Malawi: First Thoughts

To understand any place, you have to leave it. It’s only with a comparative perspective that you recognize the significance of things you take for granted on the one hand, or the things you lament daily on the other. That’s how I’ve felt, anyway, during this past year of working on my dissertation, based in Uganda and working briefly in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and now, Malawi.

I flew into Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe yesterday afternoon. From Kampala it’s a short trip, feeling much like the journey from San Francisco to Chicago, and making intra-continental travel seem easier than it normally does.

There are no immigration forms to fill upon arrival in Lilongwe (at least the day I arrived), but they do check for your Yellow Fever card. How did Yellow Fever, a relatively uncommon disease, become the single most common (only?) vaccination required worldwide? I was thankful I had remembered my aptly colored yellow Yellow Fever card, but others who didn’t have one seemed to get through just fine. While the card is ostensibly a requirement in lots of countries, apart from Malawi I can only ever remember being checked in Nigeria.

At the immigration counter, I was not asked what I would be doing in Malawi, or how long I would be staying. There were no forms to fill out, no visa fees to pay. My fingers were scanned, photo taken, and off I went. I bought a SIM card at the airport, no registration required, and got cash from the ATM. The road from Kamuzu to Lilongwe was practically deserted; a few homes dotted the otherwise empty roadside. The road was smooth, the air hot, the ground dry. I wasn’t sure we had arrived in Lilongwe proper until I started to recognize the names of lodges I had seen in guidebooks. By contrast, coming from Entebbe you may think you’ve reached Kampala, only to find yourself snaking slowly through the city limits an hour later.

The quiet and winding streets of the Lilongwe, lined with trees, remind me of Kigali, as does the relative absence of people. While Kampala, Lagos, Nairobi, and Accra are churning, bustling, and often overwhelming, Lilongwe has a distinctly understated presence.

Uganda’s economy is nearly five times the size of Malawi, Kenya and Ghana about twice that of Uganda, and Nigeria far bigger than all four combined. The largest bill you can get in Malawi $2.50, Uganda, $20, Kenya $11, Nigeria $6, Ghana $23. As you can see, there is no relationship between bill and economy size (or GDP per capita, for that matter), which makes spending and taking out money much easier in Uganda and Ghana than in Malawi or Nigeria. In both Nigeria and Malawi (yes, with my limited experience of one day in the latter),  ATMs appear to be frequently running out of money, and sometimes with very long queues. I’m no economist, but something about tiny bills seems very inefficient. Is there an upside? Any work on the politics of moneymaking, literally?

Finally, although I generally dislike the tradition (requirement?) of adorning the walls of every establishment with presidents’ photos, it is a welcome change to see — for once if not for long — a woman in the frame.

That’s all for today. More comparative musings soon.

Update: Relatedly, though I don’t fully agree: “Africa? Why there’s no such place” h/t to my partner in crime.

Tracking violence in Nigeria


On Tuesday, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states, Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Raids by the Nigerian army have started in Borno, targeting Boko Haram. Boko Haram has killed over 1000 people since launching their insurgency in 2009, but as the figure above shows, the Nigerian army has been complicit in many killings as well. The Council on Foreign Relations has a security tracker for Nigeria with more information here.

Africa: The Devout Continent?

Published online May 1, 2012.

Between the Berlin Conference in 1884 and the beginning of the 21st century, something extraordinary happened. In the course of just over a hundred years, nearly the whole of sub-Saharan Africa adopted Christianity or Islam. The mapmakers who gave birth to today’s African states were mortal, but the legacy of religion they left behind would fundamentally alter people’s core beliefs about life and the afterlife.

In the year 1900 around 9% of the African population was Christian, and 14% Muslim. Today, nine out of every ten people identify either as Christian (57%) or Muslim (29%). Soon there will be more Christians living in Africa than in Europe. By 2030, there will be more Muslims living in Nigeria than in Egypt, and more Nigerian Muslims than Iraqi and Afghani Muslims combined. Much of the religious conversion occurred during the colonial period, but nearly half of the growth of Islam and Christianity took place after independence.

