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Ubi Sunt?

From TAC’s bookshelf: What can we learn from a thwarted African renaissance?

Nyika National Park, Malawi. (Radek Borova/Shutterstock)

Goodbye, Dr Banda: Lessons for the West From a Small African Country, by Alexander Chula, Polygon, 307 pages

My college years were in large part a waste. I was an indifferent student and spent most of my unassigned time working on the newspaper instead of converting middling grades to good grades. A sort of academic malaise and a few catastrophic misadventures, some of which I have written about elsewhere, persuaded me that the scholarly life was not for me; a taste for the picaresque (but nothing too strenuous) led me to my current line of work.


Others in similar casts of mind do other things. Alexander Chula, following his graduation from Oxford, found himself teaching Latin and Greek at the crumbling Eton of Africa, Kamuzu Academy, in the hills of one of Africa’s poorest countries, the Land of Fire, Malawi. His account of the nation, Goodbye, Dr Banda: Lessons for the West From a Small African Country, is a curious work, part memoir, part history, part anthropological monograph; nothing else like it was published this year. It has much to recommend it.

Kamuzu was established by Hastings Banda, Malawi’s erstwhile founding father and dictator. Banda was born in a Malawian village in 1897, while the territory was under British rule; by dint of hard work and understated daring, he made his way from his birthplace to Great Britain, where he trained as a medical doctor and was impressed by the importance of the Western classics. The winds of change blew him back to Malawi, where he became the first president (and then president for life) of the new republic. 

African dictators of the first generation after the empires left were an evil lot. Jean-Bedel Bokassa, president of the Central African Republic and then “emperor” of the short-lived Central African Empire, spent his country’s entire aid budget and then some on a lavish coronation service. Amid his brutal campaigns of domestic oppression, Uganda’s Idi Amin styled himself King of Scotland and Conqueror of the British Empire. Both had a penchant for human flesh (although at his trial Bokassa denied knowingly engaging in cannibalism, which was anyway only a misdemeanor offense in CAR at the time). Among these fellows, Banda’s gentle despotism is conspicuous. 

His ambition to raise up a culture and a tradition from the soil of his nation puts him more in line with Peachy Carnehan and David Dravot than Mobutu Sese and Charles Taylor; although his own Latinity was tenuous (and his Hellenism apparently nonexistent), he wished the Western classics to serve as a model for Malawi the way they had for the great European vernacular cultures of the modern era. One pet project was Kamuzu Academy; another was codifying Malawian grammar. Sure, he banned hippies from Malawi (who wouldn’t, given the chance?), and his later rule was characterized by the ineffectual repression of political enemies, but he wasn’t eating anybody. He just wanted Malawi to stand as an equal in the congress of nations; part of this was teaching Malawians to remember, to build their own traditions, and to relate to the great common patrimony of the past. (They were called the humanities for a reason.)

Banda’s efforts, as presented by Chula, were in large part an effort to regain lost roots. He had been gone from Malawi for decades when he returned; in a pre-literate society of largely temporary infrastructure, it was difficult for him to find people or even places familiar from his youth. Chula argues that something similar is happening at vast scale in the West: Classics are little studied, and those who do study them have a fraction of the facility common even just a hundred years ago. Sincere Christian belief and affiliation is on the decline. Few people relate their daily work back to a context or a tradition much longer than the weekly news cycle. We are in the midst of a great forgetting.

Aid workers still come and go from Africa, but, unlike the almost monomaniacal Christian missionaries of the imperial era—whose brief biographies littering Chula’s narrative provide some of the most haunting passages of the work—they have little purpose in their activities. It’s just feel-good passing through. (A major difference that Chula underlines between the modern aid worker and the missionaries is that the latter would spend their lives in Malawi, while the former spend a year or two in many different places, collecting experiences like bottle caps.) Malawi is perhaps now best known as Madonna’s particular object of charity, and her hunting ground for adoption. Chula shows the disruption that she and her fellow-travelers bring to Malawi. There are types of poverty worse than hunger.

Goodbye, Dr Banda is a strange book, but not one that the reader will soon forget, with its mask-dances and witches and lurid sunrises. It is perhaps the builders of churches and fishers of men, the missionaries—sick, hungry, blind, poor, martyred—who stick in the mind most. They were a sort of solution, those people.

A previous version of this article misspelled “Kamuzu” and erroneously listed Banda’s birth year as 1906.


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