Culture is a very complicated thing and is often described as an iceberg, the things that you see on the surface (especially as a visitor) are often just a tiny snapshot into that culture and there is a lot more happening that you don’t see based on shared history, religion, tradition, upbringing etc.
Just like with any country, the culture of Malawi will be experienced in different ways by everyone.
What we have done, however, is to try and put together some information, history and tips that might be of interest to you with regards to the culture of Malawi.
The following are some tips that may help you during your stay in Malawi:
- For the most part Malawians are very quiet and reserved people. They are extremely courteous to tourists and very respectful of their elders. They are very friendly towards visitors and would understand if you didn’t observe any cultural norms because you are a visitor.
- Do not be surprised to see people of the same sex holding hands. This is a sign of close friendship and is quite common. Men: a Malawian man will probably hold your hand at some point – it’s a warm gesture of love and respect and it should be embraced!
- Malawians do not usually hug when greeting each other, it is important to shake someone’s hand instead. In rural areas or when talking to someone important, such as a village chief, you might see someone bow and/or hold the elbow of their right arm with their left hand when shaking hands.
- If you bump into someone say “I’m sorry.” (pepani) instead of “excuse me” which might imply that you are telling them to get out of your way.
- Do not refuse a gift when offered to you even though you might think it is not necessary or that they cannot afford it. To refuse a gift would be considered rude. It says what they’re offering is not important, and denies them the joy of giving.
- You will be offered food and/or drinks almost every time you are in a Malawian’s home. Try to eat whatever is offered wherever possible as this is a sign of respect. If you do not wish to eat their food, or if you simply are not hungry, it is customary to give excuses why you can’t eat, rather than to simply say you do not want to eat so try to explain that you have just eaten.
- Greet everyone before speaking to them — this is very important. Ask everyone, “Muli bwanji” or “How are you?” before doing business with them or telling them something. Never be in too much of a hurry to tell someone, “good morning” and make sure you greet everyone in the group.
- Most Malawians do not mind your taking their picture, but it is polite to ask their permission first. Some will ask for money, but please never give anyone money for taking their picture. It is advisable to just move on to another subject.
- Women should wear clothes that do not show or emphasis the thighs (cleavage/bare arms are not seen as inappropriate, it is just thighs). If you are working in rural areas it is advised to wear skirts that are well below the knee rather than trousers. Alternatively you could buy a chitenje (Malawian fabric) and wrap it around your waist to create a long skirt that will cover your thighs.
- English is the official working language in Malawi. Chichewa is spoken across the Central and Southern Region, and Chitumbuka in the North. However there are also several other tribal languages spoken across Malawi.
Each year the SMP runs Language and Culture Workshop for its members. If you are interested please get in touch to be the first to hear when they are scheduled.
These workshops are particularly useful if you’re traveling to Malawi for the first time, however, anyone is welcome to attend.