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Malawi is one of the smallest and least developed countries in the world, yet it is among the most densely populated. However, despite what some see as drawbacks, their tourist board can rightly say,

Malawi is more stable and less dangerous than its neighbours. People here are genuinely friendly and enjoy spending time with, and getting to know you. Malawians are interested in who you are, where you come from and why you have come to Malawi. They are proud of their country and are happy that you have come to visit. Most will gladly show you around.

It claims to

have undisputably the friendliest people in Africa. Ages old culture, tradition and crafts, high mountain peaks, white water rivers and broad blue lakes. Africa’s newest Big Five destination with magnificent natural settings. Malawi has it all, and more … 

Our people epitomise all the gentle, joyful, friendly and laughter filled traits of Africans. Owing to the warm nature of its people, this small African country has also been styled ‘Africa for Beginners’, offering the tourist a ‘perfect, gentle introduction’ to the large, and often perplexing, continent.

The Land of the Lake

Malawi is a long, thin country in south-central Africa: 853km (530 mi) north to south and 257km (160 mi) east to west, it encompasses an area smaller than England or Pennsylvania. It is often called the land of the lake. Despite being landlocked, it is dominated by water, particularly by the very large body that is Lake Malawi (once called Lake Nyasa). One of the Rift Valley Lakes, it is the third largest lake in Africa at 587km (365 mi) long and 84km (52 mi) wide and comprises 75% of Malawi’s eastern boundary.

Two other sizeable bodies of water are Lake Chilwa and Lake Chiuta in the low lying and marshy south-east. Chiuta is actually only sizeable sometimes; during the dry season it may shrink to nothing more than a pond. All these waters flow south from Malawi—the country and the lake—and head via the Shire River for the Zambezi River, the fourth longest in Africa in its 2,700km (1,677 mi) west-to-east journey from north-west Zambia to the Indian Ocean through six countries.

Adjacent countries are Tanzania to the north-east, Zambia north-west and Mozambique embracing the southern part on the east, south and west. The Great Rift Valley runs through the country from north to south and provides Malawi a wide range of topography, from deep forests, steep valleys and flat plateaus to mountainous peaks.

The general topography of Malawi is that of a rift valley, with 39% of the country’s surface area forested and 20% covered by water. The country is entirely within the tropics and yet the climate is firmly designated as subtropical because of the influence of the highlands. This subtropical climate is fairly dry but markedly seasonal. Most of the annual rainfall is between November and April, but even then it is erratic. Such a climate was never really favourable even to the traditional style of subsistence farming common in Malawi, and enduring famines have occurred until the modern era.

As Africa for beginners, however, the Malawi climate gives growth to numerous forests, grasslands rich with wild orchids, savannas and shrublands, which in turn provide homes for the types of African wildlife that make Malawi ideal for explorers of the continent. Five national parks and four wildlife and nature reserves teem with elephants, crocodiles, hippos, zebra, monkeys, lemurs and bats—and the Nyika National Park in the north is said to have the highest number of leopards in central Africa. A multitude of bird species such as parrots and falcons, waterfowl, owls and songbirds can be found particularly in the east near Lake Malawi.

However, Malawi is not all nature park. Its commercial centre, Blantyre, in the south of the country, has a population of over one million. Its capital, Lilongwe, quite central in this country, is some 361km (224 mi) to the north-west by road, has slightly more inhabitants, and at 18 degrees south of the equator is similarly placed as Brasilia in South America and Cairns, Australia. The remainder of some nineteen million people reside throughout the rural areas of the country, usually as small farmers. 


The earliest history of the people of Malawi is not known, but it is believed that the area was home to a number of tribes. Rock art and paintings first discovered in the Chongoni region of central Malawi in the 1930s give evidence of hunter-gatherers during the Later Stone Age and farmers during the Iron Age. In the tenth century Bantu people from the area now known as Congo made their way north as far as Lake Malawi and by AD 1400 had set up agricultural communities on both the east and west banks of the lake. These communities grew increasingly diverse, leading to ethnic conflict. But within one hundred years the Kingdom of Maravi—the word meaning ‘fire flames’—had been established over a large part of the area from the Zambezi River in the south to Lake Malawi and the Luangwa River in the north.

