Malawi cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
A discussion regarding where one hails from is often a good start followed by a brief on one’s family. A discussion regarding one’s nature of work is usually of interest to Malawians. Steer away from matters relating to sex as that subject is still considered taboo. You would be ill advised to discuss homosexuality, as that is considered the worst form of sexual depravity. Humour is fine, provided it is not seen as poking fun at indigenous Malawians, as there is still an underlying feeling that westerners think lowly of Africans. Perhaps more than anything else, showing genuine warmth toward the person will make a positive impression. Malawians smile from the heart and not just the face!
Malawians are generally very talkative people, but sometimes they don’t say a lot. Despite the appearance of openness and friendliness (all the Malawians I’ve ever known, like to laugh), many people in Malawi, even western-educated bureaucrats and NGO-types ( non-governmental organisation), can be guarded and suspicious. This is a throw back from the old (ex-president) Banda and Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP) era. Things have changed quickly since 1994, but it is still a good idea to take the time to get to know people first before talking about sensitive political issues or asking delicate questions about issues like HIV/AIDS and traditional beliefs. In the meantime, talk about families is always appropriate, but be prepared because it is not uncommon for someone to say that a close relative has recently passed away. A simple "sorry, sorry" will do, but it is also OK to ask if it was a sudden accident or an illness. Most Malawian men are always willing to talk about football, so that’s a good place to start and find something in common. Asking people what part of Malawi they are from, or where their home is, is also OK. Everyone seems to have a pretty good sense of humour and they seem to appreciate efforts to your efforts to adapt to a new place.
Keep a respectable distance: at the very least an arm’s length when talking to a person of your sex. In the case of member of the opposite sex, it may be advisable to make it at least one and half arms length. It is considered bad form for men to stand too close to women. Malawians often don’t make eye contact when talking. This is more so with the less educated. People with more education make more eye contact. Do not touch someone unless you have become very familiar with him or her. Gestures and facial expressions may be used.
Using a moderated (not aggressive) voice will earn you points as it puts Malawians at ease. A voice can be loud but not sound aggressive or intimidating. So, when a supervisor, for example, is not too pleased with a subordinate, it would be best for him to maintain a "moderated" tone in the voice than to unleash rage and rave at the subordinate. I do understand that many people tend to raise their voices when upset. A Malawian subordinate will tend to withdraw into himself much more if he receives a tongue-lashing from a foreign supervisor than from a Malawian supervisor. That basically is because many Malawians do not understand the culture of many foreigners. That misunderstanding tends to increase as one goes further down the organisation hierarchy to the shopfloor employees/staff. Therefore, to get more out of the lower level staff, tact and control are key, otherwise subordinates will hold back.
Many people in Malawi do not keep eye contact for long periods of time and it is still quite common to talk to someone who is looking off into the distance or not holding your gaze... don’t try to hold their gaze; just relax and keep the conversation going. They are listening. Touching people is common: men often hold hands, walk arm in arm or hold the handshake for what seems like a long period of time. When it starts getting uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to pull your hand away.
Chichewa is a tonal vocabulary. You’ll notice this immediately, even when you begin to use the word Zikomo. It’s pronounced differently for ’Thank-you" and for "excuse-me". You will hear many different tones from people when they say "E" or "Eiii" or "EyaY" "Oh" or "Ohhh" or "oooohhh". Pay attention to the sounds and the content of the discussion and you’ll soon learn what the differences are between the surprise "Ohs", the sad "Ohhhs", and the sympathetic but perplexed "Ohhhs".
My basic rule when talking to strangers in Malawi is to "triangulate". Always ask the same question three different ways. Getting a straight answer from people is sometimes quite difficult—they really don’t want to disappoint you and they’ll try and tell you what they think you want to hear. This can be frustrating at times, so be patient. The distinctions between "now", "just now" and "now-now" are a good example. Learning the nuances are important. The same is true with the answer that starts with "No Problem..." and is quickly followed by "It’s only that..."; for example, "No problem, it`s only that there’s no petrol". Always be patient and follow-up the train of thought. You’ll get the hang of it soon enough.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are common but usually restricted to things like firm and long lasting handshakes. Women tend to be more vociferous and will quite often hug a long missed lady friend but not a man. Hugging of the opposite sex is not a typical Malawian trait. Most are very uncomfortable to be hugged. Public anger, while it may occur, is quite rare and does not sit well with people. Displays of public emotions such as loss of a relation through death is common and people often wail publicly at funerals.
