Vampire panic grips Mozambique, Malawi

Vampire panic grips Mozambique, Malawi

Vampire panic has swept across Malawi and Mozambique in recent weeks as fears of bloodsucking fiends has led to destruction and death in both countries. Vigilante justice and mob lynchings have led to a number of deaths, as those accused of being vampires or colluding with the undead are targeted. This is not the first time that such a panic has gripped the region, as similar violence erupted in 2002-2003, yet the scale of public panic has reached new heights in 2017.

The level of unrest is such that the United Nations has pulled out its staff from southern Malawi and Washington has suspended Peace Corps operations. Following the introduction of a curfew, on October 20th Malawi arrested some 140 individuals suspected of taking part in vigilante mobs that murdered several suspected vampires. At least twenty incidents of mob justice have been reported in recent weeks, (including attacks at mob-controlled anti-vampire roadblocks) in Phalombe District, with at least nine confirmed deaths as a result.

In response to these riots, Malawi has issued strong sentences for individuals caught spreading rumours about vampires. In the name of public safety, even casual remarks by individuals about vampires are being punished with lengthy sentences in an attempt to deter others. For instance, one individual was sentenced to 18 months in jail for calling a police officer a "bloodsucker" - remarks which led a mob to attack the officer. Another individual has been given a one year jail sentence for shouting “it is time to have blood sucked” at patrolling police.

A similar response was seen in 2003 when Malawi arrested a journalist for publishing an interview with a ‘victim’ of an alleged vampire attack. Such heavy-handed responses from the government only further feed conspiracy theories about a coverup, as well as claims that the government is colluding with the very vampires it is ostensibly fighting. Specifically, some claim the government to be working with international aid organizations to collect blood for vampires.

Vampire violence takes flight

Vampire-related mayhem has also spread to southern and central Mozambique, with residents of Gile looting shops, destroying government offices and burning police buildings; forcing the district administrator to flee for his life. The homes of community leaders in Mulevala District have also been destroyed, with mobs attacking anyone accused of being a vampire or vampire-sympathizer. On October 22nd, three community leaders suspected of witchcraft were lynched in Macanga District, and a local health brigade spraying insecticide has been accused of working for vampires.

Belief in vampires and blood-based mystical rituals are common in Malawi and Mozambique, and this widespread belief lends credence to some that bloodsucking rituals are a means to become rich. The problem for this region is that such superstitions are often remedies for feelings of powerless,  as poor, marginalized individuals seek to regain a sense of control in their lives. Believing in “mysterious magical explanations for things [means that] then people will tend to attribute their difficulty to what they call blood suckers,” notes Dr. Chioza Bandawe, clinical psychologist at the University of Malawi.

The fact that many victims of mob violence are authority figures and police officers adds another dimension to the attacks, one that shows how fears about bloodsuckers draining the hope and life energy of victims becomes an outlet for social ills. Specifically, the feelings of powerlessness among poor individuals are compounded by their daily exposure to marked inequality and the corrosive influence of corruption.

Consequently, parallels are drawn between the draining of an individual’s blood, and a community’s ‘economic life-blood’ with the two narratives becoming one in the form of vampire hunting mobs. Anger at corrupt, parasitic state institutions meshes with superstitions about the power of blood, as ordinary citizens see the fruit of their sweat and blood siphoned off by corruption.

Symptom and a cause

It is important to note that the escalation in vampire-related violence has mirrored a general rise in violence in Mozambique in recent months as political tensions continue to mount. On October 2nd, a mob burned down the home of a police commander in Mandimba district: the officer is believed to be involved in the killing of an informal currency trader. The situation deteriorated to the point where reinforcements from border stations were requested, and  clashes between the mob and police have left four dead, only further ratcheting up tensions.

The killing of the vendor, and lack of subsequent police action not only highlights the impunity with which local police act, but also breached the terms of informal power relations in the region.

While informal currency conversions are illegal, operators are generally left alone, as they play an important part in the local informal economy, the health of which benefits corrupt police forces. The death of the vendor again highlights the powerlessness of the people and shakes the ad-hoc systems which they have created to exert some control in their lives. The same region also saw an exchange of fire between Mozambican fishermen and Malawian border guards over illegal fishing along the border. This incident further highlights corruption as the Mozambican river protection officers often collaborate with the fishermen, allowing them to use illegal nets.

Vampire-related violence is both a symptom - and an additional facet of - wider instability in Mozambique. Taking the law into their own hands and fighting against an imaginary threat may well (in part) be a coping mechanism in the face of multiple very real threats. For instance, October 5th saw an attack by 30 armed men on three police stations in the northern Cabo Delgado province, which left 17 dead. The motives and identity of the group behind the attack remains disputed. The previous day, the mayor of Nampula city was assassinated during a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the nation’s peace accords.

Mayor Mahamudo Amurane was a member of the Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM), a non-armed opposition group. The fact that a distinction between armed and unarmed opposition groups exists demonstrates the tenuous peace which reigns. Amurane was been planning to run as an independent in next years’ municipal elections, and several days after his murder, MDM offices were burnt down in Xai-Xai, the capital of southern Gaza Province.

Attacks against the MDM are part of a larger dispute between the Frelimo government and Renamo opposition, one that has been exasperated by the ongoing $2 billion debt scandal that has plagued Mozambique's ruling class. Said scandal has led to economic collapse, a freezing of foreign aid and a projected budget deficit of 10.7% of GDP for 2017.

A bankrupt government, entrenched opposition, widespread corruption and mounting violence; these are the challenges facing Mozambique. The rise of vampire-related violence is the last thing the region needs; however, it does provide a biting commentary and food for thought on the country’s problems.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.