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The International Origins of the Malawi Young Pioneers

Published: 5 September 2022 - Emma Orchardson

Throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the Malawi Young Pioneers were a prominent fixture in Malawi’s political life. But, despite their ubiquity during those decades, there is very little literature available on this government-led group, and that which does exist focuses mainly on its disbanding in 1992. How did it first come in to being? And what inspired its creation? This blog traces the early days of Malawi’s infamous agricultural-turned-paramilitary youth organisation, and in doing so reveals the extent to which it was shaped — both directly and indirectly — by diverse international influences.

Borrowing from Ghana

Hastings Kamuzu Banda was extremely concerned about the international ‘youth culture’ that threatened to reach Malawi in the postcolonial era. “Beatles and hippies, long haired, unkempt, and sometimes with hardly anything worth the name clothing on them. We have some of this type of youth in our schools and colleges in this country now,” said the incoming President. “Maybe Europe and America can afford this type of youth, the type of youth that questions everything. Their societies are different from that of our own…We cannot afford this type of youth in Africa. Certainly not in Malawi.”[1]

In 1963, one year prior to Malawi gaining independence, he was determined that the country’s youth should not be brought up as “parasites”, who “loafed about” once the political war was won. He sought a means of diverting “the energies and enthusiasm of the youth into constructive and useful channels”, and ensuring they were taught, “first and foremost, discipline, respect for their parents.”[2]

Figure 1. Malawi Young Pioneers on parade at the Central Stadium, Blantyre, 1966. The Times. The National Archives, DO 208/18.

Inspired by Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana Young Pioneers (GYP), who he had been impressed by during a visit to the country, Banda conceived of a youth corps of his own. Constructed initially as an extension of the Malawi Congress Party’s Youth League, the Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP) would welcome young people between the ages of 14 and 28, and work to instil the values of Kamuzuism, his own personal philosophy which emphasised respect for authority and elders.

Years later, when relations with Nkrumah became strained, Banda would criticise the Ghanaian model as being an extension of colonial-era organisations like the Girl Guides or the Boy’s Brigade. These groups, in his opinion, spent too much of their time marching around in parades and having tea with the Governor. But “they did not use their hands,” he said, “they produced nothing.”[3] Malawi’s youth would follow more practical pursuits.

Despite efforts to present the MYP as something distinctly Malawian, the organization borrowed heavily from the Ghanaian model, which in turn had taken inspiration from a number of different international youth groups. Founded in 1960, the GYP merged aspects of Israeli’s Gadna model, while incorporating elements from the Soviet Union’s Komsomol, British Boy Scouts and China’s Red Pioneers.[4] The result was a true mix — outdoor pursuits merged with youth political education and a desire to foster patriotism — with new elements added in as GYP members returned from youth assemblies, festivals, and trainings in countries as diverse as Denmark, Czechoslovakia, and China.[5]

In 1962, nine young Malawians were sent to Ghana to train with and learn from the GYP and Malawi’s first youth training course was set up in Nasawa the following year,[6] based on the Ghanaian structure and inheriting many of its idiosyncrasies.

Figure 2. Front cover of the quarterly magazine, The Ghana Young Pioneers, 1961. The National Archives, DO 195/32.
Setting up Camp

Unlike their Ghanaian counterparts, members of the MYP were not connected to wider networks of global youth movements. However, they were not cut off from outside influence. Keen to focus on rural and agricultural development, in 1964 Banda sought assistance from Israel — whose youth organization and development schemes he admired — and a small number of instructors were sent to Malawi to start youth leadership training.

The Israeli officers initially helped set up two additional training camps in Cholo and Zomba, but by 1966 the movement had expanded considerably with nine camps for Youth Leaders across the country — four in the south, two in the central region, and three in the north. Here young men and women between the ages of 18 and 23 were sent on nine-month residential courses, where they received intensive training in agriculture, homecraft, self-reliance, and physical fitness.

