Obituary: Dr Hastings Banda

Kamuzu Banda (Hastings Kamuzu Banda), medical practitioner and politician: born 14 May 1898; Minister of Natural Resources and Local Government, Nyasaland 1961-63; Prime Minister of Malawi 1963-66, President 1966-94, Life President 1971-94; died Johannesburg 25 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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Managing Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Recruitment Genius: Advertisement Sales Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A publishing company based in F...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Affiliates & Partnerships

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This multi-award winning foreig...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Structural Engineer

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Structural Engineer ...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor