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Hastings Kamuzu Banda Biography

Detoured on Road to Become a Doctor, Pursued Degrees with Diligence, Spoke Out Against Racism



President Hastings Kamuzu Banda was the sole source of Malawi's political power between 1958 and 1994. Ambitious and goal-oriented in his youth, he matured into a political sophisticate who spearheaded his country's vehement struggle against forced federation with Northern and Southern Rhodesia and negotiated the former Nyasaland's independence from Britain. Banda declared himself president-for-life of Malawi in 1971, and at that time already showed signs of his transformation into an iron-fisted dictator. Violent protests among Malawians and withdrawal of international support forced Banda to consent to multi-party elections in 1994. His loss ended his rule of the country.

Detoured on Road to Become
a Doctor

As a small child, Kamuzu Banda witnessed a seemingly miraculous medical procedure involving a tree branch with a piece of string attached to it. The crude instrument was used to wrench an arrow from a patient's back. Impressed, the small spectator came to an important decision: "One day I'm going to be a doctor." It was a fair enough goal for a Chewa boy in turn-of-the-century Nyasaland, where the medicine man's herbs and prayers had always been highly respected by farming folk like his parents.

To the Scottish missionaries who ran the bush school he is believed to have entered in 1905, the word "doctor" carried different overtones, involving long years in overseas universities. Banda had no doubts that he should follow the missionaries' track to progress. In 1915 he armed himself for his future with a meager store of cash, a faith in Christianity, and, courtesy of his favorite missionary, the brand-new baptismal name of Hastings. Then he set off on a 400-mile trek to the Church of Scotland's Lovedale College in Johannesburg, South Africa. Penniless by the time he reached Hartley, Southern Rhodesia, Banda found a job as a sweeper at a local hospital. The work was not difficult, but it introduced him to a fierce bigotry toward black patients that was forever burned into his memory by the time he had saved enough money to move on to Johannesburg.

Skirting South Africa's stiff immigration laws was difficult. Obtaining a job as a migrant miner solved the problem, getting him first into a Natal coal mine, then into a larger mine near Johannesburg. Banda found he enjoyed big city life, where his evenings were spent in study at a local mission or in long political debates. He was particularly struck by the lectures of Ghanaian civil rights worker and teacher J. E. K. Aggrey, whose American education spurred Banda to look to the United States to secure his own professional future.

Pursued Degrees with Diligence

Already proficient in English, Banda's climb to success began in Xenia, Ohio, where he completed high school. Next came a short stint at Indiana University, followed by studies in philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he received his liberal arts degree in 1931. Banda's higher education in the United States culminated in 1937 with a degree from Nashville, Tennessee's Meharry Medical College. The years before his graduation were bittersweet; as the home of the Ku Klux Klan, Nashville displayed the most virulent racism Banda had seen since his years in Southern Rhodesia.

A medical mission in Nyasaland had always been Banda's goal. Since a British degree was necessary for this career choice, he went to Scotland for postgraduate study. It took him three years to earn his advanced medical degrees from the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. He then set up the first of several practices in England.

Spoke Out Against Racism

While Banda continued his medical studies in Great Britain, the question of Nyasaland's federation with both Southern and Northern Rhodesia remained a hot topic. White settlers, who had established a farming economy in Nyasaland at the turn of the century, proposed the white-supremacist federation. But black Malawians, seeking to improve their political, social, and economic standing in the colonized region, viewed the idea of federation as a threat to their hope of eventual independence for the territory.

A special commission was set up to tour the three territories. The results of the journey, released in September of 1938, revealed that the black population in each of the territories–Nyasaland, Northern, and Southern Rhodesia–was violently against federation: the people expressed a preference for British protection over the humiliating prejudice rampant in Southern Rhodesia.

Banda agreed. He told the commission about the prejudice he had seen in his broom-wielding days in Southern Rhodesia. Furthermore, he voiced the fears of blacks who were worried that Southern Rhodesia, a sophisticated, self-governing colony, would dominate this federation; the malignant color bar would then spread its tentacles through all three territories, he explained, and blacks would find they had no chance for educational advancement or economic success.

