Saturday, April 18, 2015

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Kamuzu Academy - Malawi's Eton?

The story of President Banda's pet project, and the problems it has caused.
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In 1981, Kamuzu Academy opened its doors for the first time. It was the product of the vision of its namesake, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the dictator of Malawi between 1961 and 1994. Banda, despite leading the overthrow of British rule in Malawi, was educated in Edinburgh and was, ironically, a committed Anglophile. His objective in founding Kamuzu was to create an institution in the model of the British public schools, to provide the most intelligent and capable Malawians with the classical education thought necessary to create future leaders in industry, business and politics.

Kamuzu Academy swiftly became Banda's pet project, and he allocated vast resources to it. Characteristically uninhibited in spending, Banda spent over £25m on the building of the site and devoted the majority of the education budget to its annual costs.

Kamuzu was founded on meritocratic principles. Two boys and one girl from each district in Malawi were selected every year to join the first form. Selection was based purely on ability, and no student was offered a place simply on the position of their parents.  Furthermore, there were no fees or costs for students whatsoever. 

The school itself was built on an imposingly large site two hours' drive from the capital, Lilongwe. No expense was spared in modelling it obsessively on the world's most prestigious institutions. Students wore gold blazers and boaters while taking courses in Latin, Greek, Ancient History and classical politics. There was a ban on Malawian teachers - Banda only wanted his proteges taught by Englishmen. The school was gifted with nationally-unrivalled facilities, including an 18 hole golf course, an Olympic swimming pool, a library modelled on the  Library of Congress in Washington and a 'garden of learning' inspired by Luxmoore's garden at Eton College . In short, conditions were a world away from the deprivation and poverty that surrounded Kamuzu, and were perpetuated by its disproportionate funding.

Nevertheless, the project was greeted with great international acclaim, and hailed as a shining example of Africa's meritocratic potential.  President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and, more controversially, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe both heaped praise on Kamuzu, while Ronald Reagan donated a dictionary to the school library. Moreover, the headmaster of Eton College - the school Kamuzu was most closely based on - said that Eton should be referred to as 'England's Kamuzu'.

Nevertheless, after Banda's dictatorship was  overthrown in favour of a democratic republic in 1993, the government immediately halted all funding to Kamuzu, wishing understandably that the limited national resources were allocated more fairly among the population. Kamuzu was expected to be abandoned, remembered only as a symbol of Banda's irresponsible spending and propensity towards attention-grabbing ventures at the expense of Malawians.

However, the school was not abandoned. Although half the pupils and a third of the staff were ousted, it has reinvented itself. Kamuzu is now run as an expensive and exclusive boarding school - the only one of its type in Malawi. It is funded simply by the fees it charges, and states that its main aim is to 'nurture leadership qualities'. The school has developed successfully since 1993 and now has over 500 fee-paying pupils who study for iGCSEs and A Levels. Students have gone on to universities across the world, with several applying to Oxford and Campidge every year. Kamuzu is now an institution firmly for the elite - for this reason it is perhaps more than ever modelled on the British public school system.

An investigation into the school in 2002 by the Guardian  revealed that the vast majority of students were the children of government officials, and that the teaching of politics was avoided to avert embarrassing revelations about fee-payers. The academic ability of the school's pupils has certainly decreased as entrance requirements are now financial rather than academic. At the time of the Guardian study, even the head-boy expressed concerns about lowered standards. It is perhaps even more problematic that, due to the vast superiority of Kamuza to any other school in Malawi, the small, and often less than competent, elite will become dynastic and entrenched. In short, although the harm caused by the cost of the school's initial foundation was considerable, it is arguable that its second incarnation could prove even more harmful. 

However, under the new headmaster, Frank Cooke, Kamuza has been able to reinstate one of its founding principles. Since 2006, two children from each district of Malawi have been offered full bursaries, re-instituting Banda's original scheme. The original mission to promote learning irrespective of background is greatly enhanced by this. Cooke is very proud of the new venture, describing it as an 'achievement' all the teachers have 'worked towards for a long time'. Despite the clear disadvantages of Kamuza's current status as a exclusive path to power for a privileged elite, the new scholarship scheme perhaps shows that something of lasting worth has been salvaged from Banda's ill-advised and exceptionally costly project.

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Banda's reasoning was that Malawi, with 90% of its population engaged in subsistence agriculture, did not need universal secondary education, that it would be better to really concentrate resources on a small merit-based elite.  Mugabe went the other way after independence, spending vast sums on high quality secondary education for all.  He ended up with a lot of well qualified people for whom there were not enough jobs.  Banda's was a good idea in theory, but there were problems in practice, firstly with the selection process, which was far from perfect, and secondly with many graduates eventually leaving the country.  A couple of small corrections:  pupils did have to pay the same fees as any regular government secondary school, because Banda believed nothing should be completely free.  Yes, most of the teachers were British, but not all.  I am South African and taught there in the 90's. All teachers had to have a qualification in Latin or Greek.   Interestingly, Frank Cooke has been there since the school first opened, firstly as a teacher, then later as headmaster.

There appears to be a problem with this otherwise very fine article. A couple of times, the letters B and R in combination have been replaced with a single 'P' leading to 'pitish' (=British) and 'lipary' (=library). To leave this as it stands represents a great disgrace both to Think Africa Press and its editors, but also to the whole Malawian nation.

I was privileged enough to attend KA starting 1992. I was among those students who had to leave when KA was turned into a fee paying school.
Some statements in this article have short comings in substance and clarity and I feel that I have to add my thoughts here. 

  1. We paid school fees at KA. The cost of it was equivalent to any national secondary school.

  2. Green (not Gold as stated) blazers and boaters were only worn during special occasions. The exception was prefects. They could wear blazers at any time. In the three years that I was at KA, I wore a blazer and boater once when Kamuzu visited in 1992.

  3. Halting of funding for KA by the then government was largely done for political reasons. And not necessarily financial. The reason I say this is because all the students in my year (we were due to sit our iGCSEs) who could neither afford the high fees nor got a scholarship from the school (I was one of them) were funded by the government to go to Saint Andrews International High School in the commercial capital, Blantyre, at a much higher cost to the government that it would have costed had the government paid for us to complete our GCSEs at KA. Furthermore, when the new government recalled several diplomats from the countries embassies, almost all of their children were sent to Saint Andrews International High School at a higher cost to the government than it would have costed at KA.

  4. As you can see from above, KA is not the only school capable of delivering an British style education. Although not grammar schools, Saint Andrews International High School and Bishop Mackenzie in Lilongwe deliver comparable education. Actually these two schools have a much longer history in Malawi than KA.

  5. On the point of “teaching of politics” being avoided, I don’t believe that ANY secondary school in Malawi, public or private do that anyway. So singling out KA on that point is unfair.