Saturday, 5 December 2015

Remembering Hastings Kamuzu Banda

One of my more surprising discoveries in Malawi, is the respect - indeed almost reverence - in which Hastings Banda, as he is known in Britain, is still held. There he is, of course, known as Kamuzu, his 'real' name. Although he died in 1997, Kamuzu Banda's role as 'father' of his people is commemorated publicly in many ways. Kamuzu international airport serves the capital Lilongwe and acts as a hub for the whole country. Kamuzu Procession Road, one of Lilongwe's smartest and busiest runs right through the commercial district at the heart of the Old Town.

Kamuzu Stadium provides for Malawi's national football team and the injuries of the players are no doubt dealt with at Kamuzu Central Hospital. One of Malawi's most famous schools is Kamuzu Academy, known as 'Malawi's Eton'. Founded by Dr Banda himself in 1977, it models itself on old-style British public schools and even teaches its students Latin and Greek. Naturally, it has the best sports facilities in Malawi. The Kamuzu Dam safeguards Lilongwe's main water supply.

Speak to many Malawians about Kamuzu Banda and you will immediately become aware of his paramount status, for good or ill. They remember the 'good' things: his provision of state support for ordinary people, for example, setting up the Malawi Savings Bank (still state-owned until a month or so ago), providing insurance and building fair-price national People's supermarkets. Malawians respect him above all, however, for his struggles to achieve independence for Nyasaland, as Malawi used to be known, from the British Empire. They acknowledge him as the first Prime Minister of Nyasaland/Malawi from 1963-1966 and then as the first President of the new Republic of Malawi from 1966 to 1994.

Given the generally negative perceptions of Banda among my compatriots, I was surprised when I first caught sight of the Banda Mausoleum from the road running through Lilongwe's Capital City.

Just one glimpse of this lovely building set among flowering trees made me realise that I had not appreciated quite what Kamuzu Banda meant to most Malawians, even those who were his political opponents. It was Banda who named Malawi and he who moved its capital from Zomba in the south to Lilongwe in the centre of the country, against the wishes of the British. He planned the building of Capital City, the administrative area, in the bush some miles outside the Old Town and insisted that, as far as possible, the trees should not be felled. And there they still are.
So, who was Hastings Kamuzu Banda?

Kamuzu Banda (a common tribal name) was born around 1898, only two or three years after Nyasaland became a British Protectorate. Like many African nationalists, he was educated in a Scottish mission school. Scottish missionaries have been very significant in Malawi's history, setting up and running schools and hospitals and encouraging early independence movements. Kamuzu took the name Hastings after one of the missionaries. Banda finished Standard 3 but left school at around 16, accused of cheating in an examination. 

Banda walked 800 kilometres to Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), then Natal and finally Johannesburg in South Africa doing unskilled jobs. There he joined the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, an 'Ethiopianist' church which tried to reconcile Christianity with traditional African beliefs. It also nurtured the nascent independence movement: Africa for the Africans. 

Banda's breakthrough came when the AME paid for him to be educated in the United States. His first degree was in history and anthropology, with much of the work focusing on his Chewa tribe and Chichewa language.  In 1937 Banda graduated in medicine, though to practice in the British Empire he had to have further medical training in Edinburgh. Financial support was provided by the Government of Nyasaland and the Church of Scotland (neither of which benefactor apparently knew about the other!). Banda settled in well in Edinburgh, even becoming an elder in the Church, as my Malawian friends often remind me.

Banda then studied tropical diseases in Liverpool but his applications to practice in Nyasaland were refused again and again. The nurses at Livingstonia, the northern Church of Scotland mission hospital, refused to serve under a black doctor. The colonial administration in Zomba would only employ him if he agreed to avoid social contact with the white doctors, which he refused.  Of such actions, are future nationalists made. So, Banda worked as a doctor in Renfrew and the north and south of England, a positive experience but not, sadly, spent contributing to his own country. During this period Banda joined the Nyasaland African Congress and met leading African nationalists such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta. Recognising the importance of education for national development, he paid for the studies of 40 African students.

Around this time, Southern Rhodesia had asked Britain to set up a federation with Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), a highly unpopular move. The latter two countries rightly believed that the white settlers in Southern Rhodesia were hoping to lead the federation and, hence, Central Africa. Banda said that under colonial government, the relationship between Africans and the authorities was that of 'ward and warden', but under Southern Rhodesia it would be one of 'slaves and masters'. Nevertheless, Britain gave way to Southern Rhodesia.  Following violent protests in Nyasaland, a group of young radicals asked Banda to return to lead the resistance and support the independence movement.

In 1958, Banda returned to Nyasaland after an absence of 42 years and was immediately made leader of the Nyasaland African Congress. People flocked to hear him speak. He urged non-violent protest, but when rallies were held people were shot by the authorities, Banda himself was arrested. So far, so familiar, the usual actions and reactions within countries trying to shake off colonialism. Eventually Banda was released, and after elections became Prime Minister and then President of the new country.

So much, so positive.  However, the more negative aspects of Banda's leadership became apparent within a month of independence in 1964. He was autocratic and clamped down on dissent. Mail was opened, phones were tapped, nearly 300,000 opponents were thrown into jail, many of whom were tortured. People started disappearing or died in mysterious car accidents, explosions or encounters with real or metaphorical crocodiles. Three of his ministers had tent pegs hammered into their heads. Some of these deaths bore the hallmarks of the methods employed by the South African police. At least 20,000 people went into exile.

