Today we celebrate Independence Day in Malawi woohoo!
At midnight on July 6th 1966, Malawi became a fully independent member of the Commonwealth, with thousands attending the changing of the flag ceremony at the Central Stadium. It marked a day of freedom, celebration and hope for the nation, and to this day is celebrated annually. Like many countries in Africa it’s independence day reflects just how young a nation Malawi truly is as it makes determined steps towards prosperity.
But what's the history of Malawi, how did it come to be colonised and what led to independence in the end you might ask?
Never fear, we’ve got the answers for you right here!
The region was once part of the Maravi Empire. The name Malawi is thought to come from the word Maravi. The people of the Maravi Empire were iron workers. Maravi is thought to mean "Flames" and may have come from the sight of many kilns lighting up the night sky. The people of the Maravi empire are said to have migrated from what is known as modern day Congo to escape unrest and disease. They migrated, and made their way to the Malawi lake.
Initially, the Maravi Empire's economy was largely dependent on agriculture, producing crops which led to progressive agricultural practices. It was during the Maravi Empire, sometime during the 16th century, that Europeans first came into contact with the people of Malawi. During that time the people of the Marvai empire had access to the coast, so they used this to trade with Portuguese who wanted ivory, iron, and slaves who were sent to work on plantations mainly in Mozambique or Brazil.
Over time the Maravi Empire dissipated, to give way to the Agoni people followed by the Yao people who came up from Southern Africa in the 1830’s. By the time they arrived, independent growth of indigenous governments and improved economic systems was severely disturbed by by the arrival of foreign intruders in the late 19th century.The French who were in the area started trading with the Yao people and also introduced the Sultan of Zanibar to the region who facilitated the expansion of the Islam faith. The Yao were known to be travelled, could read and write using the Arabic alphabet, knew irrigation and built schools.
In 1859 Livingstione arrived. He recorded that he discovered Lake Malawi and after 2 years there started to establish his plans for colonising the land. His first move was to build a church, however his attempts to ‘civilise’ the Yoas was met with resistance bcause they had already converted to Islam. To win the conflict Lingstone took sides with the Mang'anja who were non-Muslims. Together they shot the Yao, burnt their houses and fields. Because the Yaos resisted Chritianity they were branded as uncivilised invaders and enslavers. After failing to convert the Yao in Magomero in 1861 the Scottish sent different groups of missionaries to the region and slowly won the rounding areas to Chsirtianity, drowning out the Yao's faith and their beliefs. Arabic education was not recognised from the 1860s and by 1940’s education in Malawi was controlled by the church.
British influence continued under the church until colonial rule was formalised in 1891 when 1891 the British established the Nyasaland Districts Protectorate. Road. This brought some benefits such as the building of railways and the cultivation of cash crops by European settlers. On the other hand little was done to enhance the welfare of the African majority, while the needs of the European settlers were prioritised. African agriculture remained underdeveloped causing many able-bodied men to migrate to neighbouring countries to seek employment. Between 1951 and 1953 the colonial government's decision to expand the federation beyond Nyasaland caused further despair to it’s African inhabitants.
These negative effects of colonial rule prompted the rise of a nationalist movement. From its humble beginnings during the period between the World Wars, African nationalism gathered momentum in the early 1950s. A key driver was the imposition of the federation, which nationalists feared as an extension of colonial power. The full force of nationalism as an instrument of change became evident after 1958 under the leadership of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who had returned to the country from the UK where he had studied and practiced medicine. Under Banda’s leadership the nationals achieved independence as the federation was dissolved in 1963.
After independence the countries still face numerous challenges. For one, political independence didn’t result in economic independence. In its first year as an independent nation the country had a £7 million deficit out of a recurrent budget of £16 million. In a country with 4 millions inhabitants just 300 roles in the 2,000 posts in the civil service were held by Africans and no commissioned African officers in the Malawi army. There was also huge regional inequality. After independence the country made some positive strides under Hastings Kamuzu Banda; transport and communications systems developed as well as cash crop agriculture and food production. But this was curtailed by external pressures in the 1980s including Banda’s ties with South Africa's apartheid regime with affected relations with many influential countries and civil unrest fueled by a president who established a single party system and was declared ‘President for Life’.
So where are we now?
Banda has since stepped down and Malawi is embracing a future with promise; it continues to work towards agricultural self-sufficiency, it is investing in conservation and tourism and it’s peaceful and welcoming nature is reputable across the continent - and indeed the world!
There are still many strides to go for it to attain political and economical utopia but it’s determination to achieve this is palpable. Something you do to help is pay it a visit from time to time. And if you happen to arrive on independence day, you will be welcomed with national flags dressing the streets and people celebrating together and a sense of joy and hope for the future lingers in the air.
African Affairs Vol. 69, No. 274 (Jan., 1970), pp. 60-64 (5 pages)