A view of the library at Kamuzu Academy, which was modeled on the Library of Congress. via

I was still in the sixth form when I first heard of Kamuzu Academy. My Greek teacher had read about a school in the African bush where pupils in boaters and Eton collars sweated over Homer and Virgil in the glare of the tropical sun. The school, he told us, was the obsession of Malawi’s dictator, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Banda wanted his country’s most gifted children to learn Latin and Greek as a preparation for political leadership. Equipped with the lessons and ideals of antiquity, they would one day govern with wisdom and moderation. Plato’s ideal Republic would be reborn in central Africa.

The idea appealed to me, but I did not think of it again until many years later. I had just finished my Classics degree and the cold appetency of London was jarring after the languid delights of Oxford. I began looking for work in Africa, and one day a vacancy at Kamuzu Academy came up.

In all directions, vast, featureless plains extend to the horizon. For the length of the journey from the capital there are only smallholdings of maize and cassava, a few tobacco plantations, the odd derelict trading-center, and scrub. The thatch roofs of mud-brick houses are reinforced, here and there, by scraps of plastic bag weighed down with stones. After many hours, you arrive at a dismal town with an empty shop, a bar/brothel, a defunct post office, and a “butchery,” outside of which a fly-blown carcass twists slowly on a rope. But the tarmac continues. One mile further and you reach a gatehouse with a large illuminated sign: Kamuzu Academy—Honor Deo et Patriae.

A retired engineer told me how the site was chosen. Banda wanted the academy built beside the same kachere tree under which he had received his first lessons as a boy. And so he assembled a party of surveyors and architects and men with panga knives and led them into the bush. After three days of grubbing about, the tree was identified. The Foundation Myth was secure and work could begin. Bush was cleared, a dam was built, the school went up. At the opening ceremony in 1981, Banda arrived by helicopter in a three-piece Savile Row suit and Homburg hat. He knelt to drink from a brackish pool remembered from his childhood and then mounted a podium to address the expectant crowds. While he spoke in English, his strongman JZU Tembo translated into Chichewa. And as he proceeded to declaim page after page of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico in Latin, Tembo remained unfazed: mwamva zimene amene Kamuzu! “You heard what Kamuzu said!” The crowds roared, an honor guard stood to attention, and throngs of dancing girls wailed and cavorted in adulation.

At its height, the academy consumed a third of the country’s whole education budget. It was modeled on Eton and was to lack nothing. There was a Greek theater, a replica of the Library of Congress, a clock tower beside a lake arrayed with lilies, ornamental waterfowl, and monitor lizards. There were music rooms, a model farm, a golf course, and a cavernous refectory where grace would be said in Latin. The grounds encompassed lawns, gardens, sports fields, and parkland.

Nothing local—save the monitor lizards—was allowed to spoil the vision. Everything was imported—even the trees. The curriculum was strict: “anyone who does not want to learn Latin and Greek has no place at Kamuzu Academy.” Both were compulsory to A-level. But most controversial was the staff: Banda was adamant that no black teacher would ever work at his school. Everyone had to know Latin, and everyone had to be white. Of course, staff meeting those criteria could be obtained only on an expatriate salary.

For several years, things functioned well. But the arrangement could last only as long as Banda’s practically unlimited budget. When I arrived, over a decade had passed since the collapse of his regime. The school had survived, but as a shadow of its former self.

The masonry is cracked and the roofs leak water. The clocks have stopped and the school bells are broken. Through holes in the perimeter fence, the bush is encroaching. Hyenas bay and prowl in the gardens after dark. And the humbler employees forage and hunt for swamp rats in the woods by the boarding houses.

In the Classics department, Latin and Greek texts and grammars, primers and dictionaries are casually heaped on the floor in extraordinary numbers. Library issue stamps and academy bookplates, inscribed with African names, record a succession of readers brought abruptly to an end. Dusty shelves teeter with neglected humanist bric-à-brac: masks for a Greek play, tattered journals, slides of archeological sites, and souvenir guides to museums in Europe.

Without government money, the academy now employs local staff and depends on fee-paying pupils. These are of the elite, their fathers Big Men: wa-Benzi (members of the new ruling class) from the capital, government officials, senior bureaucrats, local managers of wealthy NGOs. Flaunting their status is more important than academic achievement. And the humble new teaching staff pander to them cravenly.

A small cohort of new government scholars was reintroduced by one of Banda’s successors in the presidency. Like the school’s original pupils, they come mostly from the villages and conditions of often desperate poverty. They are keen and able, but few and exceedingly timid. Unfortunately, their integration with the fee-paying pupils is not always happy.

