Malawi, is a landlocked country in southeastern Africa. Endowed with spectacular highlands and extensive lakes, it occupies a narrow, curving strip of land along the East African Rift Valley. Lake Nyasa, known in Malawi as Lake Malawi, accounts for more than one-fifth of the country’s total area.
Most of Malawi’s population engages in cash-crop and subsistence agriculture. The country’s exports consist of the produce of both small landholdings and large tea and tobacco estates. Malawi has received a significant amount of foreign capital in the form of development aid, which has contributed greatly toward the exploitation of its natural resources and has allowed Malawi to at times produce a food surplus. Nevertheless, its population has suffered from chronic malnutrition, high rates of infant mortality, and grinding poverty—a paradox often attributed to an agricultural system that has favoured large estate owners.
Most Malawians reside in rural locations. The country’s few large urban centres include Lilongwe, the capital, and Blantyre, the seat of the country’s judiciary.
Malawi is a multiparty republic. Malawi’s original constitution of 1966 was replaced with a provisional constitution in 1994, which was officially promulgated in 1995 and has since been amended. It provides for a president, who is limited to serving no more than two five-year terms, and up to two vice presidents, all of whom are elected by universal suffrage.
The backbone of the Malawi economy is agriculture, which in the 2000s employed more than four-fifths of the working population and accounted for about one-third of the gross domestic product (GDP) and the vast majority of export earnings. Tobacco, the most important export crop, accounts for a major portion of the country’s trade income; tea, sugar, and cotton—all mostly grown in the estate sector—are also important.
Malawi stretches about 520 miles (840 km) from north to south and varies in width from 5 to 100 miles (10 to 160 km). It is bordered by Tanzania to the north, Lake Malawi to the east, Mozambique to the east and south, and Zambia to the west.
The natural vegetation pattern reflects the country’s diversity in relief, soils, and climate. Savanna (grassy parkland) occurs in the dry lowland areas. Miombo woodlands—sparse, open deciduous woodland characteristic of dry parts of eastern Africa—are an important habitat, particularly for the country’s large mammal populations. Woodlands with species of acacia trees cover isolated, more fertile plateau sites and river margins. Grass-covered broad depressions, called madambo (singular: dambo), dot the plateaus. Grasslands and evergreen forests are found in conjunction on the highlands and on the Mulanje and Zomba massifs.
However, Malawi’s natural vegetation has been altered significantly by human activities. Swamp vegetation has given way to agricultural species as swamps have been drained and cultivated. Much of the original woodland has been cleared, and, at the same time, forests of softwoods have been planted in the highland areas. High population density and intensive cultivation of the Shire Highlands have also hindered natural succession there, while wells have been sunk and rivers dammed to irrigate the dry grasslands for agriculture.
Game animals abound only in the game reserves, where antelope, buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions, rhinoceroses, and zebras occur; hippopotamuses live in Lake Malawi. The lakes and rivers of Malawi contain hundreds of species and numerous families of fish. Lake Malawi is particularly renowned for its remarkable biodiversity.
People of Malawi
Ethnic groups and languages
Ten major ethnic groups are historically associated with modern Malawi—the Chewa, Nyanja, Lomwe, Yao, Tumbuka, Sena, Tonga, Ngoni, Ngonde, and the Lambya/Nyiha. All the African languages spoken are Bantu languages. From 1968 to 1994, Chewa was the only national language; it is now one of the numerous languages used in print and broadcast media and is spoken by a majority of the population. In 1996 government policy indicated that education in grades 1–4 would be provided in the students’ mother tongue or vernacular language; from grade 5, the medium of instruction would be English, which, though understood by less than one-fifth of the population at independence in 1964, continues to be used widely in business, administrative and judicial matters, higher education, and elsewhere. Other major languages include Lomwe, Yao, and Tumbuka.
Some three-fourths of the population is Christian, of which the majority are members of independent Christian or various Protestant denominations and the remainder are Roman Catholic. Muslims constitute about one-fifth of the population. Traditional beliefs are adhered to by a small proportion of the population.
Although Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in southern Africa, it is also one of the least urbanized, with more than four-fifths of its people living in rural locations. It is urbanizing at a very rapid rate, however, with movement toward urban areas taking place at a pace far swifter than either the African or global averages.
Capital City: Lilongwe