Malawi History

Malawi was once called Maravi, meaning ‘reflected light’. Perhaps this referred to the brilliant glitter on Lake Malawi as the sun shines on it. Throughout history, people have been attracted to the region by its stable climate, regular rainfall and the ample supply of fish in the lake.

People lived undisturbed in kingdoms governed by chiefs, before Arab and Portuguese slave traders penetrated central Africa and caused havoc in the 18th century. Dr David Livingstone first set eyes on the great lake in 1859. By 1875 the Scottish Presbyterian Church had founded its first mission at Cape MaClear, followed by more European settlers who began to farm the land. With the growth of commerce and expanding plantations, Malawians migrated towards the settlers’ farms in search of work, and towns and villages were established. Colonial domination became inevitable, and in 1891 the British declared the country the British Protectorate of Nyasaland.

In 1953 the British federated Nyasaland with Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe). Nyasaland seceded in 1963, following elections won by Dr Hastings Banda’s Malawi Congress Party. Nyasaland became independent from Britain in 1964 and was renamed Malawi. Two years later Dr Banda declared it a republic and a one-party state.

His regime was harsh and by 1971 he had declared himself President for Life. Any opponents of his government were thrown in jail or out of the country. His policies were off the wall: it was against the law for men to have long hair and for women to wear anything but skirts.

Banda’s foreign policy also attracted widespread criticism: he supported the apartheid regime in South Africa - the only black-ruled African state to do so. This cosy relationship with South Africa funded the construction of the new capital, Lilongwe (the capital had previously been at Blantyre), which opened for business in 1975.

In 1992 Malawi experienced acute shortages of food because of poor harvests affected by drought and the need to provide food for some one million refugees who had fled the war in Mozambique. People demanded change, and by 1993, the ailing Banda was forced to concede.

A referendum in June endorsed the transition to a multi-party democracy with a new constitution. Elections were held in 1994. They were won by Dr Bakili Muluzi while Banda was recovering from brain surgery in South Africa. When he returned to Malawi, the ageing Banda and his chief henchman, the much-hated and feared John Tembo, were put on trial for their alleged role in the 1983 murders of four opposition politicians. But the trial was inconclusive upon Banda’s death in 1997. Muluzi won a second term in office in the 1999 election.

Malawi is one of the poorest counties on earth, and most of the ten million people rely on subsistence farming or fishing to survive. Drought and poor harvests in recent years have led to shortages in maize, the country’s staple food. Malawi often has to look south to the richer nations for food aid. Despite this, the Malawian people are generally happy and friendly, and any traveller to Malawi will be made to feel most welcome.

Read more up on our featured Malawi destinations or adventure activities, or simply browse our Malawi overland tours.