This introduction to Malawian culture contains sections on Malawian History, Malawian People, Lake Malawi, The Spoken Word, The Written Word, Malawian Music, Malawian Crafts, Food and Drink,and Sport. Click the link to go to the section of your choice.


Fossil evidence of life in Northern Malawi dates from ~100 million years ago with the discovery of dinosaur (Malawisaurus and Karongasaurus) and crocodilian (Malawisuchus) remains.

More recent finds include the approx. 2.4 million year old hominin jawbone which was unearthed near Uraha (north-west of Chilumba). This being the oldest examplar of the genus Homo ever found. Evidence of early human habitation found in the Lake Malawi area dates from 60,000 years ago. Human remains from 1500BC show features resembling those of the San People. It was from this time that the earliest examples of rock-art in the Chingoni area date from.

In the late 15th century groups of Bantu tribes came together to form the Maravi Empire. At the apex of its importance this Empire covered not only the majority of today’s Malawi but sizeable areas of Mozambique and Zambia too. The Maravia Empire lasted over 200 years before its decline took hold due to the arrival of two powerful groups (the Ngoni & the Yao) into the region. It was from this time that the slave trade expanded significantly.

The era of British influence began with the explorations of David Livingstone into the region. The UMCA (Universities Mission to Central Africa) arrived initially in Malawi in 1861 but soon retreated. It was during this year that Livingstone arrived in Nkhotakota to speak out against slavery, whose depravity was evidenced along the lakeshore.

The death of Livingstone in 1873 and associated interest in his explorations re-energized Britain’s efforts to end the slave trade. Scottish missionaries arrived in Cape Maclear in 1875 and the Livingstonia Central Africa Company (to become the African Lakes Company in 1878) was set up two years later to supply the missionaries and open up trade routes.

In an early example of petitioning to influence government behaviour and laws, in 1889 11,000 prominent Scots signed a petitition urging the British Government to prevent the territory being broken up by foreign colonialists (Portugese and Swahili).

In 1891 the British established the Nyasaland & District Protectorate, which then became the British Central Africa Protectorate in 1893. Fourteen years later the Protectorate was renamed Nyasaland.

In 1915 John Chilembwe, a Baptist preacher inspired by the American abolitionist John Brown attempted to instigate an uprising against colonial rule by leading a revolt against plantation owners near Chiradzulu. A particularly unjust estate manager and neighboring white men were killed. The revolt fizzled out when a large group failed to breach the compound of the African Lakes Corporation and remove the stock of firearms which it held. Chilembwe was captured and killed shortly after. As the first serious protestor against colonial rule Chilembwe remains revered in modern day Malawi.

In 1944 Nationalists established the N>yasaland African Congress (NAC) with branches set up by Malawian workers in North and South Rhodesia (Zambia & Zimbabwe today).

In the face of strong opposition from the NAC and white liberal activists Nyasaland was combined with the Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia by Britain in 1953.

The federation was denounced by Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda as he returned from the US and the UK, where he had been studying, to lead the Nyasaland African Congress in 1958. In the following year after violent clashes between NAC supporters and colonial authorities the NAC is banned. The NAC then becomes the Malawi Congress Party.

The territory is granted self-government as Nyasaland with Dr Banda as Prime Minister in 1963 and on July 6 of the following year Nyasaland declares independence as Malawi. On the second anniversary of independence Banda becomes president of the Republic of Malawi and the constitution establishes a one-party state. Opposition movements are suppressed and their leaders are detained.

In 1971 Banda is voted President for life.

The first elections since independence were held in 1978. All potential candidates had to belong to the Malawi Congress Party and be approved by Banda.

In 1993 a referendum rejects the single-party state, paving the way for members of parties other than the Malawi Congress Party to hold office. In the following year municipal and presidential elections are held. Bakili Muluzi, leader of the United Democratic Front, is elected president. He immediately frees political prisoners and re-establishes freedom of speech. In 1999 he is re-elected for a second and final five-year term

In May of 2004 - Bingu wa Mutharika was elected President. Nine months later he resigned from the UDF and formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).In the years 2006 - 2008 he arrested many political opponents (including ex-President Muluzi) and ex-security chiefs. Despite this he was re-elected President in 2009.

In 2011 he angered opposition parties by calling on members of his Democratic Progressive Party at a rally to beat up those who had insulted him. He expelled the British High Commissioner and 19 people were killed in anti-government rallies. Britain and others halted all aid as a result

In April 2012 President Mutharika died, to be replaced by his Vice-President Joyce Banda. On assuming power she took actions to satisfy IMF requirements and the flow of aid resumed.