This was already happening, as Banda could attest. His plans to return home as a medical missionary had been torpedoed by a group of white nurses who refused to serve under a black physician. Next, half-tempted by an offer from the Nyasaland government, he changed his mind after he heard the terms–equal salary with white physicians, but no social contact allowed.

World War II ended his professional dilemma by keeping him in England. When peace returned he decided to stay to establish his own practice in London. Reaping the rewards of his own ambition, he enjoyed the trappings of the prosperous physician—the comfortable home, the car, the tailored clothes. There was even enough money to help pay for the education of some 40 African students.

Tracked Hostility in His Homeland

Banda also kept abreast of the changes that the Second World War had wrought on his formerly isolated homeland. Blacks in Nyasaland had been conscripted in large numbers and had served overseas in countries without a color bar. They had learned that a vast field of opportunity awaited those who were prepared to work for better education, greater opportunity, and a modicum of control over their own country, and they urged their countrymen to strive for these things. Their cry had not been ignored. In 1943 a political movement called the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) came into being in Blantyre, the country's largest city. Response to the NAC's nationalist struggle was so overwhelming that there were 17 affiliated associations plus a chapter in Johannesburg by the time the organization was a year old.

At a Glance …

Born Kamuzu Banda, March 1898(?), in Kasungu district, Nyasaland (now Malawi); died on November 25, 1997, in South Africa; son of farmers; took the name Hastings (after missionary friend John Hastings) while attending Scottish missionary schools; added the name Ngwazi (meaning "lion") in the early 1960s. Education: Attended Wilberforce Institute, Xenia, Ohio; University of Chicago, PhB, 1931; Meharry Medical College, Nashville, MD, 1937; received LRCP and LRCS from University of Edinburgh, and LRFPS from Glasgow, 1938-40.


Worked in South African mines in the nineteen-teens; student in the United States, beginning in the mid-1920s; physician in England during World War II and on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) during the early 1950s; elected president-general of Nyasaland African Congress (NAC), 1958; imprisoned in Southern Rhodesia, 1959-60; became leader of Malawi Congress Party (MCP; successor to the Nyasaland African Congress), 1960; minister of natural resources and local government, beginning 1961; prime minister of Nyasaland, 1963-1964; prime minister of Malawi, 1964-66; president of the Republic of Malawi, 1966-1971; president for life of Malawi, 1971-1994.

From London, Banda greeted the NAC efforts with enthusiastic financial and moral support. When the thorny issue of federation arose yet again at war's end, he sent a memorandum to the colonial office on their behalf, asking that no union between the three countries be considered until the NAC had been consulted. Raising another important issue, he also requested an immediate inquiry into education in Nyasaland.

The question of federation was sidelined in a mass of bureaucratic red tape, but in 1947 the British government announced that Nyasaland would soon boast its second high school, plus a teacher training college. For the NAC it was a shining achievement, but it was not enough to keep NAC members loyal to each other. The organization rapidly lost ground, weakened by infighting and a lack of organization.

Still, the fading NAC's existence was a great boost for the federalists. "Dangerous black nationalism! A threat to our way of life!" were the rallying cries of their leaders, Sir Godfrey Huggins, Southern Rhodesia's prime minister, and Roy Welensky, the president of Northern Rhodesia's Labor Party. Welensky and Huggins also mentioned the labor benefits a federation would bring to all three participants. If drawn principally from Nyasaland's huge pool, migrant labor would benefit Northern Rhodesia's newly-discovered copper reserves as well as Southern Rhodesia's coal mines. And Nyasaland would benefit with sorely needed foreign exchange.

In the meantime, South Africa's Afrikaner-Nationalist victory in the 1948 elections gave the federalists more ammunition. The Afrikaners were increasingly pro-apartheid and staunchly anti-British. The answer to the crisis was simple—federation would provide a united opposition front to Afrikaner nationalism.

Federation became law on August 1, 1953. Banda was disgusted with his own failure to prevent it. He headed for Ghana, where he cut himself off from politics. Had he stayed informed, he would have learned that his predictions were right on target: the black population lost ground with the creation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. At the time of federation, Nyasaland–smaller and poorer than both Rhodesian territories–was ruled by a white minority. There were still disparities in hospital service (one bed per thousand versus eight per thousand for whites), no improvement in education, and almost exclusive concentration on Southern Rhodesian investments.

