BLANTYRE, Malawi -- His excellency, the life president, emerged from his private Lear jet to the joyous ululations of several dozen brightly robed women lining the crimson carpet that led to his waiting red Rolls-Royce convertible.
Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a man of indeterminate antiquity, is stooped and frail, with a tiny stubble of white hair ringing the great, bald head and drooping ears. He has maintained a fierce grip on this former British colony ever since independence in 1964, building a strange, almost religious cult around himself.
As he passes among his admirers, Dr. Banda pats their heads, shaking a horsehair fly whisk as though anointing them with holy water.
In the decades after the independence wave crashed over Africa in the early '60s, the continent has been ruled by many such men, idealistic rebels who led national movements against colonialism before installing themselves as unquestioned rulers of one-party states.
Now, one by one, they are disappearing. Some have been overthrown. Others have died. Many have been forced to bend to the wave of multiparty democracy that has swept across Africa in the last three years.
Dr. Banda, who is believed to be between 85 and 95, is among the very last of them.
Dr. Banda insists on complete obedience and veneration as he rules this small, south-central African nation that is one of the world's poorest, where 136 of every 1,000 babies die before their first birthday, where the life expectancy is 45, where one in every three people is believed to be infected with the AIDS virus, where 56 percent of the population is seriously malnourished.
But now, even Dr. Banda and his cult of personality are beginning to show signs of wear.
The crowds that once flocked to his rallies by the tens of thousands have dwindled to a few thousand. Political opponents and Western governments have forced him to call a referendum for next month to give Malawians a choice between his one-party rule and multiparty democracy.
Dr. Banda and his top ministers predict victory, but others expect the government to take a beating, an unheard-of rebuke in a country where, for decades, people have feared to even speak publicly about politics.
"Before, if someone came up to me and started asking me about politics, I would think, 'Oh, my gosh, he is a spy, he will report me,' " said Peter Matemba, a businessman and multiparty advocate. "I would run away."
"You could say, 'I am not for the government,' but you could only say it in here," Mr. Matemba said, pointing to his chest. "You could not say it out. Because when you said it out, you were food for the crocodiles."
The government acknowledges there may have been "some excesses in the past," as one minister put it. But overall, Malawi has had almost three decades of peace and stability in a part of the world that sees little but conflict and misery. Multipartyism may be fine for most of the world, they say, but why tinker with success in Malawi?
"There is no doubt that the people in this country do not want to experiment with a new system for the sake of it," said John Tembo, minister of state and the most powerful of Dr. Banda's ministers. "If you break entirely all of our traditions, you break the fabric of our society. You must be very careful about that."
When Malawi's seven Roman Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter in March 1992 calling for freedom of expression and an end to human rights violations, the bishops were arrested.
In April of last year, Chakufwa Chihana, a leading trade unionist who had been in exile in neighboring Zambia, was arrested as he tried to return to lead the opposition. Mr. Chihana remains in jail, convicted of criticizing Dr. Banda.
Last May, at least 38 people were killed by police when a workers' pay dispute escalated into a day of rioting in the streets of Blantyre, the nation's main city.
Immediately afterward, the World Bank and Western aid donors announced a six-month suspension of all nonhumanitarian aid to Malawi because of human rights violations and political repression.
Dr. Banda reluctantly scheduled a multiparty referendum, proclaiming that it would give his people a welcome chance to reaffirm their support for his one-party system.
But, as the months have passed, crowds at opposition rallies have grown while those attending Dr. Banda's events have dwindled.
Even more important than a referendum victory, though, has been the swift change in the mood of everyday life as citizens have taken to wearing pro-democracy T-shirts and publicly calling for an end to Dr. Banda's rule.
"What made us prisoners of this system for so long is we were afraidto speak out," said Mordecai Msisha, secretary of the Malawi Law Society and an official in the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD), one of two multiparty pressure groups.
"I can tell you, the mood of the people is for change," said Bakili Muluzi, chairman of the United Democratic Front, another opposition group.
Rise to power
Dr. Banda, a physician, returned in 1958 from 40 years of practicing medicine in England to what was the British protectorate of Nyasaland. He became the leader of the Nyasaland African Congress, was briefly jailed by the British authorities, led his Malawi Congress Party to victory in national elections, and presided over independence in 1964.
Dr. Banda has ruled ever since.
One of his former nurses, Cecilia Tamanda Kadzamira, has been at the his side virtually the whole time. She is the president's "official hostess." He refers to his longtime companion, now in her 50s, as "Mama," and she sits at his side like a queen during public functions.
One-party states require terror to maintain control, and Malawi has been no exception. Dissidents have been imprisoned for as long as 27 years, often without being charged. Beatings and midnight arrests were commonplace.
Bands of Malawi Young Pioneers and Malawi Youth Leaguers roamed the towns and villages.
There is an odd, almost absurdist streak in Malawi's brand of one-partyism. A self-proclaimed "strict disciplinarian" and an Anglophile, Dr. Banda brought a Victorian twist to the realm of African dictators.
In Malawi, women are not allowed to wear pants. No one can wear bell bottoms. Men who arrive at Malawi's international airport with hair deemed too long by immigration inspectors may be forcibly sheared.
An estimated one-third of the country's education budget goes to sustain the Kamuzu Academy, a British-style private school modeled on Eton that sits in manicured splendor amid the jungles of central Malawi. The academy's students, drawn from the cream of the country's high schools, study ancient Greek and Latin in a country of staggering poverty.
"You have to look at these things in the cultural context," said Health Minister Heatherwick Mtaba, the chief party spokesman.
Seeing women in pants would be just as disruptive in traditional Malawian society as seeing a naked person walking down the street in the United States, he said.
The ban on bell bottoms was designed by the president to keep wandering hippie tourists out of Malawi in the '60s, and it has been retained because it was so successful in keeping drugs out of the country, Mr. Mtaba said.