Despite issues such as the high HIV/AIDS infection rate, Malawi's largely rural inhabitants are helped along by their good humour and religious faith, with many people mixing Christianity and animism. The fat-bottomed pyramid of the country's age makeup, coupled with rapid urbanisation, means the multicultural population – which is dominated by the Chewa but also includes Asians and Europeans – will have much change to manage over the coming years.
The National Psyche
Fact: Malawians are among the friendliest people in Africa, avoid conflict and often use humour to defuse tension. And while they're are also laid-back and patient, Malawians are quite conservative; women tend to dress modestly and are generally not seen in bars unaccompanied.
Malawi remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per-capita GDP of under US$1000. Over half the population live below the poverty line and are malnourished. The average life expectancy is just 61, due in large part to the HIV/AIDS infection rate, which is over 10%.
More than 80% of the population live in rural areas and are engaged in subsistence farming or fishing, or working on commercial farms and plantations. Nonetheless, Malawi is urbanising rapidly.
Women in Malawi
Despite the fact that women constitute just over 50% of the country’s population, serious gender disparities still exist in terms of employment opportunities and social standing. Men have a much higher literacy rate than women because more girls than boys are forced to drop out of school to contribute to household income.
Until 1994, under the rule of Hastings Banda, women were banned from wearing miniskirts or trousers. A spate of attacks on women for not wearing traditional dress in early 2012 made it feel as though the clocks were being turned back once again. This time, however, hundreds of women took to the streets of Blantyre and Lilongwe in protest. There were high hopes for Malawi’s first female president, Joyce Banda, who came from a background of female civil-rights empowerment. However, as it was overshadowed by the 'cashgate' financial scandal, her two-year stint was ultimately a disappointment.
Malawi’s total population is around 18.6 million and is growing at an unsustainable 3.3% per year – the world's fastest growth rate after South Sudan's. Because Malawi is small, this creates one of the highest population densities in Africa. Almost half the population is under 14 years old.
Malawi’s main ethnic groups are Chewa, dominant in the centre and south; Yao in the south; and Tumbuka in the north. Other groups include the Ngoni (also spelt Angoni), inhabiting parts of the central and northern provinces; the Chipoka (or Phoka) in the central area; the Lambya; the Ngonde (also called the Nyakyusa) in the northern region; and the Tonga, mostly along the lakeshore.
There are small populations of Asian and European people living mainly in the cities and involved in commerce, farming (mainly tea plantations) and tourism. The Indian community is well established, with many businesses owned and run by Indians, while the Chinese population is growing.
The most popular sport in Malawi is football (soccer), which is played throughout the country at all levels, from young boys (and girls) on makeshift pitches to the national team. Malawi’s national team is nicknamed the Flames and there is a women's team in the FIFA Women's World Ranking.
Around 83% of Malawians are Christians. Some are Catholic, while many follow indigenous Christian faiths that have been established locally.
Malawi has a significant Muslim population of around 13%, mostly living in the south. Alongside the established churches, many Malawians also follow traditional animist religions.
Despite its small size, Malawi's cultural life is as diverse as its landscape, with music alone ranging from traditional ethnic song and dance to Malawian reggae by the likes of Lucius Banda. The country's most famous art form is the Gule Wamkulu dance, performed by members of a secret brotherhood clad in fantastic and symbolic masks. Dissident writers have chronicled life in post-independence Malawi, and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is one of the best celluloid documentaries.
Music & Dance
Traditional music and dance in Malawi, as elsewhere in Africa, are closely linked and often perform an important social function beyond entertainment. There are some countrywide traditions and local ethnic groups also have their own tunes and dances.
Modern home-grown contemporary music is burgeoning in Malawi, due largely to influential and popular musicians such as Lucius Banda, who performs soft ‘Malawian-style’ reggae, and the late Evison Matafale. Look out, too, for the Black Missionaries and Billy Kaunda. And last but not least are The Very Best, a World Music collaboration between Mzuzu-born Esau Mwamwaya and London production duo Radioclit.
