The Word For...

By Jheri St. James

When the seeker Googles in the word “Malawi”, the first titles provider the reader the short version of the first facts about this country. Words like “HIV/AIDS, …one of the world’s poorest countries; hunger is inevitable;” are right at the top of the listings. Surely there is more to find in Malawi. The lyrics of the national anthem say, “… Join together all our hearts as one, that we be free from fear. . . let us all unite to build up Malawi. With our love, our zeal and loyalty, bringing our best to her… Men and women serving selflessly in building Malawi.”

The Republic of Malawi is a democratic, densely populated country located in southeastern Africa. It borders Zambia to the northwest, Tanzania to the north, and Mozambique surrounding it on the east, south and west. The origin of the name Malawi remains unclear—it is either derived from the name of southern tribes, or noting the “glitter of the sun rising across the lake” (as seen in its flag).

Malawi has the Great Rift Valley running through the country from north to south. In this deep trough lies Lake Malawi (Nyasa), the third-largest lake in Africa, about 20% of Malawi’s area. Lake Malawi is sometimes called the Calendar Lake as it is about 365 miles long and 52 miles wide. The Great Rift Valley is a vast geographical and geological feature, approximately 3,700 miles in length which is caused by the geological process of rifting, a complex activity where several plates of the earth's crust join. The rift valley varies in width from 30 to 100 kilometers, and in depth from a few hundred to several thousand meters.The great rift system extends from Lebanon in the north to Mozambique in the south. Some of the African rift is underlain by a mantle plume, an upwelling of abnormally hot rock within the Earth's mantle. As the heads of mantle plumes can partly melt when they reach shallow depths, they are thought to be the cause of volcanic centers known as hotspots and probably also to have caused flood basalts. It is a secondary way that Earth loses heat, much less important in this regard than is heat loss at plate margins. All of the African Great Lakes, featuring a variety of water types—salty, alkaline and fresh-- were formed as the result of the rift, and most lie within its rift valley. The formation of the Rift Valley continues, probably driven by mantle plumes and ultimately a result of the African superswell. The associated geothermal activity and spreading at the rift has caused the lithosphere to thin from a typical 100 km thickness for continents to a mere 20 km. Though it is common for one arm of a triple junction to fail, if spreading continues the lithosphere may rupture several million years hence, splitting eastern Africa off to form a new landmass. In short, this will lead to the formation of a new mid-ocean ridge.

The Great Rift Valley is the world’s longest rift on the surface of the earth. The eruptions which caused the rift formed new landforms and mountains, such as Ethiopian Highlands, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and Mount Margarita. The valley is separated into two sections known as the Eastern and Western Rifts. The Eastern Rift starting in the Ethiopia region, extends southwards into Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, ending in Mozambique. The Western Rift begins north of Lake Malawi and runs along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Scientists are now planning to drill into what could be the longest and richest archive of Earth’s past climate at Malawi, which could provide a year-by-year continuous record going back millions of years in a part of the world where it is thought humans first evolved. Using a newly developed drilling system, rsearchers will, for the first time, obtain sediments from the bottom of Lake Malawi, which they say could provide the background needed to undestand human origins and evolution. Scientiss know that each annual layer of Lake Malawi sediment consists of a black zone—the sediment runoff from land deposited during the rainy season—and a light-colored layer of single-celled algae that grow in abundance each dry season. The composition and variation in the layers can be used to infer climatic conditions in the distant past. Old trees, glaciers, even fossilized plankton shells hold clues to what the Earth’s climate was like millions of years ago.

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Words like Khoisan, Bantu, Chewa, Luba, Zulu, Ndwandwe, KwaZulu-Natal, Ngoni and King Zwangendaba were used as names by the various tribes that originally made this area of Africa their home. The first significant Western contact was Dr. David Livingstone in 1859 and subsequently Scottish Presbyterian churches establishing missions, leading to the rift called British rule during the first half of the 20th century. The name Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda is that of a hero who took leadership of the NAC and later the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), was imprisoned and then released in 1960 to participate in a constitutional conference in London, but it took until 1964 for Malawi to become a republic, with Dr. Banda as its first president, and also a one-party state. In 1971, Banda was named President for Life of Malawi. By 1993, the people of Malawi voted overwhelmingly in favor of multi-party democracy with free and fair national elections held in 1994. Accelerated economic liberalization and structural reform accompanied the political transitions. Local elections, the first in the multi-party era, took place on November 21, 2000.

