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MALAWI : History
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The name Malawi is thought to be a derivation of the word Maravi. The people of the Maravi Empire were iron workers. The name Maravi is thought to mean “rays of light” and may have come from the sight of many kilns lighting up the night sky. A dynasty known as the Maravi Empire was founded by the Amaravi people in the late 15th century. The Amaravi, who eventually became known as the Chewa (a word possibly derived from a term meaning “foreigner”), migrated to Malawi from the region of the modern day Republic of Congo to escape unrest and disease. The Chewa attacked the Akafula, who settled in small family clans without a unified system of protection. Using a system of destruction they would later employ in hunting predatory animals, the Chewa hunted down and butchered the Akufula.
Eventually encompassing most of modern Malawi, as well as parts of modern day Mozambique and Zambia, the Maravi Empire began on the southwestern shores of Lake Malawi. The head of the empire during its expansion was the Kalonga (also spelt Karonga). The Kalonga ruled from his headquarters in Mankhamba. Under the leadership of the Kalonga, sub-chiefs were appointed to occupy and subdue new areas. The empire began to decline during the early 18th century when fighting among the sub-chiefs and the burgeoning slave trade weakened the Maravi Empire’s authority.


The Portuguese

Initially the Maravi Empire’s economy was largely dependent on agriculture, the majority being the production of millet and sorghum. It was during the Maravi Empire, sometime during the 16th Century, that Europeans first came into contact with the people of Malawi. Under the Maravi Empire, the Chewa had access to the coast of modern day Mozambique. Through this coastal area, the Chewa traded ivory, iron, and slaves with the Portuguese and Arabs. Trade was enhanced by the common language of Chewa which was spoken throughout the Maravi Empire.
The Portuguese reached the area via the Mozambican port of Tete in the 16th century and gave the first written reports on the people of Malawi. The Portuguese are also responsible for the introduction of maize to the region. Maize would eventually replace sorghum as the staple of the Malawian diet. Malawian tribes traded slaves with the Portuguese. These slaves were sent mainly to work on Portuguese plantations in Mozambique or to Brazil.

The Angoni

The downfall of the Maravi Empire correlates to the entrance of two powerful groups into the region of Malawi. The Angoni and their chief Zwangendaba arrived from the Natal region of modern day South Africa. The Angoni were part of a great migration, known as the mfecane, of people fleeing from the head of the Zulu Empire, Shaka Zulu. This migration had a significant impact on Malawi, as it did on all of Southern Africa. While fleeing from Shaka, the Angoni had adopted many of his military tactics. They made use of these tactics to attack and conquer the people of the Maravi Empire. Settling in rocky areas, the Angoni would conduct annual raids on their Chewa, also called Achewa, neighbors to take both food and slaves. Some slaves were kept by the Angoni while others were sold to slave traders.

The Ayao

The second group to take power around this time were the Ayao. The Yao came to Malawi from Northern Mozambique to escape famine and conflict with the Makua tribe. The Makua tribe had become envois of the Yao because of the wealth the Yao were amassing through trading ivory and slaves to Arabs from Zanzibar. The Yao, upon migrating to Malawi, soon began attacking both the Achewa and Angoni people to capture prisoners who they later sold as slaves. The Yao were the first, and for a long while, the only group to use firearms in conflict with other tribes. The Yao were also different religiously from their neighboring tribes, choosing in 1870 to follow Islam like their Arab trading partners rather than the traditional Animism practiced by surrounding tribes. As a benefit of their conversion, the Yao were provided with sheikhs who promoted literacy and founded mosques. The Arab traders also introduced the cultivation of rice, which became a major crop in the lake region.

