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The Eton of Africa: Where does it lie 40 years later?

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GUDULI —There are issues of mental health

They are everywhere—in hospitals conducting complicated surgeries and correcting deformities in frail bodies of infants in need of urgent medical care; in Parliament legislating laws for keeping lowlifes in check; on the left side of the cockpit superintending everything happening on a flight.

Some have their work in courtrooms and chambers, donning black or crimson robes, fluffy white wigs and collars.

Much of what they are doing today was reinforced within the red walls of a giant in the jungle.

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Perhaps Kamuzu Academy, that exclusive school with wrought-iron gates, a soaring clocktower, semi-circular arches like those of medieval Europe, a longstanding artificial lake and a library modelled on Washington’s Library of Congress, will forever remain in a class of its own.

On the 21st of this month, the school, founded by Malawi’s first president Hastings Kamuzu Banda, will have been in existence for 40 years during which it has apparently attempted as much as possible to reinvent itself.

On the about-550-hectare expanse, there is also an auditorium, art, home economics and computer rooms, an outdoor amphitheatre and many more that earned the school the name ‘The Eton of Africa’ after a United Kingdom (UK) public school founded by Henry IV.

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Like its model, Kamuzu Academy is said to be a progressive school forever committed to independent thought and the pursuit of excellence “in providing a well-rounded education for the whole person”.

“The school’s alumni are almost everywhere; not just in Malawi. They are all over Africa, the UK and the United States working in various fields. They are into all professions,” says Stawa Shaibu, a former student of Kamuzu Academy, who returned to the school to teach in September 2002 after obtaining her bachelor’s degree from the University of Malawi.

Medical personnel such as Dr Ennet Chipungu (an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist), Dr Grace Chiudzu (a gynaecologist), and Dr Patrick Kamalo (a neurosurgeon) and High Court judges such as Chifundo Kachale, Dorothy DeGabriele and Fiona Mwale went through Kamuzu Academy.

Prominent lawyers such as Bazuka Mhango; politicians such as current Speaker of Parliament Catherine Gotani Hara and members of Parliament Noah Chimpeni and Joyce Chitsulo and pilots such as Yolanda Ndala- Kaunda, Moses Matupa and Felistas Matengo are alumni of the school—an idea of the man who decided the smartest children should be given the smartest education.

Shaibu stresses the school has managed to sustain the ideals that it stood for when it first opened its doors four decades ago and that Banda would not be turning in his grave at the present status of the institution, which is now being run as a private entity.

“I have worked at Kamuzu Academy for 15 years and I have seen great improvements. Performance is not going down; rather, it is rising. Now the [International General Certificate of Secondary Education] pass rate is above 75 percent. Here we are talking about those who obtain grades starting from A to C.

“There are also more subjects than was the case years back. For instance, we are offering Information and Communications Technology and Mandarin Chinese as additional subjects,” the teacher says.

The school, which further pays particular attention to extracurricular activities such as sports, practised on a 10-hole golf course, a running track and tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, has also increased its academic year intake from 300 to over 650.

Shaibu hopes well-wishers will come in to support children from less-privileged families who would significantly benefit from the education offered at Kamuzu Academy but cannot afford to pay school fees.

The Eton in the jungle went through a transition following Banda’s fall from power in 1994 but stuck to quality, observers say.

When it opened, Banda directed that a minimum of the three best students—two boys and one girl—were to be selected on merit from each district to start form one at the institution.

“No expense was spared to ensure that the physical environment of the academy and its academic staff set the tone of excellence he envisaged.

“The avowed intention of the academy is to challenge academically gifted children with a rigorous but stimulating and enriching academic programme, preparing them for international examinations at the highest level, accredited by examination boards based in the United Kingdom,” reads in part a note on Kamuzu Academy website.

Banda emphasised that at the core of lessons offered at the institution must be the study of the Classics and insisted no one would truly call themselves educated without such lessons.

Today, Greek and Latin are still being taught at Kamuzu Academy built in the shadow of the kachere tree under which Scottish missionaries taught the young Hastings to read and write at the beginning of the 20th century.

“We will maintain the founder’s vision. Quality will always be our guiding principle and there is nothing that will force us to compromise on that,” Shaibu says.

Such sentiments are echoed by the school’s deputy headmaster (Pastoral), Hawkins Gondwe, who insists that, in trying to educate the whole person, the academy is more than just dealing with class work.

Gondwe joined the academy in 1995. He says management demands that students take part in the full curriculum the school offers.

“When I was joining the school, a lot of alumni had already gone out into various fields. They were wholly moulded people and that is something we have maintained over the years.

“Kamuzu Academy originated from someone with a very rare mind; someone who was very dynamic, very pragmatic. People may have different views but the impact of the school is out there for all to see,” Gondwe said recently.

He further waxes lyrical about the gender balance in terms of enrolment, saying the number of girls admitted equals or even surpasses that of boys.

So, every time girls and boys undertake their final exits of the institution as students, through its cloistered pavements, Gondwe is confident they will leave a mark in any field of human endeavour they will shift to.

Judge Kachale himself harks back to his time at the academy with satisfaction.

The judge, who is the current chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission, got educated at the institution from 1989 to 1995.

“We were exposed to the best of learning from History, Greek, Latin… We also had the best of science laboratories. At the end of the day, because of the way the lessons were delivered, one learnt the discipline of diligence and hard work,” Kachale said in an interview yesterday.

He further said, as an individual, the classical learning helped him to acquire some skills and being organised.

“We learnt several languages—Latin, Greek, French—and the way they were structured gave you an opportunity to acquire skills to get organised and expand your mind and knowledge,” the judge said.

Reverend Gerald Guduli, seconded to the academy by the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Nkhoma Synod as chaplain, is content that he is able to provide moral and spiritual support to both students and teachers at the school apart from teaching religious studies in core classroom settings.

“There are issues of mental health common among students. The past two years have been particularly difficult due to the Covid pandemic. Students would rush into my office crying after losing their relatives to the disease,” the pastor says.

He also looks at his role as crucial in sustaining the school’s larger vision of “educating the whole person” that should be mature academically and morally.

It is particularly critical these days, Guduli says, when children are being exposed to all manner of detrimental content which may harm their mental wellbeing too.

On the other hand, the school’s rural setting—away from the clamour prevalent in towns and cities—makes it ideal for the learners to concentrate on their education.

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