AS you drive up from the former slave port of Nkhotakota on Lake Malawi, the dirt track takes you through the wilds of a game reserve. Trees lie broken by elephants, and troupes of baboons scamper off as the four-wheel-drive grinds through the mud. But you soon enter the cultivated areas of central Malawi's rolling Vipya Highlands.
A turnoff, and you follow another bush track. Suddenly, a stretch of tarmac and a different world. An imposing gate bearing the Latin inscription ``Hone Deo et Patriae'' (``For the Honor of God and Country'') opens out onto manicured lawns and landscaped gardens. Beyond, even more startling, an idyllic pond dominated by red-brick buildings, a clock tower, and neo-Romantic cloisters: Kamuzu Academy, the ``Eton of Africa.''
Ranked as black Africa's top school, Kamuzu is undoubtedly its most unusual educational establishment. For many, it is the most controversial.
Malawi's President-for-Life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, founded the academy as a personal venture not far from a kachere tree under which he was educated as a boy. Opened in 1981 at an initial cost of over $15 million, Kamuzu Academy is modeled after leading British public (private) schools such as Harrow and Marlborough. Its 360 pupils, nearly a third of them girls, wear blazers, boaters, and ties, play rugby and golf, say grace in Latin, and put on Shakespeare plays.
Kamuzu's sophistication would easily put it on par with many a well-endowed New England college. There are fully equipped classrooms, elaborate science and music departments, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, tennis courts, and a still-to-be expanded library designed along the lines of the Library of Congress.
``We are in the business of excellence,'' explained British headmaster Michael Gledhill. ``The President makes no bones about it. It's his school. He wants to create an educated elite of professionals, administrators, and leaders. Pick the best and push them. But we are still an instant school. We lack tradition.''
At President Banda's insistence, pupils are chosen on academic merit from all over the country with at least one boy and one girl from each district. ``We don't necessarily get the best students, but it gives everyone a chance. Money won't get you in,'' said Mr. Gledhill. ``We've got the children of three Cabinet ministers here, but we've also got kids whose families live in mud huts.''
Nevertheless, for many pupils fees are exorbitant. They are required to pay nearly $140 a year toward the $3,500 board and tuition. If a family has no money, the village often helps, but the pressures are enormous. Mr. Banda himself pays the $2 million overall operating costs from presidential funds.
``You can see where some of these kids are coming from when they return after the holidays,'' one teacher observed. ``They're quite emaciated.'' As with almost all of the expatriate staff at Kamuzu, the teacher is British.
So far, there are no African instructors. According to Gledhill, Mr. Banda feels Malawians still lack the appropriate qualifications to teach here. As with much of his faculty, the headmaster believes that more Malawians should be involved and that it is time for a Malawian to take over.
Reflecting Banda's own classical education, the academy emphasizes the teaching of Latin, Greek, and ancient history -- but at a level no longer found even in the most archaic British establishments. For an African school, it comes as a surprise to enter a classroom bearing slogans such as ``Rise Above the Vulgar Crowd -- Take Latin.''
Some teachers consider this excessive. The syllabus, they suggest, should be more adapted to contemporary Africa.
``Two years of Latin and Greek might suffice for those wanting to go on to other subjects,'' commented the headmaster. ``It's hard enough as it is for those whose English is not that good.'' Starting late, many students are in their 20s when they graduate.
African literature, for example, is not taught. Such bias has caused resentment among certain pupils. ``It's useful to study English literature, but sometimes I just can't see the relevance,'' one senior student remarked. ``As far as Malawi is concerned, it is a world apart.''
For an impoverished country where barely 22,000 students attend secondary school, critics consider Kamuzu's extravagant expenditure inappropriate. Others say that the idea behind Kamuzu is sound but that an educational ``palace'' is going overboard.
``You can provide a perfectly good education with modest facilities,'' an expatriate academic said.
That alone would distinguish Kamuzu from most Malawian schools. As in many African countries, they are overcrowded and understaffed. While secondary schools have better facilities and certain aid agencies are trying to help improve conditions, the bulk of primary schools remain basic structures.
At present, Western observers estimate that less than 50 percent of Malawian children attend school. Some even put the figure as low as 25 to 30 percent. The reasons for this are largely financial. A year's primary schooling can cost anywhere between $4 and $9. Not much by Western standards, but a lot for many Malawians.
``Parents will send as many children as they can to school, but this might only mean 2 or 3 out of 6 or 7 in the average family,'' said James Kapichi, headmaster of Makawa Full Primary School at Mangoche, on Lake Malawi.
Nevertheless, the situation has greatly improved, he added. ``When I first went to school, there were only three primary schools in my district. Now there are 87.''
Education in Malawi must also contend with a rapidly growing population. Makawa had eight classrooms and nearly twice as many pupils as Kamuzu. Children sat on concrete floors. Only in the senior grades did they have desks.
It is the discrepancies between Kamuzu's extravagance and the sparseness of Malawi's rural schools that have provoked the most criticism.
For an autocrat like Banda, the academy may be his way of trying to ensure future stability.
Ironically, however, a British liberal education may nurture the very kind of critical thinking that he himself has often sought to quash.
Malawians are not renowned for their questioning of authority. But standing in the quadrangle of Kamuzu Academy, one teacher pointed to his best and most inquisitive student. ``You see that chap over there,'' he said with a smile of no uncertain pride. ``He's the closest thing we have to a subversive.''