The Arabs and their Swahili allies

Using their strong partnership with the Yao, the Arab traders set up several trading posts along the shore of Lake Malawi. The largest of these posts was founded in 1840 at Nkhotakota by an Arabic trader from the coast, Jumbe Salim Bin Abdalla. During the height of his power, Jumbe transported between 5,000 and 20,000 slaves through Nkhotakota annually. From Nkhotakota, the slaves were transported in caravans of no less than 500 slaves to the small island of Kilwa Kisiwani off the coast of modern day Tanzania. The founding of these various posts effectively shifted the slave trade in Malawi from the Portuguese in Mozambique to the Arabs of Zanzibar.
Although the Yao and the Angoni continually clashed with each other, neither was able to win a decisive victory. The remaining members of the Maravi Empire, however, were nearly wiped out in attacks from both sides. Some Achewa chiefs saved themselves by creating alliances with the Swahili people who were allied with the Arab slave traders.

European explorers, missionaries and traders

Although the Portuguese reached the area in the 16th century, the first significant Western contact was the arrival of David Livingstone along the shore of Lake Malawi in 1859.
Subsequently, Scottish Presbyterian churches established missions in Malawi. One of their objectives was to end the slave trade to the Persian Gulf that continued to the end of the 19th century. In 1878, a number of traders, mostly from Glasgow, formed the African Lakes Company to supply goods and services to the missionaries. Other missionaries, traders, hunters, and planters soon followed.


Precursor: British Central Africa Protectorate

In 1883, a consul of the British Government was accredited to the "Kings and Chiefs of Central Africa" and in 1891, the British established the British Central Africa Protectorate.
In 1907 the name was changed to Nyasaland or the Nyasaland Protectorate. (Nyasa is the Chiyao word for "lake").

The Independence struggle

Although the British remained in control until 1964, the history of Nyasaland was marked by a number of unsuccessful Malawian attempts to obtain independence. A growing European and U.S.-educated African elite became increasingly vocal and politically active--first through associations, and after 1944, through the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC).

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

During the 1950s, pressure for independence increased when Nyasaland was joined with Northern and Southern Rhodesia in 1953 to form the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In July 1958, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda returned to the country after a long absence in the United States (where he had obtained his medical degree at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1937), the United Kingdom (where he practiced medicine), and Ghana. He assumed leadership of the NAC, which later became the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). In 1959, Banda was sent to Gwelo Prison for his political activities but was released in 1960 to participate in a constitutional conference in London.
On April 15, 1961, the MCP won an overwhelming victory in elections for a new Legislative Council. It also gained an important role in the new Executive Council and ruled Nyasaland in all but name a year later. In a second constitutional conference in London in November 1962, the British Government agreed to give Nyasaland self-governing status the following year.
The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was dissolved on December 31, 1963.

Self-governing status for Nyasaland

Hastings Kamuzu Banda became Prime Minister on February 1, 1963, although the British still controlled the country's financial, security, and judicial systems. A new constitution took effect in May 1963, providing for virtually complete internal self-government.


Malawi became a fully independent member of the Commonwealth (formerly the British Commonwealth) on July 6, 1964. Two years later, Malawi adopted a republican constitution and became a one-party state with Dr. Banda as its first president.

One-party rule under Dr Banda

In 1970 Dr. Banda was declared President for life of the MCP, and in 1971 Banda consolidated his power and was named President for life of Malawi itself.

Multi-party democracy

Increasing domestic unrest and pressure from Malawian churches and from the international community led to a referendum in which the Malawian people were asked to vote for either a multi-party democracy or the continuation of a one-party state. On June 14, 1993, the people of Malawi voted overwhelmingly in favor of multi-party democracy. Free and fair national elections were held on May 17, 1994 under a provisional constitution, which took full effect the following year.
On June 15, 1999, Malawi held its second democratic elections.


As of October 2001, the UDF holds 96 seats in the National Assembly, while the AFORD holds 30, and the MCP holds 61. Six seats are held by independents who represent the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) opposition group. The NDA is not recognized as an official political party at this time. The National Assembly has 193 members, of whom 17 are women, including one of the Deputy Speakers.
Malawi saw its first transition between democratically elected presidents in May 2004, when the UDF’s presidential candidate Bingu wa Mutharika won the elections.


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