Malawi has a rich and colourful culture, with many tribes, languages and customs that are unique to this small land-locked country.
Use the links below to find out more about the various aspects of Malawian culture. If you would like more information about a specific part of Malawian life, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are a number of different tribes that inhabit Malawi, including:
The Tonga tribe that inhabit the Chintheche area (also home to Sambani Lodge), are known for being particulalry friendly and welcoming. Their greeting is,“Timuwoneni”, which translates to, “may we greet you?” The reply to this is “Yewu”, which means, “thank you”. (for further language tips, download our Malawi ePhrasebook.
The Tonga were originally nomadic, but seem to have settled in the Chintheche area.
There are some local jokes about the Tonga people: As a race, they are meticulous about their appearance and it is often said locally that a Tonga man will wear a suit complete with collar and tie, while the shirt beneath the jacket will be in tatters (except the collar, of course). They will also carry a handkerchief and a briefcase – the former so that they can dust themselves down after a car has passed.
If you don’t find this hugely amusing, don’t worry – you’ll soon get the hang of Malawian humour (which tends to be quite bitchy!)
The most prolific of the Malawian Tribes, Chewa has become the officially recognised language in Malawi - taught in schools from a young age, children learn to speak Chewa alongside their regional tribal language, and in addition to English.
There is no specific national dress for Malawian men as such - they mainly wear western clothes such as jeans and t-shirts. There are a number, however, who will wear religious robes or clothing.
Women, on the other hand, traditionally wear a Chitenje (phonetically pronounced chi-ten-jay), similar to a large sarong, often with an elaborate pattern or design. They also often wear a matching headcloth and blouse if they can afford it. The great thing about the Chitenje is it has all sorts of ingenious uses such as a baby carrier, head scarf, oven mitts, and the list goes on!
There are different designs for different occasions, and many women will get their finest clothes on for a trip to church on a Sunday.
Generally Malawians do not show affection in public. It is quite common, however, for men or women who are friends to openly hold hands while walking down the street - something which can feel quite strange for people from a western culture.
Hand-shakes are the most common way of greeting people in Malawi. Anyone seen as being younger, or slightly lower in social standing may bow slightly, or courtsey. Often you will see younger people also rest one hand on the other as an extra sign of respect.
As per the tribes above, there are many languages in Malawi. English and Chewa are the most widely spoken, though if you travel to the northern regions, you will hear a lot more people speaking Tumbuka as well. Why not download our Chewa ePhrasebook?, alternatively visit the All About Malawi blog for a few key phrases.
The basic food of life in Malawi is Nsima (phonetically en-see-ma), which is maize flour mised with water to make a thick porridge. This is generally served with beans, or vegetables (such as spinach or 'greens' in a tomoto-and-onion sauce, and if the family is well-off, sometimes meat. Along with cassava and rice (a sometimes expensive commodity) carbohydrates or stodge is the cornerstone of any malawian meal, along with a minimal amount of sauce - so anyone on atkins is going to struggle!
Malawian hospitality revolves around the food that they feed you so don't be surprised if you are fed first and the most!