Men and women do not show affection in the daylight hours (at night in clubs or at the bottle stores, but not in the day). If you see people arguing and yelling at each other this is a big deal. Malawians are generally taught to agree in public and not to contradict or disagree with each other. Relationships are very important and people are loathe to say anything that could jeopardize either the immediate or network of relationships implied in the situation. People are very status oriented. Older people, leaders or senior employees are not readily challenged by junior people. Grief and sadness are often displayed in public. But generally, Malawians are very philosophical about death or bad fortune and talk about it in a straightforward way. Many Malawians are very religious and make frequent mention of God.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Presentation is very important in Malawi. Office employees are expected to dress up formally in a shirt and tie. For ladies, modest business clothes are expected. Business suits would be perfect especially when attending meetings. Jeans are not acceptable in the office environment. Male colleagues are to be addressed as Mr or Mrs or Miss as the case maybe until such time that a close relationship has been formed. It is safer to ask if you can call a colleague by their first name.
Lateness can be a problem particularly for colleagues who use public transport. However, punctuality is still expected of everyone. You have to push for the achievement of deadlines, as people tend to feel that deadlines can be pushed back.
There is a growing problem of absenteeism in the workplace basically due to the AIDS pandemic, as people have to attend funerals that have become all too frequent. With the extended family concept intrinsic in Malawian culture, employees find themselves having to attend funerals of close relations as well as distant relations. They will also attend funerals of friend’s relations. That is a cultural expectation. Furthermore, funerals are fairly elaborate affairs and employees could therefore be away for an afternoon. They may even be absent two days or more, if, for instance the burial of a close relation is to take place in a village hundreds of kilometres away. This is a problem that the Malawian business sector is facing but there is no easy solution as culture still has a lot of influence on the Malawian way of life, even in urban centres. Generally, however, Malawians are a hard working productive lot.
Malawians dress very well, though increasingly, more casual. If you are attending training workshops, the first day is dressy (suits and ties) the second day is no-tie, but jacket, the third day is casual. It’s always good to refer to your seniors as Mr. or Mrs. , especially in public or in the workplace context. At work, people generally come in on time; they will often come and go a lot because they have so many other obligations. Remember, many people are juggling a lot of different ’wages’ at the same time, the wages being at least as important, if not more, as getting a job done.
Also, be prepared for the complex political economy of ’workshops’. A workshop can be anything from a very formal three or four day long skills training course, a policy development workshop, an internal strategic planning event or just a basic talk with community leaders at the village level. Typically people will require a per-diem or some type of sitting allowance at any organized event, related to work, or to community development activities. This is both a crucial income supplementing activity and a way for managers to curry favour and maintain power in the workplace. Canadians may find the workshop culture very frustrating as it can have a significant impact on productivity and absenteeism. Also, people are doing other important things that are not related to work, such as looking after relatives, running second businesses, farming, going to the bank, getting repairs done, attending funerals, trying to find other work etc. Don’t count on deadlines being met as you would in Canada; don’t be afraid to try though.
Preferred managerial qualities
Education is most highly regarded in a local manager/supervisor. Being personable is however also of great importance. Lack thereof could actually nullify any advantages attributed to a sound education. That does not change if the manager is a non-local. In fact, it is even more important for a non-local to make known to the locals his educational credentials to avoid the perception that the non local was favoured over a more qualified local. When staff begin to open up to you, it means they feel you are worth their trust and that you deserve to be where you are.
Malawian resumes, even for top-management jobs always start with the village they are from, the primary school they went to, their religion and the number of children they have. Relationships are very, very, very important. Seniority is highly prized and has great status. Innovation and initiative is not always rewarded because it has downstream affects on other people that can lead to new expectations and responsibilities.
Accountability is not a very prized concept. My sense is that expat staff members are often considered a necessary evil. They do lots of work and sort out the internal arguments without getting too involved in local politics. It is not uncommon for colleagues to comment that whereas Malawians may not be as trustworthy in the workplace, "it is good to have an azungu manager, we can trust you". This kind of attitude can also be very frustrating. At the same time, you will also find that your colleagues will tell you one thing, agree with you, and then go and do something completely different. This is usually because they didn’t want to disagree with you and disappoint you and, because the other solution probably had a better social and political dividend. There’s a saying I’ve heard in Malawi. It goes something like this: "the one thing that you know about an azungu, is that they’ll always go home...". You will never really know how you are viewed by your colleagues. Until you leave, that is, and find out what kind of party they throw you... If you go back and forth and maintain your relationships, the dynamic changes and matures. This is the most satisfying thing for me. As I return every year, my relationships evolve into friendships and I grow even closer to a strange country that I still know very little about.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Many decisions in the work place are made by supervisors and managers. However, other decisions are made in committee meetings. Policy decisions are taken by the Board of Directors of the organization. In the majority of organizations the management style is still top-down. Supervisors sometimes do throw the ball back to subordinates to solicit suggestions about handling specific issues. That, I must say is not the norm. It is acceptable to approach your immediate supervisor to seek answers or feedback. Bypassing a supervisor is strongly discouraged, as the fall-out tends to be extremely damaging.
