Mallawi is a very special African country. Landlocked in the south-eastern part of the continent, it borders Lake Malawi (the third largest lake in Africa, and eighth in the world). The Great Rift Valley, a complex system of mountains, hills and valleys, runs through the country all the way from north to south, creating an amazing geography of temperate high grounds, humid and hot valleys and lush tropical forests. The climate is shaped by the lake and the mountains, with a hot and tropical south and a more temperate north.
Malawi was inhabited by gatherers and hunters from prehistoric times, but the first sign of civilization came around the 10th century, when the first Bantus arrived during their migrations from the sub-Saharan regions all the way to current South Africa. Some of the Bantus settled around Lake Malawi and created a complex society of tribes united by common ancestors. These tribes evolved into a kingdom that eventually controlled the area well into the 19th century, when explorer David Livingstone opened the way to British colonization and rule. The British never really colonized Malawi; they were too busy fighting wars all over the world to dedicate manpower and resources to this remote corner of Africa. Instead, they administered the country, limiting their control to the major cities and trading centers. The British stayed from the 1860’s until 1964, when Malawi became an independent country under the dictatorship of Dr. Banda. He was a British-educated doctor and during the 1950’s he started a movement which led to independence. During his rule, Banda established a huge personal financial empire, one which generated more than a third of Malawi’s GDP and employed 10% of the population during the 1970’s.
Due in part to international pressure, Banda’s rule ended in 1994 when a democratically-elected president stepped in. Only the South African government offered Banda sanctuary, where he died an old man. The democratization process helped Malawi improve the personal and social conditions of its people, but the practical reality is far from being cheerful. Malawi lacks a proper health care system and the education system has only just recently begun to produce skilled graduates. The country depends largely on foreign aid to foster development, even if in recent years there have been signs of improvement in the local economy. HIV/AIDS is a real problem affecting between 20 and 30% of the active population and child mortality is one of the highest in Africa, reaching 50% in some of the poorest enclaves. Malaria and related illnesses are the number one causes of death in the country, making general life expectancy extremely low (averaging 44 years). On top of that, in recent years, many skilled Malawians have migrated to western countries looking for a better life.
Traveling through these growing areas and looking at the various large-scale operations, one can easily see that the plants are quite uniform and very similar to each other; a clear sign of a very long-established local landrace. One that has become known as Malawi Gold
But Malawi is also a very old agricultural society and the third largest producer of cannabis in Africa (after Morocco and South Africa). Most of the cannabis that grows in Malawi is in the northern part of the country, where the rugged terrain and the temperate climate ensure better conditions for the plants and safer movements for the people involved in its production and trade. Traveling through these growing areas and looking at the various large-scale operations, one can easily see that the plants are quite uniform and very similar to each other; a clear sign of a very long-established local landrace. One that has become known as Malawi Gold.
The history of the Malawi Gold is a very intriguing one. The genetics became famous in the 1970’s, when the first tourists traveling through Africa on overland trucks discovered the shores of Lake Malawi as a recreational destination. There were no resorts or hotels, just the great tropical lake to swim and dive, the forests and the mountains to hike and trail and lots of great weed to smoke while partying with the hospitable locals. The fame grew fast and more adventure-minded travelers started coming, but a real tourist industry did not start until the beginning of the third millennium, and it is still facing huge infrastructural problems. The southern shores of the lake are a very unique diving destination, attracting fishermen, eco tourists, scientists and, of course, many stoners looking for cheap beach holidays and great quality pot. But malaria and poor hygienic conditions continue to be a real problem for tourists and locals alike.
So, where does the Malawi Gold come from? Where did the landrace originate? These questions cannot be answered in sure terms. The truth blurs in the haze of time, in the mist of the African forests. What can be stated is that, at some point between the 10th and the 15th centuries, the local tribes started cultivating cannabis, as reported by Portuguese traders and soldiers during centuries of sporadic contact. The seeds must have come from the north, most probably all the way from central and southern Asia, traded by Arab merchants on their exploring trips into the African continent. Some of the seeds that reached Malawi in this long period of time might have also arrived from western Africa, after being brought there by the same Arab merchants.
When the British arrived near the huge lake, the Malawians were already cultivating cannabis and they were also using dried cannabis for its antiseptic properties. Until the 1930’s, cannabis was relatively out of the interest of the law, and only in 1961 was a law enacted to punish growers and smugglers. Since the 1970’s, the production of cannabis has kept increasing exponentially, following a high demand from Europe and North America, as well as from other African nations.
During the 1990’s the production increased even more, due to the arrival of trafficking organizations from Nigeria and other African countries that incremented the export and flow of the Malawi Gold to the international markets. More recently, at the end of the 1990’s, foreigners from South Africa and Europe started buying properties in the tourist destinations around Lake Malawi, creating a small but very lively backpacking and tourist industry. Most overland African tours nowadays include Malawi in their route. This maintains the popularity of Malawi cannabis while at the same time incrementing local tourist demand.
The common characteristics to all phenotypes are very well identifiable: tall plants with a long-fingered salvia leaf and non-overlapping leaflets; long buds, with small calyxes and a low calyx-to-leaf ratio; extremely dense resin coverage, with trichomes very close to each other and long stalks.
The Malawi Gold is a truly amazing landrace, one that evolved to adapt to local conditions over a much extended period of time. The amount of time spent adapting may also be one of the factors that allowed several genetics from various regions to blend into one landrace with similar characteristics and several phenotypes. The common characteristics to all phenotypes are very well identifiable: tall plants with a long-fingered salvia leaf and non-overlapping leaflets; long buds, with small calyxes and a low calyx-to-leaf ratio; extremely dense resin coverage, with trichomes very close to each other and long stalks. All these traits are now common, but maybe they just represent the middle point in between very different original ancestors. Nowadays, the Malawi Gold is a very stable and inbred landrace and the phenotype variations are related to aroma, taste and high more than anything else. Visiting several fields far apart from each other one can see back to the same two major phenos: the fruity one and the woody one. Plants with a more intense fruity aroma are slightly shorter and have a more developed branching. Plants with a more distinctive woody aroma tend to stretch slightly more and to have less branches. The difference in the flavor after combustion is even more pronounced, while the salvia aftertaste gives solid common ground to all phenos.
One of the biggest misunderstandings concerning cannabis from Malawi was created during the 1970’s and persists even today. While the strain is just one, there were two very distinctive types of cannabis from Malawi flooding the European and international markets: Malawi Gold and Malawi Black. This is simply due to the different methods for drying and curing the plants after harvesting them. In the case of the Malawi Gold, plants are cut and dried in full sunshine, then packed into cobs for transport (hence the famous Malawi cobs). In the case of the Malawi Black, the plants are cut and then only partially dried. When they are still a bit moist, the buds are roughly manicured and packed into the skin of a goat’s stomach, then buried in a certain type of soil. After 3-4 months the fermentation process has transformed the appearance and the cannabinoid profile of the weed. It has turned from green into a mix of shades of black and gray, and the smell is pungent, stale, with hints of ammonia. Not the most cosmetic of buds, but definitely a very psychedelic experience.