Sunday, 7 August 2016

The other half of Zomba

When we lived in Uganda, we became aware that many of the well-established towns had, in fact, been built by the Asian community, places like Jinja, Lira, Soroti and Kasese. Even though the original population had been expelled during the Amin years, they were still recognisably Indian towns with collonaded shopping streets and often with the previous owners' names still inscribed on their frontages. Some of the Asian families had returned and had built up their businesses from scratch again. They managed tea and sugar plantations and once more were prominent members of the business community

There are fewer such towns in Malawi. As in Uganda, many of the businesses are Asian owned, for example, the hotels and engineering and electronics businesses; however, the commercial centres from which they operate no longer retain their distinctly Indian architecture. The new Chinese and Korean businesses operate from behind bland facades.

Indians moved into Malawi during the nineteenth century, mostly from Gujarat and mostly Muslim by faith, The British believed in the movement of labour between their various colonies and so the Indians came to help build the railway from Malawi to Mozambique. They also started up the commercial businesses and small shops for which they are well known.

Before Independence, society in Malawi was clearly stratified, with different ethnic groups living in different locations. In the previous post I wrote about the pleasant leafy residential areas where the British officials and their families lived. Their African subjects and servants would have lived outside the town in traditional villages, though sometimes also occupying 'boys' quarters' at the bottom of their employers' gardens, a system which still pertained in South Africa during the apartheid era. The Asians, however, were the dominant presence in the commercial centre, a couple of kilometres away from the colonial quarter.

The only town in Malawi where these social and economic divisions are obvious to the casual visitor, is Zomba. Despite being the old capital of Nyasaland, as Malawi used to be called, Zomba was really quite small and the differences between the main community areas easily observed. The commercial centre, though quite limited, follows the traditional grid system. Broad streets are lined with individually owned workshops and retail premises.

You may be able to make out the curved shapes of the facades, with the typical pillars shading the walkways. Decorative panels sometimes adorn the frontage.

Some of the shops will still be owned by Asian families, particularly the fabric, household goods and clothing shops and, nowadays, those selling and mending IT equipment. Pharmacies, opticians and dentists are also quite often Asian owned. Food and fresh produce are more likely to be sold by the local African population for they are the people who grow it.

One of the attractions of Zomba is its market, a crowded area of small shops separated by a maze of winding walkways. Here are stalls with mounds of spices, fruit and vegetable stalls, pots and pans and clothing 'emporia'. Here the shopkeeper is demonstrating the fineness of the cornmeal.

And at the heart of this small commercial hub sits the mosque, a lovely little building, though getting a bit tired now.


These days, tarmac roads run through the centre of Zomba, but in many respects the superficial appearance of the town has not changed that much over fifty years despite some tree-felling.

And that is Zomba. Back up the road now to Annie's Lodge and tomorrow we'll be off elsewhere.

You may also be interested in the following post:

Following the Scots to Zomba 

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