At all camps there was heavy emphasis on agricultural production, in the hope that once trained Young Pioneers could be sent back to their villages to teach their parents and older people in their communities. Others could be sent to organized settlement schemes — loosely based on Israel’s kibutz model — where they would help grow maize, beans, groundnuts, and other crops to support the country’s food security. The Israeli government emphasised that the aim was to build up the Young Pioneers as instruments of national development by focusing on agriculture,[7] but in practice the exact nature of the trainings varied considerably between camps — sometimes based on geography; sometimes based on the interests of individual instructors.

At Nasawa, Young Pioneers learnt how to weave baskets out of reeds, leaves and bamboo; how to plough farmland; and the principles of soil conservation. At Fort Johnston they were taught how to shoot rifles, and practiced hunting in the mountain range along the Mozambican border and in the reeds of Lake Malawi. At some camps, they were taught construction — from bricklaying to carpentry — and were tasked with building their own accommodation; at others they raised cattle and learnt how to churn butter.

Figure 3. Malawi Young Pioneer training bases and settlement schemes, 1971. British Library, Maps X.13931.
Frankenstein’s Monster

By 1966 over 1000 Young Pioneers had completed a programme and hundreds more were said to be in training. Trainees and graduates were distinctive across the country on parade in their berets, green shirts, and khaki trousers. While some observers claimed to be greatly impressed by their “harmonious co-operation and discipline” and “their obvious pride in themselves and their organization”,[8] others were more reticent about the movement. The Israeli ambassador at the time was even quoted by one diplomat as worrying that he had played a part in “having created a Frankenstein.”[9]

While his comment played on the idea of inadvertently creating an uncontrollable monster, the comparison did also aptly reflect the way the MYP was constructed, as borrowing directly and indirectly from others — the Ghanaian emphasis on respect for leaders and Soviet-style patriotism merged with an Israeli focus on farming and a scout-like interest in bushcraft — made for a confusing structure and often incoherent aims. In the years that followed, and as the group moved away from agriculture and towards a focus on security, additional influences came into play. Students from the USA and Canada helped construct new training centres while Portuguese and Taiwanese officers offered military and intelligence training, and the piecemeal effect would become even more pronounced.

The MYP origin story is not necessarily unique — as we see in the Ghanaian case, youth groups of this nature often drew inspiration from those established before them, borrowing a variety of different models and locations. Malawi was no different, though the architects of the MYP were more reticent about sharing the source of their inspirations. A closer look into the organization’s early years reveals that these were both diverse and numerous, and in some cases provided links to external networks. With this in mind it is clear that the MYP deserves further attention, not only as a local history, but also as a window to exploring Malawi’s wider international connections in the postcolonial era.

Emma Orchardson is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Warwick researching Malawi and the global Cold War. Her project focuses on the country’s experience of the conflict as it played out both within southern Africa and further afield, foregrounding its role as an active participant in the politics of the era.

[1] Malawi: Political Parties and Trades Unions Material, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, PP.MW.MCP.

[2] ‘His Excellency the Life President’s Speeches’, British Library, CSC 5.15.

[3] ‘His Excellency the Life President’s Speeches’, British Library, CSC 5.15.

[4] Nicholas, Claire. “The Ghana Young Pioneers: Intertwining global connections to build a Pan-Africanist youth”, in Beyond Boycotts: Rethinking the Cold War, Philippe Vonnard, Nicola Sbetti, Grégory Quin (Eds)

[5] Claire Nicholas, ‘The Ghana Young Pioneers: Intertwining global connections to build a Pan-Africanist youth’, in Beyond Boycotts: Rethinking the Cold War, Philippe Vonnard, Nicola Sbetti, Grégory Quin (eds.) (Berlin, 2018).

[6] A. W. Wood, ‘Training Malawi’s Youth: The Work of the Malawi Young Pioneers’, Community Development Journal 5, (1970), p. 130-138.

[7] “Internal Security – Malawi”, The National Archives, DO 208/18.

[8] “Internal Security – Malawi”, The National Archives, DO 208/18.

[9] “Young Pioneers and Youth League”, The National Archives, DO 224/28.