Malawi Helpful Travel Information
Malawi is often referred to as the ‘Warm heart of Africa’, referring to the friendliness of the people. Established in 1891, the British protectorate of Nyasaland became the independant nations of Malawi in 1964.
Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa, runs along most of its eastern border. Activities range from diving to snorkelling to kayaking to backpacker-friendly beach huts to the glamorous five-star resorts.
However, in Malawi’s deep south are the peaks of Mt. Mulanje, that have breathtaking streams, waterfalls and walking trails. When you head up north you can hike through the grasslands of the Nyika Plateau, and the safari’s in their national parks and reserves are not to shabby either.
Cultural and Language Considerations
Malawi’s people are its greatest asset – friendly, welcoming, colourful and vibrant. It is impossible to visit and not become engaged with the people, but there are now opportunities to spend time in real villages (including staying overnight) for the first-hand experience of the cultures, traditions and daily life.
Malawi has both patriarchal and matriarchal ethnicities and cultures. In the cities, men tend to be more respected than woman, but the reverse might be true in the rural villages depending on ethnicities.
Malawians, especially those from the very rural areas where they don’t see many white people, can be quite curious upon their meeting with white travellers. Be prepared to be greeted by kids shouting ‘mzungu, mzungu!’ and to answer lots of questions about yourself.
Malawians are generally very courteous, and a part of that courtesy is shaking hands, speaking softly, and referring to travellers and others with respect. Malawians avoid rudeness.
Culturally, woman should not wear shorts or mini-skirts, especially when traveling outside the lodge or camp. It is considered provocative and rude. Many female visitors wear wraps that are available in the stores and markets of the major cities. These are generally made of bright, coloured patterns. Men in the cities tend to wear slacks and not shorts, as shorts are generally worn by school-age children, so when a man wears shorts it can be viewed upon with a smile by Malawians.
The official languages of Malawi are English and Chichewa. English is widely spoken in urban areas and by the well-educated upper class, though outside of that a few words in Chichewa will go a long way. Muli bwanji means ‘how are you’.
Tumbuka is the first language for many people in the north of the country and Chiyao is spoken by the Yao people who live mostly in the Southern District of the country. Malawi has over a dozen indigenous ethnic groupls, each with its own distinct language.
Getting around – transport systems and fuel stations
Malawi’s largest international airport is in Lilongwe, although there are also some flights from Blantyre to regional destinations. Most travellers connect via Johannesburg (South Africa), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) or Nairobi (Kenya). There are also smaller carriers operating between Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Blantyre, and Karonga.
Travelling by car, the main road (M1) runs from the northern border (Kaporo) thorugh Karonga, Mzuzu, Lilongwe and finally to Mchinji and is in excellent condition. There is also an equally well maintained road from Lilongwe to Mchinji on the Zambian border.
Bus routes are also quite well laid out, however ensure that you know where you are going and that you travel with a reputable service. Luxury busses, medium-sized busses, and mini busses all service the country and they vary in comfort and price.
Taxis are also available in any city, whether they are licensed or not. Be prepared to negotiate prices as quoted prices to tourists are generally two to three times higher the actual rate.
Hitchhiking is also common on Malawi, although a lot of vehicles only travel South at most times.
Travelling by boat is surely the most enjoyable mode of getting around in Malawi. The Ilala ferry rund north from Monkey Bay to Chilumba, and back southboand on the same route.
Currencies and ways to pay
The local currency is the Malawi Kwacha (MK). The currency is freely convertible but impossible to get rid of outside of the country. Forex will also be accepted by almost everybody, particularly for larger purchases.
Credit car acceptance is spotty but improving. Visa and Mastercard are accepted by larger hotels, including some ATM’s, but you can leave Amex or anything else at home. ATM’s are becoming more common and can be used at many banks in major cities, though most notably, VISA is the card of choice and many times the only option.
Travellers cheques can be changed in banks, forex bureaus and some high-end hotels. The number of hotels accepting payment by travellers cheques does however seems to be becoming less though.
Health, Safety And Emergency Information
Malawi is not known as a particularly dangerous travel destination for western foreigners and expatriates. Muggings and robberies have occurred in the larger cities, especially Lilongwe, as well as in some notorious places among the main tourist routes.
It is advisable to avoid walking alone at night and if you go out for the evening, make sure you know how you are going to get home. Carjackings happen occasionally so be sure to take the necessary safety precautions and try to avoid driving at night.
Please note that regrettably homosexuality is officially banned by the law, and gay couples should exercise discretion when travelling to Malawi.
As with its neighbouring countries malaria can be a problem. Malawi Lake is freshwater and is prone to bilharzia, especially in the Cape Maclear area. Symptoms of bilharzia can take months to surface so if you think you have been exposed to it you can get a very cheap pill from the local pharmacy that will kill it before it even shows its face. The HIV prevalence in the country is at 14% or 1 in 7 adults, so take the necessary precautions to protect yourself.
Embassies and high commissions contacts (www.lonelyplanet.com):
Germany – Tel 01-772555; Convention Drive, City Centre, Lilongwe
Mozambique – Tel 01-774100; Convention Drive, City Centre; Lilongwe
South Africa – Tel 01-773722; email@example.com; Kang’ombe Bldg, City Centre, Lilongwe
UK – Tel 01-772400; off Kenyatta Road, City Centre, Lilongwe
USA – Tel 01-773166; Convention Drive, city Centre, Lilongwe
Zambia – Tel 01-772590; Convention Drive, city Centre, Lilongwe
Satellite and Mobile Networks
You will find various internet cafes in the main towns such as Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu; however, most restaurants and hotels will have wi-fi connections available.
The mobile networks in Malawi are dependant on two major networks, and SIM cards are available at shops and street vendors.
Border and Entry Requirements
Most visitors from industrialized countries, including the United States, Canada, most European Union countries, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan do not require a visa to enter Malawi. A tourist visa lasts for 30 days, but be careful as they sometimes only write ‘7 days’ on your passport stamp upon arrival at the airport. A tourist visa can be renewed for an extra 30 days twice or for 60 days all at once at the immigration offices.
Others (especially some Central and Eastern Europeans) can get the visa only when arriving by air. If you however require a visa and try to enter by land, you can request a conditional entry permit to be issued by the border guards. They are usually willing to do so, but for a (negotiable) fee. With that permit in hand you must report to the Immigration HQ in Blantyre or Lilongwe within a period of time specified in the permit. There they will then (usually) issue you the proper visa for the official fee of 70 USD.
There is only one wet season that stretches from November to April, with warm and humid daytime conditions. October and November are the best times for game viewing, however, be warned that it can become very hot during these times.