This article from the Autumn 2024 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Communications Manager Michael Barrett.

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