How Colonialism Fuelled Deadly Anti-Vampire Hysteria in Malawi

It's not the first time lingering skepticism of foreigners and local beliefs have produced panic over allegedly bloodsucking predators in the African country.

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Nov 2 2017, 10:45am

Villagers gather to learn about food preparation and the prevention of malnutrition and good hygiene in Ntcheu district last year. Image by Ric Francis via ZUMA Wire

Late this summer, rumors circulated in the south of Malawi, a small, landlocked country in east Africa, that the population was being stalked by anamapopa, a local term meaning "bloodsuckers" and often translated in English as " vampires." Anamapopa bear little resemblance to the vampires of Western lore—for starters, they're not undead or fanged. Instead, they're said to be humans who extract blood from prey using needles or foreign medical devices. They're also believed to employ magic and technology—chemical mists or electrical charges—to incapacitate victims before vanishing, possibly in a new animal form. And they're rumored to sell the blood at a profit, possibly for use in satanic rituals.

Stories like this have long circulated in Malawi and other nearby nations where belief in vast conspiracies and supernatural forces remain strong—and the legacy of Western colonialism is especially stark. But they have, at least in recent years, tended to fizzle out quickly, or else been limited to fringe thought.

So far, in Malawi, this time has been different.



In mid-September, anxieties over the "vampire" problem surged when vigilantes set up roadblocks and formed mobs to root out the perceived threat. Since then, locals fixated on the situation have reportedly murdered at least nine people, with the two latest fatalities reported on October 19. Adam Ashford, a University of Michigan researcher who has worked in Malawi on and off for some time and is currently on the ground in the affected region, suggested there may be more unreported victims still out there. Vigilantes have reportedly destroyed the property of a number of local officials and public employees, and at least once this fall, the US advised against nonessential travel to the region. On October 9, the UN pulled out some of its own staff.

Despite arrests that have swept up more than 200 vigilantes, as of last week, there were still new accounts of beatings, if no new reports of death, connected to the scare. Meanwhile, on October 19, vigilante violence broke out in communities in neighboring Mozambique, where similar rumors had reportedly spread for some time.

"The bloodsucker rumors are in full swing," Ashford told me via email, describing a recent visit to a rural school in Malawi where children, usually interested in foreigners, fled at the sight of him. He noted that a colleague's car was stoned by a mob, and said his driver's son has a friend who claimed to be a vampiric victim himself.

Outsiders often explain this violence away, when they try to explain it at all, by suggesting Malawi or Mozambique are just superstitious places. Local police sometimes say the saga is the work of thieves looking to exploit chaos. Political leaders have suggested their rivals are spreading rumors and stoking violence to discredit them. But why would constant superstition, thieves' whispers, or political bullshit accelerate into mass violence at this particular moment?

According to Tim Allen, an expert at the London School of Economics who has written on violence related to vampire stories in Uganda, large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa share broad and ancient—if shifting—beliefs in witchcraft and blood's esoteric powers. Vampire tales proper seem to be a recent permutation on these beliefs. While Witches are traditionally described as insiders manipulating their neighbors' lives, vampires are seen as outsiders who would steal from a community.

Unsurprisingly, these themes gained currency in Africa about a century ago, at the height of European colonialism. Their specifics vary greatly, but such stories reflect lingering anxiety "about extraction and harm and uncertainty that is sometimes extremely powerful and sometimes not even mentioned," according to Luise White, a University of Florida historian who wrote the book on them.

"In colonial Zambia in the 1930, Africans claimed their blood was taken and their bodies left for dead to make cough drops for Europeans," she told me. "Can you think of a better description of the exploitation for luxuries for white people? In post-colonial East and Central Africa, there were many stories that blood was sold to this or that country in exchange for weapons. Farfetched, but a good way to talk about how far a repressive regime would go to control its own population."

At times, according to Allen, these stories, vampire- or witchcraft-related, are "benign, and help people make sense of their lives." But during periods of intense stress—think rapid social change or famines—they can act as a lightning rod for rage, leading to what Allen and some other experts call " witch-cleansings."