Worked to Set Nyasaland Free

Five years later, Banda returned to his native country at the plea of a new NAC member named Henry Chipembere, who refused to give up the struggle against federation. Chipembere felt that a strong, intelligent, and charismatic leader–old enough to take charge, yet young enough to endure dynamic antifederation action—was needed to lead the fight for black equality and self-government in Nyasaland. Banda was the natural choice.

But persuading Banda to end his voluntary exile was not easy. After securing a guarantee that he would assume presidency of the NAC, however, Hastings Kamuzu Banda did return to Nyasaland, where he received a messiah's welcome from 4,000 people in July of 1958. It was his first return to his native land in 45 years. Banda allowed himself six months to "set Nyasaland on fire." Ardent speeches echoed in the air as he toured the country gathering antifederation support; predictably, a bad relationship with the government swiftly followed.

Tensions arose in the aftermath of a political conference Banda attended in Accra, Ghana, late in 1958. The British government ordered the airline he was taking to delay his flight into Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, from Sunday to Monday "because his supporters crowded the airport too much for a weekend." Banda channeled his outrage at the government's intervention into a speech so passionate that it incited his Salisbury audience to the point of hysteria. Infuriated with Banda's continued denunciation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the government retaliated by declaring him a prohibited immigrant in both Northern and Southern Rhodesia.

Antifederation fury flamed into violence, sabotage, and the declaration of a state of emergency. Banda was arrested early in the morning on March 3, 1959, and was hustled off to prison in Southern Rhodesia along with other top NAC organizers. By June, more than a thousand NAC supporters had been arrested, but still the outrage spread.

Nyasaland was seething by mid-1959, when Iain Macleod became Britain's new colonial secretary. Widely regarded as a sensitive and intelligent man, Macleod saw his role in Africa as a political catalyst–a mediator who sought to ease the unavoidable dissolution of the federation in a way that would make firm friends for Britain, not enemies. Rather than maintain control of the region through an ever-escalating display of armed force, Britain chose to leave Malawi completely. Macleod planned his pacification strategy carefully. His first move was to approve the initiation of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP; successor to the NAC), which was officially established on September 30, 1959. He then engineered the release of Banda, who was secretly flown to the Nyasaland capital of Zomba on April 1, 1960.

Emerged as Strong Political Leader

Banda rallied for changes in Nyasaland's constitution, and within months the black population obtained an elected majority in the legislature and improved representation within the executive council. By the end of September, Banda had accepted a lifetime appointment as head of the 250,000-strong MCP. Once installed, he lost no time in displaying his future leadership style. His name, he decreed, was to be preceded by the title Ngwazi, meaning "lion." Furthermore, any future party demonstrations were to be held exclusively in his honor. Both measures effectively killed any budding leadership rivalry. Banda's first public task was to calm the churning black Nyasa population. He approached this problem with authoritarian bluntness, reportedly stating in the party newspaper, the Malawi News: "If you listen to me, you will get your own government. If you do not listen to me, you will not get anything."

Banda took office as prime minister in February of 1963. He shaped his new cabinet with care, sticking to his old allies who had served him well in the past. Longtime loyalist Chipembere was rewarded with the ministry of local government slot, but it was some months before he was able to take his seat. An emotional and rather loose-lipped orator with a large following, he had been jailed for sedition in 1961. His release now brought such jubilation that Banda feared he might have to share the spotlight; Banda therefore sent Chipembere to the United States on a two-month study tour.

On New Year's Day, 1964, Nyasaland held an unusual celebration. Attended by 3,000 people, it took the form of a "funeral" and a cremation. There was little mourning for the deceased—the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which had officially ended the day before. Nyasaland became an independent state on July 6, 1964. Together with 40,000 spectators, Banda watched as fireworks traced his likeness in the evening sky of a homeland newly rechristened Malawi, in memory of a 16th century Chewa kingdom. The celebration went off flawlessly, the only discordant note being provided by a 21-year-old white man, who was sentenced to six strokes with a cane plus a $50 fine for throwing things at a portrait of the prime minister.