However in October 2013 President Banda sacked her cabinet amid allegations of widespread corruption. The affair known as 'Cashgate' is believed to encompass the looting of >$250M from the public purse due to the exploitation of a loop-hole in financial systems. Foreign donors who supply a sizeable percentage of Malawi's annual budget once again turned off the taps.

In May 2014 Peter Mutharika, the brother of former President Bingu wa Mutharika was elected President. In July of that year Malawi celebrated its 50 th anniversary of independence.

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Like the majority of the population of Southeastern Africa, Malawians are predominantly a Bantu people. Different ethnic groups come together to create a rich cultural tapestry. The largest of these groups is the Chewa people comprising about 1/3 of Malawi's total population. They came to Northern Malawi and Zambia in the 15th C from what is nowadays the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today the Chewa are concentrated in the Central Belt (Lilongwe, Dedza, Kasungu, Nkhotakota etc.). Their language, Chichewa, is a national language and as a result their culture and traditions have broadly permeated Malawian life.

The second most populous of the the ethnic groups is the Lomwe. They originate from Mozambique and are located in the southeast of the country with a large grouping near Phalombe. The Yao also originate from Mozambique and are chiefly found at the southern end of Lake Malawi. The Yao were heavily involved in the ivory and slave trade and attacked the Chewa and Ngoni to capture slaves. They eventually adopted the Islamic religion of their Zanzibar based Arab trading partners. In the southern districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje, a third group coming from Mozambique can be found. They are the Sena.

In the north of the country the predominant ethnic group are the Tumbuka and for the majority of the last two centuries their chieftains have played an important administrative role in Northern Malawi. This was disrupted in the precolonial period by a Ngoni invasion. The Ngoni fleeing from Shaka Zulu in South Africa emerged initially in Central Malawi but split with a group moving north agressively taking over from more peaceful tribes. The third northern group are the Tonga who are concentrated in the Nkhata Bay region. The Livingstonia based missionaries focus on education has benefited the people of the North.

The 2015 estimated population of 17,964,697 is distributed by age and gender as below:

Age Group (years) Male - % Total Population Female - % Total Population
0 - 14 23.2 23.5
15 - 24 10.1 10.2
25 - 54 13.5 13.7
55 - 64 1.5 1.6
65 and over 1.2 1.5

As is evident Malawi's population is youthful with 67% of its people being aged 24 years or younger.

Malawians often refer to their country as a "god-fearing nation". A 2008 estimate of religious affiliation documents 82.6% of the population as being Christian, 13% Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 1.9% other and 2.5% no religion.

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The Lake

As a geographical feature Lake Malawi is hugely impressive. It is the 3rd largest of the African Great Rift Lakes and like Lake Tanganyika is formed in the actual rift itself. It is the 6th deepest and 5th largest lake by volume of water in the world. Its sole outlet is the Shire River.

As an environmental treasure house it is equally if not more impressive. The Lake contains more species of fish than any other lake in the world. These include more than 1000 species of cichlid alone. The cichlids exhibit many interesting evolutionary characteristics including to having developed a greater degree of parental responsibility than other fish species and of a level similar to many mammals.The extent and rapidity to which they have evolved makes them the object of great evolutionary interest. The World Wildlife Fund has identified the Lake Malawi / Shire River catchment area and surrounding freshwater ecosysytem as a priority conservation area because "of the high biodiversity of wildlife; high endemism of fishery resources; the high number of threatened species and a high degree of threat to the wildland".

However for the more than 2 million people who live on the lakeshore Lake Malawi is the source of their livelihood and an essential part of their culture. There are countless fishing communities which are supported by the Lake (it is estimated that 10 casual workers are supported by one fisherman and his boat), a fledgling tourist industry and agricultural lands in the flat areas alongside the Lake. The waters that flow from the Lake go on to feed Liwonde National Park and continue into the unspoilt beauty of the Elephant Marsh.

For the rest of the country dried fish such as Usipa and Chambo are a significant source of protein in peoples' diets. The waters outputted into the Shire River supply the hydroelectric plants that supply all Malawi's electricity. The Lake is the destination for a day away from the stresses and strains of normal life.

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Spoken Word

Oral traditions have and do play a significant part in maintaining Malawi's cultural history in passing on the beliefs and unique histories of its diverse peoples from generation to generation. Animals are often cast as participants in the proverbs, songs and stories of old,reflecting perhaps the vision that animals, plants and trees are endowed with life. Stones, mountains etc were thought to be homes of serpants such as Napolo.