Each school house has an annual celebratory dinner to which pupils wear their own clothes. The fee-paying pupils arrive bathed in cologne and immodestly attired. The girls are over-painted and under-dressed. The boys exhibit the “gangster rap” style: oversized basketball shirts and sagging pants, fake gold chains and designer sunglasses, and loping gaits copied from MTV. The government scholars enter behind them, carefully dressed in shabby costumes put together from their village clothes. The girls are often in a monochrome Sunday-best dress obviously sewn by amateur hands. A few boys wear their school uniform for want of anything smarter. And all of them huddle out of the limelight in which their wealthier peers disport themselves triumphantly.

It is the fee-paying pupils’ style of dress, with its associated music, idiolect, and culture, to which pupils (but also teachers, Big Men, even wealthier peasants) aspire after the slightest contact. This aesthetic glitters from satellite TV and the internet. Its sounds thunder from car stereos and grate from the tinny speakers of cellphones. Its costume can be bought off the back of a truck bringing cheap Chinese imports from Dar or Durban. It is a vision of idleness amid plenty that has nothing to do with the White Man. For them it is the new black American Dream. It excites an enthusiasm that entirely eclipses anything local, which lacks status in comparison. The music is supposed to have its roots in Africa. True or not, the local culture withers in its wake.

Of course this lifestyle is far too remote to be attained by labor or ability. But a lucky few might be elevated to it by Fortune: the favor of a philanthropic singer-celebrity, selection by a passing football talent scout, perhaps even political office by the lottery of election. For the rest, though, the dream can only be played at.

The psychedelic quality of academy life is most powerful on Founder’s Day. Depending on the identity and status of the guest of honor, there may be a welcoming party comprised of uniformed police and soldiery; regiments of women, swaying and ululating, dressed in chitenjes printed with the face of the Big Man; corpulent dark-suited ministers; Lords Spiritual, cassocked, surpliced, and tippeted in crimson and mauve; Paramount Chiefs in gay apparel; Traditional Authorities, High Commissioners, Chief Justices, Right Honourables, and Excellencies. The whole academy meanwhile assembles in spectacular array: straw boaters and buttons glimmer in the brilliant morning sunlight; the outlandish hoods and gowns, caps and tassels of diverse African universities compete with lurid creations run up in neon cloth by the academy tailor for those without degrees. You can even descry the purple and scarlet doctoral robes of Oxford. This procession marches through the grounds to the clock-tower. But formation is broken as the column reaches the bottleneck into the auditorium so that pupils and masters, bishops and dancing girls, sergeants and servants of state and doctors of philosophy are jumbled pell-mell as the cavalcade of black Mercedes rolls up at the porte-cochère to deliver the Big Man.

Waiting is an important part of the occasion: the higher the status of the guest, the longer everyone expects to wait. When the Big Man’s second wife came, it was only after many hours that the stream of limousines began to pour through the gates. For the Big Man’s own visit, the day was nearly at an end and his entourage had long since arrived, when the fire engine (taken from the international airport) and its police escort screamed in just ahead of two presidential helicopters. His entry into the vestibule prompted a deafening crash of amplified percussion as the director of music—clad in a golden suit—started the choir in his own arrangement of the “Hallelujah Chorus” for voices, electric guitar, drums, and a trombone. The Big Man approved and called for an encore. Later, the Chaplain was heard to remark on the great honor shown the academy by the obvious extravagance of the visit.

The visit of the Chinese ambassador was memorable. He cut a handsome figure in smart gray pinstripe with an improbable spray of violets in his buttonhole. He spoke at length, and at first the pupils grew restless. But his delivery was deliberate, charismatic, even portentous, and it was remarkable to watch his audience slowly captured: “China is both big and small; she is young and old, modern and ancient; she is rich and she is poor; China is . . .” After half an hour he rewarded their attention richly. At his signal the doors were flung open and a train of native bearers staggered in with crates of laptops and stereos, rackets and trainers, keyboards and plastic recorders, illustrated histories and Chinese textbooks. The head boy and head girl stood beside him as, crate by crate, the treasure was emptied out at his feet. The crowd’s frenzy only died down as the ambassador called for silence to announce his final offering: a pair of Mandarin teachers and an annual university scholarship to the PRC.

How different the visit of Britain’s High Commissioner: an unprepossessing figure in a crumpled suit who—it was well noted—arrived in a solitary Japanese pick-up. He lost his audience after twenty minutes of meekly reminding them of Britain’s commitment to aid, to righting the wrongs of the past. He even solemnly disclaimed colonialism, but his audience seemed to have little idea what he was talking about and began muttering impatiently. (A few months later, he was expelled from the country for his [leaked] observation that the president was becoming intolerant of criticism.)