Like anywhere, it is not cool to go over people’s heads. Inevitably, you will be faced with the decision, especially if you are very goal-oriented or frustrated by process. Decisions are often generated through consensus, around the table, but then the manager does what he or she sees fit. The rational solution that is best for the organization may be secondary to what’s best for the manager or his close inner circle of colleagues. New ideas are often slow to come forward. Analysis, and the resources needed to conduct analysis often appear to be in short supply. But, I really think that this is a cultural thing, and the culture of analysis is just different from what we expect or relate too. Change is slow in Malawi.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Women are generally considered inferior to men basically in all aspects of life. This notion is coming under severe attack from women’s organizations.
Religion is a dominant aspect of Malawian life. Anyone who professes lack of affiliation to a religion is viewed with a little consternation. Even those who do not regularly attend meetings of their religion nevertheless profess to be members of some faith or other. The predominant religion is Christianity.
Malawi has no class system. People generally find themselves in certain informal classes by virtue of their achievements through wealth or education.
People are very conscious of their ethnic origins and this sometimes becomes apparent when candidates are being considered for a job vacancy. However, various ethnic groups live side by side very amicably.
The status of women is still very poor. Domestic violence is very common, but not often talked about. Men often do very little and expect women to work the double day. Men have more free time and leisure time. Women have limited access to productive assets. They are also particularly vulnerable to contracting AIDS given social customs of marrying them to older men.
Gender issues and sexism at the workplace are sources of constant aggravation and frustration.
Many Malawian’s are Born Again Christians; others just go to church. Syncretism exists in both rural and urban areas.
Not a big issue; the word is seldom used outside of academia and the old-school of Marxist political economy... remember, even Malawi’s tiny elite are only one generation removed from the village. This is not an exaggeration. It is, however, an issue for the white expats who are third-generation estate people.
This is still a big issue. Where you are from and what tribe you are, are important issues. Alliances in the workplace are formed on the basis of ethnicity and this is quite openly discussed and joked about. For example, you may hear, "Ngoni people are the warriors"; everyone else is seen as passive.
It is important because that tends to build trust. One should show an interest in the person outside the work environment. One method is to find out and know a little more about the person’s family, his home village, what church he attends. An interest in such personal details will draw the person closer. Caveat, it should not be like an inquisition. It is more effective if you reciprocate with your own personal details.
It’s important of course, but Malawians also know that azungus do things their own way. I am sure that every azungu is the butt of lots of inside jokes among their Malawian colleagues. Relationship building takes time. Work on it every day by taking the time to stop and say hello in the morning, discussing events in the papers etc. Joining people at the local spots for lunch and eating nsima (a kind of porridge made from mais that is very popular) are good icebreakers. Most Malawians do not expect you to go out with them and socialize after work; partly because of the expense and the lack of transport. It is logistically difficult and no one expects to be ferried around by the azungu with the car.
Privileges and favouritism
Colleagues with whom you have a good personal relationship may try to obtain special privileges. One of the most commonly sought privileges is the employment of a relative. Because of the extended family phenomenon, Malawians will often try to help their relatives in this regard.
Nepotism is standard. Hiring friends is standard, whether it be for full-time jobs or contracts. You might not know a staff person and a recruit are related until much later or find out by accident. Don’t be surprised if close colleagues or people you have just met (even senior people with good jobs and status) ask you for large personal loans or ask if you can organize their immigration to Canada. This does happen. It is not unheard of to sponsor a family or pay for someone’s school fees and uniforms, but this must be handled discreetly, on a case by case basis, and depending on your relationship.
Conflicts in the workplace
When you have a problem with a colleague, you confront the colleague in private and try to straighten it out. However, often times you have to be a little more alert to sense that a colleague has an issue with you as Malawians generally are averse to confrontations.
Privately is best. A third party can arbitrate if things get really bad, but try and settle things-one-on-one and in a quiet way. Getting colleagues to speak openly if they are having a problem with you is difficult. Listen to what’s happening around the office—talk to your drivers, they know everything.
Motivating local colleagues
Malawians are still motivated by money to perform well on the job because wage rates are still very low. Other benefits such as medicals and housing also rank highly as motivators.
Depends; a combination of job satisfaction, commitment, money, loyalty, good working conditions, fear of failure—or none of the above. Definitely, money and security are big concerns. Good working conditions, benefits, access to vehicles and extra income in workshops are all important. People’s expectations of the employers are immense and ’strikes’ or work stoppages are common when expectations are not met; employees often accuse their employers of trying to take advantage of them. Sometimes it’s true.
Recommended books, films & foods
See the answers below.
