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Since the first millennium, the Bantu people had been migrating from Central Africa into the area now occupied by Malawi, but migration to the area stepped up with the arrival of the Tumbuka and Phoka, who settled around the highlands of Nyika and Viphya during the 17th century, and the Maravi, who established a large and powerful kingdom in the south.

The early 19th century brought with it two significant migrations. The Yao invaded southern Malawi from western Mozambique, displacing the Maravi, while groups of Zulu migrated northward to settle in central and northern Malawi. This century also saw the escalation of the East African slave trade. Several trading centres were established in Malawi, including Karonga and Nkhotakota – towns that still bear a strong Swahili-Arab influence today.

Enter the british

The most famous explorer to reach this area was David Livingstone. He reached Lake Malawi in September 1859, naming it Lake Nyasa. His death in 1873 inspired a legion of missionaries to come to Africa, bringing the more ‘civilised’ principles of commerce and Christianity.

The early missionaries blazed the way for various adventurers and pioneer traders and it wasn’t long before European settlers began to arrive in their droves. In 1889 Britain allowed Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company to administer the Shire Highlands, and in 1891 the British Central Africa (BCA) Protectorate was extended to include land along the western side of the lake. In 1907 the BCA Protectorate became the colony of Nyasaland.

Colonial rule brought with it an end to slave-traders and intertribal conflicts; but it also brought a whole new set of problems. As more and more European settlers arrived, more and more land was taken away from the locals and Africans were forced to pay taxes to the administration.

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Transition & independence

Not surprisingly, this created opposition to colonial rule and in the 1950s the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) party, led by Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, began a serious push for independence. This came, after considerable struggle, in 1964, and Nyasaland became the independent country of Malawi. Two years later Malawi became a republic and Banda was made president, eventually declaring himself ‘President for life’ in 1971. He ruled for 30 years before his downfall and died three years later. Many achievements were made during his presidency but these were overshadowed by his stringent rule: banning the foreign press, imposing dress codes and waging vendettas against any group regarded as a threat.

In June 1993, however, Banda agreed to a referendum that resulted in the introduction of a multiparty political system; at Malawi’s first full multiparty election in May 1994, the victor was the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by Bakili Muluzi. On becoming President, Muluzi moved quickly: political prisons were closed and freedom of speech and print was permitted. The Muluzi government also made several economic reforms with the help of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), including the withdrawal of state subsidies and the liberalisation of foreign exchange laws. By 1996 these economic reforms were hitting the average Malawian citizen hard. Food prices and unemployment soared; there were reports of increased malnutrition, and crime increased in urban areas. Nevertheless, Muluzi was re-elected in May 1999 despite complaints of mismanagement and corruption at the highest government levels.

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Malawi today

In July 2002 Muluzi aired the idea of a Third Term Bill, which would have extended his presidency for one more term. When this failed, he chose Bingu wa Mutharika as his successor, who in 2004 duly won the election. Many thought he would follow in Muluzi’s footsteps, but he soon declared his independence by quitting the UDF and setting up his own party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). His presidency seemed like a breath of fresh air and he set about stemming corruption, stepping up the fight against HIV/AIDS, attempting to attract greater foreign investment, and, more controversially, restoring Banda’s reputation as a great African hero.

A massive famine in 2005 put the pressure on however, and in early 2006 the Mutharika government was rocked by scandal and political infighting which threatened to undermine its effectiveness.

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