The more typical guest speaker, however, makes for an anticlimactic afternoon. Ludicrous preambles are followed by speeches of irremediable tedium: a histrionic sermon, an eccentric ministerial discourse on the price of cement, or perhaps only a few mumbled words of unfathomable import. Even so, if the speaker is important enough, the most platitudinous or even inaudible statements are enough to whip up the crowd. The din is appalling. The novelty wears off, and the heat and the sweat and the giddy surrealism make you queasy.

The only antidote, a friend explained to me, is the village-life to be found immediately outside the academy’s fraying chain-link fence. We slip out during “I vow to thee, my country,” and are presently at his maize farm. The site is beautiful and affords an enormous view of fields thick with flourishing crops, a patch of sunken marshy wood, and mountains in the distant haze.

We stroll to a cluster of tiny dwellings where the tenants live and the ageless activities of village life go on: sowing, tending and harvesting of crops; hewing of wood; drawing of water. The huts are well wrought, with tidy thatch and a clean khonde for sitting out. And they are set in a clearing, meticulously swept, and bordered with fruit trees. Here we are entertained, amid long shadows, by a trio of musicians who play finely on guitars fashioned from refuse. The moon is already risen as the sun plunges, red and huge, over the distant hills.

It is idyllic, but it is also a world of great and obvious insecurity. The harvest may or may not be sufficient unto the year ahead. And there is a broader context of land shortage, dependency on (subsidized) fertilizer, and a population predicted to double again in the next twenty years. For the boys in the village there is often nothing to do except help a little with the fields—but with so many hands and so little land, there is a lot of what is descriptively termed “just staying.” The girls are preoccupied from an early age with the bearing and mothering of children. For villagers there is so little access to any cash economy that calculation of GDP per capita is academic.

It is to this world of beauty and hardship that the government scholars return at the end of each term—and then for good after taking their A-levels. Even for those who do well, opportunities are scarce. A few jobs exist in government and the banks, but it would be naive to imagine that these are won by merit. Private enterprise is almost non-existent. The NGOs support a tiny, artificial middle class that depends on foreign donation. Most return to the land.

One morning in the last few weeks of term, “Nearer, my God, to thee” is sung at assembly. This is the signal to everyone that the senior staff are about to leave and that anyone with means should quickly do the same. The fee-paying pupils are collected in clusters by chauffeurs sent up from the capital in a flurry of social anxiety—the higher the status of the parents, the earlier before the end of term their children should depart.

The electricity and water supply become more than usually intermittent; the kitchens stop attempting to serve anything besides maize porridge; paper, pencils, and chalk run out; and the ancillary workers vanish. The last claims to authority over the boarding houses are surrendered. Handfuls of pupils wander aimlessly through the grounds; a few others are paddling in a half-drained swimming pool. The sound of a single lesson in an almost deserted classroom echoes round the courtyard.

Of course, the government scholars are still there, bivouacking in the dormitories. They are the last to leave, in faltering buses hired to convey them up and down the length of the country and deposit them along the tarmac at the point closest to their homes.

Amongst them is Kondwani—probably my best pupil. Before he goes, I hand him a lexicon and a Greek anthology. There is always some uncertainty as to whether the government will in fact support its scholars through the following year—but we do not touch on this. Instead, I urge him to find time for reading over the holiday and to keep up Greek prose composition next year. Then I bid him farewell. His lexicon balanced on his head, he walks towards the bus that will take him back to the torrid sugar plantations of the south and his widowed mother.

I went home to begin a different life in England. But Kondwani, I learn, did indeed return to the academy and is currently reading Iliad XXIV for A-level with a colleague of mine. “What is the point in studying Classics?” In England, the question is often sarcastic. But of an African context, it is usually asked conscientiously. To be sure, an answer is difficult. There are a few practical benefits, but real engagement with the subject is rare. Indeed for most, total incomprehension is the standard.

Mandarin is the new prestige subject at the academy. It will be interesting to follow the consequences of this experiment. So far teaching Chinese characters looks to be even more futile than the “baleful signs” of Greek and Latin. But perhaps with time, something will be achieved. But then perhaps with time Banda’s vision might have succeeded.

Things fall apart in Africa, it has been observed, faster or at least more obviously than elsewhere. The result is the chaos of change, decay, and novelty with which the continent is famously—even proverbially—associated. Paradoxically, this evokes a powerful sense of changelessness: against what is constant —even and especially constant change—all human activity appears feeble, all ambition futile. And from this comes a feeling of liberation from utilitarian concerns, from the prejudices of profit and loss that trouble one elsewhere. There is no justification—but there is also no need of justification. In such a place, you grow accustomed to the bizarre and accept it as you accept the terrible and the wonderful.

In that huge uncluttered landscape, in its limpid air, perhaps even under a kachere tree, you see a small boy reading of Priam’s embassy to Achilles—and only rejoice in it.