The murder in Malawi of people suspected to be ‘blood thieves’, or vampires, has made international headlines. Why do these superstitions persist?
Vigilante mobs in Malawi have killed at least five people in connection with vampire attack rumours. Arrests have been made. Curfews have been imposed. Yet, the current response by the government of Malawi is unlikely to yield a lasting solution to the problem. Similar attacks and killings have happened before with the same measures utilised to contain it.
In 2002, villagers abandoned their fields following rumours of vampire attacks. Fearful residents attacked and killed suspects. Three Roman Catholic priests who were strangers in an area were among those mistaken for vampires.
It has become pertinent to ask: Why are vampire scares and related killings still happening in Malawi in this day and age? There are three main reasons for this.
Belief in supernatural agency and causation
Firstly, there is a widespread belief in supernatural agency and in the supernatural causation of misfortune. Like people in other parts of Africa, Malawians are socialised to think that supernatural beings exist and that they intervene in nature.
Many Malawians believe that occult agents inflict harm or suck blood; that they cause diseases, accidents, or death. Therefore, when people find themselves in stressful conditions or experience financial difficulties and other existential challenges, they use these supernatural vampire narratives to make sense of their misfortunes. They assume that supernatural entities are behind their difficulties and woes.
“Many Malawians believe that occult agents inflict harm or suck blood; that they cause diseases, accidents, or death”
This is especially the case in Malawi, where lack of education, weak state institutions, and lack of social safety nets characterise the living conditions of the majority of people. In the absence of material and measurable means of addressing their existential challenges, people employ supernatural narratives to make sense of their problems.
Irrational beliefs about human blood
Secondly, irrational beliefs about human blood and the testimonies of supposed victims persist within Malawi. Vampire attack claims continue because of the pervasive notion that human blood has occult significance. Local narratives attest to the existence of blood sucking forces. Testimonies of alleged victims abound in local discourses.
In 2002, the vampire scare rumours were linked to claims the government was colluding with international aid agencies to supply human blood in exchange for food aid. The government of President Bikili Muluzi dismissed the rumours as baseless. Some locals have recounted experiences of vampires sucking their blood. One woman showed a journalist signs on her body, supposedly indicating where vampires used a needle to draw her blood!
Cultural superstitions surrounding blood
It is important to add that blood, whether of animal or human origin, has magical significance in Malawi. Blood, especially that of humans, is a highly valued commodity in the occult world. Some people hold the view that vampires procure blood using mysterious, furtive methods. They claim that vampires disguise themselves as humans in order to execute their occult tasks.
The belief is that people drink human blood to spiritually strengthen themselves. They use human blood to conduct rituals and perform sacrifices that make them rich and successful. These beliefs and misconceptions about blood and its magical value stubbornly persist. This is because there aren’t effective programs to address and dispel these superstitions.
Lack of Skepticism
The third reason why ‘blood thieves’ wreak havoc in Malawian society is due to a lack of skepticism towards claims of vampirism. By skepticism, I mean a commitment to challenge and critically evaluate vampire related beliefs and associated superstitions without fear. While it is important to arrest and prosecute suspects of mob violence and ensure that the perpetrators of killings in this case are brought to justice, there is also a need to critically examine the underlying beliefs and narratives. A sustained critical engagement of these magical and ritual conceptions is needed. A skeptical investigation and analysis of these claims of vampire attacks, blood-sucking operations, and the assumed magical potency of blood is long overdue.
“While it is important to arrest and prosecute suspects of mob violence and ensure that the perpetrators of killings in this case are brought to justice, there is also a need to critically examine the underlying beliefs and narratives”
The Way Forward
Rooting out the problem requires the force of law but also, more importantly, the force of logic, scientific thinking, and critical inquiry. Malawians must abandon the belief in ‘blood thieves’. To achieve this, Malawi needs an intensive public education and enlightenment campaign to reorient the minds of the people. The people of this country need to be told clearly that human blood has no occult or magical power and that such suppositions are superstitious nonsense. The people of Malawi must understand that there is no evidence for blood sucking operations – and that vampires are imaginary entities.
“Malawi needs an intensive public education and enlightenment campaign to reorient the minds of the people”
Malawians must be told categorically that vampire attack claims have no basis in reason, science, or reality.
Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.