Former government official hostess Cecilia Tamanda Kadzamira retains vivid recollections of the day in 1972 when Malawi’s founding president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda revealed to her his dreams to establish a school in Mtunthama, Kasungu, modelled on England’s Eton College.
“It was a bright afternoon,” Kadzamira says, sitting in an upholstered armchair in the living room of her house in Lilongwe’s Area 15.
She recalls that on the day, Banda had been reading through some correspondences from Wilberforce University.
“That was the first day he told me about his dream to build a primary school at Mtunthama and, later, a high school in the vicinity of the Kachere tree, his original primary school,” Kadzamira says.
Less than a decade later, Kamuzu Academy was born, about 150 kilometres north of Lilongwe City, at a place previously kept dense with all manner of vegetation.
Like the institution it was modelled on, the academy is said to have immediately begun offering transformative educational opportunities to its students the moment it opened its doors in 1981.
That time, the school only accepted three best students from every district, who were provided with almost everything including uniforms, beddings, shoes, socks, textbooks and sports attire.
It offers courses leading to the International General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations of the University of Cambridge and other United Kingdom (UK) examining bodies.
Kadzamira admits a lot of homework had been done before the construction of the facility even started.
“Dr Banda suggested that a team should visit some grammar schools in the UK to see the kind of education they were offering. I was part of the delegation and we visited three schools in London and then visited Scotland.
“In all our ventures, we focussed on his vision of establishing a school that could offer the best education to children of this country while also educating the whole person,” the former official hostel, who is also a member of the academy’s board of governors, says.
In September 1978, Banda laid the foundation stone of Kamuzu Academy, which can still be seen on the right at the top of the steps at the entrance.
“The academy’s distinctive architecture with its Romanesque arches, cloistered walkways, ornamental lake and landscaped gardens—a haven for birdlife—makes it, quite literally, a garden of learning that few schools in the world can emulate,” information about the school, on its website, indicates.
And Kadzamira, who also chairs the committee that is organising the school’s 40-year anniversary celebration slated for tomorrow, remains optimistic that Kamuzu Academy will not depart from the ideals upon which it was founded.
She says the values that Banda stood for, that students who go through the institution should be well-disciplined, have significantly guided the school even as the world around it has transitioned in many ways.
According to Kadzamira, Banda would still be happy with what is happening at the school that he founded and that, although the school is now fee-paying, it has continued to produce the quality that he envisaged.
Still, Kadzamira admits, there is something that the former president would have wanted done differently.
“He would not be happy to see this sort of high-quality education being a preserve of only those who can afford it when, in the past, it was for those that made the grade,” she says of the selective, co-educational boarding institution.
Kadzamira is pleased that alumni of the school are working in various fields throughout Malawi, in several African countries, in Europe, in the United States and elsewhere.
She recollects that one of the school’s graduates during its first 10 years ended up working at Microsoft Corporation, the American multinational technology corporation which produces computer software, consumer electronics, personal computers and related services.
The first female pilot in Malawi is also said to have gone through the corridors of the school, which Banda created as his personal legacy to the people of Malawi.
An alumnus of the academy, who is now an aircraft pilot, Yolanda Kaunda, says the institution gave her the foundational knowledge she needed to cope with her profession and the world in general.
“The academy taught me to be confident with myself and express myself fully in any endeavour and I guess it played a role on me selecting a male-dominated profession. It gave me the confidence,” Kaunda says.
She also describes the institution as a “great educational environment where one gets to meet and interact with fellow intellectuals from all walks of life. It is a great platform for developing one’s knowledge and interpersonal skills.”
Even after he lost power in 1994 and died three years later, Banda’s brainchild has remained a long-term investment that continues to raise standards in education and to prepare those who go through its classrooms to become responsible leaders, according to Board of Governors Chairperson Francis Perekamoyo.
When the academy 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 in Malawi to enter form one every year.
“No student was to be offered a place based on the personal position or influence of parents. 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,” the school’s information further says.
On why Banda initially opted for foreign nationals, particularly Britons, as teachers at a school he had established in a remote location, away from towns and cities, Kadzamira says the late president wanted the institution to strictly follow its model.
She says he wanted high-calibre teachers, who could even teach at Eton College, to set things in motion with natives coming later to join the institution.
“Dr Banda was a perfectionist and wanted teachers who would be able to understand Eton Education. He knew that, very soon, there would be Malawian teachers to join the academy and it happened within three to five years,” Kadzamira explains.
About how the school is able to sustain itself now that it is completely a private institution with no government involvement at any point, Perekamoyo says the funds collected as fees and donations strictly go into its account for day-to-day operations.
The Kamuzu Academy chairman of board of governors further dismisses as misconceptions sentiments that Banda used government funds to build the school.
“Indeed, the founder was also the president of the country, but funds for constructing the academy came from his private pockets, no matter how small. I am speaking from what I saw because I was in the finance committee of the institution that time. He used his own resources, mostly from farming,” Perekamoyo states.
He deems the fact that the school’s alumni are occupying strategic positions within and outside the country as Kamuzu Academy’s biggest success.
“From the very beginning, we taught them to be ladies and gentlemen, hard-working people and with a high sense of integrity. You might wish to know that the school has a deputy headmaster strictly responsible for pastoral affairs,” Perekamoyo explains.
On concerns that the school charges exorbitant fees, the former Reserve Bank of Malawi governor says it is all about maintaining quality.
According to Perekamoyo, what students write at Eton College in England is what students at Kamuzu Academy write.
“It means the curriculum we follow is the same. Most teachers come from abroad; the materials are of high quality and must be always updated,” he says, further describing the institution as a dynamic one that will continue evolving to respond to the needs of society.
The school’s librarian Dowell Nyondo stresses the facility he oversees, modelled on Washington’s Library of Congress, is the nerve centre of learning at the academy.
According to Nyondo, the library conveniently responds to the needs of students and teachers through the provision of books, journals and periodicals.
And for Kadzamira and Perekamoyo, as the academy clocks four decades of offering what it was designed to, its contribution to the progress of various aspects of life is its success.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje