The surprise of finding real treasure in a treasure chest is much enhanced by my location - the middle of the Malawian bush. With the sharp slope of Mount Kasungu behind me, and brachystegia forest stretching as far as the horizon, I have just opened a hefty casket of oak, brass and leather.
I am delighted to find inside a 1584 edition of Caesar’s Gallic Wars from the press of Aldus Manutius. I was drawn to it through a sweep of torchlight, situated beneath a dusty portrait of Robert Mugabe, in the strong room of the library in Hastings Banda, Malawi's first president's palace, Nguru-ya-Nawambe.
My Tumbuka companion John and I are fortunate to have reached here, as fuel has been difficult to obtain for some six weeks. The country's principal motorway and streets of the capital are often empty; one can drive hundreds of miles and pass only the odd vehicle – police, soldiers, wa-Benzi, a 4x4 filled with azungu. It is on account of this inefficiency – among other things – that Malawians uncharacteristically resorted to violent protest on July 20-21.
Further trouble is expected. Animosity is directed at Bingu was Mutharika, the current President, who has lately presided over a series of fiascos. To start with, there were offences of personal indulgence: a private jet, a lavish wedding to a second wife, and the promotion of immediate family to senior positions in government and the military. The foreign aid on which Malawi depended for 40% of its budget was also suspended: the British High Commissioner who was expelled for describing Bingu as “increasingly autocratic and intolerant of criticism” must have felt vindicated. Bingu declared to the BBC a few weeks ago that he was “the most tolerant person" one could hope to meet.
Malawi’s currency is heavily overvalued despite a blip a couple of months ago and there is no foreign exchange, at least none besides that which is - Bingu has implied - being hoarded by the Indians. Inevitably, therefore, there followed: longer queues for fuel and, at times, no fuel at all; longer and more frequent power cuts; disruption to the phone network; and, in due course, violence. Newspapers bore photos of boys wielding panga-knives on the streets of Blantyre, and as I drove to Lilongwe from the south on July 21, I was passed by police, soldiers and a pick-up full of boys in ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) t-shirts armed with machine guns. On the outskirts of the city, I felt much safer for finding an armoured car travelling in the same direction. I cleaved to it and drove past looted shops, burnt cars and the scorched remains of barricades on my way to collect a friend who had been listening to machine gun fire for much of the morning. The army had regained control that afternoon. Things have been calmer since then but the last few weeks have nevertheless seen Bingu compare a colleague’s treachery to Lucifer’s betrayal of God, a three day general strike, the mysterious and gruesome death of a political activist, and the rationing of ARV drugs for the country’s estimated 930,00 HIV patients.
John’s natural reticence makes it difficult to ascertain his thoughts on the country’s political leaders but I detect more than a measure of disdain in the tutting and head-shaking with which he responds to enquiry on the subject. I have the notion that he considers them unworthy of further comment. I am encouraged in this view by the fact that, in contrast, John invariably speaks with a good deal of respect for Hastings Banda despite the fact that he personally suffered under his 33 year rule.
Sitting on the scrub - once lawn - outside the library, John recounts to me the odd beatings to which his fellow villagers were subjected, the short imprisonments they endured, and the persecution of his village by Banda’s Malawi Youth Pioneers who would bully anyone who could be found without a Malawi Congress Party membership card. For all of this John was singled out as a minority Tumbuka. Despite this, however, John speaks well of Banda and complains of those that squander his legacy, which at least implies he left a legacy worth protecting. All the same, with political and other difficulties, John left his home village in the north and went in search of work elsewhere. Some twenty years before me, he found himself in Mtunthama, Banda’s home village in Kasungu District.
Thirty kilometres or so from Mtunthama, Kamuzu Banda chose Mt Kasungu as the site for Nguru-ya-Nawambe. That is where I am standing, the Aldine Caesar in my hands. The palace itself is unremarkable to look upon – concrete and stucco in a faux-Italianate pre-fab dictator-palace style replete with miniature faux-Roman statuary. Set apart from the palace is a modest, unornamented single-storey edifice containing Banda’s office, library, archive and strong room. The inside is filled with fine carpet and wallpaper, the skins of lions and leopards, and portraits of Banda and friends – Kaunda, Mugabe et al – though it is not a place of excess, of gold taps and gargantuan chandeliers.
