Charles Mkula is a journalist who has worked for a number of newspapers and magazines in Malawi since 1998.
Insights Opinions

Malawi In search of a national identity

LILONGWE- Prejudiced subjection of Malawi’s cultural symbols and expressions to represent or to belong to particular geographical localities than national, challenges the country’s desire to define its collective identity, Chairperson for the Foundation for Arts and Culture (FoAC), Serman Chavula has noted.

But, a Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) report titled “Cultural Practices and their Impact on the Enjoyment of Human Rights” sees shared similarities in the customs and traditions of indigenous Malawians, who are mostly Bantus and have diffused some minor cultural differences as a result of intermarriages and migration.

Free Expression Institute Coordinator, Peter Jegwa Kumwenda, thinks efforts to harness a sense of the country’s collective cultural identity have been corrupted by ethnic politics which have seen political parties using ethnic affiliations to create patronage and clientelism.

“The development has created undercurrent divisions, which have weakened and corrupted the broader national identity drive,” he notices but points out that the ability for Malawians of different tribes to live together, despite the divisions, is yet another source of the people’s shared experience and national pride.

He also observes that the national flag, successes in sports and entertainment by the national netball or football teams and outstanding performances of the country’s representatives at the ‘Big Brother’ realty TV show, also serve as factors of unity and identity.

While the music and film industry or rather the media industry have played a critical role in defining the people’s national identity through promoting their socio-economic beliefs, aspirations, struggles for survival and development, they are, unfortunately, fast giving way to foreign (western) cultural domination and influence.

The growing concentration of foreign content in the media (music, film, radio and TV) can be attributed to the country’s weak media industry characterised by lack of resources to preserve and promote the local culture.

Nonetheless, the media still remains an important tool for ideological guidance where it can assist in orientating and implementing a consensus on what the country’s national identity is or should be.


Does Malawi have a national cultural identity?

“We have few heritage expressions that reflect direct use-value or meaning as integral parts of contemporary identity,” says Chavula pointing out that it is only when Malawians cultivate national pride in their cultural assets, preserve and promote them that gainful external interest can be attracted to spur tourism and investment.

A 2013 World Intellectual Properties Organisation (WIPO) study estimated that Malawi’s creative sector contributes around 3.4 percent to the country’s GDP and plays a significant role in terms of creating employment and generating foreign exchange.

The contribution of the arts sector alone surpassed sectors like transportation, construction, and mining and quarrying.

Lesa Catering Services, Managing Director, Esther Banda, points out that the country’s local foods, especially nsima, chambo fish and bonongwe vegetables, have already left indelible footprints in the hearts of many, including foreign travellers, as Malawi’s traditional food.

Lesa Catering Services, which also runs restaurants in Lilongwe’s Kanengo industrial Area and in City Centre, will next year start holding quarterly culinary events where traditional food for different ethnic groups will be showcased before holding a grand culinary festival highlighting all Malawian traditional food.

“Even the UN has endorsed our nsima as an outstanding heritage,” she says referring to the inscription of nsima, the country’s staple food, on UNESCO’s representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“The inscription itself, complements the country’s rich register of cultural assets that identifies the “warm heart of Africa” as the country is known to the world in reference to the warm heartedness of its people,” she says.

Banda explains that nsima is a communally shared culinary and dietary tradition whose preparation, consisting of pounding, milling and cooking maize flour, cassava flour, sorghum flour and millet flour, requires specific knowledge.

The nsima tradition forms part of the Malawian identity alongside the country’s languages, music and dance, rituals, monuments, shrines, pre-historic archaeological fossils, nature among others.

Other intangible cultural heritage elements on the same UNESCO list include the spirit dance - Gule wamkulu, the healing dance - Vimbuza and Tchopa dance.

Malawi is also identified by the UNESCO-endorsed outstanding World Heritage Sites of Lake Malawi National Park, one of the world’s underwater parks that is significantly connected to evolution and the Chongoni Rock Art painting that date back to both the hunter-gatherer Stone and Iron Ages.

The country has submitted to UNESCO a tentative list of five other sites she considers to be cultural or natural heritage of outstanding universal value and suitable for inscription on World Heritage List.

The five are; Mulanje Mountain Biosphere Reserve, Nyika National Park, Khulubvi and Mbona Sacred Rain Shrines, Malawi Slave Routes and Dr. David Livingstone’s Trail, Lake Chilwa Wetland and Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve.

Charles Mkula is a journalist who has worked for a number of newspapers and magazines in Malawi since 1998. He has also worked as a communications officer for the Secondary Centres Development Programme (SCDP), an urban development programme in Malawi set up with support from the German KfW to support urban development. Since his entry into the development field, Charles has been passionate about advancing rural and urban development in Malawi.