Africa File: Banda doffs his Homburg

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The Independent Online
THE submission of Hastings Banda to the democratic will of the Malawi people is as astonishing a turnaround as anything that has happened in Southern Africa.

Dr Banda had declared himself President-for-Life, the Conqueror. A former elder of the Church of Scotland, he ruled like an absolute monarch and screamed that his critics should 'rot, rot, rot' in jail and threatened to feed them to the crocodiles.

One victim was Orton Chirwa, the lawyer, who was imprisoned in 1981 when he was 61 years old. Ten years later he was still kept for days 'in a squatting position in handcuffs and leg irons, which were chained to an iron bar behind his knees', according to Amnesty International. He died last year.

Yet Dr Banda will go down in history as a remarkable, if enigmatic, man - a unique product of the European impact on Africa. He spent his middle years as a much-loved GP on Tyneside, Liverpool and Harlesden. When he returned to Africa after an absence of more than 40 years, he no longer spoke his mother tongue.

He never married but has been cared for by a former nurse, 'Mama' Cecilia Kadzimira, who was called the Official Hostess. Her uncle, John Tembo, became the hated eminence grise of the regime and his future, perhaps his freedom, is now in doubt.

Dr Banda always wore a dark three-piece suit and a Homburg hat and sometimes full morning dress and his politics were as eccentric as his clothes. He founded an English-type public school where Latin and Greek are taught.

Abroad, he kept close ties with South Africa. This earned him a new capital city at Lilongwe built by Pretoria and a warm visit from Margaret Thatcher in 1989. Britain needed an anti-sanctions ally and gave Dr Banda aid, saying nothing about human rights or democracy. Dr Banda felt stabbed in the back when Britain, no longer needing Cold War allies or partners over South Africa, stopped aid to force an election.

The new President Baliki Muluzi is an extrovert Muslim who runs a transport company and a tannery. The son of a soldier in the King's African Rifles, he went to college in Denmark (he still speaks fluent Danish) and at Huddersfield Technical College. He was appointed an MP by Dr Banda and then became secretary-general of the Malawi Congress Party. He resigned in 1982, accused of shaky financial dealings.

Despite Dr Banda's harsh rule, Malawians have earned the reputation as the nicest people in Africa. Perhaps that is why they put up with Dr Banda for so long.

AMONG African exiles in London is a group which thinks that tribalism, ethnicity and other realities of African life are invented by imperialism and the media. They should have met a journalist from Martinique working for a French television station, who was glad to get out of Rwanda last week. She is tall, brown and long-faced. 'I was terrified,' she explained, 'Everywhere I went the Hutus took me for a Tutsi]'

IF ANY black Britons or Americans think they can find their roots in Africa they should read Native Stranger by Eddy Harris, who describes himself as a 'Blackamerican' and recounts his African journey.

He ends up on the Zaire river realising that he has nothing in common with Africans, except his colour. He befriends a young English traveller called Justin. The river-boat captain berates him for travelling with a white man: 'His ancestors stole your ancestors from this place and took them to America as slaves.' Harris responds: 'Thinking quickly back on all I had seen and all I had felt, I turned to Justin and thanked him.'