The natural waterways seemed the most obvious highway for explorers and missionaries, who travelled up or down the Zambezi and then ascended the Shire. The heavy malarial conditions on the Zambezi and the rapids on the Shire took a terrible toll on such parties. Some were completely lost, others saw only scant survivors. This did not stop these explorers, and soon the kingdom found it expedient to make alliances with the predominantly Portuguese adventurers for trade and security. But the Kingdom of Maravi itself did not last, breaking up into small ethnic groups. The influx of Europeans also brought with it the slave trade, and thousands of the inhabitants were stolen and carried away.

Of course no history of Africa would be complete without the story of David Livingstone, and more will be said about his influence later. But for now we note that in 1859 Livingstone determined that the area round Lake Malawi (or Nyasa, as it was then) would be suitable for settlement by missionaries and other Europeans. His efforts saw an influx of Protestant missionaries as well as the establishment of the African Lakes Company, whose work included dealing with missions along with trade and transport.

In order to limit the colonisation by the Portuguese in the area, the British government sent a consul to deal with the local peoples. By 1889 a British protectorate had been established. Ill will between the Portuguese and British was settled—at least on paper—in 1891 by the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty, which fixed the borders of the area of interest. Under the protectorate the population of Malawi and surrounding areas grew greatly, and the Shire Highlands Railway opened in 1908, making transport more efficient.

Toward the end of the Second World War the Nyasaland African Congress was formed to encourage continuing British interests in the region. A part of the British protectorate, the NAC continued in force until 1953, when the areas governed by the British were united as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (also called the Central African Federation). During the next decade the three territories—Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Zambia—separated and declared independence. Nationalism influenced politics during the next decade until the mid 1960s, when Nyasaland finally gained complete independence from Britain. Styling itself Malawi—a derivative of its former name Maravi—it set up its own constitution. The newly founded country avoided armed conflict by the political machinations of its leader Hastings Banda, who in 1971 proclaimed himself president-for-life—a position he held for nearly three decades.

Despite—or perhaps because of—Banda’s authoritarian hold on business, the country made significant gains in agriculture and industry. Unlike many such rulers, Banda used the money he earned to assist in Malawi’s development, including founding the ‘Eton of Africa’, Kamuzu Academy. Placed in a remote area, it removed students from the bright lights of the city and encouraged them to focus on study. Its use of British school forms continues to provide its students with advantages worldwide.

Banda held power by allowing only single party elections. In 1993 the people opted for multiparty rule and he was voted out of office. Economic difficulties and human rights abuses led to political unrest, but since 2014 a more democratic form of government has taken root and grown.

Malawi has not been immune to other issues, some of which have come to more prominence in the last few years. Their major export, tobacco, has come under fire from health-minded organisations, and some growers have switched to a more lucrative but illegal crop: cannabis.

Despite the establishment of national parks and nature reserves, poaching—particularly of elephants and rhinos for ivory—is at a thirty-year high. Authorities have asked for the aid of the British army in dealing with the problem; soldiers using skills learned in combat zones are working diligently to train national park rangers in finding and stopping poachers.

As with much of the African continent, HIV and AIDS are widespread; it is estimated that nearly 10% of the Malawian population is infected, and more than half a million children have lost one or both parents to the disease. Almost 70% of hospital beds are taken up with sufferers of the disease, with an additional 250 new infections daily.

In addition, infant and maternal mortality are high, and life expectancy is low at just over fifty years. This is partly due to HIV/AIDS but is also affected by numerous infectious diseases such as hepatitis A, typhoid, malaria and plague.

Especially concerning has been the surge in the murder of humans with albinism. In the space of the nineteen months after November 2014, eighteen deaths were attributed to those seeking skin and body parts for use in magical charms and rites and other forms of witchcraft. It is believed that the number of murders is actually much higher as deaths in more rural areas—where unemployment is greatest and lack of medical care encourages the use of traditional remedies for disease—often go unreported.