Gule Wamkulu or the "Big Dance" is recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It is a performance among the Chewa people at events such as initiations, weddings and funerals.The purpose of the dance is said to be a way of communicating with the ancestors of the villagers and making possible continued harvests and continued life. The participants leave their mortal selfs behind and become one with the spirits in the dance.

In a land where television penetration is low, radio plays an important part in communication. Zodiak News Radio and Capital Radio are Malawi's two leading radio stations.

Drama and participatory learning are key tools in accessing groups such as rural communities (where some may be unable to read and write) and children (who may be uncomfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings directly). Theatre for a Change are one the main exponents of this method of teaching but many, many groups employ drama in their knowledge sharing activities.

Blantyre based Nanzikambe Arts are involved in touring theatre productions, films and radio drama. Also in Blantyre is First Dawn Arts whose expertise is in film (including Seasons of a Life) and music production. In late 2015 Lilongwe hosted African Film Festival Malawi a joint production of FAMA and Positivo Projects.

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Written Word

Perhaps the most well-known piece of Malawian literature is "The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind". This book co-written by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer tells the story of how William, whose family were unable to afford to send him to secondary school and armed with only a few science text-books managed to construct two windmills. Both were constructed from discarded metal, tractor and bicycle parts. The first was used to power a 4 light circuit, complete with switches and circuit breaker. The second was used to power a water pump helping his family address the adversity that they faced.

Biographer, economist, historian, novelist and playwright D.D. Phiri's written output includes "Let Us Die for Africa: An African Perspective on the Life and Death of John Chilembwe of Nyasaland" and "History of Malawi: From Earliest Times to the Year 1915". A regular writer for The Nation a collection of his essays have been published as "Malawi Our Future Our Choice: The Selected Essays of D. D. Phiri".

Writer and poet Jack Mapanje is best-known for anthology of poems, entitled "Of Chameleons and Gods". Published in London in 1981, its satirical look at politics and political leaders was well-received but led to the book's banning from Malawian schools and universities, its withdrawal from circulation in country and the author's imprisonment in 1987 by Kamuzu Banda. An international campaign on his behalf led to his release.

Francis Chipasula's book "Visions and Refelections" was the first published collection of poems by Malawian (1972). A contemporary of Jack Mapanje, he escaped imprisonment by the Banda government by going into exile initially to Zambia and then to the US.

Stanley Onjezani Kenan is a poet and short-story writer. Two of his short stories ("For Honour" and "Love on Trial") have been shortlisted for the The Caine Prize. He was selected as one of the 39 most promising auothors under 40 from sub-Saharan Africa or the diaspora by the Hay Festival Africa39 project.

The recently deceased writer and poet Steve Chimombo's best known work was Napolo Poems. He used mythological themes and colloquialisms to disguise criticism of the repressions of the Kamuzu Banda government.

Malawi's two most widely circulated newspapers are The Nation and The Daily Times. Online news outlets include the Nyasa Times and the Maravi Post.

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Since 2004 Malawi has hosted one of the top ten music festivals in Africa at what has been called the most beautiful festival location, the shore of Lake Malawi. The Lake of Stars Festival features Malawian, other African and UK artists. Past headliners have included Black Missionaries, Lucius Banda, The Very Best, Tay Grin, The Maccabees, Young Fathers and Uhuru among many others.

Gospel, reggae, rap and to a lesser extent rock are popular music genres in Malawi. Check out some of the country's more popular performers below. Included is the 2016 Grammy nominated Zomba Prison Project. Inmates of the high-security prison wrote and performed the songs on this album becoming in the process the first Malawians to be nominated for a Grammy.

The Black Missionaries

Reggae band from the Blantyre area.

Lucius Banda

Musician and politician.

The Very Best

Trio comprising a London based duo and Esau Mwamwaya from Mzuzu.


Hip-Hop artist and beat-maker.

Malinga Mafia ft Sangie

Reggae / dancehall artist duets with 2015 Newcomer of Year Sangie.

