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Northerners in Malawi

  • Profile

    The Northern Region is a remote and thinly populated region containing about 12 per cent of Malawi’s population. It has long been a source of labour to other countries in Southern Africa as well as to the rest of Malawi. Migrant labourers from the north constitute a vulnerable part of this minority. Tumbuka-speakers are most numerous among northerners; other groups include Nyakyusa/Ngonde.

    Historical context

    The establishment of mission schools in the north of Malawi in the late nineteenth century helped put northerners on a faster track of social mobility. Northerners became clerks, skilled traders and wage-earners in relatively greater numbers than other Malawians. In the post-colonial period, northerners accounted for about half of university entrants and formed the backbone of the nation’s educational staff and civil service. A number of Malawi’s most active nationalist leaders at the time of political independence were from the region. It was this leadership that Banda, shortly after coming to power, began to expel from government, jail, force into exile, vilify, and even, it is alleged, murder.

    For nearly thirty years it was the regime’s policy to exclude northerners, especially Chi-Tumbuka-speaking people, from social and political achievement. In 1968 it made Chi-Chewa an official language of instruction, a compulsory subject of study in school, and medium for radio and the press. Speakers of Chi-Tumbuka, among others, lost means to enjoy and promote their language and culture. Over the years, the regime took other steps to frustrate the social mobility of northerners, especially through access to secondary and tertiary level schooling. In 1987 for example, it imposed a quota system governing university admissions so that Chi-Chewa-speakers, hitherto under-represented, would be guaranteed more places. Northerners in government positions were periodically purged in the 1980s. These measures, some of which were never fully applied, seem not to have decisively changed Chewa social standing; but they did serve further to polarize political life and to discredit the Banda regime. With the advent of the new government in 1994, a number of discriminatory measures were rescinded. National radio resumed broadcasting Chi-Tumbuka programmes after a hiatus of twenty-six years.

    In the 1994 elections, the northern-based Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) party, with a Tumbuka leadership, won all constituencies in the Northern Region.

    Current issues

    Since the demise of the Banda regime in 1993, northern peoples have no longer been subjected to explicit government discrimination, have enjoyed full participation in parliament, and periodic participation in government.

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