There are certain things that do not happen always and are not expected to be regular. On the academic side, one of the rarities is to crown someone Rhodes Scholar. The Rhodes Scholarships are postgraduate awards supporting outstanding all-round students at the University of Oxford, and providing transformative opportunities for exceptional individuals. The Rhodes Trust provides the Rhodes Scholarships in partnership with Second Century Founder, John McCall MacBain and other generous benefactors. Established in 1903 under the will of Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes is the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious international graduate scholarship programme in the world. A class of 88 scholars is selected each year from Australia, Bermuda, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Jamaica & the Commonwealth Caribbean, Kenya, New Zealand, Pakistan, southern Africa (including South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia and Swaziland), United States, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Given that nearly one-third of the places go to USA citizens and a good portion to few other countries, Malawi has to fight for its very limited allocation, being one of five countries, including Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland. This region can produce a maximum of one Rhodes Scholar every year because in a year when the selection committee does not find any candidate meeting the prescribed minimum standard, they do not elect anyone, and they have taken that decision a few times! Pretty much the same as the Dr Mo Ibrahim Foundation does with the award for the retired democratic Presidents, they have not selected any a few times when none of retired presidents in Africa qualified.
The Rhodes Scholarships have been in operation since 2003. However, Malawi was only incorporated in 1996. Since then until 2004, Malawi had produced only three Rhodes Scholars (including Charles Kapalamula and Dick Kachuma)—all of them in a space of five years, when many in the fraternity thought Malawi was dominating the allocation given that Malawi’s allocation is one scholarship that has to be fought for by graduates aged below 25 years from Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia and Swaziland. Each year, between one and three graduating students from Malawi, mostly the University of Malawi (Unima), have been shortlisted and made it to final oral interviews for the scholarship in Johannesburg. The feedback from the interviewing panel has always been that Malawian candidates have been consistently outstanding. However, save for the period 1999 to 2004, when three of them actually got the scholarship, the rest of times, Malawi did extremely well except getting the scholarship!
This is what makes Norbert Nthala a special graduate to decorate on this column today. Nthala has broken the jinx. After nine years of wait, he has brought the Rhodes Scholarship back to Malawi! During the nine years, there have been a couple of years when no one was awarded the scholarship from the five countries. For the rest of the years, the scholarship went to the other four countries. For this reason, we in the Real World Preparation Fraternity—where we try to build the future of young Malawians, want to wish Nthala all the best as he leaves tomorrow for Oxford where he will be pursuing his PhD research in computer science. Nthala graduated with Distinction from University of Malawi’s Polytechnic and swept all the National Bank awards. That gives us reason to believe that Nthala will excel at the mighty and historical Oxford, the first university in the English speaking world formed in the 1096!
Our advice to Nthala is that he should keep being humble, ambitious and eager to help others, especially those not as privileged, in line with the will of Cecil Rhodes who bequeathed all his fortune in 2002 for the foundation of this scholarship made everlasting by the additional injection of benefaction by John MacBain in 2013 at the centenary celebrations of the scholarship. Our other advice is that Africa needs Nthala more than Europe or America. Please do work to come back to Africa at least and Malawi at best! Big congratulations to you Nthala and the best of luck as you go to Oxford for your well-deserved PhD tomorrow! n