Understanding the “blood sucker” attacks in Malawi (Part 2)

26 Oct 2017
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We continue to be concerned at the evolving situation in Malawi, with recent reports of violence against perceived “blood suckers” spreading from Mulanje to Blantyre. 

There has not, to our knowledge, been any incident involving UK nationals but we encourage members to follow the FCO's advice and exercise extreme caution in the areas affected, especially after dark.  We especially encourage members to sign up to the FCO’s free email alerts.

We stand with the Government and President of Malawi in encouraging calm.

The SMP is in close contact with our sister network in Malawi, our members operating in these areas, the British High Commissioner and the FCO, as we continue to monitor the situation. 

If members have any specific concerns, or if there is anything we can do as a network to assist, please do not hesitate to contact the office.

We recognise that many from a western background will be nonplussed at the references to "vampires", “witches” and “blood suckers”.  The reporting has at times been sensationalist and unhelpful.

One of the SMP's 11 Partnership Principles, to which we hold ourselves accountable, is ‘Respect, Trust and Mutual Understanding’.  In accordance with this principle, we look to understand the cultural context that lies behind these recent attacks. 

Having last week published a guest blog by former SMP Fellow Dr Laurel Birch Kilgore (née Birch de Aguilar), this week we’re delighted to publish a guest blog by Dr John Lwanda PhD.  We hope these series of blogs will help offer useful cultural insight and interpretation for our members: a framework to help understand the situation.

Dr John Lwanda PhD is a social historian, social researcher and medical practitioner with a wide knowledge of Malawi culture, music and history. 


Vampires, victims and national hysteria

John Lwanda MB ChB. PhD

Let it be stated at the outset: we are not the only superstitious people on earth. The spirit of Santa Claus still haunts the most developed nations. And we are not the only ones who construct law and order out of a modern version of ‘superstition’. In developed countries the electronic ufiti eye of the street, office and home video camera has replaced the street human police; it is the near ultimate panopticon. In the old days we had different ways of maintaining order; remnants of this ‘law and order’ are still seen, particularly in rural areas. As I show below, the only problem is that our ancient and pre-colonial ‘law and order’ construct has broken down because of a number of reasons.

Unfortunately, both the pre-colonial and Dr Banda’s ‘Law and order, peace and calm’ constructs are broken, leaving a moral and ‘law and order vacuum’.

Malawi is very poor. Yet when you drive around Malawi, you see on the roadsides merchandise piled high. Stealing from roadsides is rare because of the taboos associated with that: many people believe that stolen goods turn into snakes by the time you get home.

Chiefs, very important people, live in rural areas; you won’t see police or motorcades protecting them. Order in Malawi was traditionally by consent reinforced via various taboos.

But their modern, sometimes despite their kukwima (fortification), politician colleagues try to have it both ways and also want motorcades and armed guards.

I have argued elsewhere that some of the remnants of these taboos, especially since colonial times are seen as aspects of ufiti (witchcraft).

But first what is ufiti?

Ufiti exists in a number of ways. Here we are concerned with three aspects.

One: Ufiti as reality: here ufiti is that malign activity or acts against other people. For example: poisoning someone’s food, drink or crop; damaging someone’s brakes so they have an accident; infecting someone with disease; killing someone for their body parts; killing Albino’s et cetera.

Two: Ufiti as an alibi or excuse: ‘anafa ndi ufiti’ (‘he died of witchcraft’ when in reality the person died of hunger or disease); ‘anamenyedwa ndi hamala (‘his stroke was due to ufiti’-to cover up his refusal to take blood pressure tablets).

Three: ufiti as a construct of taboos and ‘modes of behaviour’, like the Santa Claus myth: ‘you do this you will die’, ‘be turned into a snake’, ‘cause your mother to die’ et cetera. Like the modern panopticons of closed circuit television or global systems for mobiles (GSM) our ancestors had a clever way of maintaining order via these fear inducing taboos which kept people in check. The original ufiti was not just ‘fear for fear’s sake’.

We all easily accept the first two manifestations of ufiti above; we have problems with the last one: either we are seen as ‘spirit ridden’ or paralysed with ‘inexplicable fear’. Indeed, just like some in the Christian, Muslim or Hindu as regards their faiths, some people are indeed paralysed with their belief of ufiti and do indeed practice it.

But we should remember that, in the old days, the construct was there to maintain law and order, to keep people in check, just like the street and office cameras now keep us in check. We take our bad behaviour elsewhere.

Now, during periods of social, political or economic change these ruptured or damaged constructs attempt to restore or reformulate themselves, showing up as witchcraft eradication phenomenon like the mchape, Chikanga, Bwanali episodes during the colonial era. During the Banda era we saw the rise of ‘born again Christianity’ and all its ‘certainties’ as well as the ufiti episodes like the Chilobwe murders. Even younger readers will recall the Mchape Chisupe episode during the Muluzi era as HIV/AIDS shook the fabric of the nation.

In the One Party Era order was maintained by police, army, the Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP) and the fear of the one party state apparatus. As multi-party dawned some of us worried about the effects of a largely rural and very poor modernising young country with few police and nothing to replace the vacuum left by the MYP in maintaining ‘law and order’, whatever one thought about that particular version of law and order.

With the coming of a multiparty dispensation there was a ‘free for all’ in most things: social, political, economic and even religious. Although various traditional constructs have generally held law and order in the rural areas these are under great strain as traditional authority, as occurred under colonialism, is eroded and politicised and, perhaps more significantly, adverse economic forces make people poorer.

It is in such times that various opportunistic agencies take advantage of these socioeconomic conditions. And the population responds to the rumours, allegations and incidents with mass hysteria. Responses to rumours of vampires will always be: Balala! Balala! Mabvuto mbuyomo! Tiyeni tithawe!

In the age of Facebook, Whatsup, Al Jazeera and a free press sensationalism will magnify the scare and fear. But, deplorable, controversial or unfortunate as it is, the roots of the current vampire hysteria lie also in the current state of ‘law and order’, ‘moral order’ and socioeconomic conditions in Malawi – and not just, however ingrained or strong, in mere belief of ufiti.

It is noticeable that religious leaders have been largely silent on the matter, many ministers, pastors and abusa are busy making money or praying for ‘our leaders’. Traditional leadership is being weakened and neutered by politicisation. Much of the political leadership is undermined by weakness, corruption scandals, mediocrity, disconnect with the youth and the poor and poor economic delivery, like electric power outages.

And it is noticeable that blackouts are the order of the day. Do we really need the United Nations to tell us that vampires come out at night, when it is dark? Really?

John Lwanda PhD

Image: A Nyau dancer in 2017. Copyright Lwanda 2017.