CAPE MACLEAR, Malawi — This thin sliver of a country is one of the most densely populated in Africa. Agriculture alone could not feed Malawi's 13 million people, so the fishing industry on Lake Malawi is essential.

The tropical waters of Lake Malawi (see map below) teem with more fish species than any other lake in the world, according to marine biologists. The lake is the ninth largest expanse of fresh water in the world and the third largest lake in Africa.

Lake Malawi is home to more than 1,000 species of fish, many of which aren't found anywhere else. Some of these fish, such as the brightly colored cichlids, have found their way through breeders and traders into America's fish tanks — Malawi is the largest provider of pet fish to the U.S. and European markets. Lake Malawi National Park, around the southern part of the lake, was created to help protect the freshwater cichlids.

It is an inland sea that supports millions of people from its clear, clean waters. The original name of the country may have come from the word muravi, which in the local Chewa language means sparkling water.

The people who live in the isolated communities by the lake shore make their living by traditional fishing. The lake is part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, which explains why it is so deep, with an average depth of more than 950 feet. Its deepest parts are more than 2,300 feet deep. The lake shares its eastern shore with the countries of Mozambique and Tanzania.

The explorer David Livingston is credited as the first European to discover the lake, but seven major tribes have lived on its shores for at least 500 years. Livingston ventured up the Zambezi River and climbed the Rift Valley escarpment 150 years ago in April. His exploration team rested underneath a small tree, where his followers later established a school. The tree is one of the few monuments that still stands in homage to the explorer. He chose the site of the first church in the country in the city of Blantyre, which bears the name of his hometown in Scotland.

Away from the lake, Malawi is a land of towering mountains and heavy storms. The rainy season lasts from December to April and for six months of the year the land is green and fertile. The people raise cattle and farm corn, the country's staple.


View Larger Map

More GlobalPost dispatches by Jeffrey Barbee:

Reviving Mozambique's Gorongosa Park 

Malawi clinic is a life saver for rural poor 

Related Stories