One is, however, uncomfortably conscious of the misjudgement which sets objects of worth beside tat: the Tiffany cigarette box with a dedication from Lyndon Johnson beside the souvenir ash-tray from the Tower of London; the antique jar from the Levant and Jaeger-le-Coultre clock on a ply-wood shelf; the Mappin & Webb tea tray beside one of plastic decorated with photo-portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and her family; a Louis Farouk desk adorned with a monogrammed crocodile skin Asprey writing set and desk calendar which, it appears, the elderly retainer Mr Lemon still fondly adjusts each day. Besides this: fly-whisks, canes (one, inlaid with ivory and silver, a gift from Kenyatta), suits, gowns and hoods, a couple of stethoscopes, and, of course, his books.
Banda was a striking figure in the high rococo period of African leadership: he was admired in the West as a moderate; he had worked as a GP in Harlesden, a suburb of London; he wore a Homburg hat and a suit from London's exclusive Saville Row; and he was indifferent to his peers’ abhorrence of his happy relations with Pretoria and Salisbury. Furthermore, he was an enthusiast of traditional Western culture, an ultra-traditionalist, a soi-disant philosopher-king, and he believed the future of the country depended on the best and brightest of her sons (and daughters) learning to read Latin and Greek.
It is perhaps an ungenerous sentiment, but almost the most striking thing about the library is that at least some of the books look like they were read. One expects that at least one corner of the shelf – a muddle of 19th century editions with nothing in common besides their venerable appearance, purchased perhaps as a job-lot from a Mayfair book-dealer – was acquired for display purposes only. But the rest of the collection is interesting and hallmarks the stamps of use. It falls for the most part into three sections.
First, there are countless gifts and presentation copies – coffee-table books. An exquisitely bound copy of Royal Heritage, for example, allows me to show John the signature of the Queen of England. In this jumble are also some happy accidents of shelving: the ink drawings of Mme Chiang Kai-Shek beside Kim-Il-Sung's Let Us Promote the World Revolution Holding High the Banner of Anti-Imperialist, Anti-U.S. Struggle…(the title is too long to be fully reproduced here). And sitting together are Vorster, Kenyatta, Kaunda, Welensky, and even (unsigned, alas) Ilie, Nicholae's younger brother, Ceauşescu’s From the Dacian State to Modern Romania.
Next and showing the greatest signs of use are biographies of big men of history: Cecil Rhodes and Gandhi, Frederick and Peter the Great, Mountbatten and Bismarck, Livingstone and Reza Shah, even Queen Victoria's Highland journal. A life of Elizabeth I and a history of Alanbrooke’s campaigns bear the president’s signature, a date and the inscription HM Prison Gwelo.
There is then a selection of medical texts, several containing copious annotations and revision aids dated to his student days. Also, a well-thumbed copy of Cronin’s The Citadel, a monograph by a South African physician appealing for interest, and an antique work on tropical disease which, as I embark on a career in medicine, I find difficult to leave behind.
Lastly, there are, of course, his Classics books. On the subject of Banda’s enthusiasm for Latin and Greek, I refer the reader to RL Hewitt's paper Dr H Kamuzu Banda and the Classical Tradition in Malawi presented at the 2011 Biennial Conference of the Classical Association of South Africa. Let it suffice to say here that the doctor's enthusiasm was undoubtedly sincere, but that there is evidence to suggest he was less proficient in these languages than is sometimes reputed. Various toadying accounts attesting to his mastery of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, various modern languages and Chichewa, Malawi's national language, were written, but even his grasp of the latter is reported to have been fleeting. A school report card we found at the palace suggests that, of the Classics, he studied only Latin and that to an unadvanced level. His enthusiasm for the Classics was, it seems, sentimental and based presumably on the high esteem in which the subject was held by the British establishment whom he sought to emulate.
