Welcome to Malawi


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Geography and Climate


The country of Malawi is located in the southern hemisphere in the southeastern portion of the continent of Africa.  It is surrounded on all sides by other countries; Tanzania to the northeast, Mozambique to the east and south and Zambia to the west.

The country covers 118,480 sq. km. and in comparison, is slightly smaller than the state of Pennsylvania.

The two greatest geographical features of the country are the Great Rift Valley and Lake Malawi.  Lake Malawi covers 1/5th of the country and lies on the border with Mozambique.  The Shire river flows from the lake's southern end, through Lake Malombe and eventually into the Zambezi river in Mozambique. In addition to Lakes Malawi and Malombe there are Lakes Chilwas and Chiuta. The rest of the country consists of mostly plains, hills and mountains.

The climate is sub-tropical with a rainy season from November to April when it is warm and humid.  The dry season runs from May to August when it is dry and cool.  September and October can be very hot and humid.

What is the weather like right now in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi?  Follow this link for the weather.

Try converting the temperature in your town from Fahrenheit to Celsius.  

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The Malawian economy is based almost entirely on agriculture.  It provides 37% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 85% of export revenues.  Tobacco is the number one export followed by tea, sugar, coffee and peanuts.  Tourism is seen as profitable, however its potential has not yet been fully realized.  Industry and the service sector make up 29%  and 34% respectively of the remaining GDP.

Malawi ranks as one of the world's least developed countries.  86% of the population lives in the rural areas and relies on agriculture to make a living. Most families grow crops for their own use and then sell the excess.  There is very little industrialization and 54% of the population lives below the poverty level.  According to a January 1999 article in Africa Today , only 10% of the Malawians entering the job market today will find jobs.  A substantial amount economic assistance comes from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and individual donor nations. 

Find out how much your money is worth in Malawian Kwachas.  Click here!

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The beginning of mankind has been traced to the African continent and the earliest evidence of habitation in what is today known as Malawi, goes back about 2.5 million years ago.  150,000 years ago Stone Age people inhabited the shores of Lake Malawi and 2000 years ago the Bantu people began migrating into the area in what has become known as the "great migration".  This migration was important because the Bantu people had knowledge of iron working and were able to construct tools to make their lives easier and more constructive.  Between the 14th and 19th centuries, many Bantu tribes migrated to Malawi and the entire area was peopled.

During the 19th century, Arab slave traders began pushing deep into the African interior looking to increase their supply of slaves to keep up with the demand from places such as the  Arabia, India and the Americas.  During the mid 19th century, it is estimated that 80,000-100,000 Africans were killed or sold into slavery every year. 

In 1859, missionary Dr. David Livingstone claimed to be the first white person to see Lake Malawi (then called Lake Nyasa).  While this is debatable as Portuguese explorers had visited the area as early as the 16th century, he certainly became the most famous explorer.  Livingstone made three major forays into Africa in an attempt to spread Christianity, bring attention to the slave trade and find the source of the Nile.  It was during his third trip in 1871 that one of the most famous phrases ever uttered was spoken by Henry Stanley who was searching for the supposedly lost doctor.  Upon finding the doctor, he asked "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

In the years that followed, many missionaries followed in Livingstone's footsteps.  They were not always successful, but their efforts opened the way for more Europeans to come to Nyasaland (as Malawi was then called).  By the 1880's Portugal, Germany and Britain all had claims to territory.  Initially the presence of the Europeans brought good tidings.  The slave trade was ended, inter-tribal conflicts were resolved and there were improvements in health care.  However as more Europeans arrived, the demand for land increased and it was bought from tribal chiefs and fees were charged for its use.  Africans found themselves looking for work on the white-owned land that had previously been theirs.

The first uprisings occurred in the early 20th century.  But they had little effect.  It wasn't until the 1950's when the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) opposed the joining of Nyasaland with the Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia (today's Zambia and Zimbabwe).  The leader of the NAC was Hastings Banda, an African-born doctor trained in the U.S. and who lived for many years in Britain.  The initial movement toward independence so frightened the colonists that Banda and his supporters were thrown in jail.  Opposition to colonialism continued however and when Banda was released in 1960 he returned to head the party, now called the Malawi Congress Party (MCP).  In 1961 elections were held and the MCP was swept to victory.  Malawi became independent in 1964 and in 1966 Banda became its president.

Even though Banda was initially voted in in a democratic process, he quickly became a dictator.  Anyone who disagreed with him was exiled or driven into hiding.  He periodically banned the foreign press from the country.  He controlled the economy.  And he distanced himself from other newly formed African countries by forming an alliance with South Africa at a time when South Africa was being shunned by the rest of the world for its apartheid policies.  