It is difficult to make many generalizations about the effect of new religious beliefs on politics and society over the past century because there is great diversity in the religious make-up of countries. Countries like Somalia and Mauritania are 99% Muslim while others, like Cape Verde and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are almost entirely Christian. Some countries are predominantly Muslim but have sizable Christian minorities, like Chad (56% Muslim, 35% Christian), while others are predominantly Christian with large Muslim minorities, like Ghana (64% Christian, 20% Muslim).

Even two countries with the same percentage of Christians are unlikely to look very similar. Countries like Rwanda are predominantly Catholic, while others, like Liberia, are largely Protestant. In Nigeria there is a strong Pentecostal following, in South Africa African Independent Churches are very common, and Uganda has a large percentage of Anglicans.

Despite these differences, there are broad trends to note. On the whole both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa are very devout. In a survey of 19 African countries, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa”, found that 80% or more of the survey respondents of all faiths said that religion was “very important” in their lives. This is a much higher percentage than most populations living in Europe or even Latin America. Perhaps ironically, the importance of religion among Africa’s former colonizers (and from where most missionaries came) is quite low – only 24% of Italian respondents, 23% of Spanish respondents, 19% of British respondents and 13% of French respondents said that religion was a very important part of their lives.

Both Christians and Muslims also attend religious services very regularly. In most countries, 70% or more of Christian respondents and 80% or more of Muslim respondents said they attended services at least once a week. The vast majority of respondents across countries say they pray at least once a day. Most Christian respondents reported fasting during Lent, and almost all Muslim respondents (85-100%) reported fasting during Ramadan.

Perhaps most surprisingly, there is huge support among both Christians and Muslims for biblical or sharia law to be the “official law of the land”. More than half of all Christian respondents in countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Botswana, Liberia, and Guinea Bissau favored making the Bible the official law, while more than 50% of Muslim respondents from Mali to Mozambique favored making sharia law official. Most Christians and Muslims in countries surveyed also said the Bible and Koran, respectively, were the literal word of God.

Thus, while there are many differences in the make-up of religious organizations and practices across countries, there are also many similarities. Most notably, the importance of religion and the conception of religious texts as absolute and literal truth, truth that should guide the organization of politics and society, are widespread. While the spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa has occurred in a relatively short period of time, these faiths and their teachings have dramatically changed people’s everyday lives and beliefs.

To what extent have religious beliefs translated into government policy? In countries evenly split between Christians and Muslims, like Nigeria or Eritrea, or in countries with large Christian or Muslim minorities, can we expect to see religious conflict in the coming years?

There are not clear answers to these questions, but there is a paradox emerging in many countries – people favor politicians and policies of particular faiths while at the same time ascribing to freedom of religion. They believe that religious texts should inform if not dictate laws governing a country, but promote religious tolerance. The separation of the church and state is not usually written into formal laws, but faith nonetheless finds its way into political behavior and policymaking.

It is impossible to predict whether religious conflict will emerge, and often ethnicity is thought to be more divisive than religion, but there are some findings to warrant concern. Perhaps most disturbingly, a substantial percentage of respondents across countries agreed that violence could be justified in defense of one’s religion. For example, 55% of Christian respondents in Guinea Bissau and 37% in Botswana agreed with a statement saying, “using arms and violence against civilians in defense of their religion is justified”. 58% of Muslims in DRC and 37% of Muslims in Kenya also agreed with this statement.

People of all faiths also expressed concern over both Christian and Muslim extremist groups in their country. Many also cited religious conflict as a “very big” national problem.

Christianity and Islam are still growing and spreading in Africa, and the long-term effects of religious conversion and organization on politics and society are only beginning to become apparent. Resolving the devout-secular paradox will likely have implications for governance and conflict in the coming years.

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