“This is a good place,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“But some people are sick.”
“This is where they are cured,” Simon said. “That is why it is a good place.”
He had put the candle down and was throwing open the shutters.
“In the villages”—he meant everywhere else—“people are sick, but they stay that way.”


“The scorching light exposed everything so completely it even burned shadows away. It was not sunshine, not warm and bright, but a fiery African light that swelled in the sky and seemed to drum against the land. It came rattling straight through the threadbare curtains into my room, waking me like a blade piercing my eyes. I saw that the walls were cracked plaster and dusty whitewash, with a wooden crucifix of a skinny, suffering Jesus over my bed. The floor was dusty, the wood doorjamb was pitted with termite holes, and the whole place smelled of ants. It had seemed to substantial last night, the whole building on its hill, but in this harsh, truthful light the structure was frail and elderly.”

“The Lepers of Moyo” from Paul Theroux (erstwhile Peace Corps Volunteer), My Other Life. 1996.




Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital since 1971, has a population which exceeds 400,000. The climate is subtropical with a rainy season from November through April, and little to no rainfall from May to October. Life expectancy in Malawi is now as low as 36.5 years, five years lower than it was 50 years ago. This drop is due to the population’s impoverishment, which is caused by many factors, including: insufficient nutrition, poor access to medical treatment, low income (the mean per capita income in Malawi is less than $1 per day), extreme lack of foresight by the government, misuse of international donations, insufficient school education, spread of HIV/AIDS, government economic restrictions, corruption, climate change. Child mortality is 103/1,000. There are more than a million orphans, 700,000 of whom became orphans when their parents died of AIDS.

“There was no point in a letter home. I seldom wrote anyway, and my family might be alarmed by this one. They might misunderstand and pity me. I had no way to describe this place. The danger in writing about it was in making it seem worse than it was. Yet leprosy was accepted, snake bite was normal, work changed nothing. Everyone except the foreigners was either a leper or else a relative of a leper. … Moyo, the leper colony, the mission, all the people and their simple buildings—was a little world of illness . . . The reality here was that no one was sentimental. They came here ill; they declined; they died. No one advanced or prospered. It was a small world in which no one had the illusion of making choices. And no one minded that. I did not know why this was so, though I suspected that it was because the people here were always in the presence of death. . . "

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For the Tumbuka people of Malawi, traditional medical practices are filled with music. This health care system is populated by dancing prophets, singing patients and drummed spirits. Tumbuka healers diagnose diseases by enacting divination trances in which they "see" the causes of past events and their consequences for patients. Music is the structural nexus where healer, patient, and spirit meet - it is the energizing heat that fuels the trance, transforming both the bodily and social functioning of the individual. Anthropologists find that the sound of the ng'oma drum, the clapping of the choir, call-and-response singing and the jangle of tin belts and iron anklets do not simply accompany other more important ritual activities - they are the very substance of a sacred clinical reality. This analysis of the relation between music and mental and biological health should interest medical anthropologists, Africanists, and religious scholars as well as ethnomusicologists. - (The Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing (Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology, by Steven M. Friedson)

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"Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art."

Art is produced in the complex country of Malawi, Great Rift land of suffering, death, musical healings and human expression. Carved wooden sculptures, furniture and objects, jewelry, musical instruments, dolls, wicker containers, fabrics and batiks, paintings, brass objects, leather art, kitchen implements and décor are just a few of the artistic expressions of the fleeting people of this brave country. ( Words are being written by people with names like Du Chisiza, Gertrude Kamkwatira, Innocent Kommwa, Smith Likonge, Mufunanji Magalasi, Steve Chimombo, Jack Mapanje and others describing life in Malawi much better than this writer ever could.

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The soil of Malawi was collected on 11/20/06 from the Lilongwe permaculture field. “The significance is that the permaculture plots will have a multiplier effect which (in the long-run) help with Malawi’s food security; a contributing factor to peace as well. Thanks,” writes Ulemu C. Malindi, the soil collector from Mali. Mr. Malindi was contacted by Mitchell Moss, Public Affairs Officer in the U.S. Embassy in Lilongwe. Our sincerest thanks go out to both men for participating in this project. Common Ground 191 currently needs 36 soils to complete the collection part of the project, and earth from countries like Malawi is very difficult to obtain, so especially precious.

