Hastings Kamuzu Banda

University of Edinburgh


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Hastings Kamuzu Banda

Hastings Kamuzu Banda was the first President of Malawi.  He ruled Malawi from 1961 to 1994. For the first three years of his rule, until it achieved independence in 1964, Malawi was the British protectorate of Nyasaland.

After receiving much of his education overseas, Banda returned to his home country (then British Nyasaland) to speak against colonialism and advocate for independence. In 1963, he was formally appointed Prime Minister of Nyasaland and led the country to independence as Malawi a year later. Two years later, he proclaimed Malawi a republic with himself as President. He consolidated power and later declared Malawi a one-party state under the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). In 1970, the MCP made him the party's President for Life. In 1971, he became President for Life of Malawi itself.

Banda was born near Kasungu in Malawi (then British Central Africa) around 1898 (although the exact date is unknown). Around 1915–16, Banda left home on foot with an uncle who had been a teacher at the nearby Livingstonia mission school, for Hartley, Southern Rhodesia (now Chegutu, Zimbabwe). In 1917, he left on foot Southern Rhodesia for Johannesburg in South Africa. He worked at the Witwatersrand Deep Mine on the Transvaal Reef for several years. During this time, he met Bishop W. T. Vernon of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), who offered to pay his tuition fee at a Methodist school in the United States if he could pay his own passage. In 1925, he left for New York.  

Banda studied in the high school section of Wilberforce Institute, an African American AME college now known as Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio, and graduated in 1928. With his financial support now ended, Banda earned some money on speaking engagements arranged by the Ghanaian educationalist Kweyir Aggrey, whom he had met in South Africa.  While speaking at a Kiwanis club meeting, he met Dr. Herald, with whose help he enrolled as a premedical student at Indiana University. At Bloomington, he wrote several essays about his native Chewa tribe for the folklorist Stith Thompson, who introduced him to Edward Sapir, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, to which, after four semesters, he transferred.

During his period at the Univesity of Chicago, he collaborated with the anthropologist and linguist Mark Hanna Watkins, providing information on Chewa culture. He majored in history, graduating with a Bachelor in Philosophy in 1931. During this time, he enjoyed financial support from a patron. He then, still with financial support from these and other benefactors, studied medicine at Meharry Medical College in Tennessee, from which he graduated in 1937.

However, in order to practice medicine in territories of the British Empire, he was required to get a second medical degree from a British university.  He therefore left America and came to the UK and attended the University of Edinburgh. He was subsequently awarded a Triple Qualification in 1941, giving him the post-nominals LRCP(Edin), LRCS(Edin), LRFPS(Glas). His studies were funded by stipends of 300 pounds per year from the government of Nyasaland (to facilitate his return there as a doctor) and from the Scottish Presbyterian Kirk. Neither of these benefactors was aware of the other.  However, when he enrolled for courses in tropical diseases in Liverpool, the Nyasaland government terminated his stipend. He was forced to leave Liverpool when he refused on conscientious grounds to be conscripted as an Army doctor. 

He worked as a doctor in the UK for many years until in 1946, at the behest of Chief Mwase of Kasungu, whom he had met in England in 1939, and other politically active Malawians, he was asked to represent the Nyasaland African Congress at the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester. From this time, he took an increasingly active interest in his native land, advising the Congress and providing it with some financial support. With help from sympathetic Britons, he also lobbied in London on behalf of the Congress.

Several influential Congress leaders pleaded with Banda to return to Nyasaland to take up leadership of their cause. Banda finally returned to his homeland on 6 July 1958 after an absence of about 42 years. In August, at Nkata Bay, he was acclaimed as the leader of the Congress.

He soon began touring the country, speaking against the Central African Federation (also known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland), and urging its citizens to become members of the party. He was received enthusiastically wherever he spoke, and resistance to imperialism among the Malawians became increasingly common. By February 1959, the situation had become serious enough that Rhodesian troops were flown in to help keep order, and a state of emergency was declared. On 3 March, Banda, along with hundreds of other Africans, was arrested in the course of "Operation Sunrise". He was imprisoned in Gwelo (now Gweru) in Southern Rhodesia, and leadership of the Malawi Congress Party (the Nyasaland African Congress under a new name) was temporarily assumed by Orton Chirwa, who was released from prison in August 1959.

Meanwhile, the mood in Britain had long been moving toward decolonisation due to pressure from its colonies. Banda was released from prison in April 1960 and was almost immediately invited to London for talks aimed at bringing about independence. Elections were held in August 1961. While Banda was technically nominated as Minister of Land, Natural Resources and Local Government, he became de facto Prime Minister of Nyasaland—a title granted to him formally on 1 February 1963. He and his fellow MCP ministers quickly expanded secondary education, reformed the so-called Native Courts, ended certain colonial agricultural tariffs and made other reforms. In December 1962, R. A. Butler, British Secretary of State for African Affairs, essentially agreed to end the Federation.

It was Banda himself who chose the name "Malawi" for the former Nyasaland; he had seen it on an old French map as the name of a "Lake Maravi" in the land of the Bororos, and liked the sound and appearance of the word as "Malawi". On 6 July 1964, exactly six years after Banda's return to the country, Nyasaland became the independent Commonwealth of Malawi.

Malawi adopted a new constitution on 6 July 1966, in which the country was declared a republic. Banda was elected the country's first president for a five-year term; he was the only candidate. The new document granted Banda wide executive and legislative powers, and also formally made the MCP the only legal party. However, the country had already been a de facto one-party state since independence. In 1970, a congress of the MCP declared Banda its president for life. In 1971, the legislature declared Banda President for Life of Malawi as well. His official title was "His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of MalaĆ”i, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda." 

Banda was mostly viewed externally as a benign, albeit eccentric, leader, an image fostered by his English-style three-piece suits, matching handkerchiefs, walking stick and fly-whisk. In June 1967, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Massachusetts with the encomium " ... pediatrician to his infant nation".

Within Malawi, views on him ranged from cult-like devotion to fear. He portrayed himself as a caring headmaster to his people. However, this was a mask for a government that was rigidly authoritarian even by African standards of the time.

The party Banda led since taking over from Orton Chirwa in 1960, the Malawi Congress Party, remains a major force in Malawian politics.

Banda died in a hospital in South Africa on November 25th 1997, reportedly aged 99.