Feature: Gule Wamkulu
Performed at funerals, major celebrations and male initiation ceremonies, Gule Wamkulu or ‘Great Dance’ is the most popular dance among the Chewa. It can’t be performed by just anyone; only members of a secret society, sometimes called the Nyau brotherhood, are allowed to participate. Dancers perform clad in magnificent costumes and brightly painted masks made from cloth, animal skins, wood and straw. Each dancer represents a particular character (there are more than 150 Gule Wamkulu characters): a wild animal, perhaps, or an ancestral spirit, sometimes even a modern object such as a car or a plane. Each character has its own meaning – for example, lions represent strength and power and often appear at the funeral of a chief.
Supported by an entourage of drummers and singers, the dancers achieve a state through which they can summon up the spirits of animals or dead relatives. As the drumbeats quicken, they perform dances and movement with incredible energy and precision. Some of this is pure entertainment, some of it is a means of passing on messages from ancestral spirits, and some of it aims to scare the audience – as a moral lesson or a warning. Through acting out mischievous deeds, the Gule Wamkulu characters are showing the audience, as representatives of the spirit world, how not to behave.
There are both individual and group performances and they take place during the day and at night – when the audience watches from afar. The dance is widespread in central and southern Malawi and is also performed in Zambia’s Eastern Province and the Tete province of Mozambique.
Like most countries in Africa, Malawi has a very rich tradition of oral literature. Since independence, a new school of writers has emerged, although thanks to former president Hastings Banda’s sensitivity to criticism, many were under threat of imprisonment and lived abroad until the mid-1990s. Oppression, corruption, deceit and the abuse of power are common themes in their writing.
Poetry is very popular. The late Steve Chimombo was a leading poet whose collections include Napolo and Other Poems. His most highly acclaimed work is a complex poetic drama, The Rainmaker. Another returned exile, Jack Mapanje, published his first poetry collection, Of Chameleons and Gods, in 1981.
Malawi’s most acclaimed novelist is the late Legson Kayira, whose semi-autobiographical The Looming Shadow and I Will Try earned him acclaim in the 1970s. A later work to look out for is The Detainee. Another novelist is Sam Mpasu; also a politician, he served a two-year jail sentence following a corruption scandal in the 2000s. His Nobody’s Friend was a comment on the secrecy of Malawian politics – it earned him an earlier two-year prison stint in 1975. After his release he wrote Political Prisoner 3/75 and later became minister for education in the new UDF government.
A more modern success story is Samson Kambalu, whose autobiography The Jive Talker: or, how to get a British Passport tells of his transition from schoolboy at the exclusive Kamuzu Academy to conceptual artist in London. Along the way he staged Malawi's first conceptual-art installation, a football wrapped in pages from the Bible.
Feature: Must Read: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
When the 2001 drought brought famine, and terrible floods decimated his parents' crops, 14-year-old William Kamkwamba was forced from school. While he was educating himself at his old primary school, one book in particular spoke to him; it was about electricity generation through windmills.
A lightbulb moment flashed. Exhausted from his work in the fields every day, William picked around for scrap and painstakingly began his creation: a four-bladed windmill. Soon neighbours were coming to see him to charge their phones on his windmill.
When news of William's invention spread, people from across the globe offered to help him. He was shortly re-enrolled in college and travelling to America to visit wind farms, and he has since been mentoring children on how to create their own independent electricity sources. The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind (by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer) is his amazing story, published in 2009.
Malawi's Natural Environment
Malawi is famous for its lake, but the country also includes mountain escarpments and classic African bush. Likewise, while Lake Malawi's endemic cichlid fish have long attracted scuba divers, wildlife watchers are increasingly training their binoculars on Liwonde National Park and Nkhotakota and Majete reserves, with the Big Five found in the latter. Covering landscapes from the Nyika Plateau to Vwaza Marsh, Malawi's parks and reserves are incredibly diverse.