In a recent conversation with someone who had lived in Africa, seventy-three was mentioned as the number of tribal and linguistic distinctions in that part of the continent. English is the official language in Malawi but alongside this is Chichewa, a Bantu family language, which is spoken widely throughout the population. It is a tonal language in which much of the understanding is associated with the rise and fall of the voice.

The ‘chi’ beginning on a name indicates ‘language’; Chichewa is ‘the language of the Chewa’, the people of Malawi. So also are Chinyanja, Chiyao, Chitumbuka, Chilomwe, Chinkhonde, Chingoni, Chisena, Chitonga, Chinyakyusa and Chilambya—all spoken throughout the country in various tribes and rural communities.

Chichewa is also one of the languages of Zambia, is spoken in Mozambique, and is ranked third in the languages used in Zimbabwe. The potential usefulness of this language for the Scriptures is therefore widespread and widely anticipated by pastors belonging to the Bantu group, as English and Chichewa serve for most published material. As with many languages in modern societies, these languages are changing as people mix and adapt them in everyday speech.


Malawi is predominantly Christian with some 69% of the population claiming to be Christian (other estimates make this nearly 80%). Of these, nearly 27% identify as Protestant (including Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Church of England, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran and African independent, with some claiming to be Protestant involved with the Seventh Day Adventist groups) and 18% as Roman Catholic. Muslims (mainly Sunni) make up nearly 13%. A small Jehovah’s Witnesses outreach of about two thousand is also found, as are Rastafarians, Hindus and Baha’is; and even a tiny group of three hundred Jews call Malawi home. The number who identify with mainstream religions while holding traditional African practices is unknown but could possibly be high.

The name David Livingstone (1813–1873) is important in both African exploration and also in its religious history. Indeed, he is considered the biggest influence in bringing Protestantism to Malawi and his impact is to be found in so many aspects of the country.

Livingstone was a Scottish medical missionary with the London Missionary Society serving in Africa. By the middle of the nineteenth century he realised that evangelism would be heightened by having better transport into the interior of the country, and he set out to map the various waterways to serve as highways through the land. Unlike other European explorers he travelled light, with only a handful of servants and belongings, buying or bartering for necessities and evangelising as he went.

Livingstone returned to Britain for a short time. On 4 December 1857 he lectured in the Senate House of Cambridge and triggered the launch of what was to become in 1860 the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa. In 1857 he wrote Missionary Travels in South Africa, the first account of his labours on the African continent. The publication was also the occasion of his resignation from the LMS, being urged by Robert Moffat—his father-in-law and fellow LMS worker—in order that he might journey further north in Africa under the auspices of the British government.

The expedition reached Lake Malawi, and in 1861 in an area of Malawi known as Chiradzulu, some 15km (17 mi) north of Blantyre, Livingstone helped Bishop Charles Mackenzie start the Magomero Mission for the Scottish arm of the Church of England. Livingstone’s reports and home visits certainly began a tradition of Scottish missionary involvement in the country and encouraged other Scots to embark on evangelistic work in the colonial regions of South Central Africa. The Free Church founded a mission in what is now Livingstonia in 1875, and the Church of Scotland founded one in Blantyre in 1876. These Scottish connections were much used then and welcome, and continue to this day. One great advantage that such missionaries had was to point out that they did not come armed to steal, hurt or destroy, but in peace and bringing Good News of life, even Eternal Life by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and medical aid too. Hospital work has featured largely in these regions.

The Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, made up of Anglicans from British universities, was established to provide African pastors for local churches. Mackenzie became the first bishop to the tribes around Lake Malawi and led an early expedition of these university missionaries who had a determination not to impose upon those that responded to the Gospel, but to encourage all such to gather in their own congregations. This seems to be reflected in the number of independent yet mutually aware and supportive congregations in Malawi still.

