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Culture

Vibrant culture that springs from tribal living

Malawi, fondly known as the ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’, has a rich cultural heritage based on a symphony of tribes and traditions with a long history. The cultural diversity of Malawi (formerly Nyasaland) is a continuing source of fascination for historians and travellers alike.

The first inhabitants are believed to have settled around what is now Lake Malawi as long ago as 10,000 BC. It was not until 1859 that the Scottish explorer David Livingstone became the first European to set eyes on the lake, which he named Lake Nyasa.

Vimbuza traditional dance northern Malawi

Today, Malawi has both European and Indian communities that have added to its cultural diversification – particularly in the cuisine and entrepreneurial spirit to be found in the main cities of Lilongwe and Blantyre. 

The life of indigenous communities has been guided by traditional practices since time immemorial. This is especially so for rural communities, where a spirit of cooperation is at the heart of all they do. Indigenous Malawians are of Bantu origin, which includes the Nyanja, Yao, Lomwe and Ngonde tribes. The Chewa are the most recognised tribal community and Chichewa is an official national language along with English. Both languages are part of the national education system and are spoken in many parts of the country.

Mealtimes are seen as an important cultural activity, bringing together the family as well as the larger community. Food has always had a special place, especially in ceremonies such as initiation rites, weddings and even burials. Malawians are renowned for their hospitality, going the extra mile to please guests, especially when it comes to cooking. In the villages, ‘chippies’ serve low-budget food, often cooked over an open fire. Local chefs pride themselves on using the best readily available ingredients including fresh fruit and vegetables in season.

FRAGRANT

Nsima is the staple food in Malawi – in the same way as fufu in Nigeria and ugali or posho in East Africa. It is a thick starch made from maize and usually served with a relish. The locally grown fragrant rice is popular both locally and internationally and is served in most restaurants.

Malawi is a ‘Nation of Growers’ who depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Produce such as pineapples, guavas, mangoes, cucumbers and peanuts are common and, when in season, sugar, tea and tobacco are exported. 

The Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art in Dedza District, about an hour’s drive from Lilongwe, brings together artists in a space where religious and cultural artefacts are displayed. The centre, founded in 1976 by Claude Boucher Chisale, was one of the first training schools in Malawi to offer practical instruction in the development of artistic expression using natural resources. For about 40 years a notable number of Malawians who make a living from art as a form of cultural expression and preservation have passed through the centre. Over the years, art has provided local communities with an alternative source of revenue to agriculture, so that families need not wait until harvest time for their income. Every day is a potential pay day.

ARTS AND CRAFTS

Visitors to the cultural centre can purchase high-quality arts and crafts, original pieces that are never duplicated. Masters of them craft teach novice artists until they, too, become masters and this is how it has been since the art school began. At the centre, Claude Boucher teaches the idea that ‘sand becomes crystal’ and almost anything can be turned into creative art. The artists are encouraged to be environmentally conscious as most raw materials are sourced from natural products. Artists ‘immortalise’ wood, elephant grass and even seeds by turning them into pieces of art.

Museums across the country are maintained by the National Museums of Malawi through private and public collaborations. Blantyre is home to the Museum of Malawi, also known as the Chichiri Museum, a major exhibition centre for the natural and cultural heritage of the nation. There are guided tours, lectures, film shows, traditional dances and excursions that help visitors to understand the artefacts as well as an impressive ethnology collection from Malawi’s history. The government has also helped to establish mobile museums to make culture and history accessible to children and communities in rural areas.

Archaeological finds, including traces of prehistoric man found in Malawi, can be viewed in the museum. There is a large collection of insects and geological matter found in 1981. One of the museum’s most popular features is an outdoor exhibition relating to the modernisation of transport in Malawi. 

There is an impressive fraternity of authors such as John Lwanda, Harvey Sindima, Frank Chipasula and Aubrey Kachingwe who have captured the attention of readers both at home and abroad. Although the tradition is predominantly oral, through storytelling and proverbs, the written word (with traditional cultural undertones) is rapidly gaining in popularity.

Plays are widely enjoyed in Malawi and a budding theatrical community can be found in both Lilongwe and Blantyre. Travelling theatre companies go across the country, especially to rural venues, performing comedy and drama. The theatres also give people access to works published by local writers in a creative way, bringing large groups together. Debates are often held after the show to discuss its underlying message.

UNIVERSAL

The traditional music of Malawi has a distinct sound that has been infl uenced by the cultures of eastern and southern Africa. There are different types of instruments across tribes but, as in most African communities, the drum is universal. Some of the traditional musicians have found reached the international stage such as Alan Namoko and folk fusionists Pamtondo. Tony Bird, famous for his anti-colonial lyrics, combined traditional Malawian sounds with Dutch melodies and reached stardom in the 1980s when he toured with the South African group Ladysmith Black Mombazo.

Various cultural festivals are held throughout the year including the end-of-year celebrations with traditional music, fi reworks and plenty to eat and drink. The Malapenga Dance Season in August is a traditional celebration of one of Malawi’s most iconic art forms. The day is marked by exhibitions around the country to showcase Malawi’s cultural heritage.