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History of Malawi

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Title: History of Malawi  
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History of Malawi

The History of Malawi covers the area of present-day Malawi. The region was once part of the Maravi Empire. In colonial times, the territory was ruled by the British, under whose control it was known first as British Central Africa and later Nyasaland. It became part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The country achieved full independence, as Malawi, in 1964. After independence, Malawi was ruled as a one-party state under Hastings Banda until 1994.


  • Prehistory 1
  • Maravi Empire 2
  • Trade and invasions 3
    • Portuguese influence 3.1
    • Angoni 3.2
    • Ayao 3.3
    • Arabs and their Swahili allies 3.4
    • Lomwe of Malawi 3.5
    • Early European contact 3.6
  • British rule 4
  • Independence 5
  • One-party rule 6
  • Multi-party democracy 7
  • Malawi in the 21st century 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


In 1991 a hominin jawbone was discovered near Uraha village that was between 2.3 and 2.5 million years old, the oldest evidence of the genus Homo ever discovered.[1] Early humans inhabited the vicinity of Lake Malawi 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. Human remains at a site dated about 8000 BC show physical characteristics similar to peoples living today in the Horn of Africa. At another site, dated 1500 BC, the remains possess features resembling San people. These short people with copper coloured skin were known as the Akafula or Batwa. They are responsible for rock paintings found south of Lilongwe in Chencherere and Mphunzi.

Maravi Empire

Map of the Mavari Kingdom at its greatest extent, c. 1650

The name Malawi is thought to derive from the word Maravi. The people of the Maravi Empire were iron workers. Maravi is thought to mean "Flames" and may have come from the sight of many kilns lighting up the night sky. A dynasty known as the Maravi Empire was founded by the Amaravi people in the late 15th century. The Amaravi, who eventually became known as the Chewa (a word possibly derived from a term meaning "foreigner"), migrated to Malawi from the region of the modern-day Republic of Congo to escape unrest and disease. The Chewa attacked the Akafula, who settled in small family clans without a unified system of protection. Using a system of destruction they would later employ in hunting predatory animals, the Chewa hunted down and butchered the Akafula.

Eventually encompassing most of modern Malawi, as well as parts of modern-day Mozambique and Zambia, the Maravi Empire began on the southwestern shores of Lake Malawi. The head of the empire during its expansion was the Kalonga (also spelt Karonga). The Kalonga ruled from his headquarters in Mankhamba. Under the leadership of the Kalonga, sub-chiefs were appointed to occupy and subdue new areas. The empire began to decline during the early 18th century when fighting among the sub-chiefs and the burgeoning slave trade weakened the Maravi Empire's authority.

Trade and invasions

Portuguese influence

Initially the Maravi Empire's economy was largely dependent on agriculture, the majority being the production of Europeans first came into contact with the people of Malawi. Under the Maravi Empire, the Chewa had access to the coast of modern-day Mozambique. Through this coastal area, the Chewa traded ivory, iron, and slaves with the Portuguese and Arabs. Trade was enhanced by the common language of Chewa which was spoken throughout the Maravi Empire.

The Portuguese reached the area via the Mozambican port of Tete in the 16th century and gave the first written reports on the people of Malawi. The Portuguese were also responsible for the introduction of maize to the region. Maize would eventually replace sorghum as the staple of the Malawian diet. Malawian tribes traded slaves with the Portuguese. These slaves were sent mainly to work on Portuguese plantations in Mozambique or to Brazil.