By the 1990's the people had had enough and with the end of the cold war, money and supplies from "friendly" countries was drying up.  Catholic bishops within the country took the initiative and wrote a paper to be read in every catholic church condemning the regime and its policies.  In 1993 elections were held for the people to decide between Banda's party or a new multi-party system.  The new multi-party system won in a landslide and elections were held in 1994.  Bakili Muluzi was elected President and he remains so today.  The next elections are set for 2004.

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The oldest hominid (humanlike) remnant found in Malawi is a single jawbone thought to be about 2.5 million years old.  Archaeologists have also found evidence of 100,000 year old Early Stone Age settlements along the shore of Lake Malawi.  These early inhabitants are thought to have been the ancestors of the pygmies of Central Africa and the San or Bushmen of Southern Africa.

About 200 years ago, the great migration of the Bantu-speaking peoples occurred.  This migration is significant because this group of people had knowledge of iron working.  These the term Iron Age.  The Bantus migrated throughout Central, Eastern and eventually Southern Africa.  Rock and cave paintings exist in Malawi as reminders of the Stone Age people

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Population and  People 

The population of Malawi is currently 10.3 million people.  They are all descendants of the Bantu people and there are many different ethnic groups. The main groups are the Chewa, the Yao and the Tumbuka.  Others include the Nguni, the Chipoka and Tonga.  There are also small populations of Asians and Europeans concentrated mainly in the cities.

The majority of the people live in the lower elevations in the south of the country while the higher elevations in the north remain more sparsely populated.  Only 15% of the population lives in the main cities of Lilongwe (the capital of Malawi), Blantyre, Mzuzu and Zomba.

By all measurements, life for the average Malawian is hard.  The country is among the poorest in the world.  Per capita income is only $180.00 US per year and because of the AIDS epidemic, life expectancy is low; only 37 years.  Infant mortality rates are 122 deaths per 1,000 live births and the fertility rate is 5 children born per woman.

Read about how AIDS is devastating the teaching population in Africa.  AIDS in the Classroom.

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Traditional music and dance often perform important social functions, beyond just entertainment.  Instruments include drums made from gourds and tree trunks, mambilira - similar to a xylophone with wooden keys, and single stringed violins called zeze can be found along with various rattles and shakers.

Traditional dances reflect the religious belief in spirits.  Many of these dances are performed by healers to rid patients of sickness. 

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Faith and Values

55% of Malawians are Protestant, harking back to the days of the missionaries.  20% are Roman Catholic, 20% are Muslim and the remainder subscribe to various indigenous beliefs.  These generally center around the belief that life exists in all natural objects (animism).  

There is also the worship of ancestors who will intercede on someone's behalf with a "supreme being" and belief in the placing of spells and magic.  This last generally concerns physical and mental disabilities that are ascribed to the placing of a spell on the afflicted.  These are believed to be reversible by the paying of a fee to a witchdoctor who then uses herbs, prayers, chanting or dance to "cure" the victim of the spell or curse.

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Flora and Fauna For a small country, Malawi has a surprising variety of animals.  Because it sits at the "biological crossroads" of central, southern and eastern Africa, Malawi has animals from all three regions.

Most of the large animals can be found in the national wildlife parks and reserves.  Liwonde National Park, is home to large herds of elephants and antelope.  You can also see hippos and crocodiles and more rarely, rhinos.  Lions can be seen at Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve and zebras can be seen at Kasungu National Park.

In the north at Nyika National Park there are several types of antelope plus warthogs, hyenas and leopards.  In the south you can see nyalas, bushbucks, impalas, duikers and kudus.

The varieties of fish in Lake Malawi number 600, many of them endemic (meaning found here, and nowhere else.)  There are more varieties found here than anywhere else in the world and more are being found all the time.

In the 1980's & 90's, the poaching of wild animals in the national parks was a major environmental issue.  The new government installed in 1993 promised help but a lack of resources meant little happened.  However since the mid-1990's donor countries  and organizations have provided money and resources for better anti-poaching methods and better management.

Malawi's flora consists of woodlands, grasslands and wetlands.  There are two types of woodlands.  The first,  Miombo, covers 70% of the land.  It grows in poor soil and forms a loose canopy that allows grasses to grow beneath it.   Mopane, the second type, occurs in hot lowland areas that have low rainfall.  It can be found along the southern shores of Lake Malawi and in Liwonde National Park.  The grasslands generally occur above 1800m and are primarily on the plateaus in northern Malawi.  The wetlands can be found along the banks of the rivers and lakes and consist mainly of reeds and grasses.

The Boabab tree, with its stange appearance is also found here.  Folk stories tell of the Boabab as being a wandering tree, always moving around.  One day God became angry at the tree and replanted it upside down so it would stay in one place.  Can you picture this tree, its branches look like roots sticking up into the air.

Malawi is also known for its orchids and contains over 400 species.  Many other types of flowers can be found as well due to the wide range of habitats within the country.


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Source: CIA World Fact Book, Lonely Planet Publications, ABC News Country Profile

Kim and Don Greene, Authors; publication date May 1 2001