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Malawi reading list

18 December 2011

"Storage space at the Malawi National Library Services" by Book Aid International shared via cc license from Flickr

Someone told me earlier this week that she was headed to Malawi and asked if I had any recommendations for pre-departure reading. I also have a former undergraduate student headed to the warm heart of Africa in just a matter of weeks. It seemed a perfect opportunity to make a first draft and solicit recommendations from Malawians and other friends and colleagues who have spent time in Malawi.

For cultural and political history, I suggest first to read Vail and White’s chapter, “Tribalism in the Political History of Malawi,” available free online. See also Politics and Christianity in Malawi, and any work you can get your hands on by J. Clyde Mitchell. On the transition to multiparty politics, see Kaspin’s article “The Politics of Ethnicity in Malawi’s Democratic Transition” and Posner’s note about the first multiparty elections.

On government and governance, see Patel and Svasand’s edited volume Government and Politics in Malawi and the volume edited by Harri Englund, A democracy of chameleons. For an up-to-date analysis, see Diana Cammack’s Malawi’s political settlement in crisis, 2011.

I am often asked for recommended reading on HIV/AIDS in Malawi. There is a lot of work out there, but Susan Watkins’ “Navigating the AIDS Epidemic in Rural Malawi” and Amy Kaler’s “My Girlfriends Could Fill a Yanu-Yanu Bus” are solid, and a recent paper by Jenny Trinitapoli and Sara Yeatman, “Uncertainty and Fertility in a Generalized AIDS Epidemic” is a great, straightforward read. If you think condoms are the answer to the HIV problem, let Iddo Tavory and Ann Swidler convince you otherwise. For technical details of the country overall and information regarding health more broadly, download the latest report of the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (2010). I recommend going through the bibliographies of each for more.

For those with a focus on poverty/development/aid, I strongly recommend Harri Englund’s Prisoners of Freedom. Also useful–especially for the NGO types–is Swidler and Watkins’ “Teach a Man to Fish.” I have been recently impressed with the work done by Engineers Without Borders in Malawi and recommend Duncan McNicholl’s blog, Water Wellness.

I have read only two biographies about Malawians, but I’d recommend them both: Banda by Philip Short that documents the life of first president and former dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda; and Hero of the nation, which is an autobiography written by freedom fighter Henry Chipembere.

The best current information comes from Malawian bloggers. I recommend Boni Dulani, Steve Sharra, Jimmy Kainja, Kondwani Munthali, and Vince Kumwenda. The print dailies are The Nation and The Daily Times, and there is an online opposition news agency that posts frequently and has an RSS feed: Nyasa Times. You can also stream independent radio station Zodiak online. If you are on Twitter, I previously posted some tweeps to follow.

I always encourage folks headed to Malawi to try to learn the language. Of course, there’s not just one. For the national language, Chichewa, this site has some resources, but I also recommend trying to locate the book Tiyeni! (available in bookstores in Lilongwe and Blantyre) and a copy of the Chichewa-English/English-Chichewa dictionary. There is less on Chitumbuka and Chiyao and the other languages spoken in Malawi.

This list is partial perhaps even omitting important topics and authors. I’m hopeful haba na haba readers will chime in with their own suggestions. Also, if you have a particular topic you’d like to know more about, ask in the comments and I will try to respond (or seek guidance from others).

Relatedly, I would like to point readers to Chris Blattman’s more general Africa reading list (parts one and two).

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 December 2011 12:43 am

    Thanks for the post link to my site at! I would add to your list, from my own Africa reading list posted at, the following:

    If you are actually based in Malawi and in the Blantyre area, be sure to visit the Society of Malawi library. A great collection of materials there that will be sure to please. See for more details. They publish a fantastic journal, as well as a number of other publications, for those interested in historical matters that I would highly recommend.

    Kachere Press is a great place to start browsing. Widely available within Malawi and also their books can be purchased outside of the country through a sharing agreement they have with Oxford I believe.

    Other recommended reading:

    “History of Malawi From the Earliest Times to the Year 1915”, D. D. Phiri (a present-day journalist who is well spoken and probably one of the better thinkers of the day)

    “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba.

    “Malawi’s Muslims: A Historical Perspective”, David Bone (ed)

    “Venture to the Interior”, by Laurens van der Post detailing his account of exploring Mulanje Massif

    “AIDS in Africa: How Did It Ever Happen?”, Frank Ham

    “Can You Tell Me Why I Went to War?” by Mario Kolke detailing the story of one Malawian from the lakeshore who served in the African Kings Rifles

    “Cape Maclear”, P A Cole-King

    “Mangochi – The Mountain the People and the Fort”, P A Cole-King for those interested in the history of the slave trade and the end of it in Malawi. I have also uploaded an article I published at

    “Wisdom of the Yawo People” by Ian Dicks for those interested in Yawo culture. See for more information.

  2. 19 December 2011 7:29 am

    Cammack’s `Drivers of Change’ is pretty essential

  3. Jason Kerwin permalink
    19 December 2011 2:42 pm

    This is a great resource. I would add “Malawi: An Atlas of Social Statistics” by Todd Benson and IFPRI []. It’s somewhat out of date but it’s basically just tons of great maps of census data, really great for getting a sense of the broad geographic outlines of the country. I’d love to see an update, especially if they mapped out changes over time.

  4. Rachel permalink
    23 December 2011 7:11 am

    Maybe not core texts, but interesting nonetheless:

    Jack Mapanje’s memoirs “And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night” (2011)

    The anthropologist Harri Englund (mentioned in the post) has recently published “Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio” (2011)

    Lisa Gilman “The Dance of Politics: Gender, Performance, and Democratization in Malawi” (2009)

    Samson Kambalu’s coming-of-age memoir “The Jive Talker: An Artist’s Genesis” (2008)

    Brian Morris “The Power of Animals: An Ethnography” (2000)

  5. 8 January 2012 10:50 pm

    John Lloyd Lwanda’s “Kamuzu Banda of Malawi” is a good book for historical context. All the others I’d recommend have been mentioned already.

  6. byuttagi permalink
    18 May 2012 9:05 am

    Zikomo kwambiri!

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