Malawi - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Malawi: the Bradt Guide

Mount Mulanje, Malawi by Dana Allen, Central African Wilderness SafarisLivingstone managed to explore Mount Mulanje on foot during his 1859 expedition © Dana Allen, Central African Wilderness Safaris 

Livingstone and the Zambezi Expedition  

By the middle of the 19th century, the combined efforts of the Ngoni, the Yao, and the Omani and Portuguese slave traders had turned Malawi into something of a bloodbath. And so it might have remained but for the arrival in 1859 of David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary turned explorer who, perhaps more than any one man until Banda, was to shape the future course of events in Malawi.

David Livingstone was born at Blantyre, Scotland, in 1813. He trained as a medical doctor at Glasgow University and then as a missionary at the London Missionary School. In 1840, he joined Robert Moffat’s mission station at Kuruman in South Africa, where he married Moffat’s daughter Mary. While at Kuruman, Livingstone came to perceive his role in Africa as something grander than merely making a few more converts: his ambition was to open up the African interior so that other missionaries might follow in his wake.

Between 1853 and 1856, Livingstone became the first European to cross Africa from west to east, starting at Luanda in Angola and then following the course of the Zambezi to its mouth in Mozambique. Livingstone was a first-hand witness to the suffering caused by the brutal slave trade; he became convinced that the only way to curb slavery was to open Africa to Christianity, colonisation and commerce. Livingstone’s faith in the so-called ‘three Cs’ was not untypical of Victorian attitudes to Africa, but, more unusually, Livingstone was fuelled neither by greed nor by arrogance, but by plain altruism.

In 1858, Livingstone convinced the British government to finance an expedition to search for a navigable river highway upon which European influences might be brought to the African interior. This was the second ‘Zambezi Expedition’; it lasted for six years, with the diverse crew of botanist and physician Dr John Kirk, navy officer Captain Norman Bedingfield, geologist Richard Thornton, Livingstone’s younger brother Charles as evangeliser, the artist Thomas Baines and the engineer George Rae.

Livingstone’s firm belief that the Zambezi would prove to be this highway was crushed by the end of 1858, when the Kebrabasa Rapids west of Tete proved to be impassable by steamer. In 1859, Livingstone turned his attention to the Shire, a tributary of the Zambezi and, though he did not know it at the time, the sole outlet from Lake Malawi. Livingstone’s steamer made several trips up the river, but his projected highway to the interior was again blocked, this time by the Kapichira Rapids. Nevertheless, Livingstone, together with his companion John Kirk, explored much of southern Malawi on foot in 1859, including mounts Mulanje and Zomba, as well as Lake Chilwa and the southern part of Lake Malawi.

In 1861, Livingstone was sent a new boat by the British government. It arrived at the Mozambican coast carrying a party of clergymen, who had been sent by the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) at Livingstone’s request to establish the first mission in central Africa. Livingstone deposited the party, led by Bishop Mackenzie, at Magomero near Chiradzulu Mountain (between the modern towns of Blantyre and Zomba).

On 2 September 1861, Livingstone sailed up Lake Malawi in a local boat, a trip that John Kirk was to describe as ‘the hardest, most trying and most disagreeable of all our journeys’. Livingstone stopped at Jumbe’s slaving emporium at Nkhotakota, which he called ‘an abode of bloodshed and lawlessness’. Further north, the lakeshore was ‘strewed with human skeletons and putrid bodies’, victims of the marauding Ngoni. By the time he reached Nkhata Bay, the depressed and exhausted doctor feared for his life, and he decided to turn back south, thus underestimating the length of the lake by 100km.

