National Security & Defense

An African Classicist Comes to Rome

Ruins at the Roman Forum (Steve Allen/Dreamstime)
At a Roman school dedicated to the classics, an African student relives the Renaissance.

From a balcony of the Palazzo del Senatore on the Campidoglio, an African boy contemplates the crumbling brick and broken marble of the Roman forum. It is a bright November morning, and the Palatine Hill is outlined sharply against a cloudless, deep-blue sky. A flight of birds cuts across the trail of a plane flying south from Fiumicino Airport — perhaps in the vague direction of Mtendere’s village, 4,000 miles away in Machinga District, Malawi.

Machinga is a torrid place, especially at this time of year. The River Shire has receded. Elephants and antelopes step wearily over hard expanses of cracked grey silt to reach the water’s edge. The towering palms are too few and spindly to cast any shadow. And the distant escarpment of Dedza plateau is lost in the haze of dust and smoke that rises from the burning of dry scrub and wasted maize field. The rains must come soon, but, until they do, the weather will get hotter and hotter, life more and more languid. There comes a point when you think you can bear no longer even to rest in the shade. But the rains will come eventually, in December or January. And when they do, they will fall in torrents.

Mtendere’s father is a bricklayer. When he has work, he earns considerably less than a dollar a day. But work comes only after the rains, when many feeble dwellings of mud brick and straw are washed away. For now, his family waits, rationing the remains of the last harvest. There is only one growing season each year. When it comes, the villagers will be busier. But not so busy: There are too many hands and not enough land. For the boys there is a lot of what is descriptively termed “just staying.” For the girls there is more to do, what with the bearing and raising of children. But for nobody is there ready access to any cash economy: Calculation of per capita GDP is academic.

Mtendere would be in Machinga now with his brothers and sisters but for an unexpected talent: He knows Latin and Greek. And so he is not in Machinga but in Rome. When we met at the Campidoglio, he was there to hear a conference of spoken Latin.

* * *

In the high-rococo period of African dictatorship, Hastings Kamuzu Banda decided that classical education would be the basis for his country’s moral and political development. Banda was esteemed for his urbanity and moderation. He had been a doctor, a general practitioner in Harlseden, a suburb of London. He wore a Homburg hat and a Savile Row suit. And he maintained cordial relations with Salisbury and Pretoria. His experiences of colonial administrators and Scottish missionaries had left him a fervent admirer of Western culture. And so he founded Kamuzu Academy, a school where the country’s brightest pupils, however poor, would be educated by an all-white staff in Latin and Greek, rugby and cricket.

Bush was cleared. Brick and cement, steel and glass were imported. A clock tower went up — the tallest structure in the country. An “Appian Way” was built connecting classrooms and a Greek theater to a cavernous refectory. A replica of the Library of Congress was filled with European classics. Lawns and sports fields were laid. Gardens were planted with non-native fauna — nothing local was allowed to contaminate the scene.

The “Eton of Africa” opened in 1981, and the school functioned well during Banda’s rule. But it was designed to run on a third of the country’s entire education budget. When Banda fell from power in 1994, the money stopped. The scholarships were cancelled; the expatriates went home. The school survived — but only just. Local staff were employed on local salaries. New pupils came but as fee-payers, children of wealthy Big Men from the capital.

Now the school bells are broken and the clock tower tells the wrong time. Tattered classroom posters of the Acropolis and the Roman Empire flap in the wind that blows through broken louvers. Greek and Latin texts and grammars, primers and lexicons lie strewn in dusty heaps. Library-issue stamps attest to years of borrowing brought abruptly to an end. Hyenas bay and prowl in the grounds after dark. Gardens have been turned over to maize, tended by the myriad relatives of the new teachers. The head of English hawks samosas in the boys’ hostels. Others sink their time and salaries into small-time haulage or mini-bus businesses. And all defer cravenly to their new pupils.

