Malawi’s first permanently settled people were Bantu from the north, who formed villages in 1500 along the central section of the lake and westwards into what is now Zambia. By 1600 these people were trading with the Portuguese and by the 1700s their tribal cohesions seemed to be disintegrating. Dav ...
Malawi’s first permanently settled people were Bantu from the north, who formed villages in 1500 along the central section of the lake and westwards into what is now Zambia. By 1600 these people were trading with the Portuguese and by the 1700s their tribal cohesions seemed to be disintegrating.
David Livingstone arrived in the area in 1859 but British colonial power was not established until 1891 by means of the system known as the Thin White Line, intended to reduce administration costs. In the case of Nyasaland, now Malawi, a budget of £10,000 per year was set aside to employ ten European civilians, two military officers, 70 Punjab Sikhs, and 85 Zanzibari porters. Between them, they were expected to administer and police about 1.5 million people in a territory of around 94,000 sq km!
In 1953 Britain incorporated Nyasaland into an ill-fated federation with Northern and Southern Rhodesia which was dissolved in 1963. Dr Hastings Kamuza Banda was by now Prime Minister and it would fall to him to lead the country to independence the following year. He declared himself president for life in 1970 and almost achieved his aim.
Malawi’s Marxist economy was oddly stable under Banda. He made the unique decision amongst post-independence sub-Saharan governments to maintain diplomatic relations with the apartheid government in South Africa, for which he was rewarded with a new airport and good flow of investment and tourists. While in office, Banda constructed a business empire that eventually produced one-third of the country’s GDP and employed 10% of the wage-earning workforce.
In 1993 he agreed to a referendum which would result in multi-party elections and the abolition of his life presidency. Banda eventually died in 1997, supposedly aged 101, and left behind him a stable democracy, albeit in an economically unsure country.
85% of Malawi’s people live in rural areas and are reliant in subsistence farming. Main export crops are tobacco, sorghum, sugar, cotton and tea. Clothing and timber also play a small part, but the country has one of the least-developed economies in the world. Tourism is, however, a strong contributor and the country has a great deal to offer to the visitor. It’s not called “The Warm Heart of Africa” for nothing.
Lake Malawi is known on its Mozambiquan side as Lago Niassa and is also commonly called The Calendar Lake, being 365 miles long and 52 miles wide. It is the southernmost of the lakes in the Rift Valley system and the second-deepest after Lake Tanganyika. The lake also reputedly contains the highest number of different fish species of any body of water in the world including several hundred endemic species of cichlid, a brightly-coloured fish popular with collectors around the world. Indeed it has become a popular hobby amongst fish-fanciers to recreate a Lake Malawi biotope in an aquarium. Bad luck cichlids – I am sure they’d rather live in a lake 365 miles long!
Independence: From Britain on July 6th 1964
Official languages: English, Chichewa
Head of State: President Bingu wa Mutharika
Lake Malawi is tidal but the waves are small so it is ideal for all types of water sports. Sporadic hotels along the unspoilt lakeshore provide the necessary kit for boating, snorkelling, sailing and kayaking. Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear are particular favourites. www.malawitourism.com
Nkothakotha Lodge, in the northern part of the lake, gets you away from the crowds in the busy season and offers some of the most impressive drives along the lake shore under the towering cliffs of the Great Rift Valley.
Salima was an Arab trade centre in the mid-1800s and still retains that particular Moslem character.
Likoma and Chizumulu are the only two inhabited islands in the lake. The former boasts the vast Anglican Cathedral of St Peter, built with materials imported at great expense from around the world.
Liwonde and the Shire River have Malawi’s best game viewing with superb birdlife and established herds of elephants.
Mpale Cultural Village, near Mangoche in the south, looks at the traditions and culture of the Yao people and studies how they were influenced by the ways of the Arab slave-traders.
Nyika National Park at 2 600 metres, as well as having a small wildlife population, is an orchid paradise with over 120 different species having been recorded.
Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve is a wetland birdlife haven and home to open-billed storks and the rare white-winged starling. Sadly now largely inaccessible.
Blantyre is home to the Museum of Malawi and is the country’s commercial and industrial hub
Lilongwe took over from Zomba as the capital in 1974 and has grown rapidly. It has now also overtaken Blantyre as the biggest city in the country.
Kamuzu Day is a national holiday to honour the late former President Hastings Banda (May 14)
Lake of Stars Festival, Mangochi. Lake Malawi. Cultural and music and by all accounts quite a good bash (October)
Features, creatures & Flower power
Timber was a major export item for Malawi in the days before independence, with plantations on both the Nyika and the Zomba plateaus. Read Laurens van der Post’s Venture to the Interior for an insight into the life of the settlers of that era.
The Bohemian Café, Lilongwe – a café in a booking office with a very fine breakfast and snack menu. +265 0 757 120
Sunbird Livingstonia Beach Hotel – Senga Bay. The best hotel-restaurant on the lake +265 0 263 222
Red Zebra Café – near Senga Bay. A memorable hit-and-miss café on the way to the beach +265 1 263 024
Malawi Gin – a much-sought after tipple in the rest of Africa but cheap as chips in every bottle store in Malawi. But is it really different? And is it really better? Yes, definitely, on both counts!
Kapenta is a generic name given to a sardine or sprat fished from the rift valley lakes and then dried in the sun. It is a staple and a key source of protein for those living along the lakes although the fish numbers are dwindling due to overfishing.