Malawi is not only The Warm Heart of Africa, but also the genuinely friendly, safe and in many ways undiscovered heart of Africa – an exclusive destination that is just that little bit different from its better -known neighbours.
It’s a place where tourists seem to be travellers. Typically, they are visitors who already know Africa but now seek more varied altogether broader experience. In fact, Malawi’s unique selling point is the sheer variety of things to see and do in a comparatively confined area.
National Park and Wildlife Reserves
Malawi is blessed with a rich diversity of flora and fauna and has no less than nine National Parks and Wildlife Reserves. Although it may not have quite the sheer numbers of large mammals as some of its better-known neighbours, it makes up for this in other ways by providing intensive and exclusive wildlife viewing in unspoilt areas of genuine wilderness with very few other visitors looking on. Malawi is also in the middle of a wildlife revolution with massive investment in several its protected areas resulting in a boom in wildlife numbers and, so far, two of its parks & reserves becoming home to the ‘Big 5’.
Malawi offers some fantastic wildlife experiences. Safaris here are varied and thrilling. As well as the usual safaris by vehicle (in Malawi they use open-topped 4x4s rather than mini-buses), all of Malawi’s parks & reserves offer walking safaris, and in the 3 that have the broadest stretches of river, wildlife can be viewed courtesy of boat safaris.
Birdwatching is an experience that can be had pretty much everywhere in the country because of the remarkable number and variety of species found. The highlands, wetlands and parks & reserves are hotspots for wildlife viewing of the feathered variety.
For those visitors keen to make an even more positive difference to Malawi’s conservation efforts, there are also opportunities to get involved in Conservation Volunteer Projects.
In recent years the Parks and Reserves have undergone something of a transformation, with private concessionaires helping to improve conservation and the quality of viewing.
In the South is the country’s longest established – Liwonde National Park, with excellent accommodation and the country’s best game viewing. Emerging rapidly is Majete Wildlife Reserve, subject to a re-stocking programme and now a ‘Big 5’ destination. Majete has two neighbours in the Lower Shire Valley which have not yet received the same level of investment. But Lengwe National Park has privately run accommodation and is known for its buffalo herds, whilst Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve remains little visited and is best known for its unusual rock formations. At the southern end of the Lower Shire Valley, Elephant Marsh is an important wetland for birdlife. Chimwenya, not far south-east of Blantyre, is one of very few private game parks in Malawi. Here. an area of indigenous forest has been lovingly preserved and restocked with giraffe and plenty of large antelope.
In Central Malawi, the once great Kasungu National Park is sadly now rather forgotten and neglected, but the nearby rugged wilderness of the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is opening up and promises much, having remained largely untouched for years. It has new lodges and was recently the recipient of the largest elephant translocation in human history.
In the North, the Nyika National Park is one of Malawi’s jewels and offers unique wildlife viewing on its rolling grassland plateau. Nyika is complemented by neighbouring Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, a lowland area offering a more traditional bush-game experience.
Remarkably for a capital city, the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary lies in the centre of the city. An oasis of green it is home to a variety of birds and a few smaller animals, and also the base of the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, who work tirelessly to protect Malawi’s wildlife, including provide sanctuary and rehabilitation.
Culture & Arts
Malawi’s greatest asset is its people. They are wonderfully friendly and warmly welcoming. All visitors are met with smiles and a truly genuine and long-lasting welcome. With a population of over 18 million, Malawi is one of the more densely populated countries of this part of Africa. Most of the population is rural, living largely in fascinating traditional villages
The many ethnic tribes also offer opportunities for visitors to experience the unique Malawi culture by taking part in the various tribal festivals. The most notable include:
- The Umthengo among the Ngoni of Mzimba,
- The Kulamba Ceremony among the chewa
- The Gonapamuhanya Festival among the Tumbuka
- Umlangangano wa Maseko among the Ngoni of Ntcheu
- Mulhako wa Alhomwe among the Lhomwe
People from Chewa tribe are known as Achewa. The Chewa Tribe is an African culture that has existed since the beginning of the first millennium, A.D. Their local language is called Chichewa, Malawi national language. There are presently over 1.5 million Chewa throughout Malawi and Zambia, however the Chewa are not considered people of Malawi or Zambia; instead they are people from the Nyanja group of Bantu. In Malawi, the Chewa are predominantly concentrated within the central region, surrounding the capital city of Lilongwe. The Chewa believe that living things were created by God. “Gule Wamkulu” (Big Dances associated with masks), has become a sort of title for secret societies of traditional Chewa religious practices. The Gule Wamkulu ceremonies consist of formally organised dances to admire the remarkable physical abilities of these individuals (called “Nyau”). If one has the misfortune of passing a Gule on the road, traditional behaviour consists of dropping a few coins for the Gule – never handing them the money directly for fear they will grab you and take you to the cemetery for ritual purposes. Masks worn by the Gule Wamkulu include thousands of different representations – generally each developed hundreds of years ago by unique tribes, and accented with their own individual touch. Today, these masks, with their different origins, are part of what is now the Chewa culture.
