Obituary: Dr Hastings Banda
Thursday 27 November 1997
He was one of the most extraordinary people of the 20th century. He lived three different lives; as a peasant, a doctor and a king. But he failed to integrate them. He died a lonely and unhappy man unable to reconcile the cultural schizophrenia which tore his soul.
His first name was Kamuzu, a little root. He was conceived after his mother had been given root herbs by the medicine man to cure infertility. Banda means a small hut. Later he took the name Hastings from John Hastings, a Scottish missionary working near his village whom he admired. The next name he added to himself was Doctor, first in the United States in 1937, and then in Edinburgh and Glasgow, collecting the initials LRCP and LRCS (Edin) and LRFPS (Glas). And he also became an elder of the Church of Scotland.
When he swept to power as the first President of Malawi in 1966 he called himself "Ngwazi", which means conqueror, and after a few years declared himself "Life President". So his extended title read: "His Excellency The Life President (Paramount Chief) Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the Ngwazi". This is how all official organs in Malawi had to refer to him. He was also Minister of External Affairs, Minister of Defence, Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Justice, Minister of Works and Supplies, Minister of Women's and Children's Affairs and Minister of Community Services. He ruled Malawi for nearly 30 years, until his defeat in presidential elections in May 1994.
A friend who saw the president in one of his last illnesses said that when he parted from him the old man wept and said "I'm so lonely, so lonely."
Yet he had rejected companionship and marriage and turned his back on the Englishwoman who bore his son. Once a dedicated doctor with admiring patients, first in Liverpool, then Newcastle and Harlesden, he was surrounded by friends. But he was swept away on a tide of history which he thought he controlled but which finally washed him up alone in a world he did not understand. In his last years he was under the control of the "Official Hostess", Cecilia Kadzamira, once a nurse in his Blantyre practice. She was always at his side controlling his life: who saw him, what he read, what he was told, what he signed. But even she does not seem to have been close to him.
He created the prison but the circumstances of his life drew him into it. He was born, the son of an African farmer, apparently in 1898 (though the official year of his birth was always 1906), at a time when the existence of white people was but a rumour in that part of Africa. As he was growing up near Lake Nyasa the first mission schools were founded among the Chewa people by Scottish missionaries. They changed African society for ever. They also made a deep impression on the young Banda, who never lost his links with Scotland and its church.
The choice for a young man then was between a hard life of tilling Africa's precarious soil or education and the world. From then on Banda's sole aim was education. His first journey was to South Africa. He walked the 1,000 miles to Johannesburg and worked in the mines. But in his spare time he studied and in 1925 he got sponsorship to go to school in the United States.
At the universities of Indiana and Chicago he graduated in medicine, philosophy, history and political science, but although he talked a lot of returning to help his fellow countrymen his appetite for study proved stronger and he set off for Scotland. He excused his quest for British medical qualifications on the grounds that American qualifications did not allow him to practise on British territory.
His stay in Scotland, gathering more degrees, accelerated his journey away from his original home. He was becoming eccentrically European. His shyness and reserve masked a puritanical streak, perhaps a legacy of his narrow Scottish education which was later to be so dominant. It made him intolerant of couples dancing together and he was appalled at the lax wartime morals and the ensuing secret abortions. But he was fastidious and diligent as a doctor and was renowned for acts of kindness towards his patients. In 1941 he set up his practice in a poor area of Liverpool, waiving fees for poor patients and even paying the rents of the poorest.
It is astonishing that a black man could attract such a large and varied medical practice at that time. From Liverpool he moved to Harlesden in north London. Again he attracted a large and devoted following, mostly white and middle- or lower middle-class. He was said to be particularly good with children. He was becoming very British, parted his hair and adopted a Homburg hat, furled umbrella and dark three-piece suit. He was welcomed into people's homes and gained an acceptance and integration which was remarkable. But it also strained his personality. He had always kept in touch with African politics and politicians but at this time Banda became increasingly peremptory and high-handed in his dealing with other Africans. Kwame Nkrumah, the doyen of the African leaders, he referred to as "my boy".
His secretary became pregnant with his child and her husband sued for divorce. He fled from Britain to Ghana, his secretary followed him but he rejected her and he never supported their child. He left Ghana under a cloud and there were reports that he had been running an abortion clinic.
There is no record of what was going on in his mind at this time but the crisis coincided with rapid change in Africa so he threw himself into African politics. The white settlers of the Rhodesias wanted Nyasaland to be part of a Central African Federation. Banda and other African leaders opposed it actively. The battle brought Banda back to his original country after 43 years. The campaigners inside the country kept the leadership for Nyasaland's most educated son but Banda no longer spoke his mother tongue and mistrusted the local politicians. He returned in triumph but he asked British friends to advise him about whom to trust.
After mass African protest broke the federation plan, independence followed swiftly with Banda inheriting Nyasaland in 1966, which he renamed Malawi. Shortly after he became president he turned on his former colleagues, sacking and imprisoning them. After that he was the most totalitarian ruler in Africa. No decision in Malawi was taken without his consent. Like an enthusiastic colonial officer he wanted to impose on Malawi his idea of education and progress, but no colonial officer would have dared treat Africans in Banda's patronising and imperious manner. He regarded them as children to be guided with a firm hand.
He stressed obedience and hard work. Anyone who challenged or even questioned his authority was silenced. His power was absolute. Thirteen years ago, speaking to fellow southern African heads of state, he said: "Government here means Kamuzu. Kamuzu is Malawi. So be frank when you are speaking about government. You know you are speaking about Kamuzu, that is all, whether you like it or not."
Once he had acquired power, he was careful never to appear radical in front of the former colonial masters and pleased the British government by maintaining trade and contact with South Africa, condemning his fellow African leaders more than he did apartheid. He also appropriated businesses and land amounting to a third of the country's GDP, incorporating them into Press Holdings, a trust which he controlled. This gave him a huge source of patronage.
His bizarre projects for Malawi betrayed his own inability to reconcile his Western life as a British doctor and the realities of Africa. He was culturally European and uncertain about his African roots. He banned mini- skirts and trousers on women and long hair on men. He founded an English public school, the Kamuzu Academy, near Lilongwe, which taught Latin and Greek. He became one of Africa's biggest tobacco growers. He persecuted the Jehovah's Witnesses. It was a strange Ruritanian rule, a mixture of village Africa and British ritual, traditional warriors and brass bands.
One of the most spectacular and surreal sights I have ever seen in Africa was Hastings Banda in Homburg hat and dark three-piece suit, riding high in the raised back of his open Rolls-Royce. Around the car a vast heaving throng of women danced and sang and jogged along, all wearing the same cloth emblazoned on breast and bottom with the Ngwazi's smiling image. Beside him, waving majestically like a consort dressed in a broad blue hat and pink frock, was Margaret Thatcher.
A short time before, a Scottish clergyman met his old friend from Edinburgh and dared to ask him about another old Malawian friend whom Banda had thrown into prison. Banda writhed, foamed at the mouth and stamped his feet. "They shall rot, rot, rot," he shrieked.
In May 1994, after months of pressure by Western aid donors, Banda gave in and held a referendum on whether Malawi should remain a one-party state or adopt a multi- party system. His rallies were feebly attended as he struggled to read prepared speeches under a blazing sun. When he spoke extempore he reverted to speeches he had given 30 years before asking the people to choose between him and colonial rule. He turned the debate into a personal campaign, a choice for or against him. He lost hugely. It was a shattering personal rejection. And he was reported to be bitter that no one had warned him. But perhaps that was the price of absolute kingship.
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