Homer in the Tropics

By Suebsaeng, Alexander | New Criterion, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Homer in the Tropics


Suebsaeng, Alexander, New Criterion


I was still in the sixth form when I first heard of Kamuzu Academy. My Greek teacher had read about a school in the African bush where pupils in boaters and Eton collars sweated over Homer and Virgil in the glare of the tropical sun. The school, he told us, was the obsession of Malawi's dictator, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Banda wanted his country's most gifted children to learn Latin and Greek as a preparation for political leadership. Equipped with the lessons and ideals of antiquity, they would one day govern with wisdom and moderation. Plato's ideal Republic would be reborn in central Africa.

The idea appealed to me, but I did not think of it again until many years later. I had just finished my Classics degree and the cold appetency of London was jarring after the languid delights of Oxford. I began looking for work in Africa, and one day a vacancy at Kamuzu Academy came up.

In all directions, vast, featureless plains extend to the horizon. For the length of the journey from the capital there are only smallholdings of maize and cassava, a few tobacco plantations, the odd derelict trading-center, and scrub. The thatch roofs of mud-brick houses are reinforced, here and there, by scraps of plastic bag weighed down with stones. After many hours, you arrive at a dismal town with an empty shop, a bar/brothel, a defunct post office, and a "butchery," outside of which a fly-blown carcass twists slowly on a rope. But the tarmac continues. One mile further and you reach a gatehouse with a large illuminated sign: Kamuzu Academy--Honor Deo et Patriae.

A retired engineer told me how the site was chosen. Banda wanted the academy built beside the same kachere tree under which he had received his first lessons as a boy. And so he assembled a party of surveyors and architects and men with panga knives and led them into the bush. After three days of grubbing about, the tree was identified. The Foundation Myth was secure and work could begin. Bush was cleared, a dam was built, the school went up. At the opening ceremony in 1981, Banda arrived by helicopter in a three-piece Savile Row suit and Homburg hat. He knelt to drink from a brackish pool remembered from his childhood and then mounted a podium to address the expectant crowds. While he spoke in English, his strongman JZU Tembo translated into Chichewa. And as he proceeded to declaim page after page of Caesar's De Bello Gallico in Latin, Tembo remained unfazed: mwamva zimene amene Kamuzu! "You heard what Kamuzu said!" The crowds roared, an honor guard stood to attention, and throngs of dancing girls wailed and cavorted in adulation.

At its height, the academy consumed a third of the country's whole education budget. It was modeled on Eton and was to lack nothing. There was a Greek theater, a replica of the Library of Congress, a clock tower beside a lake arrayed with lilies, ornamental waterfowl, and monitor lizards. There were music rooms, a model farm, a golf course, and a cavernous refectory where grace would be said in Latin. The grounds encompassed lawns, gardens, sports fields, and parkland.

Nothing local--save the monitor lizards--was allowed to spoil the vision. Everything was imported--even the trees. The curriculum was strict: "anyone who does not want to learn Latin and Greek has no place at Kamuzu Academy." Both were compulsory to A-level. But most controversial was the staff: Banda was adamant that no black teacher would ever work at his school. Everyone had to know Latin, and everyone had to be white. Of course, staff meeting those criteria could be obtained only on an expatriate salary.

For several years, things functioned well. But the arrangement could last only as long as Banda's practically unlimited budget. When I arrived, over a decade had passed since the collapse of his regime. The school had survived, but as a shadow of its former self.

The masonry is cracked and the roofs leak water. The clocks have stopped and the school bells are broken. …

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