Recently I have become a bit obsessed with beautiful Africa, humankind’s original home. I know a few things about the natural history of Africa (which, after all, plays a critical role in the dance of the continents and the history of plant and animal life), but Africa’s human history—particularly recently—is sadly opaque to me. To make up for my ignorance, I am going on a blog journey across Africa from east to west.
Of course I could never afford to go on a real African journey, so we are doing this symbolically—specifically through national flags, which change with the frequency of streetlights in Africa’s um, dynamic political landscape. We already began our journey in the Indian Ocean on the microcontinent of Madagascar. We then traveled across the Malagasy strait to Mozambique, which features one of the craziest flags in the world. Today we push on west into the Great Rift Valley which runs down across Africa from Syria to central Mozambique and is slowly ripping the continent into two pieces (which geologists have named the Somali and the Nubian tectonic plates). As the plates are pushed apart, the area between them sinks down and fills up with water. Someday the entire fissure will become a great shallow sea, but at present it is a series of spectacular lakes including Lake Malawi (pictured in the two images above).
A millennium ago, various hunter-gathering peoples inhabited the plains to the west of Lake Malawi, but, in the 10th and 11th centuries AD, a great migration of farming Bantu peoples filled up these fertile lands. Great kingdoms burgeoned and fell. Then, in the early modern era, the entire area fell prey to horrors: the rapacious Portuguese appeared along the coast, and, worse, the Swahili-Arab slave trade captured people and funneled them north to Somalia, Turkey, and the Gulf kingdoms. In 1891, the British annexed Malawi after the frequently misplaced explorer, David Livingston, reported that it would be a fine site for European style farming (Livingston was also a devout Christian who despised slavery, so he may have also been dreaming of helping the African inhabitants of Malawi with his suggestion). Malawi gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 as part of a great wave of African independence, but sadly the nation fell immediately beneath the thumb of a totalitarian dictator, Hastings Banda, who clung to power until 1994.
Today Malawi is one of the most densely populated yet economically underdeveloped nations in the world. Livingston was right—the land is a great location for farming (and fish are available from Lake Malawi) yet there are few mineral resources, and the country is landlocked. People can survive, but not necessarily get ahead. The problem is compounded because the friendly and goodhearted people of Malawi are quick to offer sanctuary to refugees from nearby wars, political crackdowns, and disasters. Malawi has comparatively good relations with the great western democracies who have offered it great hunks of financial aid (with the usual terms and interests). The little nation is also friendly with rising China–and indeed the Chinese are rushing there to find new markets and set up shop (and are also welcomed with surprising good grace).
Oh, right, I was going to talk about the flag of Malawi. The first flag of Malawi was adopted in 1964 when Malawi gained independence from Great Britain. This flag (above) was a tricolor of black, red, and green modeled after the famous pan-African flag (which in turn was designed in New York in the 1920s as a high-minded response to a racist song). Unfortunately, the Pan-African flag has seen some low moments and has frequently been associated with extremist political movements or wrapped around tinpot dictators throughout Africa’s turbulent recent history (particularly by Libya, which harbored (harbors?) dreams of a Libya-led unified Africa).
The Malawi flag of 1964 placed the black bar at the top of the flag and set a red rising sun within it to celebrate the dawn of a new great era. In 2012, the president of Malawi Bingu wa Mutharika, decided that the original flag did not clearly represent Malawi and he pushed forward a new flag, which was a red, black, and green flag (with a white sun within the central black bar). The white sun was meant to represent economic progress (in lieu of actual economic progress, of which there was little). The citizens of Malawi regarded this as an irrelevant and egoistic maneuver by the president and they derisively labeled the new flag as Bingu’s flag. In 2012, after Bingu’s death, the parliament voted to re-adopt the old flag which is now restored to its official standing. All of this has caused dismay to model UN clubs and atlas publishers everywhere: it is unclear whether the pettifogging changes back and forth have done anything to help the likable yet impoverished citizens of Malawi.