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.