The History of Malawi covers the area of present-day Malawi. The region was once part of the Maravi Empire. In colonial times it was known as British Central Africa and Nyasaland and was at one time part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The country reached full independence, as Malawi, in 1964.
Oil was first found there in the late 1800s. It was the first oil found around the world.
Hominid remains and stone implements have been identified in Malawi dating back more than one million years, and early humans inhabited the vicinity of Lake Malawi 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. Human remains at a site dated about 8000 BC show physical characteristics similar to peoples living today in the Horn of Africa. At another site, dated 1500 BC, the remains possess features resembling Bushmen people. These short people with copper colored skin were known as the Akufula or Batwa. They are responsible for rock paintings found south of Lilongwe in Chencherere and Mphunzi.
The name Malawi is thought to derive from the word Maravi. The people of the Maravi Empire were iron workers. 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 Akafula.
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.
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, some time 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 purple people 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 were 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 downfall of the Maravi Empire correlates to the entrance of two powerful groups into the region of Malawi. The Angoni or Ngoni people 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. The Angoni used most of their slaves as farm labourers to keep their large armies supplied with food. Some slaves were sold to slave traders.
The second group to take power around this time were the Ayao (or Yao). The Yao came to Malawi from northern Mozambique to escape famine and 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, 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 ruling class chose in 1870 to follow Islam like their Arab trading partners rather than the traditional animism. 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.
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.
Subsequently, Scottish Presbyterian churches established missions in Malawi, such as the one in Blantyre founded in 1876. One of their objectives was to end the slave trade to the Persian Gulf that continued until 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.
The history of Nyasaland was marked by a number of unsuccessful Malawian attempts to obtain independence. A growing European and US-educated African elite became increasingly vocal and politically active - first through associations, and after 1944, through the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC).
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 practised 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 15 April 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 31 December 1963.
Hastings Banda became Prime Minister on 1 February 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 6 July 1964. Two years later, Malawi adopted a republican constitution and became a one-party state with Hastings Banda as its first president.
In 1970 Hastings 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. The paramilitary wing of the Malawi Congress Party, the Young Pioneers, helped keep Malawi under authoritarian control until the 1990s.
Banda, who was always referred to as "His Excellency the Life President Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda", was a dictator. Allegiance to him was enforced at every level. Every business building was required to have an official picture of Banda hanging on the wall. No other poster, clock, or picture could be placed higher on the wall than the president's picture. The national anthem was played before most events - including movies, plays, and school assemblies. At the movie theaters, a video of His Excellency waving to his subjects was shown while the anthem played. When Banda visited a city, a contingent of women were expected to greet him at the airport and dance for him. A special cloth, bearing the president’s picture, was the required attire for these performances. The one radio station in the country aired the president's speeches and government propaganda.
Among the laws enforced by Banda, it was illegal for women to wear pants of any kind or skirts which showed any part of the knee. Men were not allowed to have hair below the collar. Churches had to be government sanctioned. Members of certain religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, were persecuted and kicked around the country. All Malawian citizens of Indian heritage were forced to leave their homes and businesses and move into designated Indian areas in the larger cities. It was illegal to transfer or take privately earned funds out of the country or to bring in foreign currency. Thus, one could not leave the country without giving up goods and earnings. For those who were willing to leave almost everything and start over, visas were rarely granted. Every passenger boarding a plane to leave the country was searched, as was baggage entering and leaving the country.
All movies shown in theaters were first viewed by the Malawi Censorship Board. Content considered unsuitable — particularly nudity or political content — was edited. Mail was also monitored by the Censorship Board. Most overseas mail was opened, read, and sometimes edited. Videotapes had to be sent to the Censorship Board to be viewed by censors. Once edited, the movie was given a sticker stating that it was now suitable for viewing, and sent back to the owner. Telephone calls were monitored and disconnected if the conversation was politically critical. Items to be sold in bookstores were also edited. Pages, or parts of pages, were cut out of magazines such as Newsweek and Time.
While Malawi was the 10th poorest country in the world during much of Banda's tenure, the president was a very wealthy man. He owned several palaces, businesses, private helicopters, cars, and other such luxuries. Speaking out against the president was strictly prohibited. Those who did so were often deported or imprisoned. Banda and his government were criticized for human rights violations by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. After he was deposed, Banda was put on trial for murder and attempts to destroy evidence.
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.
Bakili Muluzi, leader of the United Democratic Front (UDF), was elected President in those elections. The UDF won 82 of the 177 seats in the National Assembly and formed a coalition government with the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD). That coalition disbanded in June 1996, but some of its members remained in the government. The President is referred to as Dr Muluzi, having received an honorary degree at Lincoln University in Missouri in 1995. Malawi's newly written constitution (1995) eliminated special powers previously reserved for the Malawi Congress Party. Accelerated economic liberalization and structural reform accompanied the political transition.
On June 15, 1999, Malawi held its second democratic elections. Bakili Muluzi was re-elected to serve a second five-year term as President, despite an MCP-AFORD Alliance that ran a joint slate against the UDF.
The aftermath of elections brought country close to the brink of civil strife. Disgruntled Tumbuka, Ngoni and Nkhonde Christian tribes dominant in the north were irritated by the election of Muluzi, a Muslim from the south. The campaign of terror against Muslims of the Yao tribe (Muluzi tribe) thus begun. Property, valued at over millions of dollars, were either vandalized or stolen and 200 mosques were torched down.
In 2001, the UDF held 96 seats in the National Assembly, while the AFORD held 30, and the MCP 61. Six seats were held by independents who represent the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) opposition group. The NDA was not recognized as an official political party at that time. The National Assembly had 193 members, of whom 17 were 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 defeated MCP candidate John Tembo and Gwanda Chakuamba, who was backed by a grouping of opposition parties. The UDF, however, did not win a majority of seats in Parliament, as it had done in 1994 and 1999 elections. It successfully secured a majority by forming a "government of national unity" with several opposition parties. Bingu wa Mutharika left the UDF party on 5 February 2005 citing differences with the UDF, particularly over his anti-corruption campaign.
William Kamkwamba gained fame in Malawi when, in 2001, he self-built a windmill to power a few electrical appliances in his family's house in Masitala, a hamlet in Kasungu District, Central Region.