Pint-sized, landlocked Malawi is no larger than the US state of Pennsylvania. It’s wedged between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, measuring roughly 900km long and between 80km and 150km wide, with a total area of 118,484 sq km.
Lying in a trough formed by the Rift Valley, Lake Malawi makes up over 75% of Malawi’s eastern boundary. West and south of the lake, escarpments rise to high plateaus covering much of the country.
Feature: Calendar Lake
Covering almost 30,000 sq km, Lake Malawi is Africa's third-largest lake. It's known as the Calendar Lake because it's roughly 365 miles long, it's 52 miles across at its widest point, and 12 main rivers flow into it.
Feature: Lake Flies
A less pleasant Lake Malawi phenomenon are the clouds of tiny flies that sometimes blow into lakeside towns. They occasionally form towering black columns, and fishermen have been known to jump into the water to avoid choking and suffocating on a dense cloud of them. So thickly do the insects fill the air and cover surfaces that locals scrape them up into patties and make unappetising fly burgers.
In 2012 Malawi began reintroducing lions at Majete Wildlife Reserve, finally giving the country its 'Big Five' stamp. Many people head for Liwonde National Park, noted for its herds of elephants and myriad hippos. Along with Majete, it's the only park in the country where you might see rhinos.
Elephants are also regularly seen in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Majete and Nyika National Park. Nyika has the country's largest population of leopards and Nkhotakota has been bolstered by a historic elephant translocation from Liwonde and Majete. Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve is known for its hippos, as well as elephants, buffaloes and antelope, but is currently in poor shape due to unsatisfactory management.
Lake Malawi has more fish species than any other inland body of water in the world, with a total of over 1000, of which more than 350 are endemic. The largest family of fish in the lake is the Cichlidae (cichlids).
For birdwatchers, Malawi is rewarding: over 600 species have been recorded in the country, and birds rarely spotted elsewhere in Southern Africa are easily seen here, including the Böhm’s bee-eater, wattled crane and African skimmer.
Malawi has five national parks. These are (from north to south) Nyika, Kasungu, Lake Malawi (around Cape Maclear), Liwonde and Lengwe. There are also four wildlife reserves – Vwaza Marsh, Nkhotakota, Mwabvi and Majete – meaning that 16.8% of Malawi’s land is protected.
Most parks and reserves cost US$10 per person per day (each 24-hour period), plus US$3 per car per day. Citizens and residents pay less. All fees are payable in kwacha or US dollars.
Feature: Malawi’s Most Important National Parks & Wildlife Reserves
Majete Wildlife Reserve
700 sq km
Miombo (woodland), marshes; elephants, hippos, zebras, buffaloes, lions, rhinos, crocodiles
Wildlife drives, walking safaris, birdwatching, boat safaris
Best time to visit
Lake Malawi National Park
94 sq km
Glittering waters; over 1000 species of colourful fish
Snorkelling, kayaking, scuba diving, sailing
Best time to visit
Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve
1800 sq km
Miombo, bush; nyalas, warthogs, buffaloes, elephants, leopards, crocodiles
Croc & elephant spotting, birdwatching, kayaking, fishing
Best time to visit
Jul-Nov, Dec & Jan for birdwatching
Liwonde National Park
580 sq km
Marshes, mopane (woodland); elephants, rhinos, hippos, crocodile-filled Shire River
Wildlife drives, walking safaris, boat safaris, birdwatching, rhino sanctuary
Best time to visit
Jun-Oct, Nov-Jan for birdwatching
Nyika National Park
3200 sq km
Sweeping highland grasslands; antelopes, zebras, leopards, hyenas, elephants
Hiking, mountain biking, wildlife drives, multiday treks, birdwatching
Best time to visit
Sep & Oct for mammals, Oct-Apr for birds
Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve
1000 sq km
Wetlands; buffaloes, elephants, hippos, antelope, crocodiles
Wildlife walks & drives
Best time to visit
Jun-Nov for mammals, year-round for birdwatching