From here on, the Zambezi Expedition went from disaster to disaster. Disease claimed the lives of several of the Magomero missionaries, including Bishop Mackenzie himself in late 1861, and the UMCA eventually withdrew the mission to Zanzibar. Days after Bishop Mackenzie’s death, Mary Livingstone, who had only shortly before joined her husband in central Africa, died of malaria. In 1863, the last time Livingstone sailed up the Shire, the river was described by a member of the expedition as ‘literally a river of death’. The boat’s paddles had to be cleared of bloated corpses every morning. Livingstone realised that in attempting to open the Shire to the three Cs, he had unwittingly opened the way for Portuguese slave raids. The British government withdrew their support for the expedition in 1864, and Livingstone returned to Britain.

Livingstone is now best remembered as the recipient of Henry Stanley’s immortal greeting, ‘Doctor Livingstone I presume’, and as one of the many explorers of his era obsessed with the search for the source of the Nile. Neither memory does him justice: Livingstone had been exploring Africa for more than two decades before he turned his thoughts to the Nile (on his last African trip between 1867 and 1874), and the posthumous reward for his earlier efforts was indeed the abolition of slavery through the influence of the three Cs. Somewhat ironically, it was only after Livingstone’s death near Lake Bangweula in 1874 and his emotional funeral at Westminster Abbey that Britain finally made serious efforts to end the slave trade around Lake Malawi.

Natural history

Nyika NP Malawi by Dana Allen Central African Wilderness SafarisMalawi is a highly rewarding safari destination for wildlife enthusiasts © Dana Allen, Central African Wilderness Safaris

By comparison with most of its eastern and southern African neighbours, Malawi is a small country, and too densely populated to support the immense areas of untamed wilderness associated with Tanzania, Zambia and other leading safari destinations. Nevertheless, Malawi is a land of thrilling topographic variety, dominated by the towering escarpments and partially submerged floor of the Great Rift Valley, with habitats that range from the muggy low-lying Lower Shire Valley to the montane grasslands and forests of the Nyika, Mulanje and other such massifs.

Significant tracts of indigenous vegetation are protected within a well-managed network of national parks, wildlife reserves and forest reserves, and if Malawi doesn’t quite make the premiership league of African safari destinations, it remains highly rewarding to wildlife enthusiasts. Furthermore, unlike many of the continent’s premier wildlife destinations, Malawi’s top natural attractions – the forested mountaintops, rich birdlife, dazzling fish diversity of Lake Malawi, and wildlife sanctuaries such as Liwonde, Majete and Vwaza Marsh – remain accessible to travellers on a low-to-moderate budget.

People and culture

Nyau Dancers, Malawi by Dana Allen, Central African Wilderness SafarisModern masked dancers represent the characters associated with the clandestine nyau society © Dana Allen, Central African Wilderness Safaris


The population of Malawi is estimated to stand at over 19 million in 2018. This represents a massive increase since the 1998 census, which recorded a population of 9,934,000, and a fourfold increase since independence in 1964, when the population was estimated at 3.75 million. Malawi was ranked the seventh most densely populated country in mainland Africa in 2002, with 90 people/km², and that figure now stands at around 200 people/km². Despite this, most of the population lives in rural areas. The most populous city in Malawi is Lilongwe, followed by Blantyre, Mzuzu, Zomba, Kasungu, Mangochi, Karonga, Salima, Nkhotakota and Liwonde.


The official language of Malawi is English and the national language is Chichewa. The indigenous languages of Malawi all belong to the Bantu group. The most widely spoken of these, especially in the Southern and Central regions, and the joint official language until 1994, is Chichewa. In the north, the most widely spoken language is Chitumbuka. There are many other linguistic groups in the country, some of the more important being Yao, Ngoni and Nyanja.


With about eleven different ethnic groups in the country, Malawi has a mosaic of cultural norms and practices. Unique traditional dances and rituals as well as arts and crafts identify the groups. The Museum of Malawi recognises the importance of these traditions, and promotes appropriate activities in schools and other public places. Mua Mission’s KuNgoni Art Centre for Culture & Art has embraced the cultures and religions of the Central Region, which is also seen clearly in the approach to the mission’s work. Above all though, it is the tradition of hospitality, friendship and courtesy that permeates the entire country and warrants Malawi’s epithet ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’.

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