Laws and local etiquette in Malawi

Since 1969, Malawi has operated under two parallel court systems; the first based on the legal system prevalent in the United Kingdom, the second based on traditional African courts. The latter were authourized by the President to try all types of criminal cases and to impose the death penalty. The President was also permitted to deny the right of appeal to the High Court against sentences passed by the traditional courts, a right formerly guaranteed by the constitution.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. This important provision is respected in practice. Defendants have the right to public trial, to an attorney, to challenge evidence and witnesses, and to appeal.

In Malawi, although the sense of personal space differs from place to place based on tribal and religious influences, people tend to speak to each other at close range; an arm's length is considered appropriate. Personal space tends to be smaller for members of the same gender and greater for members of opposite genders. It is common for men to touch each other when speaking and, two men may walk hand-in-hand in public. Two women may do likewise. Such contact is considered a sign of friendship or closeness and has no implication on sexual preference.

Despite these open attitudes to physical closeness, as in most of sub-Saharan Africa, in Malawi homosexuality is a taboo subject. As of 2010, homosexuality is also illegal. In a recent case, a couple perceived as homosexual were convicted and sentenced to the maximum 14 years in gaol with hard labour. They were freed, two weeks later following the personal intervention of United Nations General Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Despite active pursuit of gender equality over several decades, as in most parts of the world, gender inequality is a fact of life in Malawi. Women, are not considered equal to men; whether in the villages, where they do the bulk of the work in the home and fields, or in the cities, where they are employed or work in the home.

In Malawi, it is considered unbecoming for women to show their knees in public. It is unacceptable for women to drink or smoke. Generally, men don't wear shorts and women don't wear trousers. Although dress is more casual in urban environments, foreigners are advised to dress more formally than they might be accustomed to. An October 2008 travel brochure notes:

Under the rule of Dr Banda there were numerous restrictions in place, however these days these have been relaxed. Ladies may wear trousers and men may have long hair! At the lakeshore resorts beach wear is allowed, however when visiting rural areas it is advisable to cover up so as not to cause offense. The country is fairly conservative.

Foreign women should be careful how they present themselves. In the villages, women who drink and smoke and reveal their knees in public are considered prostitutes. Although most local men will make allowances based on the fact that foreign women come from a different culture, such behaviour may draw unwanted attention.

The importation of recreational drugs is illegal. Recreational drug use, including cannabis, is also illegal. Those convicted face stiff penalties including lengthy imprisonment in local gaols. Medication, may only be imported in its original packaging accompanied by a prescription or medical certificate.

It is illegal to import pornographic materials, counterfeit items, explosives, endangered species or any product thereof including ivory. Weapons and ammunition may be imported only when in possession of the requisite authorization.

In many parts of the world (including Australia), there are bans on photographing any building or site with security overtones. In Malawi, it is advisable to ask for permission before photographing public buildings or persons in uniform. Contrary to the advice one finds in many travel briefs, it is not illegal to photograph places of worship in Malawi.

A lot of misunderstandings date from the period of one-party rule under Malawi's first president Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. One of Banda's official residences was State House, a historic building dating from the period of British colonial rule. During his presidency, it was closed to the public and for obvious security reasons, any form of photography in the immediate vicinity was not permitted.

With regards to people, common courtesy dictates that before you photograph any person, you ask for permission. A current travel brief asks: How would you feel if someone stuck a camera in your face because you looked different?

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