This isn't an African issue, however, Allen stressed. Witch-cleansings have occurred in the United States, and not just in the 1600s, in Salem. In the 1980s Satanic Panic, fear of social change seems to have primed many Americans to buy tales of demonic rituals in daycares, destroying the lives of innocent people along the way.

Today, large chunks of Africa remain rife with political upheaval, social dislocation, and unfathomable food security and wealth gaps. Politicians and religious leaders have, at least in the recent past, stoked vampire rumors for their own benefit. But this time, social media may be helping such ideas proliferate faster than ever before. And in many of the most violence-prone areas, authorities are thin on the ground to contain outbreaks.

Malawi, Ashford pointed out, is one of the poorest nations in the world, and relies heavily on Western aid. "Coupled with the conviction that no one gives something for nothing," he said, that "leads many to conclude that the sale of blood might well underpin the wealth coming into the country from whites." It may also explain for locals how political elites and businessmen accumulate so much wealth, while the rest of the nation remains so poor. Pentecostal preaching has taken off of late as well, Ashford said, with spiritual leaders encouraging fear of Satanic rituals. And few trust the government.

"It's a reflection of the way the country looks at things, and make sense of tensions and economic pressures," Chiwoza Bandawe, a psychologist at the University of Malawi in Blantyre, recently told Radio France Internationale regarding vampiric rumors in the nation.

Vampire stories crop up almost every year, Ashford noted, often when farmers wait for rain with little else to do. "People have time on their hands and are deeply anxious about the growing season," he said. If the rains come, the rumors fade, he added. But when they do not, starvation can ensue, and food insecurity turns to crisis, rumors flip to violence, and mobs target whites, the wealthy, and state officials.

"This year, people have harvested, but they are going through hardships because the prices of farm produce are very low," Sangwani Tembo, an anthropologist, explained at a conference at the Catholic University of Malawi late last week.

"In recent decades, there have been three major outbreaks" of violence, Ashford said. The first, in 2002, appeared to be connected to a couple of deaths and gained some international attention. It also may have sparked paranoia that led farmers to avoid going out to tend fields, exacerbating a famine. The second hit from 2007 to 2008, but never caught on with the media. Ashford thinks the scale depends on how local chiefs, the most important figures in many insecure communities, handle the scare: Do they join mobs and contain violence from within or oppose them and risk losing control?

Meanwhile, the government's response to this violence may only be exacerbating it. Police are out in numbers, enforcing curfews, and state officials are denying or trying to logically disprove magical beliefs, or even accusing those acting on rumors of being unpatriotic or uncivilized.

"The best way to encourage conspiracy theories is to tell people they are wrong or stupid," Allen told me.

"The rumors are also predicated upon a profound distrust of political authority," added Ashford. "This makes it impossible for the government, the police, medical authorities, or anyone else connected with the modern state to do anything other than make matters worse."

Allen and Ashford agree a broad response by local religious leaders could help curb this violence. They are not a part of the modern state structure in Malawi and locals often seek their help in resisting vampiric dangers, offering them some credibility to help address the issue. There've been some signs religious leaders will do just that; at the same conference Tembo appeared at last week, Father Dominic Kazingatchire of the Catholic University of Malawi called upon his colleagues to "dig deep… to pump sense into the public over this issue." But it is unclear if this will translate into broad action. Without that, it's hard to know if this latest stretch without (at least reported) deaths is a sign of easing panic or just a lull.

And even when this spate of violence fades, belief in vampires and the satanic transformation of blood into inequality will likely persist in Malawi, lingering and ready to explode again. The only way to address it is to address the context that gives rise to vampire stories, which can come and go within any given culture. As Allen put it, that means "increasing economic and social well-being for those who experience poverty and deprivation in the context of the growing wealth of others."

Unfortunately, that's not something those forming mobs over vampire fears in Malawi in recent weeks have much control over.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.

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