From the beginning, Banda based his leadership style on tight control of the press, the judiciary, and the legislature. His grip on the government was so firm and his one-party rule so invasive that he actually dictated standards of dress, banning women's slacks and miniskirts. In addition, members of religious groups who refused to join the MCP became victims of alleged torturous persecution. It soon became clear that Banda viewed his rule as absolute.

Ruled as an Authoritarian

Banda's authority was sorely tested by a cabinet crisis that began in September of 1964. Ministers demanded the immediate Africanization of Malawi's white-dominated economy and urged Banda to take a hostile stance toward colonialist South Africa and Mozambique (an African province of Portugal). They also questioned Banda's refusal to recognize Communist China, even though China had offered the impoverished African country first $6 million, then $18 million in sorely needed aid. Most of all, the ministers objected to their own hollow political status; they held no real power against the imposing Banda–a truth the prime minister often emphasized by referring to them as his "boys."

But Banda refused to replace white expatriates serving in government posts with Malawians. Furthermore, he stated that Malawi's economic dependence on the territories to its south forced him to maintain a policy of friendliness toward colonial regions: Mozambique owned landlocked Malawi's only access to the sea, so Banda saw no choice but to remain on good terms with the Portuguese province. As for South Africa, it would be nothing short of foolish to oppose its considerable military strength. In addition, approximately 80,000 Malawians employed in South African mines brought $1 million annually in foreign exchange to Malawi. Banda also proved immovable on Red China. The amount of aid the nation offered was immaterial, he announced; he was not going to be bribed to recognize their communist regime.

Stung by his ministers' charges of paternalism, he fired the three instigators. In February of 1965, Chipembere, a sympathizer, led an unsuccessful revolt against Banda's government before being placed under house arrest; he later escaped permanently into a densely wooded area inhabited by protective supporters. Malawi became a republic the next year, and Banda was named its president. In 1971, he was voted president for life.

Struggled with Malawi Economy

Despite Britain's aid of about $25 million, independence revealed a Malawi economy so stagnant that it yielded an individual annual income of only $17.50 for a large segment of the black population. The few available manufacturing jobs were hotly contested, and there was little domestic mining activity outside of lime quarrying for cement.

Banda constructed foundations to shore up his teetering economy, establishing parastatal organizations, or state-run corporations. The Malawi Development Corporation, formed in 1964, promotes manufacturing operations and keeps a close watch on all foreign companies by means of obligatory government partnerships. ADMARC, founded in April 1971, is an agricultural cooperative with a national monopoly on fertilizer and seeds. Partly a price-setter, the organization also handles export crops of tobacco, peanuts, cotton, and maize; by the early 1980s it had burgeoned enough to boast shares in such profit-spinners as the Bata Shoe Company, Lever Brothers, and the Portland Cement Company. A third important organization, regarded as a quasi- parastatal, is President Banda's own Press Holding. Initially set up in 1969 to print the party newspaper and finance the MCP, Press Holding also finances tobacco-farming estates.

Profits from Press Holding and ADMARC often mingle to finance the president's pet schemes. One big beneficiary is the elite Kamuzu Academy, founded in 1981 to provide a liberal arts education for the country's top students. Still, so little money was allocated for other education that a random survey of southern schools, completed at about the same time, showed that classes could only seat 12 percent of their students.

Overseen by an aged president, damaged by poor management, and savaged by persistent drought, the Malawi economy was at a low ebb in the early 1980s. In 1985, the World Bank worked out a restructuring plan and encouraged the government to form the Mining Investment and Development Corporation (MIDCOR). Slender resources have since benefited considerably by exploration of uranium, bauxite, asbestos, and graphite deposits, and manufacturing ventures have grown to include a match factory, a brewery, a gin distillery, and two tire retreading plants.

