Of Zambia’s 8 ( or 9) neighbors, no country has had more economic, religious, educational, political, and cultural influence over Zambian than Malawi. First Republican President Kaunda was born from parents who came from modern day Malawi. The current president of our Republic, Edgar Chagwa Lungu is believed to have sufficient Malawian connections as well. On or about 2015, the acting President of Zambia, Guy Lindsay Scott even instituted an investigation into the nationality of Dr. Lungu believing that he was a Malawian national. Of course, that investigation yielded nothing, because it really was not going to go anywhere. Zambia’s fourth president, Dr. Rupiah Banda, also has parentage descent from what was then Nyasaland. Beginning from presidency to copper mine labourers, the Malawian diaspora has left an indelible mark on Zambia.

And it continues to do so.

Malawian influence however, is not just unique to Zambia. Other Southern African countries do have a huge Malawian diaspora among its citizenry. People of Malawian descent can be found in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Tanzania among others. In fact, in Tanzania a leading politician is facing accusations that in spite of his Tanzanian citizenship he is in fact a Malawian. In Zimbabwe, there was a very well supported legend that President Robert Mugabe was himself, of Malawian parentage. There is no doubt that Malawians are the most travelled peoples in Southern Africa. They have spread to several Southern African countries more than any other nation has done.

In this article I wish to show reasons why Malawi remains so prominent.

According to historian Rotberg, Malawi’s clout hails from the quality of European missionaries that it received. Contrasted with the missionaries sent to Zambia, Rotberg states that those sent to Malawi were more educated than their Zambian counterparts. While Malawi received medical doctors, teachers and lawyers from the Church of Scotland, Zambia received characteristically charismatic evangelicals who took their evangelical mandate more seriously without social or community consciousness.

Several Zambian historians have shown that European styled education was first established in Western Province, but many years before that Malawi had already received her first schools. The missionaries influenced Malawians to the extent that the natives themselves started making the initiative to spread the gospel and education to their surrounding tribes. It was during one of these evangelistic pursuits, that a Malawian, named Reverend David Kaunda, moved from Livingstonia Mission in Malawi to Chinsali, Zambia where he started to preach the gospel to a people that had not yet believed. David Kaunda’s ministry among the Bemba became so successful that he established a church and a school there. In fact, David Kaunda even adopted Chinsali as his new home and put himself under a Bemba chief Nkula.

Reverend David Kaunda is significant for Zambia not only because he was father to Zambia’s first president Kenneth Kaunda, but also because he became a pioneering native evangelist. David Kaunda demonstrates that Christianity had been adopted by Africans as their own religion such that they did not see it as a white man’s religion but as their own religion. David Kaunda shows that in addition to those Europeans who brought the gospel, are Africans who equally should share in that history. Additionally, from David Kaunda we see a pioneer who started the Malawian influence over Zambia and over Southern Africa.

Malawi is also influential due to the fact that for some reason, during the colonial era, Malawi supplied easy labour for mines in Zambia, Congo DR and South Africa. Most of the Malawian men and women who travelled to other countries settled there and became a very influential part of the population. History does show that usually, populations that are used or exported to other countries as labourers become rulers of those countries with time and assimilation.

The world is always dominated by labourers. China is becoming a leading economy today not because of its scientific or technological innovation, but simply because of its labour. When the West went to China to make goods and exploit cheap labour they had very little understanding that labour is a major key to China’s economic development. No nation can prosper without labor. For Malawi, it provided labour to Southern Africa, and that labour has resulted in tremendous power and clout over Southern African affairs.

In pre-independence politics, especially during the debate over the Federation, some Bemba speaking politicians on the Copperbelt did not like the Federation because they were concerned that it would only lead to domination from the Nyasas. That was because the Nyasas where more educated and Europeans found them easier to work with.

After independence, Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda was a very shadowy figure to understand. For certainty, Banda never got along very well with Zambia’s Kaunda. As a person with doubtful Malawian credentials (there are stories that Dr. Kamuzu Banda spoke very little chiChewa) Banda knew that Kaunda as a man of Malawian descent could easily influence Malawian politics. Kamuzu Banda had to be shrewd and this ingenuity saw him align himself with apartheid South Africa. Alignment with South Africa meant first that he could get South African economic benefits and he could easily supply South Africa with an African black labour that would be politically less toxic in South Africa. Second, it emboldened and ostracised Malawians already in the diaspora who felt betrayed by Banda’s actions. These Malawian diaspora could include President Kenneth Kaunda himself and several influential figures in Zambia.