This view is supported by the contents of the library: there is a handful of Latin and Greek texts but they are jumbled in with other volumes of similar appearance and age on what must be the ‘display’ bookshelf. None suggests any sign of recent use and the selection is eclectic. The exceptions are the Aldine Caesar - which was, in any event, tucked away in the strong room - and a rather beautiful edition of Terence, dedicated to Kamuzu Banda from the Head Master of Eton and presumably chosen for the witticism: Publius Terentius Afer (Terence African). Next, it is noteworthy that the bulk of the Classics books are to be found on another shelf and are works of more recent publication, some of which do look to have been read. They are, for the most part, works of ancient history or Penguin translations of Latin and Greek texts. The life and works of Caesar are especially well represented. But of these, there are few corresponding texts in the original languages. Above all, there is a complete absence of Latin or Greek dictionaries and grammar books.
Sitting at Banda’s desk, the imagination is hard to restrain, stimulated as it is by scattered blueprints for the palace and Lilongwe created largely ex nihilo to succeed Zomba as the capital. In the secretary's office, I find a rather homely photograph album of Banda entertaining President & Mrs Fouché of South Africa. Another box, apparently entrusted to the care of a colonel of the Malawi Defence Force, is full of packing foam in the depths of which lie a great selection of fabric samples for curtains and carpets along with a glossy brochure from a manufacturer of executive jets - fruits of an exploratory shopping trip with the official hostess, Mama Cecilia Kadzamira, perhaps. In an archive box, I find the British mining company Lonrho's proposal for the Dwangwa Estuary Sugar Plantation project alongside a complimentary calendar from the cabinet of the Republic of Venda - an Apartheid Bantustan - a cheaply printed item illustrated with photographs of suited ministers grinning nervously, dams, silos, and the Venda Defence Force on manoeuvre. There is a progress report on the Salima-Lilongwe railway restoration project - a glance suggests that the project was on track in 1977. I had crossed the line often enough in the last two years and there is now no service. It went from restoration to dereliction, it would seem, in some thirty years.
The palace is on the lower slopes of Mount Kasungu which veers up sharply, picturesquely and as perfectly mountain-like as the Matterhorn. Stepping out of the library I can look down to the squalor of Kasungu town, 30km from my home and the town on which I had had to depend for such luxuries as sugar, engine oil, and a local newspaper. Immediately beneath me is the ruined helipad and in the distance are the remains of Kasungu International Airport, its tarmac heavily scarred and overgrown, its first-class waiting-room an empty shell, its two boarding stairs much decayed. Beyond these, the bush grows denser and denser and the villages fewer and fewer until Kasungu National Park, an endless, thick, level forest stretching as far as the horizon.
The park is - in John’s words – a fierce place. The only lodge in the park has just been taken up by some Europeans but, for most of my time in Malawi had been deserted ever since the last proprietor, a German, abandoned the place after his friend was trampled to death by an elephant during a Boxing Day stroll. Nevertheless, game is scarce thanks to poaching and mismanagement. It is not a popular destination; you are unlikely to see much by way of wildlife and, if you do, it is not unlikely that you will be in physical danger from it. It is, however, a beautiful place and from Black Rock you enjoy a view completely unbroken in any direction by trace of human settlement. Pieces of civilisation - or its remnants – are there, however, dating from Banda’s era or even before. Some of the park fence, for example, remains and is still just about discernible in a handful of prominent places. There is also a military storehouse and a scientific research station to which we were granted access by a friend. The former was a droll thing to look into. The massive steel door will survive for a long time but the contents were a pitiful sight: M-16s, Lee-Enfields, poachers’ home-made matchlock weapons and massive-bored elephant guns in various conditions of disrepair were heaped carelessly amongst tottering piles of half-empty ammunition boxes, clumsily opened and stacked precariously upon one another. In the corner lay a couple of splendid tusks and battered sable horns.
Nearby, tumble-down and very dusty, is the scientific research station. Animal specimens float in jars, chaotically dispersed on shelves and in cupboards. Most feature labels in brown copperplate script identifying the specimen in Latin and its collector. From the dates of the samples, it is plain to see the collection was not suddenly neglected; apprentices continued the work for some time and, at first, conscientiously. But then the specimens become fewer and fewer up to the most recent, which is identified solely by a scrap of paper sellotaped ineptly to the side of the jar, bearing, in non-cursive biro script, the single word ‘snake’. Drawers and cupboards produce mephitic dust-clouds from the crumbling of desiccated birds and rodents. Some horns and pelts are littered in corners, though whole crocodile skins can be found on a dust heap beside the rusted grader in the workshop. One vast cabinet contains drawers, all precisely labelled: Grasses A-C, D-F etc. I think of Conrad’s Marlow and the book An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship he finds in the shack beside the Congo River: “Not a very enthralling book; but at first glance you could see there a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work, which made these humble pages…luminous with another than a professional light."
