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Malawi is a long, thin country, running north-south along the western shores of Lake Malawi (also called Lake Nyasa) in south-eastern Africa. To its north and northeast it borders Tanzania, its southern section is surrounded by Mozambique, and it shares a border with Zambia to the west. Much of the country consists of highlands that drop to Lake Malawi, which fills the depths of part of the continent’s Great Rift Valley. The country has few mineral resources and consists largely of farmland, wetlands and forest.

Perhaps two or three millennia ago, Bantu peoples displaced the original population of Khoisan hunter-gatherers in the area that is today’s Malawi. Malawi has a modern history of nineteenth-century armed conquest and twentieth-century manipulation of ethnic antagonisms, during which attempts have been made to create social hierarchies based on ethnicity. Settled farming populations suffered invasion by Ngoni, a people originating in Natal and Swaziland and organized for combat. Their raids for cattle, slaves and other booty spread across present-day Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia in the mid-nineteenth century. With their captives and cattle, Ngoni settled in central and northern Malawi. Arab-Swahili slave-traders based in coastal enclaves were a further predatory factor. Their collaborators, Yao people of present-day Mozambique and Tanzania, began to settle in Malawi in the latter part of the century. Suppression of the slave trade was a major pretext for British claims to the territory. In the wake of explorer David Livingstone’s arrival at Lake Malawi in 1859, the most decisive wave of settlement began in the 1890s: missionaries (particularly from Scotland), administrators, labour recruiters for mines and farms elsewhere in Southern Africa, and traders of Indian origin. Imperial interests of Britain, in competition with those of Portugal, set the country’s boundaries in 1891. These drew diverse peoples into one artificial territory: the British Central Africa Protectorate.

The first British Commissioner wore a hatband of white, yellow and black stripes as emblems of the social hierarchy to be created: whites on top, Indian merchants in the middle and black people at the bottom. In 1907, the colonial entity was renamed the Nyasaland Protectorate. Colonial policy aimed at both creating and manipulating ethnic identity continued. Loosely affiliated clans and speakers of similar dialects were grouped under appointed chiefs, and formally transformed into ‘tribes’. These in turn were played off against one another, a practice continued in the post-colonial period. Creation of the Northern, Central and Southern regions further sharpened distinctions. Malawi endured the totalitarian rule of Dr. Hastings Banda from independence in 1964 to his ouster in the 1990s, and today has a turbulent multiparty democracy.

From about 1984 to 1995, over a million Mozambicans found sanctuary from war as refugees in Malawi. Relations between Malawians and these refugees, some of whom lived in marginally better conditions, were rarely harmonious. By 1996, almost all had returned home to Mozambique, but the country received new arrivals fleeing violence in Rwanda and the Democratic of the Congo.

Malawi has felt the full force of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, with UNAIDS estimating that the infection rate in 2005 was 7.3 per cent of the total population.

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Main languages: Chi-Chewa (first language for 57%-official), English (official), Chi-Nyanja, Chi-Lomwe, Chi-Yao, Chi-Tumbuka, Nyakyusa, Chi-Sena, Chi-Tonga

Main religions: Christianity (80%), Islam (13%), indigenous beliefs

Main population groups are Chewa, Nyanja (2.5 million), Lomwe (2.5 million), Yao (1 million), Tumbuka (0.9 million) and Nyakyusa/Ngonde (0.3 million).

[Note: Sources for language, religion and Chewa in the Central Region come from the 1998 Malawi census. Population figures for Yao, Tumbuka and Nyakyusa/Ngonde come from Ethnologue, years 2001, 2001, and 1993, respectively. The total population estimate comes from the CIA World Factbook, 2006.].

Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Chewa are the biggest population group and constitute around 90 per cent of people in Central Region. Nyanja form the majority in the Southern Region and Tumbuka in the Northern Region.

Three small but notable minorities reside mainly in urban areas of the Southern Region: ‘Asians’, numbering several thousand; ‘coloureds’ (people of mixed descent), numbering a few thousand at most; and ‘Europeans’, numbering perhaps five or six thousand, and holding privileged managerial, social service and technical occupations, as well as disproportionate property ownership.

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The post-colonial 1962–94 reign of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), headed by Hastings Banda, a Chewa physician, persistently practiced racial discrimination and ethnic persecution. In 1971, Banda had himself declared President for Life, and all citizens were required to join his party. Beyond Banda’s personal power, promotion of Chewa hegemony was the regime’s major project, including the projection of Chewa culture as that of the Malawian nation as a whole. Real or perceived challengers in the spheres of business, religion and especially political power were intimidated, often brutally; some were murdered.

Inter-marriage, compounded by dubious census methods in the colonial era and post-colonial ethnic re-labelling of people has put in question the validity of much ethno-linguistic categorization in Malawi. Ethnic self-identification has never taken deep root. Socio-political loyalties appear instead to correspond more consistently with regions, their political parties and leaders, although these overlap with ethnic clusters.