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(Since 1961, over 150,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps Volunteers. Unlike those who choose the expatriate life, Volunteers don't go to the ends of the earth to escape American civilization or, for that matter, to make money from the labor of others. They go to jobs that take them away from embassies, first-class hotels, and the privilege of being rich foreigners in poor countries. They live far from the capital, in villages that would never be tourist sites. And they don't just pass through foreign countries. They unpack their belongings, they settle down, they set about to do a job. And they write. They begin by writing letters home, as Paul Theroux did in 1964 from Malawi where he taught secondary school.

"My schoolroom is on the Great Rift, and in this schoolroom there is a line of children, heads shaved like prisoners, muscles showing through their rags. These children appear in the morning out of the slowly drifting hoops of fog-wisp. It is chilly, almost cold. There is no visibility at six in the morning; only a fierce white-out where earth is the patch of dirt under their bare feet, a platform, and the sky is everything else."

In over thirty years of writing, Theroux has produced some of the most wicked, funny, sad, bitter, readable, knowledgeable, rude, acerbic, ruthless, arrogant, moving, brilliant and quotable books ever written. And he began by writing about the life he knew in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Theroux is perhaps the most famous writer among former Peace Corps Volunteers. His first Peace Corps assignment was in East Africa, where he lectured in English in a school in Limbe, Malawi. He was expelled in 1965, however, for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate the president of the country. )

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“The boxes had been sent from London, marked ‘personal effects’. I opened them at random, unwrapping the bandaged and wadded contents and setting each item down on the sunny lawn…a large glass mixing bowl…bought in Nyasaland at the Limbe Trading Company in 1964. Somehow, this inexpensive and ordinary household object, perhaps the first I had ever bought, had survived almost thirty years. But that was only part of its fascination. This was the bowl that my African cook, Julius Magoya, had used to hold fruit salad.

“He had asked me to buy it, and he had filled it that first day with cut-up fruit: pawpaws, bananas, apples, oranges, grapes and tangerines, for which he used the Afrikaans word ‘naartjies’. There was far too much fruit salad. After a week, half a bowl of it was left. Julius did not throw it away. He cut up more fruit and added it, filling the bowl again, giving it a stir. A week later, though I had not finished the fruit salad, he added more, and the bowl brimmed again. He repeated this every week, mixing the new with the old, the sweet with the sour, the crisp with the sodden. He never tossed out what was in the bowl, no matter how small the amount. It was replenished every week; years later I was still eating fruit salad out of the same bowl, which had never been emptied.

“At the age of fifty, I was glad to have that bowl back. Now I saw the point of it: Julius’s endless fruit salad represented for me the meaning of life, and the source of all art.”

Malawi’s fruit salad story has much more to it than the Google entries of death and doom. There is the deep story of the earth itself—its moving plates, mantels and plumes—the secrets scientists hope to reveal—the fruit bowl of the Great Rift Valley; the animals growijng out of that earth; the tribal and modern human beings who are born, make love and art, then die upon and are buried under the land called Malawi; people planting foods in the soil called permaculture in Lilwonge. Paul Theroux was deeply affected by the lives of the lepers of his time there; and we are deeply affected by the HIV/AIDS sufferers of ours. The words of the national anthem ring out with the spirit of the people—“Our own Malawi, this land so fair, fertile and brave and free. With its lakes, refreshing mountain air, how greatly blest are we. Hills and valleys, soil so rich and rare give us a bounty free. Wood and forest, plains so broad and fair, all—beauteous Malawi.”  The word for peace in Malawi is mtendere.

Children at the Njoto Orphanage in Malawi

“What impresses me about the many African countries that I traveled through from Cairo to Cape Town was how people have survived tyrannical governments, food shortages, disease and poor or no infrastructure—bad roads,no phones, etc… Malawi is a great example of that. Nothing positive has happened to Malawi since I left there in 1965. Yet in the villages and by the lakeshore and in the bush people go on.”

(All quotations from Paul Theroux, My Other Life and online quote sources. Pictures from



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