Malawi: The Warm Heart of Africa
Smoke on the Water
Malawi used to be famous for two things: some of the best bud on the planet, and the lake. These days it is famous for Madonna, which is better, because Madonna carries more weight than the bud and the lake combined, so now is without doubt the time to say a few words on Malawi for the sake of our curious readers.
Malawi is a tiny landlocked country situated more or less between 10º and 15º of south, and dominated by the lake that is the most southerly of the defining features of the Great Rift Valley. It is a demographically mixed society, with a small white population, a slightly larger Indian community, and a polyglot jumble of black people made up of a variety of indigenous language groups, alongside many others that have immigrated into the country during the course of the colonial and liberation periods.
Malawi began life as the Central African Protectorate, a British dependency dominated somewhat by Scottish missionary and trade interests, and famous at that time for being the front line of the British assault against the incredibly persistent east coast slave trade. Readers will no doubt be aware that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished by convention in Britain in 1833, and had more or less been eradicated in the western hemisphere by mid century. However the Indian Ocean trade, serving India itself, the various potentates of Arabia, and the French Mascarene islands, persisted off the east coast of Africa until beyond the turn of the 20th century.
Once under British protection, however, notwithstanding current liberation philosophy, the Arab and Swahili perpetrators of what Dr. David Livingstone referred to as the ‘open sore of the world’ where banished, and some peace and sanity returned to a highly traumatised little corner of the continent.
Thereafter Malawi, or Nyasaland as it was known prior to independence, developed as one of the breeding grounds of advanced African national sentiment, proving the little colony to be a beacon of hope for other dominions and protectorates in the region groaning under the weight of increasingly heavy European political and commercial domination. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Nyasaland was absorbed into the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which, whatever else it might have been, was a grand attempt by a triumvirate of white dominated colonial administrations to prolong the life of minority rule in an increasingly politicised region. Nyasaland was the first to challenge the status quo, and under the leadership of the iconic Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the first to free itself from British Central Africa as an independent nation.
The relatively benign dictatorship of Hastings Banda survived for thirty years, during which Malawi developed in fits and starts, but, without any significant mineral deposits, or any other rich natural resources, it remained primarily a pastoral and agricultural country, never rising much above the status of the poor man of the region.
Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall Malawi has developed a style of multi-party democracy that has flirted with occasional political malpractice, but has never descended into the kind of violent anarchy that many other poor African nations have suffered. As a consequence Malawi is one of the safest and friendliest tourist destinations in the region. It has a rich collection of attractions, most notably the lake, but also a handful of wildlife parks, a few superb highland walking and hiking venues, and the general appeal of a country of water and mountains, that, even if you don’t do much, is a superb place to relax and get to know a society that is amazingly accommodating and friendly.
Styling itself The Warm Heart of Africa, Malawi is indeed centrally placed in the region, and is an ideal midway point for travel between east/central and southern Africa. Bordered in the east by both Moçambique and Tanzania, and in the west by Zambia, access to and from all of these countries is very easy. Border controls are not difficult or exploitative, and Malawi is close enough to South Africa to enjoy the services of South African coach and bus lines, either through Zambia, or via the Tete Corridor to Zimbabwe.
The lake is naturally the main attraction of the country, and along its extensive shoreline there are quite a few funky backpackers lodges and resorts, perhaps best defined by Kande Beach, which has the lovely slogan: Those Bits that you Remember, you Will Never Forget. This, for the naïve amongst you, refers mainly to the Malawi Gold. There are other options also, with standards ranging from super luxury to quaintly local, and even the occasional rural mission will open up a clean and safe room for you, although don’t expect to find too much Malawi Gold there.
Dive options on the lake are offered from most of the backpackers lodges, where also local excursions in kayaks or dugouts present an opportunity to get out on the water. There are loads of sandy beaches along the 300km length of the lake, and the water is warm, clean and usually crocodile free. The water theme continues on the Shiré River that drains the lake, and confluences with the Zambezi River about 100km inland from the Moçambique coast. An interesting feature is the Elephant Marsh, a naturalists and birdwatchers paradise, which is complimented by a handful of parks and reserves, all associate with the river. Climbing and hiking interests are best served by Mount Mulanje situated in the tea and coffee region of the country, and although not a particularly high mountain, with peaks at 2600m on average, it is an ecologically diverse range with attractive scenery and some reasonably challenging walks.
So if you are looking for a pleasant and accessible African destination that will neither stress nor challenge you, then Malawi is definitely one to consider. There is hardly a square inch of Malawi upon which someone does not live, and so getting around is noisy and colourful, but for small country the life and variety is amazing. The road network is good and the local bus services very authentic. You can hire a bike just about anywhere, and touring is loud and dusty, but normally quite safe. Look forward as you move around the countryside to unlimited fresh lake fish and fruit – mangoes and bananas in particular – and all kinds of fresh veggies. Living is cheap, and travel is easy. Go forth and enjoy.
Photos: Thanks Flickr Babasteve