Malawi’s history and culture is a flavorful blend of activities and traditions of the many tribes which make up this formerly isolated country occupied for countless millennia by early humans. Tolerance of diverse religions, customs and beliefs is paramount as 90 percent of Malawi’s population still lives the same village they have for generations.
The human race began on the shores of Lake Malawi, confirmed by the 1991 discovery of a hominid jawbone near Uraha village dated about two and half million years ago, with further human settlement proven between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. Modern man didn't arrive in the area until about 8,000 BC. Travelers admiring the dramatic Great Rift Valley and its massive lake are gazing on lands first viewed by humanity’s most remote ancestors.
Hunter-gatherers with characteristics resembling the Bushmen of South Africa wandered the country until a thousand years ago. Successive waves of migration by Bantu people displaced the original tribes and established the Maravi Empire by 1500 AD, reaching north of Nkhotakota to the River Zambezi and from the Luanhwa River to Lake Malawi. A hundred years later, tribal people began trading with the Portuguese military and by 1700, the kingdom had broken into individual enclaves.
The Arab/Swahili slave trade was at its height by the 19th century, with an estimated 20,000 people captured and transported in groups of 500 through Nkhotakota to the island of Kilwa to be sold. Chewa tribes were the main traders, selling iron, ivory and slaves destined for plantations in Brazil or Mozambique to the Portuguese and Zanzibar Arab slavers. The 1859 arrival of British missionary and explorer David Livingstone brought links to the Scottish Presbyterian church resulting in a missionary invasion of the region in an attempt to end the slave trade and convert the tribes.
By Livingstone’s arrival, Malawi, then called Nyasaland, was under British control, and by the turn of the century, slavery had been abolished. British rule continued until 1953 when Britain linked the country with neighboring Northern and Southern Rhodesia under the umbrella of politically-inspired Central African Federation. African nationalists objected, and the previously-formed Nyasaland African Congress began to gain support. Dr Hastings Banda became its leader, resulting in his imprisonment in 1959.
Banda was released a year later and his Malawi Congress Party was elected in 1961, becoming Prime Minister in 1963. A year later the country won independence and became the single-party state of Malawi. Banda ruled for 30 years, fiercely suppressing opposition, and turning the poverty-stricken country into a progressive African nation through the construction of his own business empire. Towards the end of Banda’s life, demands for increased freedom resulted in a national vote for a multi-party democracy to which he agreed in 1993, thus ending his autocratic rule.
During the last 20 years the political environment under several successive presidents has changed considerably, although the multi-party system remains in the present day. President Mutharika was considered by many to have ignored the growing need for human rights and in July 2011, violent protests took place, resulting in a number of deaths for the cause. In April 2012, Mutharika died from a heart attack, with his position taken over by Vice President, Joyce Banda. It remains to be seen what effect she will have on the country, although the signs are encouraging.
Malawi's culture is rich and fascinating due to the country’s ethnic mix of tribes, all of which have unique customs and traditions. Most Malawians live outside the cities in traditional villages based on agriculture, with each family working as a group. Housing, languages, dress, song, dance, and beliefs are as varied as the tribes themselves. The style and decoration of clothing denotes the individual's tribe, with the most important garment the chitenge, a wrap-around skirt worn by women over a regular skirt to be used as a baby-carrier, apron, basket, and more.
The dominant religion is Christianity, seen in various forms including Jehovah’s Witnesses and more conventional sects. However, traditional beliefs still flourish, with Malawians seeing no conflict between the two extremes. Many Christians consult with local healers and take part in ancient animistic rituals led by spiritual chiefs. Religious persuasion, tribal identity and political affiliation are closely intertwined in Malawi, along with tolerance of all beliefs including Islam, the second most prominent religion.
Music and dance are an essential part of cultural life, both urban and rural communities, with a-capella gospel songs and reggae from the country’s Rastafarian community the most-loved. The oldest forms of music and dance are found in the mysterious Gule Wamkulu region with its unique, ancient beliefs. Gule dancers are believed to have the power to summon the spirits of ancestors and animals through their movement, while Chitelele dances are performed across the country at inter-village contests by young girls.
Batik and carving are highly-respected art forms in Malawi, with designs representing stylized pictures of village life and animals. Teak, ebony and mahogany carvings including masks, figurines, traditional three-legged tables, and chiefs’ chairs are highly coveted souvenirs. Literature is via oral tradition, although nowadays ancient legends and tales are written down for posterity. Traveling performers are welcomed into the villages for shows of morality and slapstick comedy based on stock characters and interpreting the events of daily life.