Lynch mobs in southern Malawi are on the hunt for vampires. No, really.
At least seven people have been killed amid rumors of “blood suckers” in four district. Mobs are raising security concerns as they blockade roads and vandalize property in search of suspected vampires.
The UN said on Monday it has pulled staff from the districts affected by the violence, and the U.S. embassy has withdrawn Peace Corps volunteers. Several NGOs have temporarily suspended their programs as well.
“These districts have severely been affected by the ongoing stories of blood sucking and possible existence of vampires,” the UN Department on Safety and Security (UNDSS) said in a security report, according to Reuters.
The UN initially reported that five people had been killed since mid-September, and mob violence was restricted to Phalombe and Mulanje districts. It has since spread to neighboring Thyolo and Chiradzulu districts, and the death count has risen to seven.
Police told Agence-France Presse that the seventh victim was a mentally disabled man who was meandering through a village at night when vigilantes lynched him, because they thought he was a vampire “pretending to be insane.”
In a statement, President Peter Mutharika described the reports as “distressing and agonizing,” and of “grave concern.” The government has also imposed a curfew from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. in an attempt to prevent more deaths.
Acting UN Resident Coordinator Florence Rolle told Reuters that not all staff have been relocated to Blantyre, but she did not specify how many have been pulled. She said that UNDSS is “monitoring the situation closely to ensure all affected UN staff are back in the field as soon as possible.”
Unfortunately, violence triggered by rumors of vampire activity is not new in rural Malawi, where a large portion of the population believes in witchcraft. In 2002, vigilante mobs killed and beat suspected “blood suckers” – including three visiting Roman Catholic priests – who they said were conspiring with the government to collect blood for international aid agencies in exchange for food.
Reports circulated that “blood suckers” were attacking people with suffocation gas then draining their blood with a needle. People clutched drums as they slept so they could alert their neighbors of an attack.
At the time, Malawi was facing a severe hunger crisis. More than three million people were in need of emergency food aid, according to the UN World Food Program. But farmers, afraid of vampire attacks, refused to leave their villages and tend to their fields.
The president at the time, Bakili Muluzi, accused unnamed political opposition groups of spreading the unfounded rumors to undermine his government.
This is a serious story with implications for the Sustainable Development Goals
The current spate of violence is not without political undertones as well. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party has accused the Malawi Congress Party of being behind the rumors and violence. At the same time, politically-motivated violence is erupting in other nearby districts ahead of local elections.
However, it’s the cultural underpinnings – the superstitions, myths and cultural belief – that are more worrying to human rights advocates, because those are more deeply ingrained into poor, undereducated rural societies than political alliances. The attacks are alarmingly reminiscent of a sharp increase over the last couple years of attacks on people with albinism, whose bones and body parts are believed to bring good luck in witchcraft rituals.
Since November 2014, more than 20 people with albinism have been killed in Malawi, and there have been more than 100 attempted kidnappings and disappearances. At this rate, a UN expert warned last year that Malawi’s estimated 10,000 people with albinism face “total extinction.”
The country has also struggled with vigilante attacks carried out against people suspected of practicing witchcraft, especially elderly women. But it doesn’t help that police also jail people who they say admit to practicing witchcraft.
“The problem is that our police and our courts most of them are witchcraft believers, and this belief is very strong here in Malawi,” George Thindwa from the Association of Secular Humanism told Nyasa Times in June.
It’s easy to scoff at a vampire scare in Africa. But it’s also clear that cultural beliefs – whether about “blood suckers,” albinism or even gender – can be formidable barriers to sustainable development, including reducing all forms of violence everywhere.