People from Yao tribe are known as Ayao. Most people from Liwonde and the southern lakeshore are from the Yao tribe; their language is called Chiyao. The Yao came to Malawi from Mozambique to escape 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 began attacking both the Chewa and the Ngoni people to capture prisoners who they later sold as slaves. The Yao were the first group to use firearms in conflict with other tribes. In 1870 the Yao ruling class chose to follow Islam like their Arab trading partners rather than the traditional animism (‘animism’ is a philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans and animals but also in plants, rocks, natural phenomena and geographic features such as mountains or rivers). As a benefit of their conversion to Islam, the Yao were provided with sheikhs who promoted literacy and founded mosques. This led to many Yao people believing in Islam, therefore, any person from a Yao tribe or anyone whose name is from Yao language is considered as a Muslim by Malawians. The Arab traders also introduced the cultivation of rice, which became a major crop in the lake region of Malawi.
People from this tribe are called Atumbuka. Tumbuka is the main tribe found in the northern region of Malawi (Viphya and Nyika). The Tumbuka are a Bantu ethnic group. Their language is Chitumbuku, a Bantu language similar in structure to Swahili. The chief god of Tumbuka traditional religion is Chiuta, an all-powerful, omniscient, self-created being. Chiuta literally translates as ‘Great Bow of Heaven’ or ‘Owner of All’ or ‘The Creator’. This tribe has got a higher percentage of educated people. Its people believe there is a direct link between dancing and the healing process; these curative dances are called Vimbuza. Traditional Doctors (Witchcraft Doctors) among the Tumbuka people use these dances to cure some diseases.
People from this tribe are called Atonga. The Tonga people live in Northern Malawi especially in Nkhata Bay. Their language is known as Chitonga. Traditionally, Tonga society was based on fishing, and cassava was their staple food. The Tonga have adopted the Ngoni custom of marriage payment of cattle. Traditionally males can’t divorce their wives without a hearing of public repudiation, while she and her family, however, could dismiss him without formality, unless he had a wealthy or otherwise powerful family. Tonga people are said to be very smart and decent. People say that a Tonga would wear a jacket and a shirt which has only the front part and the collar without the whole back side (which has been worn out); in other words, wearing a jacket, tie and well fastened shirt is most important to them!
The Lomwe people are known as Alomwe. Many people living in Mulanje and Thyolo are from the “Lomwe” ethnic group and there main income generating activity is farming. The Lomwe are one of the four largest ethnic groups living in Malawi. Many Lomwe moved into Malawi in the 1930’s due to tribal wars in Mozambique. 90-95% of the Lomwe live in rural areas and in Mozambique many are concentrated in the Zambezi Province. The Lomwe language is called Chilomwe and it is written using the Roman alphabet and there are reported to be nine different dialects of Lomwe determined by location. Sadly the language is now dying out, with only the eldest still speaking it as a main language, many of the younger Lomwe tribe now speak in the Chichewa. The Lomwe people are well known for their talkativeness, their beliefs in the spirits of the dead and witchcraft. Many people therefore believe that the best Traditional Doctors are those from Mulanje. The famous Mulanje Mountain is also believed to be associated with Spirits of the dead especially at the highest peak of Sapitwa (which means “where you cannot go”). It is believed that people used to find food in the mountain of which one was not expected to tell anyone or invite a friend to eat as this would make the food disappear. During some of Lomwe traditional dances girls are supposed to wear only beads and nothing else to cover their breasts.
