RF2NR4 A Gule Wamkulu dancer in an energetic performant near Chikwawa, Malawi; the Gule Wamkulu is a captivating ritual dance performed by a secret society

Bringing the Bacchae to the bush

Chula finds a cultural confidence in Malawi that is lacking in the contemporary West


This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“To me, education based on no Latin is a house built on stilts.” This admirable statement, drawn from early in this new book, was made not by some moth-eaten Classics master desperate for custom. Instead, it is a quotation from Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the first President of Malawi, who led the country to independence in 1964 after British colonial rule. 

Goodbye, Dr Banda: Lessons for the West From a Small African Country. Alexander Chula (Polygon, £14.99)

Why an anti-colonial African leader should be so obsessed with the Classics that he established an English-style public school in the middle of the African bush to teach Latin and Greek up to A-level, often to local tribal children on scholarships, is the question that opens this remarkable work. It sets the scene for a wider survey — sometimes startling, sometimes haunting — of the ways in which African and European cultures have interacted in Malawi (and sometimes farther afield) from the time of the 19th century explorers, such as David Livingstone, to the present day. 

These interactions, argues Alexander Chula, have been far more profound for both sides than many realise — though the new statue on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth of the Malawian anti-colonial rebel John Chilembwe has recently helped to bring this history to greater public prominence. The ways that Malawi has dealt with these interactions and its own attitude towards its traditional culture, Chula maintains, have much to teach the West in this time of cultural upheaval.

This book is no abstract tome of theory or anthropology. Chula writes from a perspective not only of scholarly and historical knowledge, but also close and sometimes raw personal experience. Having read Classics at Oxford, he went to teach the subject at Banda’s school, Kamuzu Academy, in 2009. He later re-trained as a doctor, returning to the country for further work and travel over a number of years. 

These positions have given Chula an intimate acquaintance with the country, its people and culture. His own background — half-English, half-Thai — has also endowed him with a particular sensitivity to how contrasting cultures meet and interact. 

I can imagine that, even on reading this brief summary, certain readers might already be feeling hostile. Such hostility might arise less on account of the mildly sympathetic treatment of Dr Banda, despite his latterly murderous, corrupt and dictatorial proclivities (which Chula fully acknowledges). It might rather be more directed towards Chula’s positive portrayal of the Classics and high Western culture in a Malawian context. 

As discussed previously in The Critic, there is an emerging vogue that sees the traditional Western Classical curriculum, based on a standard canon of Latin and Greek authors, as malign and pernicious. It is, according to this view, a tool of white supremacist oppression, intended to create a false narrative of Western cultural continuity and excellence. The work of modern-day Classicists must therefore be to “decolonise” the subject: to use the texts to critique power structures, to oppose finding cultural continuities or relevance to contemporary situations in these texts.

Dr Hastings Banda (1898 – 1997), President of Malawi, flies into London, having attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Singapore, 22nd January 1971.

The teaching of a traditional Classical curriculum in Malawi, this reasoning argues, would be a repressive and colonialist project, damaging to local culture. It could never be seen positively.

Chula’s observations gently belie this modish doctrine. During his time as a teacher, he found that many of his best Malawian students, who came from a background of rural subsistence living, engaged far more directly with Greco-Roman texts than did his Classical Oxford contemporaries. 

Their own village experience of crofters and goatherds, tribal rituals with shields and spears, and the need for resilience in the face of sudden death and disaster, gave them a much more immediate appreciation of the pastoral poems of Virgil and Hesiod, the epics of Homer, and the horrors of Greek tragedy. By contrast, Chula observes, Western readers can hardly approach the ancient texts “without the scepticism and neuroses of modernity and have “become alienated from something elemental and important”. 

“In Western high culture,” notes Chula, “Banda saw a path to equality.”

Under the “decolonialising” doctrine, traditional Classics teachers are ogre-like figures, dedicated to erasing non-Western cultures. Chula shows this to be otherwise. One of the first things a Classical colleague tells Chula on arriving in Malawi is, “What is worthwhile lies outside the Academy.” Far from disdaining traditional Malawian culture, the Classics teachers are at the forefront of engagement with it. Their curiosity leads them to seek a deep knowledge of the country’s languages, history and rituals. Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are about the Gule wamkulu (the Great Dance) which bears extraordinary resemblances to aspects of Greek drama and mystery rites. 

Not only do the Classicists attend the Gule, but they lay on a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae in one of the villages using the Gule dancers to evoke the similarities between the two. In all of this, Chula again finds a cultural confidence in Malawi that is lacking in the contemporary West, grounded in a sense of place and a raucous celebration of the will to live in the face of a precarious existence punctuated by frequent disaster. 

It is not only present-day Classicists whose training leads them to esteem and promote the indigenous cultures that they find. Chula devotes a section of the book to describing his journeys in search of the earlier missionaries whose attitude was similar. Many were drawn from Oxford, Cambridge and Durham in the latter part of the 19th century, following the call of Dr Livingstone for graduates to come to Africa, abolish slavery and establish “Christianity, Commerce, and Civilisation” in its place. 

Chula follows a number who went to Africa, forsaking comfortable careers to embrace the threat of illness and death at the hand of slave traders. Not only did they achieve the abolition of slavery and practical improvement in the quality of life for many, but they also worked to record indigenous languages. Their vision laid the foundation for an educational tradition in Malawi which made possible not just a rich modern literature but the independence movement itself. 

The early missionaries contrast sharply with many contemporary aid practitioners, who are frequently just passing through, reluctant to engage deeply with the culture of the place. Such detachment often leads to the failure of their work, and it detracts from the wealth and complexity of the culture they purport to serve. 

“In Western high culture,” notes Chula, “Banda saw a path to equality.” Chula’s powerfully thought-provoking book shows the folly of treating Western high culture as merely a tool for self-flagellation. Properly embraced, it can be a route for engagement with the equal wealth of other cultures, rather than division.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover