Sunday, May 11, 2008


The new anniversary blend from Peet's Coffee, which I bought a few days ago, includes beans from Malawi as a key ingredient. I realized as the barista was grinding them for me, that this is yet another place I've bluffed my way through life about. I would like to just say I really have no idea, in case I guess too badly, but as this is supposed to be a confession of sorts, I'll posit my guesses. I have kind of assumed that this was an African nation, but as I think about it, my confidence wavers. Is it actually an island between Africa and the Middle East? Is it a South Pacific Island? Okay, I give up--just what the hell is it?

Okay it is in Africa. Whew! But it's a tiny sliver in the southeast, not in the northeast where I had mentally placed it. It is surrounded on three sides by Mozambique, which I feel that I could have confidently placed in Africa, though where would have been hazy. It used to be called Nyasaland, which doesn't shed much further light for me. It is sadly one of the world's least developed countries, with most of the country living through subsistence agriculture. (We must hope that Peet's paid those farmers a generous price for their beans!) There seem to be different theories about where the name comes from but one at least is that it derives from the Maravi Kingdom, which flourished there between the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth century.

There is a familiar name that comes up in relation to Malawi: David Livingston. (He of "Doctor Livingston, I presume" fame.) He visited Lake Nyasa, as Lake Malawi was then called, in 1859, and called attention to the effects of the slave trade there: warfare between opposing tribes had led many people to be sold to the Arab and Swahili traders on the Indian Coast. As with so much of the world, the British Empire ended up in control of the area for a time. It became a British protectorate in 1891, and was referred to as Nyasaland from 1907 to 1964. Malawi is its name since independence in 1964. I was somewhat surprised, given its poverty, that it is a multiparty democracy under the constitution of 1995, and that it has a popularly elected president, whose term runs for five years. Its hold on such democracy has recently been shaky--let's hope it keeps a firm grip in the coming years.

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