With about 38 per cent of the country’s total population, the Central Region is home of the MCP and its Chewa ethnic base. The region is relatively homogeneous; Ngoni-speaking people constitute a minor part of its population. In the colonial era, mission schools were fewer and attendance lower than in other regions; they were run by French-speaking Catholics and Afrikaans-speaking Protestant missionaries, who did not encourage the use of English. Few intellectuals or small business owners emerged as leaders here. Literacy and other skill levels tended to be lower than national averages, which were low in Southern African terms. Although many other Malawians were as poor or marginalized as the Central Region’s Chewa, the Banda regime cited these shortcomings to justify its effort to favour people of this region with new infrastructure projects, farm loans and direct patronage. They also gained, at the expense of groups in the Northern and Southern regions, the means to learn about and celebrate their culture, albeit in an often exaggerated and artificial form. In return, the people of the Central Region showed consistent loyalty to the MCP. The women’s branch of the party was given special prominence, with paradoxical tasks of promoting women’s position (the Chewa trace descent through the mother’s family) while mobilizing political support for a system dominated by men.

Under the Banda regime, Asian traders were forced out of rural areas, their businesses restricted to major towns. The Jehovah’s Witnesses sect was banned under the Banda regime from 1967 to 1993.

Banda’s allegiance to the West throughout the Cold War and cooperation with Apartheid-era South Africa provided him with foreign support. That support disappeared with the end of the Cold War and the weakening of Apartheid ahead of its 1994 demise. Malawians had also had enough, and voted overwhelmingly in a 1993 referendum to replace one-party rule with a multi-party system.

Multi-party democracy

Under that new system, Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF), himself a Muslim Yao, was elected president in May 1994 with significant support among the predominantly southern Nyanja. The UDF formed a coalition government with the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD), which had its power base among the Tumbuka of the north.

A new constitution passed in 1995 eliminated systemic perquisites for Banda’s MCP party. Victimized minorities no longer suffered active discrimination, but accumulated grievances remained. Within months of coming to power in 1994, the new government had appealed to Asians who had left Malawi in the 1980s to return. Although intended to win foreign investment, this gesture did not gain immediate popular support; two days after the appeal, African employees of Asian business-owners went on strike for higher pay.

To begin combating poverty, land reform in this wholly agrarian country presented the biggest challenge. Until 1994, political advantages allowed a Chi-Chewa-speaking elite to accumulate property and social power. They struck deals with foreign companies and hired White farm managers from Zimbabwe. More than 75 per cent of arable land came into the hands of companies and individuals who grew mostly export crops, such as coffee, tea, tobacco and sugar. In 1970, there were 229 commercial estates with about 79,000 hectares; in 1991, there were 23,000 estates occupying 1.14 million hectares. This process helped dispossess tens of thousands of African smallholders, 40 per cent of whom were left with 0.7 hectares or less – too little land to support a farming livelihood. In 1965, 85 per cent of Malawi’s rural population lived below the poverty line; in 1988, the proportion had risen to 90 per cent – in absolute numbers, a rise of about 3 million people in poverty.

President Muluzi served two terms, but found little support for his effort to amend the constitution to allow him a third. His little-known, hand-picked successor for the UDF leadership, fellow southerner Bingu wa Mutharika, won the presidency in 2004. Election observers cited irregularities in voter registration polling, as well as media bias and state spending in favour of the governing party. Mutharika fell out with Muluzi, who was still UDF party chairman, and left the party in early 2005 amid accusations and counter-accusations of corruption and assassination plots. Mutharika formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), but now faced a parliamentary majority comprised of the UDF and MCP. The rest of the year was consumed by UDF efforts to impeach Mutharika and Mutharika’s efforts to compel Muluzi’s appearance before Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau.

The row spilled into 2006, with Mutharika attempting to oust Vice President Cassim Chilumpha, a Yao who remained loyal to Muluzi. Malawi’s Constitutional Court re-instated Chilumpha in March 2006, but in May, Mutharika ordered Chilumpha’s arrest for allegedly plotting his assassination along with other Muslim accomplices. In that same month, Mutharika accelerated the rehabilitation of deceased former President Hastings Banda, who had persecuted the Yao. Chilumpha still faces treason charges.

Minority based and advocacy organisations

Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights
Tel: +265-636-007
Email: malawicarer@malawi.net

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR)
Tel: +265-741-292

Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC)
Tel: +265-1-750-900, 750-958
Email: mhrc@sdnp.org.mw
Website: www.malawihumanrightscommission.org

Public Affairs Committee (PAC)
Tel: +265-782-692
Email: pac@malawi.net

Sources and further reading

Chirwa, Wiseman, et. al., Democracy for Malawi, International IDEA, Stockholm, 2004.

Khembo, Nixon S. (ed.), Elections and Democratisation in Malawi: An Uncertain Process, EISA Research Report No. 10, Johannesburg, 2005.

Palmer, R.H., ‘Johnston and Jameson: a comparative study in the imposition of colonial rule’, in B. Pachai (ed.), The Early History of Malawi, Evanston, IL., Northwestern University Press, 1972, pp. 293–322.

Vail, L. and White, L., ‘Tribalism in the political history of Malawi’, in L. Vail (ed.), The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, London, James Currey, 1989, pp. 151–92.


Minorities and indigenous peoples in
Malawi: