About half Malawi’s population lives in the Southern Region, whose economy pivots on urban commerce and services, and plantation agriculture with mixed small and medium-scale rural production.
Nyanja-speaking peoples constitute the largest ethno-linguistic grouping in the south, and account for about a fifth of the country’s total population.
The cluster of groups referred to collectively as Lomwe also account for about a fifth of total population.
The third major ethno-linguistic group of southerners, Yao people make up about 8 per cent of Malawi’s total population. Most are Muslims.
Although the regime of President Hastings Banda (1962–94) portrayed them as kindred to Chewa, and therefore bearers of ‘true’ Malawian culture, Chi-Nyanja-speaking elites found their ambitions for economic and political opportunity blocked. The winning party of the 1994 election, the United Democratic Front (UDF), includes many Nyanja.
The forebears of the Lomwe entered Malawi from Mozambique (where they are culturally akin to Macua) as cheap labourers for European tea and tobacco planters in the densely settled south-eastern highlands of Mulanje and Thyolo districts. While never gaining social power and strong ethnic identity through schools and a local petit-bourgeois leadership, Lomwe-speakers nevertheless came to staff the Malawian army in disproportionate numbers during Banda’s rule.
The British promoted Yao chiefs as indirect rulers over the Lomwe labouring peoples and as earners of export revenues through small-scale tobacco production. However, both Christian mission schooling and Muslim schools were discouraged; thus an important basis for broad ethnic identity and socio-political power never developed among Yao as it did for Tumbuka people. Nevertheless, the Banda regime practised deliberate discrimination and subtle vilification of Yao people as accomplices in the slave trade. Yao could therefore not fully participate in economic and social life, nor enjoy full opportunities to gain knowledge of their traditions, language and culture. Financed from abroad, a programme of mosque-building gained momentum in the 1980s, somewhat compensating for anti-Muslim practices. In 1981 Banda expelled from his cabinet, following other expulsions of rivals, a popular Yao nationalist politician and Muslim businessman, Bakili Muluzi. In May 1994 Muluzi became Malawi’s president, ending an era of anti-Yao machinations. However, the May 2006 arrest of Vice President Chilumpha and other alleged Muslim co-conspirators in a plot to assassinate President Mutharika raised fears among some Yao that Mutharika was reverting to Banda’s old ways.
Malawi’s political turmoil is not expressly along ethnic or religious lines. However, when President Mutharika, a Catholic, ordered the arrest in May 2006 of his Muslim vice president and two Muslim businessmen for allegedly plotting his assassination, many Muslim Yao people saw the move as being directed at their community. The same month of the arrest, Mutharika unveiled a US$620,000 mausoleum for former totalitarian President Hastings Banda, praising him as a ‘hero’, and vowing to ‘continue his work’.