Malawi: The warm heart of Africa!
Malawi is a country in Africa, bordered by Mozambique to the south and east, Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west. Lake Malawi (or Lake Nyasa), the third largest lake in Africa (and tenth largest in the world), runs along most of its eastern border taking up one fifth of the country’s area. Malawi is known as the “Warm Heart of Africa”, referring to the friendliness of the people.
Satellite image of Malawi
- Northern Malawi
- Central Malawi
- Southern Malawi
- Lilongwe – the political capital of country.
- Blantyre and Limbe – the economic capital of the country.
- Mzuzu – the largest town in northern, and a staging-post for transport to Tanzania.
- Mangochi, formerly known as Fort Johnston, is found at the southern end of Lake Malawi where it empties into the Shire River and heads toward Liwonde. A medium-size town, it has all the usual conveniences for travelers (resthouses, restaurants, grocery stores) though none of them are worthy of much praise. By private vehicle, a drive to Mangochi from Blanytre will take about 2 to 2.5 hours.
- Monkey Bay, is a popular large village as you head up the Lake Road from Mangochi toward Cape Maclear.
- Cape Maclear – laid back fishing village on the southern end of the lake with good sandy beaches, a favorite among backpackers, boaters, and sunseekers.
- Nkhata Bay – a rocky bay towards the north of the lake – check into one of the lodges and you could be here for a while.
- Zomba – The original capital of Malawi (until 1974), set at the base of Zomba Mountain
Location of Malawi
Established in 1891, the British protectorate of Nyasaland became the independent nation of Malawi on 6th July, 1964. After three decades of one-party rule, the country held multiparty elections in 1994 under a provisional constitution, which took full effect the following year. National multiparty elections were held again in 1999 and 2004 electing present president Bingu wa Mutharika.
The hottest region is on the shores of Lake Malawi, but there is mostly a cooling breeze. It is cooler in the highlands. Winters (May till July) are dry. The rainy seasons is from November until March.
Travelling to Malawi
Most visitors from industrialized countries, including the United States, most European Union countries, Japan and Taiwan do not require a visa for Malawi.
Malawi’s largest international airport is in Lilongwe, although there are also some flights from Blantyre to regional destinations. Most travelers connect via Johannesburg (South Africa) or Nairobi (Kenya). State carrier Air Malawi  claims to be “Africa’s Friendliest Airline”, but its limited network covers only nearby countries and Dubai.
There is a $30 departure tax payable when you leave the country by plane. This must be paid in cash in US dollars. While it is usually possible to convert your remaining kwacha to dollars at the airport the exchange rate is poor. It is much better to put aside the money at the beginning of your trip.
There are trains twice a week from Blantyre to Cuamba and Nampula in northern Mozambique, although a 77-kilometer stretch of track between the Mozambique border and Cuamba is out of commission and must be covered by truck.
A ferry runs twice a week from Likoma Island to Cobuè in Mozambique.
There is an excellent road from Lilongwe to Mchinji on the Zambian border (120 km).
To get into Malawi from Mozambique, in the south, one can take the bus from Tete (north-west Mozambique) to Zobwe. After crossing, take another bus from the border to Blantyre. This crossing is quite hectic, and it is closed at night, so one should plan on getting there early, and trying to keep it cool with all the border-hawkers. Direct buses run from Lusaka, Zambia to Lilongwe, but are best avoided (or done in stretches) if 18-20 hours on a bus doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time.
Compared to its neighbours, the main roads in Malawi are in surprisingly good shape and travel times between major destinations should be reasonable. The volume of traffic is low and most people drive reasonably slowly. Road travel after dark is not advisable as road markings are poor to non-existent and not all cars have headlights. Drivers should beware of pedestrians and cyclists in the middle of the road in rural areas.
The Malawian police force have check points along many of the major roadways. By and large, they are looking for illegal activities and often wave tourists through. Expect to be stopped on occasion and asked where you are going. You should not have any problems if you are polite and have the correct documentation (passport, drivers licence, permission to use the vehicle, etc.) available if they ask. All drivers are required to carry thier drivers licence.
Unfortunatly many car rentals in Southern Africa do not allow to enter Malawi with their cars. You might have the best chances if you rent a car in Zambia.
