Born Didimu Kayira, c. May 10, 1942, in Mpale, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Kayira was one of the few surviving children of Timothy Kayira and Ziya Nyakawonga.
The Kayira family lived in abject poverty and Kayira would later write that he came from “one of the poorest families that God ever created since the beginning of time.” However, despite this, his family were determined that Legson Kayira would receive an education. After months of savings, the family were able to send him to a Scottish missionary school three miles away from where they lived.
However, the school had no paper, pencils, or books. In addition to the tuition, the students were expected to bring the teachers food and work in their gardens. For a time they spent most their school days building a road. Most of the village boys preferred to tend cattle, rather than go to school. Kayira wanted to quit as well, but his parents made him stay since they had paid the year’s fees.
It was while attending this missionary school that Kayira decided that he wanted an English-sounding name and thus coined the name ‘Legson’, becoming Legson Didimu Kayira.
After finishing secondary school, Kayira decided to attend college in America after he attended a rally in support of his country’s independence where he heard Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda speak. Kayira wrote in his autobiography:
Later Kayira told Time magazine, “We have 3,000,000 people in Nyasaland and only 22 university graduates. Nobody has ever earned a degree from an American college. I want to be the first.” He also told Reader’s Digest, “Young men grow up with no schooling, no work, and they become thieves and damage the country. I wanted to do better.”