Latin, the dreaded dead language upon which many a young academic career has foundered, is making a strong comeback in a most unlikely setting--deep in the African bush.

"Rise above the vulgar crowd, take Latin" and "The best things in life are Latin," the posters say in the classroom of Raymond Oliver La Rouche at Kamuzu Academy outside Mtunthama in the southern African country of Malawi.

The posters would be common enough at Eton or Harrow, English private boarding schools that have been a breeding ground for generations of British elite.

La Rouche's classroom, however, is just minutes away from primitive African mud huts where illiterate peasants scratch out a living barely above the subsistence level.

Kamuzu Academy is the expensive brainchild of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the octogenarian physician trained in Britain and the United States who has ruled Malawi with an iron hand since it gained independence from Britain 19 years ago.

While many African leaders have decried the vestiges of British colonial elitist education as irrelevant to the needs of their new nations, Banda, often regarded as Africa's odd man out, has gone in the opposite direction by establishing an Eton in the bush that provides a classical education.

All 360 carefully selected students must take four years of Latin. Classical Greek is also offered. The president, an admirer of Roman history, "insists that all students be exposed to the classics," said John Chaplin, the headmaster. About 30 percent of the course work is devoted to the classics, he said, but students' preferences run mostly to science, history and languages.

Although Malawi is one of the world's poorest countries, with a per capita income of only about $200 a year, no expense was spared on building Kamuzu Academy, which is about 85 miles north of Lilongwe, the capital.

After a bumpy, dusty 20-mile ride on a badly rutted dirt road through the African bush, a visitor suddenly enters another world. Looming in front is a medieval-appearing brick edifice with arches resembling battlements, a pennant-bedecked clock tower and an artificial lake providing a moat-like surrounding.

Chaplin said the academy, which took three years to build and rests on a grassy, wooded 400-acre site, cost 19 million kwachas (about $17 million). Funds were provided by Banda, who has vast personal holdings in the country. The school yearbook lists the president, after whom the institution is named, as the "proprietor of the academy."

Banda also funds the annual cost of about $2 million, or more than $5,000 per student, to operate the academy, Chaplin said. Families pay only $90 a year for their children's education.

Outside sources estimate that the institution, which opened in 1981, two years after much of the staff arrived, cost at least twice the official figure. The school has a pool, and tennis courts are being built. An article in the yearbook describes how to play the game.

Chaplin said the original cost of the academy had been estimated at $9 million, but the outlays skyrocketed partly because Banda made changes in the designs, sometimes to copy well-known western institutions.

The $900,000 library was redesigned in the image of the Library of Congress. It houses 14,000 volumes and has a capacity for 50,000. The library has a high interior dome and circular main desks like its Washington counterpart.

The dining hall, which seats almost 500, includes a "high table" for the staff and is patterned after Marlborough College, one of Britain's top private schools.

Lunch, which features South African wine for the "high table," was started by a call for silence by the "dame," another British institution. A sudden hush descended, followed by grace recited in Latin by Nancy Kachingwe, a prefect.

"I think presidents are allowed to have foibles," Chaplin said over bean soup. "I think this is a good foible," he added, pointing out that the school costs about the same amount as an advanced jet fighter-bomber. "Which would you rather have?" he asked.

Banda's dedication to the education of his people is unquestioned. Kamuzu Academy is situated a few hundred feet from the Kachere Tree, a wild fig tree that is a national monument to the president's home area.

"Under this tree," a plaque says, "His Excellency, the Life President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kumuzu Banda began learning the alphabet" shortly after the turn of the century.

"I do not want my boys and girls to do what I had to do--to leave their homes and families and go away from Malawi to get an education," he told officials. He received medical degrees from Meharry Medical School in Tennessee and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Banda told Chaplin and his 37-person staff to "educate the students but don't de-Africanize them," an almost impossible task, the headmaster said.

The term ended this week and "by Saturday many students will be back in mud huts with their families," Chaplin said. About half of the students come from small villages, and some said the transition during the vacation period was difficult.

"We are quite unashamedly a school for the academic elite," Chaplin said, noting that only 60 students are admitted a year, strictly on the basis of scholastic merit.

Banda bars Malawians from teaching at the school. There is one teacher for every 10 students, with most coming from Britain. The salaries average about $18,000 a year.

So far, the results have seemed to justify the expenses--31 of the 60 seniors have received offers of overseas scholarships.

Ironically, although the institution is devoted to a traditional British education, Britain has not provided assistance because of a policy of refusing to aid elitist institutions, Chaplin said. The U.S. Embassy gave 3,500 books to start the library, which also has a one-volume encyclopedia that was a gift from President Reagan.

As the tour of the campus ended, Chaplin removed a list of the school board from a reporter's brochure on the school and crumpled it. The chairman and deputy chairman of the board, senior Cabinet minister Aaron Gadama and Dick Matenje, were killed in mid-May along with two other high officials, leading to widespread rumors that they were eliminated in a power struggle.

In the halls-of-ivy atmosphere of the Kamuzu Academy, however, Malawi's messy politics seem part of another world.