New Internationalist

Malawi

Issue 216

new internationalist
issue 216 - February 1991

COUNTRY PROFILE

Malawi

Where is Malawi? A few things have changed in this beautiful country since the NI's last profile, but not its leader. Life President Banda lives on and the people respectfully await his demise.

The economic boom of the 1970s is over, but so is their political terror. Though the press still fawns, and the police, the Party and the 'Young Pioneers still wield their truncheons, the atmosphere is easing. The succession is likely to be awkward, as the main contender for power is unscrupulous and unpopular.

'An independent Scotland would have had one colony - Malawi,' wrote a Malawian historian. Scottish missionaries called it Lakeland (Nyasaland) and educated a critical, confident intelligentsia which in the 1950s led African resistance to the white settler-led Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland. But out of Lakeland was born the Land of Fire (Malawi) where political criticism has never been tolerated since Independence, and power and wealth are concentrated among white estate owners and a few senior government personnel. Banda's own company, Press Holdings, controls almost half the economy, from supermarkets to processing and packaging firms.

Malawi is a visitor's paradise: 'the warm heart of Africa' has good roads, beautiful craftwork and polite officials. Lake Malawi's beaches are one of the places where white South Africans can go to meet their international peers.

Yet the warm heart bleeds. Though the climate is kind and the people industrious, farming every spare inch of tillable land, malnutrition is rife and infant mortality among the highest in the world. Health and education are not priorities for government spending: pomp, palaces and prestige buildings are.

Low education levels and low wages are meant to keep people on the land. Migration to South Africa has been discouraged for the same reason. But the land is being privatized for tobacco estates to provide the Big Men with financial security.

War in Mozambique is forcing thousands across the border into Malawi's over-crowded refugee camps, where international relief programmes further skew the tiny local economy. At present, Malawi hosts almost a million refugees.

Though still dependent on South Africa, Malawi has recently improved relations with Mozambique and Tanzania - its 'socialist' neighbours - in preparation for the impending changes in South Africa.

The new capital, Lilongwe, however remains an ugly monument to apartheid city planning. Its space-age downtown offices and shopping malls are miles from black residential areas - but handily close to the bungalows of the aid and diplomatic brigades.

Maggie Sinclair

 

Leader: Life President Dr Kamuzu Hastings Banda

Economy: GNP per capital $170 (US $19,840)
Monetary unit: Malawian kwacha Without mineral resources or factories, Malawi has long served as a cheap labour pool for the industrialized regions of Southern Africa. Many commercial farmworkers in Zimbabwe are of Malawian extraction, but prevented by poverty from returning home. Peasant farming is the country's mainstay but plantation cash crops like tobacco offer rich rewards to the wealthy. Main exports are tobacco and tea; main imports are fuel, machinery, processed foodstuffs.

People: 8 million

Health: Infant mortality 149 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)
AIDS is widespread but not officially acknowledged by the government.

Culture: The majority are chiChewa speaking, matrilineal people in the centre; the minority are chiTumbuka speaking, patrilineal and live in the North. Nyanja, Lomwe and Yao in South.
Religion: Traditional ancestral beliefs, cults and secret societies co-exist with Christianity.
Languages: chiChewa and English.

Sources: World Bank Report 1990 and information supplied by the author.

Last profiled in June 1981

 

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Wide gap between poor and rich.
1981: *

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Dependent on world commodity prices.
1981: ***

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Traditionally strong; little violence against them.
1981: ***

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Autocratic conservative.
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41 %. Tiny education budget.
1981: **

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Many political exiles and prisoners. Censorship; informers; opposition stifled.
1981: **

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47 years. One of the world's lowest. Low health budget; malnutrition.
1981:*

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