Car rentals that allow you to enter Malawi:
- Livingstone 4×4,  Located in Lusaka, Zambia.
- Kwenda,  17 Samantha Street, Strijdom Park, Randburg, Johannesburg, South Africa
- Bushtackers, P.O. Box 4225, Rivonia, 2128, Johannesburg, South Africa
Rental cars are also available in major towns. Costs vary depending on vehicle type, but expect a compact car to run about $60/day.
Traveling by boat is surely the most enjoyable mode of getting around in Malawi. The Ilala ferry runs north from Monkey Bay to Chilumba (Friday 10 am – Sunday 6:30 pm), and back southbound on the same route (departure Chilumba on Monday 2am, arriving at Monkey Bay on Wednesday at 2pm). Prices are rising with every year, but so is the ferry’s reliability: some years back (before its privatization) it was perfectly normal to arrive a day late sometimes. The Ilala thus connects Likoma Island twice a week with the mainland, and the much closer Cobuè in Mozambique, respectively. Prices in January 2006 were about 6000 Malawian Kwacha from Monkey Bay to Likoma, and 1600 from Likoma to Nkhata Bay.
Air Malawi  has a monopoly on domestic flights and charges accordingly. They fly small propeller planes between the three big cities of Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Blantyre.
“Luxury” buses, medium-sized buses, and minibuses all service the country. They vary in comfort and price. Vehicle condition can be very poor and road accidents are relatively common. Generally, if police are going to hassle travelers, it will be individuals using these types of transportation.
Taxis are available in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Zomba.
English is one of the official languages of Malawi and is widely spoken in urban areas. The other official language is Chichewa (Nyanja), which is understood by almost all Malawians. Tumbuka is the first language for many people in the north of the country. Chiyao is spoken by the Yao people who live mostly in the Mangochi District, as well as areas surrounding Zomba into Machinga District as well.
The local currency is the Malawi kwacha, abbreviated MWK or MK. The currency is freely convertible (if difficult to get rid of outside the country) and, as of Jan 2008, trades at around 137 kwacha to the US dollar. US dollars will also be accepted by almost everybody, particularly for larger purchases. For the current exchange rate visit Zikomo.net. In Blantyre and Llilongwe try Victoria Forex Bureau. Watch out for kwacha from neighboring Zambia, worth less than 1/20th of the Malawi version! Malawi Kwacha are exchangeable in the Zambian capital Lusaka, and at banks close to the border.
Credit card acceptance is spotty. Visa and MasterCard are accepted by some of the larger hotels, including some ATMs, but you can leave AmEx or anything else at home. Outside of the major cities, credit cards are barely used and there are very few ATMs.
Travellers cheques can be changed in banks, forex bureaus and in some high-end hotels. The number of hotels accepting payment by travellers cheque seems to be shrinking. Don’t rely on them unless you have spoken to the hotel. US dollars cash, is your best bet, and it gives a better exchange rate.
Nsima with three relishes: rape and peanut (top left), cabbage (bottom right) and kapenta (bottom left)
Traditional Malawian food revolves around one staple, maize, served in one form, nsima (n’SEE-ma). Nsima is basically a type of thick porridge, rolled into balls with your right hand and dipped into a variety of stews known as relishes. Those who can afford them eat relishes of beef, chicken or fish, but the many who can’t make do with beans, tiny dried fish (kapenta), pumpkin leaves (chibwabwa) and other vegetables. At breakfast, nsima can be served watered down into a soup, maybe with a little sugar. Local restaurants will serve nsima and relish for less than 100MWK ($1).
Food options in the major cities of Lilongwe and Blantyre are good. Fast food — to include burgers, pizza, and fried chicken — is very popular in Malawi. For sit-down meals, ethnic eateries (thanks to a significant ex-pat population) are popular. Do note that, in many restaurants, pork products are not served to accommodate the Muslim population.
Outside the larger cities, however, you might be a little underwhelmed with food options. Along the major roadways, you will find “tuck shops” featuring packaged cookies or Take Away Meals — meat pies or sausage rolls, for instance — which may or may not satisfy you.