The decline of the Maravi Empire resulted from the entrance of two powerful groups into the region of Malawi. In the 19th century, the Angoni or Ngoni people and their chief Zwangendaba arrived from the Natal region of modern-day South Africa. The Angoni were part of a great migration, known as the mfecane, of people fleeing from the head of the Zulu Empire, Shaka Zulu. The Ngoni people settled mostly in what is modern-day central Malawi; particularly Ntcheu and parts of Dedza district. However, some groups proceeded north; entering Tanzania and settling around Lake Victoria. But splinter groups broke off and headed back south; settling in modern-day northern Malawi, particularly Mzimba districtThe Lutepo's, Ackim Lutepo now lives in Mzuzu, where they mixed with another migrant group coming from across Lake Malawi called the Bawoloka. Clearly, the mfecane had a significant impact on Southern Africa. The Angoni adopted Shaka's military tactics to subdue the lesser tribes, including the Maravi, they found along their way. Staging from rocky areas, the Ngoni impis would raid the Chewa (also called Achewa) and plunder food, oxen and women. Young men were drawn in as new fighting forces while older men were reduced to domestic slaves and/or disposed off to Arab slave traders operating from the Lake Malawi regions.


The second group to take power around this time were the Ayao (or Yao). The Yao came to Malawi from northern Mozambique to escape famine and conflict with the Makua tribe. The Makua tribe had become enemies of the Yao because of the wealth the Yao were amassing through trading ivory and slaves to Arabs from Zanzibar. The Yao, upon migrating to Malawi, soon began attacking both the Achewa and Angoni people to capture prisoners who they later sold as slaves. The Yao were the first, and for a long while, the only group to use firearms in conflict with other tribes. The Yao ruling class chose in 1870 to follow Islam like their Arab trading partners rather than the traditional animism. As a benefit of their conversion, the Yao were provided with sheikhs who promoted literacy and founded mosques. The Arab traders also introduced the cultivation of rice, which became a major crop in the lake region.

Arabs and their Swahili allies

Using their strong partnership with the Yao, the Arab traders set up several trading posts along the shore of Lake Malawi. The largest of these posts was founded in 1840 at Nkhotakota by an Arabic trader from the coast, Jumbe Salim Bin Abdalla. During the height of his power, Jumbe transported between 5,000 and 20,000 slaves through Nkhotakota annually. From Nkhotakota, the slaves were transported in caravans of no less than 500 slaves to the small island of Kilwa Kisiwani off the coast of modern-day Tanzania. The founding of these various posts effectively shifted the slave trade in Malawi from the Portuguese in Mozambique to the Arabs of Zanzibar.

Although the Yao and the Angoni continually clashed with each other, neither was able to win a decisive victory. The remaining members of the Maravi Empire, however, were nearly wiped out in attacks from both sides. Some Achewa chiefs saved themselves by creating alliances with the Swahili people who were allied with the Arab slave traders.

Lomwe of Malawi

The Lomwe of Malawi are a recent introduction having arrived as late as 1914, during World War I. The Lomwe came from a hill in Mozambique called uLomwe, north of the Zambezi River and south east of Lake Chilwa in Malawi. Theirs was also a story of hunger largely instigated by the Portuguese settlers moving into the neighbourhoods of uLomwe.[2] To escape from the ill-treatment, the Lomwe headed north and entered Nyasaland through the southern tip of lake Chilwa; settling in Phalombe and Mulanje areas.

In Mulanje they found employment on teas estates that various British companies were establishing on the foothills of Mount Mulanje. Later they spread into Thyolo and Chiradzulu. The Lomwe readily mixed with the local Manga'nja tribes, as there are no reported cases of tribal conflict. Kayange also originated from this tribe but he has to change his first name following what Easter had done

Early European contact

After the Portuguese arrival in the area in the 16th century, the next significant Western contact was the arrival of David Livingstone along the shore of Lake Malawi in 1859.

Subsequently, Scottish Presbyterian churches established missions in Malawi, such as the St Michael and All Angels Church in Blantyre founded in 1876. One of their objectives was to end the slave trade to the Persian Gulf that continued until the end of the 19th century. In 1878, a number of traders, mostly from Glasgow, formed the African Lakes Company to supply goods and services to the missionaries. Other missionaries, traders, hunters, and planters soon followed.

British rule

Flag of Nyasaland

In 1883, a consul of the British Government was accredited to the "Kings and Chiefs of Central Africa" and in 1891, the British established the British Central Africa Protectorate.

