When rumours of ’blood suckers’ and the life-sucking impact of poverty collide

When rumours of 'blood suckers' and the life-sucking impact of poverty collide

The people who are accused of being vampires or witches in Malawi tend to be the most marginalised: widowed women, the elderly (particularly older women), the disabled and, increasingly, children.

(Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development )

Life hasn’t been the same for Stephan Sazuze since last September, when an angry mob destroyed his home and most of his property in Chimwaza, a village in Mulanje, southern Malawi. His crime? Stephan was accused of harbouring ’vampires’ that were purportedly terrorising the area in search of blood for ritual purposes.

In mid-September 2017, rumours of blood sucking spread from across the border in nearby Mozambique to Malawi. Despite statements from the police and the Society of Medical Doctors dispelling the deadly rumours as a hoax, fear fuelled by social media spread across villages and towns in southern Malawi, resulting in at least nine people being killed by vigilantes. Scores more were injured and over 200 people have been arrested for the attacks on those accused of being anamapopa, or ’blood suckers’.

While last year’s flare-up garnered international media coverage after humanitarian workers for the United Nations and other NGOs pulled out of the districts affected by the murders, attacks on people accused of being vampires and witches are not uncommon in Malawi.

The reasons are numerous and complex. Belief in witchcraft is deep-rooted and widespread in Malawi, most notably in the south of the country, as it is in elsewhere on the continent. The accused usually come from the most marginalised sections of society: widows, the elderly (particularly older women), the disabled and, increasingly, children.

But even foreign NGO workers, particularly health workers that take blood samples, have been accused of being vampires. Additionally, throughout parts of southern and eastern Africa people living with albinism are extremely vulnerable to ritual killings as some people believe that potions made from their body parts bring good luck and wealth.

Anything from mental health issues to the sudden break-up of a relationship to financial difficulties and even prosperity can be attributed to witchcraft. Those accused face ostracisation, verbal and physical abuse, banishment from their homes and, in the most extreme cases, murder.

In January 2016, for example, four senior citizens from Chimbalanga village near Neno were brutally murdered by a mob that allegedly included some of their relatives. They were accused of conducting ’man-made lightning’ to kill their 17-year-old granddaughter, Flora Kanjete.

Underlying all of this is poverty. A small country with a relatively large population of 18 million, Malawi ranks 170th out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index with the United Nations Development Program estimating that 50.7 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Education is also a massive challenge. According to statistics cited by UNICEF, 21.6 per cent of six to 29-year-olds have never attended school, while those in public schools have to manage a teacher to pupil ratio of 1:92.

"Anyone who is doing well in business is assumed to be involved in Satanism or some form of the occult," says Sazuze, a 48-year-old cross-border trader.

He says that low educational standards and limited exposure to modern technology in some parts of rural Malawi also contribute to the problem. "I know of someone who was killed simply because he was carrying a smart phone, a power bank [mobile battery charger] and a [reusable] water bottle as he was jogging in the morning," Sazuze claims.

Long history of rumours

According to Malawian anthropologists Anthony Mtuta and Sangwani Tembo, who were quoted in an article published by African Arguments last November, there is a long history of belief in bloodletting in Malawi:

"In 1948 to 1949, the country experienced [a terrible] famine. People believed that blood suckers were moving about in cars and vans at night. The onslaught only ceased after cars were burnt and a curfew imposed by the village chiefs."

It is worth bearing in mind that the ’blood suckers’ here are not of the Dracula variety. Instead of fangs it is believed that they use needles, magic and sometimes unspecified technology to steal people’s blood.

This blood is then purportedly sold or used in satanic rituals. Despite the Society of Medical Doctors saying there is no "clinical evidence to support any of the many claims to date" - an assertion supported by the Deputy Inspector General of the Malawi Police Service Duncan Mwapasa when asked for evidence of vampire attacks by Equal Times - this does nothing to sway those who believe otherwise.

Paramount Chief Ngolongoliwa of the Lhomwe people says that even as far back as the 1920s, people feared attacks by the anamopopa, particularly during the summer months.

"Usually these vampire rumours start at the beginning of summer and they end at the start of the rainy season. The common explanation is that it is easy for the vampires to attack their victims in the hot season because their blood circulation is very high," says Ngolongoliwa.

Another traditional ruler, Chief Mangasanja of Milanje district in Niassa province, Mozambique echoed Ngolongoliwa’s sentiments. He says his people have always believed that there are people who use human blood to obtain power and wealth.

But he says that he also understands why people, particularly those who are more educated and more aligned to European belief systems, might struggle to accept what for many rural people is the everyday reality of the supernatural.

"It is usually difficult for learned people who believe in scientific evidence over everything to believe in magic," says Mangasanja.

However, Michael Goba Chipeta, honorary secretary of the Malawi Law Society, urges traditional leaders to exercise caution in the way that they discuss witchcraft as it is the spreading of rumours that usually ends up causing so much terror and violence.

"It is difficult to make a fair assertion on wherever the vampire allegations are real in a society like Malawi where the laws do not accept the existence of witchcraft," says Chipeta.

The country’s colonial-era Witchcraft Act offers a legal framework on the basis that witchcraft doesn’t exist. This stands in direct opposition with the many Malawians who believe that it does. As a result, there have been calls to reform the 1911 Witchcraft Act to prevent people from relying on traditional courts or mob rule to obtain ’justice’.

George Thindwa is the executive director of the Association of Secular Humanism in Malawi and an advocate for those accused of practicing witchcraft. He condemns the vigilante attacks on people accused of blood sucking or witchcraft, but also the economic conditions that produce such violence.

"It is unfortunate that because of poverty and illiteracy, people look at superstition as a way to escape from that poverty," says Thindwa. "What we have observed with the blood sucker allegations is that innocent people have been brutally murdered with no evidence," he says.

In an opinion piece for the Nyasa Times, Malawian law professor Edge Kanyongolo, asks the pertinent question: "…if witchcraft and magic are ’real’, as is believed by many Malawians, why do we not mobilise their potency to promote public interest goals, such as national development?"

For Dr Chioza Bandawe, a clinical psychologist at the Malawi College of Medicine, the cyclical outbreaks of hysteria over vampires serves as a metaphor for the life-draining, blood-sucking murderous impact of profound poverty. "It is hope of life being sucked out of people," he says.