But Mtendere is not of the elite. He attended the academy thanks to a twist in the vagaries of Malawian politics. Banda was succeeded first by Muluzi and then by Bingu, who — before suffering a fatal heart attack during violent and widespread opposition to his rule — sought to associate himself with Banda’s memory by paying for a small new cohort of government scholars. Mtendere was among these.

Perhaps predictably, the integration of scholars and fee-payers was not very happy. Mtendere was among a tiny number who did well. But even for the brightest, opportunities are desperately few. The highest aspiration is a desk job in government or a bank. But these are the gift of the Big Men, not won by merit. NGOs support a small, precarious middle class dependent on foreign donation. The private sector is virtually non-existent. Rich pupils might find sinecures. The poor pupils return to their villages.

* * *

And so did Mtendere. He had applied to prestigious institutions in the United Kingdom and America. But after an administrative error on the part of one, and a simple failure of interest on the part of another, Mtendere got nowhere. He returned to Machinga and remained there for several months, slowly resigning himself to a career of hewing wood and drawing water.

But by a tangled route, his story reached the ear of Luigi Miraglia, founder and director of the Academy Vivarium Novum, a school in Rome dedicated to the classics. It was not easy to make contact with Mtendere, who by then lacked any means of telecommunication. But eventually he was found and an interview took place via a borrowed cellphone. Miraglia immediately awarded him a scholarship. A few weeks later, thanks to kind friends in Malawi, the U.K., and Italy, Mtendere arrived in Rome, possessing only his clothes and the first passport to have been issued to any member of his family.

* * *

So for now Mtendere resides at a baroque villa in Frascati. At the end of an avenue of cypresses, a mass of tinted glass and soft orange-pink stonework glow against the dark green of the Alban Hills. Shining white gravel paths bordered by lawn and topiary connect a dragon-fountain and an ornate nymphaeum to the villa itself, in which chandeliers scatter light on frescoed ceilings and floors of Roman mosaic.

Here, the stated ambition is nothing less than to foster a community in which the ideals of humanism can be pursued through engagement with the highest art, literature, and music. To this end, students must attain fluency in spoken and written Latin and Greek. The use of modern languages for any purpose whatever is forbidden.

“We are reliving the Renaissance here,” Mtendere wrote to me recently. “The goal is to teach not Latin or Greek but humanitas. I am very thankful for this opportunity. I will not have another chance to live this life again for it does not exist anywhere else. . . . Speaking Latin is not exactly easy, but I am slowly getting the hang of it.”

And “get the hang of it” he will. Away from the city, without television, mobile phones, the Internet, or popular music, there is little distraction. But more important, Latin — not English or Italian — is the only lingua franca. Mtendere is the only African, but as many of the other students come from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East as come from the West. It is ironic, but, without seeking it, this unashamedly Eurocentric institution attains a diversity that should make the rest of academe jealous. Mtendere is not condescended to, feted, or exhibited. Whether chatting with friends in the grounds or singing pagan hymns by Catullus and Virgil in the choir, he cuts an unexceptional figure in such an extraordinary scene. The students are all so absorbed in the challenges of engaging with one another that the differences between them evanesce. I cannot imagine any other school where he would experience such equality.

Mtendere’s scholarship has been very generous. He will stay in Rome for one year, and all of his needs there will be met. But after that, he must return to Malawi unless he can secure a place and funding to study classics elsewhere as an undergraduate. Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quarere! Do not ask what tomorrow will bring! Appropriately, Mtendere’s friends are rehearsing a setting of Horace in the loggia behind us as we step into the garden. It is a sheltered terrace planted with fig trees, its balustrades of old stone overrun by moss and wisteria. The sun is setting and the sky is deep mauve over the plains of Latium and Rome itself — just visible despite the smog. Popes and prefects, cardinals and consuls, Cicero himself came and built here for this view. And now, thanks to a muddled process that began with their convoluted deeds millennia ago, Mtendere can look upon it, too — for a year at least.

Alexander Suebsaeng read classics at Oxford before studying medicine in London. He now lives in the U.K. but has worked and traveled extensively in Africa.

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