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Atlas Malawi

Country (long form)
Republic of Malawi
Total Area
45,745.38 sq mi
118,480.00 sq km
10,385,849 (July 2000 est.) note: estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS
Estimated Population in 2050
English (official), Chichewa (official), other languages important regionally
58.0% total, 72.8% male, 43.4% female (1999 est.)
Protestant 55%, Roman Catholic 20%, Muslim 20%, indigenous beliefs
Life Expectancy
37.2 male, 37.98 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
multiparty democracy
1 Malawian kwacha (MK) = 100 tambala
GDP (per capita)
$940 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
agriculture 86%, wage earners 14% (1990 est.)
tobacco, tea, sugar, sawmill products, cement, consumer goods
tobacco, sugarcane, cotton, tea, corn, potatoes, cassava (tapioca), sorghum, pulses; cattle, goats
Arable Land
tobacco, tea, sugar, cotton, coffee, peanuts, wood products
food, petroleum products, semimanufactures, consumer goods, transportation equipment
Natural Resources
limestone, arable land, hydropower, unexploited deposits of uranium, coal, and bauxite
Current Environmental Issues
deforestation; land degradation; water pollution from agricultural runoff, sewage, industrial wastes; siltation of spawning grounds endangers fish populations
Telephones (main lines in use)
34,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
382 (1995)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
1 (1999)

Hominids are known to have inhabited the Malawi area as long as two million years ago. The remains of settlements of modern humans dating back some 100,000 years have been found on the shores of Lake Malawi. Evidence suggests that these were the same Boskopoid people who inhabited much of this part of Africa: the ancestors of the pygmies in Central Africa and the San ('Bushmen') of Southern Africa, who now survive only in isolated pockets.

About 2000 years ago these 'Stone Age Malawians' came under pressure from another race of people, the Bantu, who were gradually migrating into the area. The Bantu brought knowledge of iron working with them, giving them the edge in both agriculture and warfare. Eventually, the Bantu completely dominated the earlier inhabitants. Further migrations brought Bantu peoples from the Congo region, via Tanzania, into northern Malawi. In the south, groups came from present-day Zaïre and established a kingdom that ruled the southern area of the country.

The early 19th century brought two significant migrations. The Yao, from western Mozambique, invaded the highlands of southern Malawi, killing the more peaceful local inhabitants as they went, or capturing them for sale into slavery. The Yao, brandishing firearms supplied them by Arab traders on the east coast, were one of several African tribes who supplied slave traders by raiding the interior. About the same time, Zulus from present-day South Africa began moving into southern Malawi and eventually spread throughout the country, overpowering many local tribes.

The first Europeans to arrive in Malawi were Portuguese explorers who reached the African interior from the east coast of present-day Mozambique. The most famous European explorer to reach this area was David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary who first travelled in Malawi in the 1850s. Despite poor relations with the indigenous people and the ravages of malaria, many Scottish missionaries established missions and convents in Malawi, usually resulting in the death by fever of the missionaries and very few converts among the Africans.

Though less successful at their stated aim, the missionaries did manage to blaze the way for various adventurers and traders, who in turn made Malawi such a hot property that colonisation wasn't far behind. It came in 1878 in the form of the Livingstonia Central African Mission Company, a Scottish concern the object of which was the development of a river route into Central Africa and the introduction of trade. The British government made the Shire Highlands a protectorate in 1889, and expanded its holdings to include much of the land on the western side of Lake Malawi, calling the colony 'Nyasaland.'

As British control expanded, trade and the number of foreigners in the area increased - and so did indigenous resistance to colonisation. In the early 1900, Reverend John Chilembwe organised the first serious anti-British effort when he led an attack on a large estate that resulted in the death of its white manager. The colonial authorities crushed the movement, and no major bids for independence surfaced again until the 1950s.

The British joined Nyasaland with the Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), a move that deepened resentment against colonial rule. The Nyasaland African Congress, which had been formed in 1944, was led by Dr Hastings Banda after the federation was announced. A year later, the colonial authorities declared a state of emergency, jailed Banda and went on a rampage that left 52 Africans dead. Opposition continued, strengthened by the release of Banda in 1960. The British negotiated with Banda for elections, which were held the following year and were capped by the overwhelming victory of Banda and his party (now called the Malawian Congress Party). Shortly afterward the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was dissolved, and Malawi declared its independence in July 1964.

Banda's rule proved to be harsh. Those of his opposition who weren't silenced were driven into exile. Through his business dealings, Banda also controlled the economy completely. As if that weren't enough power, Banda declared himself 'President for Life' in 1971. A cozy relationship with South Africa made the construction of the new capital, Lilongwe (it had previously been at Blantyre), which opened for business in 1975.

The first elections since independence were held in 1978 - a farce, really, considering that Banda personally vetted everyone who intended to run, disqualifying 90% of the field right off the top by submitting potential candidates to an English test. As the 1980s wore on it became increasingly clear that Banda was Malawi - running the political system, the ruling party and the economy. One newspaper estimated that 250,000 people disappeared or were murdered during Banda's 30 year reign. By the 1990s, however, opposition to Banda's totalitarian one-party rule grew, spurred on by the end of the Cold War and the drying up of aid to the west's 'client states' - such as Malawi.

The critical moment came in 1992, when Catholic bishops released a pastoral letter condemning Banda, touching off demonstrations throughout the country. When donor countries cut off all non-humanitarian aid until Banda agreed to relinquish power, the final nail in the coffin went home. Over 80% of the electorate took part in a 1993 referendum, voting for a new system over Banda by a 2-1 ratio. Despite the brief threat of a military coup, multi-party elections went ahead the following year.

Bakili Muluzi, a Muslim from Machinga in the south, emerged as the new president. Muluzi immediately freed prisoners, reestablished freedom of speech and the press and lifted the unofficial night curfew that had marked the Banda years. Banda himself was tried in 1995 for ordering the murder of three government ministers but was acquitted, later apologising for any suffering he may have 'unknowingly caused.'

Muluzi won over 50% of the vote in the 1999 presidential election. In 2002, he attempted to change the constitution to give himself life presidency. It is believed that those in power are desperate to retain it to avoid charges of corruption and mismanagement. A further sign that all is not well is the order police have received to prevent all public demonstrations. Clearly, Malawi's freedom of expression is once again at stake.

There is something of a sense of disappointment with the democratic process, although many of the country's problems predate it. Major donors have suspended aid because of concerns over corruption and misappropriation of funds. On top of the political dramas, an environmental catastrophe is unfolding: a drought causing famine in pockets of the country, as well as a water hyacinth problem in Lake Malawi and surrounding waters. Last but not least, refugees are flooding in from neighbouring Zimbabwe.