Moto Buu

Afro Rock

Zomba Prison Project

Samuel Mkandawire


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Hardwood carving of native hardwoods is a traditional artform for which Malawi has long been famous. Chief chairs, ceremonial masks, nativity scenes, chess sets, figures and decorated bowls are some of the better known pieces that are crafted. Stands nr the Nkhata Bay road-block , on the M5 just south of Kande village, adjoining Cool Runnings (Senga Bay) and next to the Sunbird Hotel on Zomba Plateau are among the best roadside options for shopping. Commercial outlets include La Caverna Art Gallery (at Mandala House)in Blantyre and the Art Gallery and Showroom at the Kungoni Centre. The Kungoni Centre contains many true works of art sculpted by artists who in some cases spend their lives working there. In the Salima area vines and bamboo are woven to produce straw hats, bags, mats and rattan like furniture.

Food & Drink

Nsima is the staple of the modern Malawian's diet. Mostly Nsima is maize based although some lakeshore areas use cassava root as the base. Maize was introduced to Malawi from the Americas via the Portugese in Mozambique and replaced Millet & Sorghum as the dietary staple, due to its higher yields. To make Nsima the maize kernals are dried then milled to a flour-like powder. The powder is then added to to water and cooked to make a thick porridge. Cassava roots are pounded, dried and milled to make their powder. Nsima is served with one or two sides ("relishes") whose purpose is to add taste to the dish. One side will be vegetable based incorporating green leaves (rape, pumpkin, cassava, bonongwe, chard, mustard, chinese cabbage, chisoso, luni), onion, oil and tomatoes. Where affordable the second side will contain a protein such as beef, goat, chicken or fish.

Malawi produces quality Kilombero rice and it is eaten with beans on occasions. Rice is comparatively more expensive than nsima and as a result is not eaten widely as a staple. Potatoes (both sweet and Irish) are usually eaten fried. The Lake is a source of a variety of fish ranging from the small silvery Usipa and Utaka to the bigger Batala (butterfish), Mpasa (salmon-like), Kampango and Mlamba (catfish) and the very popular tilapia-like Chambo. Chicken is often offered as local or 'hybrid'. The local chicken being completely free-range is tougher but more flavourful. Dried beans and groundnuts are part of the diet while less appetizing sources of protein are Mbewa (grilled field mice)and Ngumbi (winged ants).

Tomatoes and onions are available year-round while peppers, eggplants, greens, peas, mushrooms, pumpkins, carrots, green beans, plantains etc are more seasonal. Some growers produce courgettes, shushu (chayote), lettuces and herbs. Avocados, bananas, citrus, guavas, mangoes, papaya and pineapples are widely available in their seasons. Unfortunately much fruit and vegetables goes to waste due to lack of preservation options. Malawi Mangoes is one of the organizations trying to address this issue.

Malawians are enthusiastic tea drinkers, especially sweet tea (adding three or more teaspoons of sugar per cup) with something to eat with it often a slice of bread. Tea is grown primarily in the Mulanje and Thyolo areas but also near Nkhata Bay. Malawian tea is characterized by its reddish colour and and neutral flavour profile . However growers, such as Satemwa are also producing single estate teas and green and white teas now.

Also popular (and sweet) is Fanta Orange (Passion Fruit & Pineapple too). Southern Bottlers ( a division of Carlsberg Brewers Malawi), have enviable supply chains which reach throughout the country which means Fanta and Coca-Cola are available almost everywhere. Carlsberg's first brewery outside Denmark was in Blantyre and they have sole brewing rights in Malawi for a lengthy period. They produce Green, Chill, Special, Stout & Kuche-Kuche. The latter has a lower alcohol level than the others, is available in a larger bottle and is a favourite with thirsty Mzungus. A division of Carlsberg Malawi also produce a line of spirits including the popular Malawi Gin and Vodka. Coffee is grown in the highland areas throughout the country and much of it is exported as green beans. Locally roasted coffee is marketed by the Mzuzu Coffee Cooperative and Satemwa Estates amongst others.

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Football and netball are the two most popular sports in Malawi. Football is played all over Malawi often with barefeet and makeshift balls made of rolled-up rags. Malawians are enthusiastic followers of European football particularly the English Premier League. Followers of Arsenal and Manchester Utd can be found everywhere. Within the country there is a 15 team Super League containing teams from all the major cities. The National team, the Flames have reached the Africa Cup of Nations Finals twice.

The Malawi Queens women's netball team ended 2015 ranked 6th in the world. Queen's star Mwawi Kumwenda was voted International World Games Athelete of the Year 2015. There are 8 teams in the GOtv Champions League.

Malawi sent a small team of 2 athletes and 2 swimmers to the 2012 Olympics but they were unsuccessful in winning a first Olympic medal for the country. Malawi has won 3 bronze medals at the Commonwealth Games, all in boxing.

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Who is your favourite Malawian Artist, Writer, Singer.....?