In 1907 the name was changed to Nyasaland or the Nyasaland Protectorate (Nyasa is the Chiyao word for "lake"). In the 1950s, Nyasaland was joined with Northern and Southern Rhodesia in 1953 to form the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The Federation was dissolved on 31 December 1963.

In January 1915, John Chilembwe, an Millenarian pastor in south-eastern Nyasaland, led an unsuccessful revolt, known as the Chilembwe uprising, against British rule. Chilembwe opposed the recruitment of Nyasas in the British army's campaign in East Africa, as well as the system of colonial rule. Chilembwe's followers attacked local plantations, but were soon defeated by British forces. Chilembwe was killed, and many of his followers were executed.

In 1944, the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC), inspired by the African National Congress' Peace Charter of 1914, emerged. NAC soon spread across Southern African with powerful branches emerging among migrant Malawian workers in Salisbury (now Harare) in Southern Rhodesia and Lusaka, in Northern Rhodesia.

Thousands of Nyasalanders fought in the Second World War.

In July 1958, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda returned to the country after a long absence in the United States), the United Kingdom and Ghana. He assumed leadership of the NAC, which later became the Malawi Congress Party (MCP),. In 1959, Banda was sent to Gwelo Prison for his political activities but was released in 1960 to participate in a constitutional conference in London.

On 15 April 1961, the MCP won an overwhelming victory in elections for a new Legislative Council. It also gained an important role in the new Executive Council and ruled Nyasaland in all but name a year later. In a second constitutional conference in London in November 1962, the British Government agreed to give Nyasaland self-governing status the following year.

Hastings Banda became Prime Minister on 1 February 1963, although the British still controlled the country's financial, security, and judicial systems. A new constitution took effect in May 1963, providing for virtually complete internal self-government.


Map of Malawi

Malawi became a fully independent member of the Commonwealth (formerly the British Commonwealth) on 6 July 1964.

Shortly after, in August and September 1964, Banda faced dissent from most of his cabinet ministers in the Orton Chirwa in a Malawian jail, but some survived to return to Malawi after Banda was deposed in 1993, and resumed public life.

Two years later, Malawi adopted a republican constitution and became a one-party state with Hastings Banda as its first president.

One-party rule

In 1970 Hastings Banda was declared President for life of the MCP, and in 1971 Banda consolidated his power and was named President for life of Malawi itself. The paramilitary wing of the Malawi Congress Party, the Young Pioneers, helped keep Malawi under authoritarian control until the 1990s.

Banda, who was always referred to as "His Excellency the Life President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda", was a dictator. Allegiance to him was enforced at every level. Every business building was required to have an official picture of Banda hanging on the wall. No other poster, clock, or picture could be placed higher on the wall than the president's picture. The national anthem was played before most events – including movies, plays, and school assemblies. At the cinemas, a video of His Excellency waving to his subjects was shown while the anthem played. When Banda visited a city, a contingent of women were expected to greet him at the airport and dance for him. A special cloth, bearing the president's picture, was the required attire for these performances. The one radio station in the country aired the president's speeches and government propaganda. People were ordered from their homes and told to lock all windows and doors, by police, at least an hour prior to President Banda passing by...we were expected to wave.

Among the laws enforced by Banda, it was illegal for women to wear see-through clothes, pants of any kind or skirts which showed any part of the knee. There were two exceptions to this: if they were at a Country Club (a place where various sports were played) and if they were at a holiday resort/hotel...which meant that with the exception of the resort/hotel staff, they were not seen by the general populace. Men were not allowed to have hair below the collar; when men whose hair was too long, arrived in the country from overseas, they were given a hair cut before they could leave the airport. Churches had to be government sanctioned. Members of certain religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, were persecuted and kicked around the country at one time. All Malawian citizens of Indian heritage were forced to leave their homes and businesses and move into designated Indian areas in the larger cities. At one time, they were all told to leave the country, then hand-picked ones, were allowed to return. It was illegal to transfer or take privately earned funds out of the country unless approved through proper channels; proof had to be supplied to show that one had already brought in the equivalent or more, in foreign currency in the past. When some left, they gave up goods and earnings.