Livingstone had reasoned that making the country more accessible would enable a further spread of the Gospel and discourage the inhumanity and brutality of the slave trade. It is a solemn reflection that the earliest Europeans to visit the region were Portuguese slave traders using Lake Malawi as a gathering point for captured slaves. These were then herded to the coast, regardless of great losses, and shipped on to Zanzibar for trading sometimes with as few as twenty surviving the trek. A commitment of his was to end the barbaric human trafficking. But he was seeking not just to stop it but to replace it with more useful and locally helpful opportunities. Livingstone was known throughout his journeys for treating the native Africans with respect, and they repaid his esteem with loyalty and assistance.

Many today remember Livingstone only for the naming of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe in honour of the Queen and for his search for the source of the Nile. And who can forget his famous meeting with Sir Henry Stanley, the journalist who explored central Africa and in doing so found the missing Livingstone. But Livingstone’s emphasis on exploration and mapping is readily seen in maps of Malawi, which show the use of his name and life for towns and sites. Blantyre itself was named for Livingstone’s home in Scotland. Also to be found are Livingstonia, the David Livingstone Clinic in Lilongwe, and the Livingstone Mountains (also called the Kipengere Range) at the north-east of Lake Malawi.

Despite being considered by many as Africa’s greatest missionary, Livingstone is known to have had only one convert, the tribal leader Sechele (in modern-day Botswana), who did not stay completely faithful to the truth but nevertheless led many others to the Saviour—is often thought of as the greatest missionary to Africa. But regardless of lack of visible results at the time, Livingstone set in motion the great evangelistic activities on the African Continent which continue to this day particularly with the reformed churches associated with the Hersteld Hervormde Kerk in the Netherlands and the independent churches seeking to faithfully adhere to the Word of God.

TBS and the Bible

Scriptures in Chichewa were first printed in the late 1800s commencing with the Gospel according to Mark, with the New Testament translated under the auspices of the Free Church of Scotland Mission in 1886. A new translation by native Malawians was published in 2017; produced by Biblica, it is safe to assume that the English New International Version is its basis.

Primary education in Malawi is compulsory and young adult literacy is 82%. Recognising the importance of the Chichewa language for Malawi and much of the southern African Continent, in 2015 the Society sought the means to publish Scriptures in the language. That year it was reported in our Quarterly Record that

a major project which the Trinitarian Bible Society plans to undertake on behalf of Gereformeerde Bijbelstichting is to prepare a new translation of the Chichewa Bible directly from the Hebrew Masoretic and Greek Received Texts. Reference will also be made to extant Chichewa Bibles such as the Buku Lopatulika version and to the recently published New Testament, Chipangano Chatsopano, in order to utilise accepted theological and ecclesiastical terminology (except where such terminology needs correcting). In connection with these plans, we are currently in touch with two native Malawian Chichewa speakers who have abilities in Biblical Hebrew and Greek. However, as the translation of a new Chichewa Bible directly from the Biblical languages is likely to take years to complete, and because there is great demand for faithful Chichewa Scriptures, the Trinitarian Bible Society is working with the Free Grace Evangelistic Association on a two- to three-year interim project to prepare a New Testament translated from the English Authorised (King James) Version.

The next year it was noted that

Thus far all of Matthew to Ephesians has been prepared in first draft format, with Matthew to 2 Corinthians at the second-level checking stage.

At the time of writing all of the New Testament has been prepared in second or third draft form. Currently the team in Malawi are carrying out final checking of the text, assisted by a native Malawian currently studying in the USA. By the end of 2018, it is hoped they will be able to submit the final draft text for the Society to evaluate. The present aim is to publish the Chichewa New Testament during the final part of 2019.

Please pray that work on the interim Chichewa New Testament will continue to progress uninterrupted and unhindered, and that the Lord enables the full new translation eventually to go ahead.

Trinitarian Bible Society, William Tyndale House, 29 Deer Park Road, London SW19 3NN, England · Tel.: (020) 8543 7857
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