Skip to content
Key findings
  • Malawians overwhelmingly (85%) say they trust their relatives “somewhat” or “a lot,” and most also express trust in their neighbours (66%) and fellow citizens (65%). Slimmer majorities say they trust people from other religions (57%) and other ethnic groups (52%), and only 47% express trust in “other people you know.”
  • Most Malawians express tolerant attitudes toward people of different religions (90%), ethnicities (90%), nationalities (80%), and political affiliations (77%). More than nine out of 10 (93%) they would like it or not mind if a member of their family married someone from a different ethnic group.
  • Malawians have a strong sense of national unity. Nine out of 10 (90%) say they “feel strong ties” with other Malawians, and 93% believe that other citizens “think of me as a Malawian just like them.”
  • Half (49%) of respondents say they feel equally attached to their Malawian and ethnic/cultural identities, while one-third (33%) feel “only Malawian” or more Malawian than ethnic. Only 16% say they value their ethnic identity more than their national identity.

Like most African countries, Malawi is a land of diversity. According to the 2018 Population and Housing Census, 34.4% of Malawians are Chewa, 18.9% are Lomwe, 13.3% are Yao, 10.4% are Ngoni, and 9.2% are Tumbuka. While about three-fourths of Malawians are Christians, Muslims and adherents of other religions make up a significant part of the population (National Statistical Office, 2019).

The country is divided into three administrative regions (Northern, Central, and Southern), and since the rebirth of multiparty democracy in 1994, political mobilisation and politicking have largely played out along regional lines. Some who think the Northern Region is neglected in terms of development have called for it to secede; others have urged a change from a unitary to a federal system of government for the nation (Moyo, 2015; Khamula, 2019).

The Tonse Alliance administration, which came to power in 2020 following disputed elections in 2019, has introduced a Ministry of Civic Education and National Unity, whose mandate is to “create a conducive environment for civic empowerment of citizens and promote sustainable peace and unity for national development” (Government of Malawi, 2020, p. 1).

Under the leadership of this ministry, the government recently declared the first-ever National Day of Unity and Dialogue (14 October), observed with events under the theme “Living Together in Unity, Building Peace” (Mlanjira, 2022). Eleven cultural heritage groups “performed their cultural dances while expressing commitment to continue preserving peace” (Kapalamula, 2022), but one of the country’s major ethnic/tribal groups, the Lomwe, and the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) boycotted the event, citing victimisation of their members by the government (Mtenje, 2022).

In light of the ongoing discourse on nation building and differences, this dispatch looks at the state of social cohesion and identities in the country based on citizens’ views collected by the 2022 Afrobarometer survey.

Survey findings show that most Malawians feel strongly connected with other citizens and express tolerance for differences in ethnicity, religion, political party, and nationality, though not in sexual orientation. Most value their identity as Malawians at least as highly as their ethnic or tribal identity. But a majority also say the government at times treats their ethnic group unfairly.

Joseph Chunga

Joseph J. Chunga is the national investigator for Malawi.

Mphatso Luwemba

Mphatso Luwemba is a monitoring and evaluation assistant at World Relief and served as an intern at the Centre for Social Research in Malawi.