Here are a few internet links: http://www.malawi.com/; http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/mi.html; http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/africa/malawi/; http://www.africaguide.com/country/malawi/index.htm
Moni magazine and daily newspapers. Check also with Central Bookshop (Blantyre) and Times Bookshop (Blantyre & Lilongwe) and Dzuka Publishing.
Zakwathu program on TV Malawi.
Places to visit
Museum of Malawi (Chichiri, Blantyre), Lake Malawi, Game Parks. Ask a Malawian colleague to take you to village.
Food to eat
Nsima (corn-meal) with relish. This is the staple food. Dark leafy green vegetables with peanut flour (nkhwani), nzimbe (sugar-cane), guavas and papayas.
Attend local cultural shows such as those performed by the Kwacha Cultural Troupe and drama shows at the French Cultural Centre (Blantyre). Attend soccer games at Civo Stadium (Lilongwe) and MDC Stadium and Chichiri Stadium (Blantyre). The French Cultural Centre has some useful information on Malawi. Visit Ku Chawe Inn on Zomba Plateau and sample some Malawian Cuisine. Attend a wedding and funerals.
There are numerous local poets and short-story writers that get their stuff published through the church presses. Read both major papers every morning. Far as I know there isn’t a Malawian cinema tradition. TV is brand new—the ads are quite funny. In the major urban centres there are a handful of expat-style restaurants, but in rural areas, chicken and chips is as azungu as it gets. Locally prepared meals are readily available and you’ll notice that the quality of nsima varies widely.
Football matches at Chichiri are a must. Mua Mission is a good day trip from Lilongwe. If you’re looking for local dancers, drama and song, you’ve got to look hard, go to the right places at the right time of year (ie. Gule Wamkulu). Once you’ve got to know them better, talk to your colleagues about the differences between the north and the south—this is still a big issue.
John Chilembwe (early 1900s) is a national hero. He is the first Malawian to challenge colonial authority and demand self rule. Kamuzu Banda (late 1950s to late 1990s) fought for Malawi’s (Nyasaland’s) independence and became Malawi’s first post independence president. Some Malawians might argue. On the sporting scene, Kinna Phiri and Barnett Gondwe (1970’s to 1980’s) are arguably the greatest sporting heroes. They helped Malawi win the East & Central Africa Senior Challenge Soccer Cup in 1978. Malawi beat Zambia 3 goals to 2.
Banda has taken on mythic proportions. Despite all the criticism, people still love him, or at least, respect him. Vera Chirwa continued to fight for democracy and civil liberties, even after her husband was murdered. Chilembwe led a rebellion back in the 30s and he’s a good story. Contemporary political figures are held in high esteem—by their supporters, reviled by people on the other side of the political landscape. Soccer players and musicians are well known. Peter Mponda plays in Ottawa (imagine that); Mtawali in the South African team RSA; Lucious Banda is a vocal and outspoken lyricist with a big-time band. People still love Bob Marley. If you are blonde and have a moustache, don’t be surprised to have kids yell out "Chuck Norris" while they strike their favourite karate pose.
Shared historical events with Canada
There are no shared historical events between Malawi and Canada.
No, not really. Canadians have been around over the years. Lots of volunteer teachers. Some technical assistance with the railways, both past and present. Some scientists have been poking at fish for a while now up at Salima and Chipoka and Father Boucher at Mua Mission is well known.
Malawians have no stereotypes of a harmful nature against Canadians. This follows from the previous question. Many Malawians do not know much about Canada and have no reason to have any animosity against Canadians.
Maybe that there does not appear to be a readily, easily identifiable culture. Yet, if one waits it out for a while, listens hard and watches carefully, the "real-Malawi" starts to reveal itself. Stereotypes are a danger because they begin to emerge out of frustration and cynicism. The workshop culture and BSB (benefit-seeking-behaviour) can cause real friction between you and your colleagues. Be on guard against snap judgements and think about what you’d do in similar circumstances.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Malawi, the fourth of six children. After 12 years in Zimbabwe, he moved back to Malawi with his family at the age of 16. In 1978, he graduated with a diploma in Business Studies from the University of Malawi and later earned a Bachelor of Commerce (Accts) degree from the same university. He then spent two years studying in the United Kingdom where he qualified as a Chartered Management Accountant. In 1999, he immigrated to Canada. He is currently living in Ottawa and works full time as an Accounts Representative while working towards certification as a CGA. He lives with his wife and has no children.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Winnipeg, and spent five of his first twelve years moving back and forth between the frozen prairie and exotic locations in east, west and southern Africa—including Malawi. After two years in Malawi working with a small local NGO, he left to continue his studies, which then took him back to Malawi where he conducted extensive field research. Today, your cultural interpreter is the Manager of the Program Support Unit at CPAR (Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief), where he doubles as the Malawi Program Officer. Currently he resides in Toronto with his wife.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.