Thursday, February 01, 2007

Hastings Banda in North Wales

It's not every day that an African dictator turns up in north Wales but in 1968 that's exactly what happened when Hastings Banda flew into Ynys Môn. The eccentric President of Malawi was in Britain for an official visit and Caernarvon Castle was on his schedule. First though he chilled out at the Bulkeley Arms Hotel in Beaumaris.

The following morning he arrived at Caernarvon Castle immaculately suited, waving a fly switch at local gnats before greeting a small crowd with the Welsh words: bore da (good morning). Banda was taken on an extensive tour of the castle. Afterwards he was presented with a Welsh doll; a Welsh wool blanket with a 2,000 year old Celtic design; and a guide to the ancient monuments of Wales bound in red morocco.

He then went on a mini-sightseeing tour of north Wales. He called in at the Penygwryd Hotel. He drove through Abergelert and Aberglaslyn. He had lunch in Portmeirion with the architect Clough Williams-Ellis. Fully refreshed he enjoyed a trip on the Ffestiniog narrow gauge railway from Minffordd to Tanybwlch. Finally he was regaled by a choir of primary school pupils who sang him Calon Lan and other traditional Welsh songs. Ardderchog (excellent) he said to delighted locals before flying back to London.

Although he declared himself President of Malawi for life in 1971 Banda was largely a benign dictator. He was certainly no Amin or Bokassa, his rule characterised by eccentricity rather than brutality. He did though encourage a personality cult. All buildings had to display a picture of him. In Malawian cinemas footage of Banda was shown before every film and the national anthem sung.

Censorship prevailed. Television was banned as was the song Cecilia by Simon and Garfunkel. Women had to adhere to a strict dress code - they weren't allowed to bare their thighs or wear trousers. Kissing in public was outlawed. Men were forbidden from growing beards. In the 1980s he banned hippies from entering Malawi altogether - long hair and flares being prohibited. Female tourists had to wear skirts that covered their knees.

Banda's bizarre dictatorship came to an end in 1993. He died in 1997. I don't know if the Red Dragon flew at half-mast that day or whether hippies in Wales rejoiced at his passing. The real question is why was the African dictator in north Wales at all in 1968? Retrospectively it appears as though the British establishment was using Banda's visit to Caernarvon Castle as a dry run for the investiture the following year. It is an amusing thought - Hastings Banda as a stand-in Prince of Wales.