People from this tribe are called Angoni. The Ngoni fled from Shaka Zulu who defeated many Ngoni Chiefs in South Africa in 1819. The Ngoni that entered Malawi came in two groups. After their defeat, Zwangendaba Jere fled with his followers and settled at Mabiri in Mzimba District. The group that was led by Ngwane Maseko arrived in Malawi and settled in Ntcheu, near Dedza, in 1837. After a short stay, they left for Songea in southern Tanzania where they lived for some time before returning to Malawi. They finally settled in Ntcheu in 1867. Today, the Ngoni of Ntcheu have spread to other districts such as Mchinji and Dedza in the centre, and Mwanza and Neno in the south. The Ngoni language is known as Chingoni and its people are well known when it comes to eating meat and drinking African Beer. Eating meat and drinking beer are considered as the most important Ngoni principles. During their traditional dances, Ngoni people wear animal skins, showing that they are real hunters. In the past they were famous for their passion for war.
Cultural Places to Visit
Malawi has a few places of specific cultural and historical interest, including original mission stations and centres of excellence for handicrafts. Of its modern-day larger towns, Blantyre, Zomba and Mangochi have a number of historical buildings, monuments and museums. Lilongwe and Mzuzu are of interest for their markets and in the case of the latter, to see the division between the Old Town and modern Capital City as well as its growing music scene. If visiting Blantyre, take the time to visit The Society of Malawi. Situated in the historic Mandala House, the society protects a true treasure trove of the country’s history. With thousands of books and resources safely stored away, it provides an opportunity to find out a bit more about Malawi that perhaps many tourists don’t ever discover.
Along the Lakeshore, Monkey Bay and Nkhata Bay are bustling ports, whilst Nkhotakota is of historical significance and now has a renowned pottery. To the north, Karonga is the site of an interesting historical and archaeological museum. The link between missionaries and the Lake is strong, with sites of the Livingstonia Mission marked by graves at Cape Maclear and Bandawe, near Chintheche, before it reached its final and current location near Chitimba in the north. Across the Lake, Likoma Island is a wonderful place to interact with local people, and also see its magnificent missionary-built Cathedral – the same size as Winchester’s! Even further east, the Manda Wilderness Reserve on the Mozambique shore has been set up with the full involvement of, and for the benefit of, local communities and so is a great place to learn about and interact with those local communities.
Artistic skills, old and new are on show in and around Dedza. North of the town is the Chongoni Rock Art area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the densest cluster of stone age rock art found in central Africa. And at the edge of the town is the Dedza Pottery, where today’s artists and craftsmen can be viewed producing a variety of items then found all round Malawi or sold for export. Artistic skill is also on display at Mua Mission, almost directly down the escarpment from Dedza. Mua is a mission station whose students create the finest wood carvings in the country, if not the whole of Africa, and is also home to a fascinating cultural museum.
The large agricultural estates, sugar at Dwangwa and the Lower Shire Valley and tea at Thyolo are interesting places to visit also. As well as being able to see the daily workings, the tea estates have fascinating colonial histories.
Lake Malawi and Its Islands
There are several places of interest to visit along the length of the lake, and good lodges to be found, with a few collections in areas of beauty.
In South Malawi, between Mangochi and Monkey Bay is a long line of wonderful beaches backed by a variety of accommodation. This Mangochi Lakeshore has the Lake’s greatest concentration of lodges and hotels. Monkey Bay is a functional port town, but round the headland is Cape Maclear and the Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a veritable aquarium of tropical fish. In recent years, several high-quality lodges have been built in this area.
Central Malawi’s Senga Bay is another place where there are a number of lodges & hotels, and it benefits from being the closest point on the lake to Lilongwe. Just offshore are the 3 Marelli Islands, which mark the northerly extent of the Lake Malawi National Park. The stretch between the historic Nkhotakota and the sugar estate town of Dwangwa has a smattering of lodges.
Another concentration of lodges is found on the Chintheche lakeshore in North Malawi, which has some stunning beaches. Nkhata Bay is primarily a port town but has grown as a centre for independent travellers. The Northern Lakeshore beyond Chitimba has fewer lodges, and Karonga, an important archeological centre, is the only town of note before reaching Tanzania. Across the lake, into Mozambiquan waters, is Likoma Island. Not only does it have some beautiful beaches, and accommodation, but also a missionary-built cathedral the size of Winchester’s. A nearby stretch of the Mozambique shoreline, Manda Wilderness, is a 120,000 hectare community reserve of unspoilt wilderness and white sand beaches.