All movies shown in theatres were first viewed by the Malawi Censorship Board. Content considered unsuitable – particularly nudity or political content – was edited. Mail was also monitored by the Censorship Board. Some overseas mail was opened, read, and sometimes edited. Videotapes had to be sent to the Censorship Board to be viewed by censors. Once edited, the movie was given a sticker stating that it was now suitable for viewing, and sent back to the owner. Telephone calls were monitored and disconnected if the conversation was politically critical. Items to be sold in bookstores were also edited. Pages, or parts of pages, were cut out or blacked out of magazines such as Newsweek and Time.

While Malawi was a middle income country in the world during much of Banda's tenure, he managed to keep peace in the country for most of the time he was in power. He was a wealthy man, like most if not all world leaders. He owned houses (and lived in a palace), businesses, private helicopters, cars and other such luxuries. Speaking out against the president was strictly prohibited. Those who did so were often deported or imprisoned. Banda and his government were criticised for human rights violations by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. After he was deposed, Banda was put on trial for murder and attempts to destroy evidence.

During his rule, Banda was one of the very few post-colonial African leaders to maintain diplomatic relations with apartheid South Africa.

Multi-party democracy

Increasing domestic unrest and pressure from Malawian churches and from the international community led to a referendum in which the Malawian people were asked to vote for either a multi-party democracy or the continuation of a one-party state. On 14 June 1993, the people of Malawi voted overwhelmingly in favour of multi-party democracy. Free and fair national elections were held on 17 May 1994 under a provisional constitution, which took full effect the following year.

Bakili Muluzi, leader of the United Democratic Front (UDF), was elected President in those elections. The UDF won 82 of the 177 seats in the National Assembly and formed a coalition government with the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD). That coalition disbanded in June 1996, but some of its members remained in the government. The President was referred to as Dr Muluzi, having received an honorary degree at Lincoln University in Missouri in 1995. Malawi's newly written constitution (1995) eliminated special powers previously reserved for the Malawi Congress Party. Accelerated economic liberalisation and structural reform accompanied the political transition.

On 15 June 1999, Malawi held its second democratic elections. Bakili Muluzi was re-elected to serve a second five-year term as President, despite an MCP-AFORD Alliance that ran a joint slate against the UDF.

The aftermath of elections brought the country to the brink of civil strife. Disgruntled Tumbuka, Ngoni and Nkhonde Christian tribes dominant in the north were irritated by the election of Muluzi, a Muslim from the south. Conflict between Christians and Muslims of the Yao tribe (Muluzi tribe) begun. Property, valued at over millions of dollars, were either vandalised or stolen and 200 mosques were torched down.[3]

Malawi in the 21st century

In 2001, the UDF held 96 seats in the National Assembly, while the AFORD held 30, and the MCP 61. Six seats were held by independents who represent the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) opposition group. The NDA was not recognised as an official political party at that time. The National Assembly had 193 members, of whom 17 were women, including one of the Deputy Speakers.

Malawi saw its first transition between democratically elected presidents in May 2004, when the UDF's presidential candidate Bingu wa Mutharika defeated MCP candidate John Tembo and Gwanda Chakuamba, who was backed by a grouping of opposition parties. The UDF, however, did not win a majority of seats in Parliament, as it had done in 1994 and 1999 elections. It successfully secured a majority by forming a "government of national unity" with several opposition parties. Bingu wa Mutharika left the UDF party on 5 February 2005 citing differences with the UDF, particularly over his anti-corruption campaign. He won a second term outright in the 2009 election as the head of a newly founded party, the Democratic Progressive Party.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Z. Claude Chidzero – 'The Lomwe Diaspora and Settlement on Tea Estates in Thyolo, Southern Malawi', Degree Research paper, History Department, University of Malawi, Zomba, 1981
  3. ^

External links

  • Background Note: Malawi
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