As Banda approached his mid-90s, his iron fist still ruled over the world's fifth-poorest country. (Per capita annual income was $160 in 1992.) There were whispers of political prisoners, the country's lone neurosurgeon among them, who had been held since the 1980s. Studies from international relief workers noted that one in three children under five died of starvation, and 55 percent of the survivors are stunted. But change was on the horizon. In mid-1992, longtime donors threatened to cut off more than $74 million in nonhumanitarian aid unless Banda moved toward democracy.

Democracy Led to Downfall

On June 14, 1993, 63 percent of Malawi's voters showed their support for democratization, choosing to replace the republic's one-party system with a multi-party government. According to Africa Report, Banda accepted the results without threats of retaliation, proclaiming in a radio address, "This is what politics and democracy are all about." Initial action toward democracy seemed promising, with legalization of political parties set for July and a multi-party election to follow.

But the democratic transition was stalled by mid-summer. Banda had failed to sign a constitutional amendment legalizing opposition parties and furthermore refused to allow newly formed joint commissions—composed of government and opposition representatives—to manage political affairs until a multi-party election could take place. Opposition leader Chakufwa Chihana of the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) summarized the situation in Malawi for Africa Report: "We have given the government an ultimatum: Stop delaying the transition or we're prepared to call a mass action campaign of civil disobedience across the country." Tensions grew throughout the year.

Ill health threatened Banda's hold on Malawian politics in the fall of 1993. According to Africa Report, Banda "was flown to South Africa for emergency brain surgery on October 2." Following the dictates of Malawi's constitution, executive power shifted to the presidential council, led by MCP secretary-general Gwanda Chakuamba, in mid-October, when it was determined that Banda was no longer able to govern. Shortly thereafter, however, a still-ailing Banda was declared well enough to resume power. The postponed general election occurred in mid-1994 and Banda lost control of the country to Bakili Muluzi, his former political protégé who had withdrawn from his Cabinet position in 1982 out of fear for his life.

Although the newly elected government pressed charges against Banda for the atrocities committed under his cruel leadership of Malawi—specifically for the murder of three Cabinet ministers and a member of Parliament in 1983—he was ultimately acquitted. For the last years of his life Banda lived in relative obscurity surrounded by personal servants calling him "Your Excellency," as described in the London Voice. He never married and claimed no children. He died of complications of pneumonia in South Africa on November 25, 1997. Having always kept his exact age a secret, Banda was believed to be between 90 and 101 years of age. His body was returned to Malawi where a state funeral was held on December 3, 1997.



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Africa Today: Country Surveys–Malawi, Africa Books, 1991.

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Gulhati, Ravi, Malawi: Promising Reforms, Bad Luck, EDI Development Policy Case Series No. 3, World Bank, 1989.

Lwanda, John Lloyd, Kamuzu Banda of Malawi: A Study in Promise, Power, and Paralysis, Dudu Nsomba Publications, 1993.

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Welensky, Sir Roy, Welensky's 4000 Days, Collins, 1964.

Williams, T. David, Malawi: The Politics of Despair, Cornell University Press, 1978.


Africa Report, September/October 1993, pp. 50-53; November/December 1993, p. 7; January/February 1994, pp. 56-61.

Chicago Tribune, September 9, 1991, p. 9; September 12, 1991, p. 16.

Christian Science Monitor, April 16, 1992, pp. 4-5; May 26, 1992, p. 4.

Economist, March 21, 1992, p. 46; April 11, 1992, p. 44; May 16, 1992, p. 52.

New Republic, November 3, 1962, p. 10.

Newsweek, July 20, 1964, p. 39; April 26, 1965, p. 40; March 26, 1973, p. 33.

New York Times, July 7, 1958, p. 3; April 2, 1960, p. 3; January 1, 1964, p. 1; August 13, 1964, p. 6; December 28, 1975, p. 16; October 21, 1990, p. 15; May 10, 1992, p. 7; November 27, 1997, p. B15.

Time, October 9, 1964, p. 35; July 18, 1966, p. 38.

Voice, December 1, 1997, p. 15.

Washington Post, November 26, 1997, p. A22; November 30, 1997, p. A23.


"Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda Founding President of Malawi," Great Epic Books, www.greatepicbooks.com/banda.html (October 12, 2005).

—Gillian Wolf and

Sara Pendergast

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