Finally, in terms of hygiene outside the major cities, you are unlikely to find a proper washroom with running water. You will probably be given a bowl of water, a piece of soap, and a (damp) towel. Therefore, some travelers bring small bottles of anti-bacterial hand soap with them.
Tap water in major towns like Lilongwe, Blantyre, Zomba and Mzuzu is generally potable, although it’s advisable to boil it first. For those who fancy bottled water, it is widely available in the cities.
A traditional local drink worth trying is mahewu (also maheu), a somewhat gritty and vaguely yogurty but refreshing beverage made from maize meal. Factory-produced maheu is sweet, comes in plastic bottles and is available in a variety of flavors including banana, chocolate and orange, while homemade versions are usually unflavored and less sweet.
Less traditional, but arguably more tasty, are the fizzy drinks by Southern Bottlers (Sobo), including a fine ginger ale. Sobo is also the licensed manufacturer of Coca Cola in Malawi.
Malawi has a significant Muslim population, including the former president, but alcohol is widely available even in muslim dominated regions. The only Carlsberg brewery in Africa is in Blantyre, and its products are available in fine establishments and questionable joints everywhere. Malawi Distilleries produces stronger stuff including Smirnoff Vodka (licensed), but also its own products like Mulanje Gold Coffee Liqueur. Perhaps one of the most popular drinks in the country is the MGT (Malawi Gin and Tonic) made with Malawi Gin, an aromatic version of this popular alcohol.
Western-standard hotels can be found in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu.
There are high-level five-star resort hotels in some rural areas charging western prices – see individual places for listings.
Secondary school are largely government run, however many private school have since become available to address the need for education in Malawi. Some private schools:
Malawi’s largest tertiary education structure at present is the University of Malawi which is made up of Chancellor College located in the heart of Zomba, Blantyre Polytechnic in Chichiri and College of Medicine. Bunda College of Agriculture and Kamuzu College of Nursing are located in Lilongwe. There is also Mzuzu University in the Northern part of Malawi.
Malawi is not known as a particularly dangerous travel locale for wester foreigners and expartriates. Muggings and robbery may occur in the larger cities as well as in some notorious places along the main tourist routes. It is advisable to avoid walking alone at night. If you go out for the evening, make sure you know how you’re going back home. Car-jackings happen occasionally so keep windows shut and doors locked during evening and night journeys. Road safety is the most dangerous thing with the standard of vehicles and drivers usually being relatively poor.
That said, Malawi does deserve its reputation as “the warm heart of Africa”.
As with its neighboring countries malaria can be a problem. The lake is freshwater and is prone to bilharzia, especially in the Cape Maclear area. Symptoms of bilharzia can take months to surface, if you think you’ve been exposed to it you can get a very cheap pill from the local pharmacists that will kill it before it even shows its face. It’s a good idea to take care of it before leaving Malawi as it will be much more expensive back home.
Malawians follow a strict patriarchal society — men are afforded more respect than women, and older men are respected more than younger men. You might find, however, that a white person (mzungu) is afforded the most respect of all. A holdover from colonial times, this might make a traveler uncomfortable, but this is largely a Malawian’s way of being courteous.
Malawians are a curious people. To a Western mindset, this might be interpreted as unnecessarily staring at you or talking about you in front of you. Be prepared to greeted by kids yelling mzungu, mzungu! and answer lots of questions about yourself. Even relatively mundane items like mechanical pencils can draw a crowd of onlookers.
Malawians love to shake hands, and you should oblige them. However, Malawian men often like to hold hands for the duration of a conversation. This should not be interpreted as anything sexual; they are merely trying to “connect” with you. If you feel uncomfortable, simply pull your hand away.
Culturally, women should not wear shorts or mini-skirts, especially as they travel away from Lilongwe. (Thighs, to Malawian men, are huge turn-ons.) Low-cut tops, however, while discouraged, are not nearly as provocative.
Finally, when meeting a Malawian — even to ask a question — you should always say hello and ask how they are. Properly greeting a Malawian is very important. They are uncomfortable with the Western notion of simply “getting to the point.”
Originally based on work by Henry Bromelkamp, lic. iur. HBR Lenel, Philipp Schäufele, Todd VerBeek and [email protected], Wikitravel user(s) Cacahuate and Episteme, Anonymous user(s) of Wikitravel and others.