Malawi: Land and people

Extracted from: Catherine Musuva 2009 "Chapter 7: Malawi" IN Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds) Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, EISA, Johannesburg,.

The geographic, socio-economic and population composition and dynamics of Malawi also impact on its politics and electoral politics in particular. This section takes stock of the major features. Malawi is a landlocked country that lies in the south-east of Africa. It lies at the end of the rift valley that runs from north to south through Africa. It is approximately 840 km long and varies in width from 80 to 160 km. It lies on latitude 13 59 S and longitude 33 38 E. It has a surface area of 118 484 km² and lies on a plateau of varying height. The northern two-thirds of the rift valley floor are almost entirely occupied by Lake Malawi, which is 568 km long and varies in width from 16 to 80 km. The southern third of the rift valley is traversed by the Shire River, which drains Lake Malawi via the shallow Lake Malombe, to the Zambezi River. Malawi is bordered by Tanzania in the north, Mozambique in the south and Zambia in the west (Frame 2008).

Due to variations in altitude and latitude, Malawi enjoys a wide range of climatic, soil and vegetation conditions. There are three climatic seasons: a cool season from May to August, a short hot season in September and October, and the rainy season from November to April. Malawi possesses some of the most fertile soils in southern Africa. Although just over half the land area is considered arable, less than 50 per cent of this area is cultivated (Frame 2008).

Malawi has an estimated 13.2 million inhabitants (UNDP 2007/8). The gender ratio is 96 males for every 100 females. The majority of Malawi's population (85 per cent) is rural, although urbanisation is a growing trend, projected to increase to 22 per cent of the total population by 2010. Archaeological findings and folklore refer to the early people of Malawi as "Kafula, Batwa, and Mwandionerakuti". The Maravis, from whom the country derives its name, arrived in the fifteenth century, followed by the Yaos, the Chewas, Manganjas, Tongas, and the Ngonis. The northern region is mostly inhabited by the Tumbuka tribe and other minor tribes like the Ngonis, the Ngodes and the Tongas. Tumbuka is the dominant language of the north. The central region is largely occupied by the Chewas, and the Ngonis and the Manganjas are in the minority. The main language of the central region is Chichewa. The southern region is a mixture of most of the tribes of Malawi - the Yaos, the Senas, the Lomwes, the Ngonis, the Tumbukas, and the Manganjas. There are several dialects spoken by the tribes but Chichewa, Tumbuka, Yao and Chilomwe are the most commonly spoken. English is the official language.

Malawi is divided into three administrative regions: the Northern, the Central and the Southern Regions. These are then further divided into 26 districts - five in the north, nine in the central area and twelve in the south. There are local government structures at the district level and the major stakeholders are the district commissioners, the traditional authorities, the chiefs, the mayors, the councillors and group village headmen. The three regions are unevenly divided into 193 constituencies. The Northern Region has 33 constituencies, the Central Region 73 and the Southern Region 87. The distribution of parliamentary seats suggests regional political preferences, with the main political parties Aford, MCP and UDF winning most seats in the Northern, Central and Southern Regions respectively, in all parliamentary elections from 1994 to 2004 (Khembo& Mcheka 2005). Regional barriers and strongholds of the past were broken in the 2009 elections at both the presidential and parliamentary elections by the victory of the DPP.

The economy of Malawi is predominantly agricultural, accounting for 45 per cent of GDP and 90 cent of export revenues. The main products are tobacco, sugar cane, tea, corn, potatoes, cattle and goats (Frame 2008). The currency of Malawi is the Kwacha. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The GDP in 2007 was estimated at US $3.538 billion and the GDP per capita in the same year was estimated at US $264 (IMF 2008). The annual growth rate of real GDP for 2007 was projected at 7.4 per cent. There was an annual population growth rate of 3.1 per cent (UNDP. 2007/8). The percentage of illiteracy is as high as 65 per cent. The HIV prevalence rate is 12 per cent of the adult population (UNAIDS 2007).


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