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Malawi, “the warm heart of Africa” is a small country with a diverse eco-systems, beautiful scenery, a variety of wildlife and an interesting culture. Geographically the country is dominated by Lake Malawi, the third largest freshwater lake in Africa, a trough 360 miles long and 50 miles wide formed where the western arm of the Great Rift Valley cuts into southern Africa.

Major cities are the capital Lilongwe and the commercial center Blantyre. Most tourists head for Lake Malawi with its crystal clear waters surrounded by mountains has one of the greatest selections of freshwater fish in the world (between 600 and 1,000 species of which 350 are endemic). Scuba and snorkeling are excellent, there are good sandy beaches and many activities including water sports, nature walks and drives and visits to local villages. You can also go on a ferry and go to the north of the country and travel back by bus – a popular trip for the independent traveller.

Malawians follow a strict patriarchal society — men are afforded more respect than women, and older men are respected more than younger men. You might find, however, that a white person is afforded the most respect of all. A holdover from colonial times, this might make a traveler uncomfortable, but this is largely a Malawian’s way of being courteous. Accept their hospitality.

Malawians are a curious people. To a Western mindset, this might be interpreted as unnecessarily staring at you or talking about you in front of you. Be prepared to greeted by kids yelling mzungu, mzungu! and answer lots of questions about yourself.

Malawians love to shake hands, and you should oblige them. However, Malawian men often like to hold hands for the duration of a conversation. This should not be interpreted as anything sexual; they are merely trying to “connect” with you. If you feel uncomfortable, simply pull your hand away.

Culturally, women should not wear shorts or mini-skirts, especially as they travel away from Lilongwe. (Thighs, to Malawian men, are huge turn-ons.) Low-cut tops, however, while discouraged, are not nearly as provocative.

Finally, when meeting a Malawian — even to ask a question — you should always say hello and ask how they are. Properly greeting a Malawian is very important. They are uncomfortable with the Western notion of simply “getting to the point.”

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