BY Nii Ntreh, 1:00pm December 28, 2020,

How Malawi came to have its name

Lilongwe, capital of Malawi. Photo Credit: Sarah Amani via Twitter

The southeastern African country of Malawi did not become independent from British colonial rule until July 6, 1964, when the territory formerly known as Nyasaland became a republic in1966 under the presidency of Hastings Banda, a European-trained doctor working in Ghana.

Nyasaland was a name that was adopted in 1907 to refer to the new British territory immediately south of the Central Africa Protectorate. This land in particular was half of the so-called Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Rhodesia, divided into north and south, is now parts of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa, and it was named after the wealthy British colonizer, Cecil Rhodes. Nyasaland was called as such after the large lake that the natives called Nyasa (local word for lake).

The people of Nyasaland had comprised different ethnic groups although it was the style of British administrators to refer to this population as “natives”. The largest of them were and still are the Chewa, who make up more than one-third of every Malawian today.

The independence push was to begin soon after the British annexation of the territory in 1912 although the North Nyasa Native Association (NNNA) formed in that year only seemed to be concerned about securing the rights and sovereignty of northerners. The NNNA was the most prominent of a number of “native” associations, formed by formally educated Nyasalanders across regions, with quasi- to explicit independence ambitions.

But in 1944, the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) was formed in the spirit of the African National Congress (ANC) which had been fighting for Black South African independence from the beginning of the 20th century. NAC was the first Malawian political organization to speak to national sentiments.

NAC morphed into a political party after initially being suppressed in 1969 by the colonial government. This suppression seemed to have counteracted the British initiative and in 1960, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) was formed from NAC.

The party had chosen the name Malawi, from what the Chewa people called a 16th century empire in that part of of the continent. The empire had been founded by the Amaravi people and it was called Maravi, or Malawi, Chewa for ‘flames’. Drawing on the ancient name of a powerful empires was supposed to invigorate the national cause.

Led by Dr. Banda, the MCP won elections in 1961 and later independence in 1964. The constitution of 1964 made the MCP the only political party in the country which allowed Banda to be president until 1994.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 28, 2020


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