By kind permission of Hon. Jane Dzanjalimodzi, I have been able to go to Nguru-ya-Nawambe a few times. A colleague and I catalogued the books of Classical and medical interest. The last day I spend here is only three days before I am to leave Malawi to start a new life in the UK. It was with considerable melancholy, then, that I sit with John beneath a tree outside the library for lunch consisting of an onion tart he has baked that morning. We have driven up from my home at Kamuzu Academy where for two years I taught Latin and Greek, and John worked as my houseboy. Kamuzu Academy – ‘the Eton of Africa’ – was the most extravagant expression of Banda’s enthusiasm for the Classics. It had been an English public school in the middle of the bush, dedicated to the study of Latin and Greek and run – until Banda’s forced retirement to South Africa – on an almost unlimited budget. Even now, one Classical language is compulsory to GCSE (an exam for sixteen year-olds) and the school boasts the largest number of Ancient Greek GCSE candidates in the world. Under Banda, all pupils were required to study the Classics to A-level (an exam for eighteen year-olds) and all teachers had to have studied Latin. It was also required that all teachers be white. And with so many azungu, the local village of Mtunthama swelled with migrants seeking work with the academy or - more prestigiously - with the masters. The end of Banda’s rule marked the end of the school’s unlimited budget and the expatriates – all but a few – went home. My colleague unearthed a poignant letter in a school archive from one Head of Classics to a newly appointed successor. “As you will have heard” it read, “I am leaving. Actually, we all are." There are now fewer than a dozen and numbers are declining. Several left with me and few of their posts, including mine, are being refilled.
Less and less work is also available for the domestic workers who return to subsistence farming. With three azungu leaving and only one being replaced, John is not sanguine about his chances of finding work next year. With a mix of resignation and melancholy, he reviews for me his career of over twenty years in Mtunthama. When first he came to KA, he worked as a labourer in its landscape department but resigned in protest at the obviously preferential treatment which the overseer’s relatives were receiving. Following that, he found employment with the azungu and worked for them almost continually thereafter even though most of his masters remained at KA for one year only. John had excellent letters of reference, exemplary manners and a general air of probity. I picked him from a large group of importunate boys, all very desperate for work, and was very glad that I did. Indeed, knowing now what I do of both John and the others, I do not think I could have been luckier in my choice. On the grass outside Banda’s library, John recalled a sorry catalogue of former masters. Some had been sacked, some had resigned, one even exiled. Some others had succumbed to alcohol and one had been infected with HIV. All were gone.
One story struck me in particular: a young English teacher of mathematics had developed an interest in local politics and – in an exhibitionist sort of way, it seems – had displayed on his front door a poster indicating his opposition to Banda. John voiced his worries about this but was disregarded. Sure enough, informants notified authorities and, without a hint of chivalry, attributed blame for the poster to his wife who was immediately expelled from the country. Nevertheless, the young man and therefore his servants were all out of work by the end of the term. On that occasion, John found work again almost immediately.
Next year looks likely to be different. As he knows, there is to be only one new member of staff and, a lady, she is more likely to want female domestic workers. The subsistence farming which John left in his youth seems his most likely recourse, but this will be difficult work not simply because of John’s age. There are already land shortages, a massive fertiliser subsidy in Malawi and the population is due to double in the next twenty years.
Before we leave Nguru-ya-Nawambe for the last time, I take out the Aldine Caesar and inspect it again outside the library in the light of the setting sun. I stand with it a while, not reading, but enjoying the pages, the typeface, the fold-out maps of Gaul and the Iberian peninsula, the plan of the siege of Avaricum. It is a lovely thing to look upon and behold although other compelling reasons for rescuing it also abound, not least Marlow’s precedent. But I was mindful of the fata libellorum - and the sharp slope of Mt Kasungu with its crumbling palace, the loveliness of the fading light and the expansive view, and the smell of bush and warm, decomposing tarmac - it seemed a finer grave than many the book would find elsewhere.
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