It is rather telling that in keeping with the adage that “blood is thicker than water” President Kaunda never stationed armies along the Malawian border. Instead of Malawi, Kaunda stationed more soldiers along the Congolese border. For Kaunda, the Congo was more “the other” than Malawi was. Kaunda is perhaps responsible for the marginalization of Zambians of Congolese origin—a tradition that Chiluba continued. After independence, Kapwepwe and several other politicians accused Kaunda of favouring Malawians over Zambians in political appointments.

For his part Kaunda had to reject Malawian citizenship only in the 1970s. This action would later haunt him, as Remmy Mushota used it to have the High Court declare Kenneth Kaunda as a stateless person. This High Court decision was indeed quite bizarre such that by the time it went to the Supreme Court, the parties settled the matter without the need for the Supreme Court to intervene, assuring a quick reversal of the high court’s finding. It was going to have serious repercussions for Zambians of Malawian descent who in fact may have included the judges of the very High Court itself.

Malawi’s influence can be derived from its geography as well. It is about five times smaller than Zambia and yet has a comparable population to Zambia. In 2020, Malawi is believed to have a population of about 18 million to Zambia’s 17 million people. This geography means that Malawian tribes are geographically closer to each other than is the case in Zambia. This geographical proximity means that tribal problems would not be as toxic as they would be in Zambia. Proximity also means that the people would have less tribal misunderstandings. For example, In Zambia the distance between Nakonde (a Namwanga-Mambwe area) and Mongu (a Lozi area) is 1500km whereas the distance between Karonga and Blantyre is only 800 kms. This though is not to say that Malawi does not have its own tribal problem. It does.

All else being equal a person can drive through Malawi from its furthest two points in a day, whereas that would be impossible to do in Zambia. The consequence of its size and its population means it is far much easier for Malawians to spread out looking for greener pastures outside their country, and once they cross the border, it is easier for these Malawian tribes to stay together. One study has even suggested that even if the Tumbukas and the Chewas seem to be rivals in Malawi, they become tribal allies in Zambia.

Chiluba’s citizenship policies dented Malawian diaspora influence temporarily. He deported John Chinula and William Takere Banda. He in fact, wanted to deport Kaunda himself. What saved Kaunda and eventually many other Zambians of Malawian origin was the Supreme Court. Such a deportation was going to destabilise Zambia. Malawian influence is too pervasive to be dispensed with in the manner Chiluba wanted.

Zambia cannot do without its influential section of Malawian origin. When Chiluba defeated Kaunda in 1991, some sections felt that a Malawian had been defeated. But in 2008, another Malawian story got written and State House welcomed another occupant who is truly a Zambian citizen of unquestionably Malawian heritage. In 2015, a Mr. Edgar Chagwa Lungu became President. But not before his predecessor (acting president Guy Scott), had investigated Lungu’s Malawian nationality. The “Made in Nyasaland” stamp over Zambia is here to stay. And the best thing Zambians can do is to embrace and respect the contribution of Malawi to the Zambian nation. Umodzi Kumhawa…and indeed in Malawi we trust.

Written by Elias Munshya, this article was originally published by Lusaka Times in 2011. The link is It is reproduced here with some updates. Elias Munshya maintains copyright of this work.

Elias Munshya – Pastor, Lawyer, Writer, Theologian, Psychotherapist


  1. Is it not surprising that Africans decry colonialism but tenaciously hold on to the borders that the very system they hate created? The artificial boundaries that separated the Nyika, Tumbuka, Ngoni, Chewa, Kunda, Toka, Tonga, Lozi, Lunda, Kaonde, Lamba, Ushi, Bemba, Lungu, Mambwe from their relatives by a line on a map are thought of as set in stone. What is the difference between the Lozi in Zambia and those in Angola but the 22 degree longitude east? Others are separated by a river or a watershed.

  2. This is really profound and educative in nature. Keep the spirit burning Council 👏👏👏👏

Leave a Reply