Fossil evidence suggests Malawi's human history goes back a million years. Southern African Khoisan hunter-gatherers were the original inhabitants but by 1500 AD Malawi had been settled by migrating West African farmers and herders, leading to the rise of a great regional empire. Devastated by the 19th century slave trade, Malawi was colonised by the British following David Livingstone's explorations but Nyasaland, as Malawi was then known, remained a colonial backwater until independence in 1964.
One of the world's least developed countries, Malawi is heavily dependant on agriculture, accounting for a third of GDP and 90% of exports. The main agricultural exports are tobacco (over 60% of all exports), tea and sugar. Tourism plays a vital role in bringing foreign currency into Malawi.
A relatively small country with well over 15 million people, Malawi has one of the highest population densities in Africa. It's an overwhelmingly rural society - nearly 90% of Malawians live in the countryside and are involved in subsistence farming - and a religious one too: 80% of Malawians are Christian with a further 13% claiming adherence to Islam.
It's also a country that has long been associated with friendliness and hospitality - not for nothing is Malawi known as The Warm Heart of Africa - but travellers should bear in mind that it is also a deeply conservative country with manners and modesty highly prized.
English is the official language and widely spoken though the dominant local language is Chichewa, spoken by nearly 60% of the population. Music and dance dominate Malawian culture - many traditional ceremonies and festivals still occur throughout the country - and there is a rich tradition of basketry and mask carving.
Occupying a fifth of the country, Malawi's environment is dominated by Lake Malawi, a Rift Valley lake that forms Malawi's eastern border with Mozambique and Tanzania. Home to the world's greatest number of lake-dwelling fish species, this freshwater lake with its sandy beaches and deserted islands is the mainstay of the country's economy and tourist industry. Much of the rest of Malawi is farmed but there are also several high forested or grassy plateaus, mountain ranges and extensive wetlands.
Despite its small size and high population density, 20% of Malawi is protected land. The remote Nyika Plateau offers visitors a wide range of antelope species, elephant, leopard and buffalo while both Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve are now official Big 5 destinations.
Malawi wildlife highlights include diving and snorkelling in Lake Malawi National Park; boat safaris on the Shire River at Liwonde; hiking and mountain biking at Nyika; and with a staggering 645 recorded species, bird watching anywhere!