In 1970, following an unsuccessful rebellion, Banda declared Malawi a one-party state, with himself as Life President. His official title was His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of MalaĆ”i, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. In Chichewa, Ngwazi means 'chief of chiefs' or 'great lion', as depicted on the urn to the right, made by the pottery in Dedza. Banda always carried a fly-whisk (also depicted), a traditional symbol of authority, often borne by witchdoctors.

Banda was the 'father' and his people, 'children' to be ruled. When the University of Massachusetts gave him an honorary doctorate, the words 'paediatrician to his infant nation' appeared in the citation. At the corners of the Banda Mausoleum are four pillars bearing the qualities which he felt Malawians should demonstrate: Unity, Loyalty, Discipline, and Obedience. The last two qualities became increasingly important.

Little news came out of Malawi, so, despite his excesses, for a long time Banda's international reputation remained intact. Indeed, he received official visits from Margaret Thatcher and the Pope. Britain liked Banda because Banda liked Britain. He supported the status-quo and was not a socialist, unlike Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. He wore three-piece suits not national dress, as in the portrait which hangs above his tomb. Despite his previous interest in Chichewa, he spoke only English. Throughout the apartheid era, Banda kept strong links with South Africa. Malawi was the only African country to recognise the South African government, though Banda apparently supported the ANC on the quiet.

An atmosphere of fear overwhelmed Malawi. All adults had to be members of the Malawi Congress Party and carry passcards which police could check at any time. Young Pioneers carried arms, spied on the population and acted as Presidential bodyguards. Short skirts were banned, kissing in films censored, books and newspapers burned. Men with hair over their collars had it forcibly cut. Kamuzu Banda called his people 'children in politics' and treated them as such. A whole nation was infantilised.

For all that Unity was one of the values on which Banda said he built his nation, many of his actions succeeded in dividing them. The culture and language of northern tribes were denigrated. Banda's close associates, including John Tembo, exercised unchallengeable power. Millions of pounds in this poorest of countries were syphoned off into the bank accounts of the President and his cronies.

And then, in 1992, with the end of the Cold War, the political tide turned. The British, hypocritical to the last, withdrew financial support, stating their concern at human rights abuses. They no longer needed this bulwark against communism. The Catholic bishops circulated a pastoral letter criticising the government. Students protested. International pressure forced Banda to hold a referendum on whether the country should move to a multi-party democracy. He lost the vote and was stripped of the title President for Life. Two years later, he lost the election to his rival, a Yao from the south. In 1995, Banda was tried for the murder of Cabinet members 10 years earlier, but was acquitted. In 1997, he died.

It was not until 2005, however, that work started on the Banda mausoleum. Despite the terrible experience of Banda's people under his rule, they believed that as Malawi's first leader he deserved a memorial. Indeed, I have met people who think that his embalmed body should lie in state, like Lenin's.

One of the impressive features of Malawi's transition from protectorate to dictatorship to democracy was the relative peacefulness of the process. Admittedly, political figures suffered terribly and people died during the Banda years. However, though it might have protests and riots, Malawi has never suffered from armed insurrections or coups. It has had no civil wars such as have afflicted its neighbours Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Malawi is still recognised to be a relatively tranquil country. After Banda's demise, no revenge was taken. His Malawi Congress party still exists, though frequently reminded by its opponents of its damning record in government twenty years ago.

Yet, the legacy of the Banda years has been dismal and almost destroyed this small country before it had even taken off. The corruption and theft which characterised Kamuzu's government has been a feature of every single government since then, leaving Malawi one of the poorest countries in the world, or even the very poorest, according to the World Bank. Banda's attempts to modernise his country had only limited success. Industrialisation is still minimal and mainly located around Blantyre in the south.

Banda also attempted to develop the agricultural base of the country - 80% of its economy. To achieve this, his government set up the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC), to finance improvements and increase exports. ADMARC provides subsidies and distributes certified seeds to improve the quality of crops. However, much of its work has favoured the large tobacco estates, not the smallholders who form 90% of the country's farmers and who grow its food.  As in Banda's days, the agency remains inefficient and corrupt, the subject of frequent critical articles in the press and online.

Today, the British are long gone, except for their continuing provision of aid, and a new 'colonial' power is transforming Malawi. On one side of the Banda Mausoleum on Presidential Way is the Parliament building, completed in 2010 by the Chinese.

On the other side of the mausoleum is the Presidential Hotel and Bungu wa Mutharika Conference Centre, also built by the Chinese and opened earlier this year. Bingu was a previous President and brother of the current one, Peter Mutharika.

The Chinese now dominate in Malawi as in many other African countries. They set up companies, build roads, sell plastics and construct public buildings. What they don't do, of course, is to ask any awkward questions about human rights. However, we didn't really do that either, did we, until it suited us?

So there the mausoleum sits among the jacaranda and brilliant red flame trees, a peaceful resting place for a stubborn, paternalistic and sometimes cruel old man, a man, however, who helped to bring Malawi its independence. It is important to remember and this is a good place to do it.

1 comment:

  1. Hastings Banda worked for a time as a GP in Renfrew. Bill Johnston remembers the time when, as a lad, he came home to see his father had a nasty boil on the back of his neck. His father was a respected elder of the North Church in the town. Dr. Banda used some fairly unorthodox methods in his practice and, taking a small bottle from his case, asked for some boiling water and poured some into the bottle. Emptying the water out, he quickly placed the open end on Bill’s father’s boil where of course it stuck as the steam condensed inside. With a cry of anguish his father leapt to his feet and chased the doctor round and round the kitchen table still with the bottle fastened to his neck. Bill, hiding under the kitchen table, was dumbfounded hearing his father use language that he had never heard before!