Climate change is creating vampires in Malawi

Climate change is increasing the frequency of deadly vampire panics, as farmers seek scapegoats for drought and famine. But these are not mere rumours: there are real blood magic murderers on the loose.


Just the Basics

  • More frequent and extreme droughts are causing instability in Malawi, with farmers using vampires and black magic users as scapegoats

  • Not just mere rumours, actual blood magic murderers are operating in Malawi leading to mass suspicion and vigilante mobs attacking any suspected criminals

  • Malawian folk tales have become potent critiques of inequality and corruption in the country, linking the rich and powerful to the use of blood magic


With raised voices and frantic tones, a group of villagers in southern Malawi patrol their town at night. Machetes glinting in the moonlight and torches ablaze, the mob paints a fearsome picture; woe unto those who should chance upon them out in the streets. It is neither religious tensions or ethnic violence that has lured this group of men and women out at night, but rather a collective sense of dread: these villagers are hunting vampires. The mob - pitchforks and all - look like they have walked out of a Shelley novel, but their concerns are being fuelled by a very modern phenomenon - climate change.

The pressures of climate change are leading to increasingly frequent vampire panics in Malawi, as social and economic stressors push the local population to seek out scapegoats for their plight. In a country where ninety percent of the population make their livelihoods from agriculture, any disturbance during the growing season has serious repercussions, the most bizarre of which are the outbursts of vampire-related violence. It should be noted that these bloodsuckers (or anamapopa as they are known) are not to be confused with the gothic counts or sparkly teenagers prevalent in the West, but rather Malawian black magic practitioners seeking economic gain.

Victims are killed and their body parts and blood used in black magic rituals to produce charms for those seeking to do well in business. “Anyone who is doing well in business is assumed to be involved in Satanism or some form of the occult,” says Stephan Sazuze, a cross border trader and victim of an anti-vampire mob that destroyed his house and most of his property in September 2017.

What we have observed with the bloodsucker allegations is that innocent people have been brutally murdered with no evidence.
— George Thindwa, executive director of the Association of Secular Humanism in Malawi

A BBC film crew recently experienced this kind of violence first hand in mid-August after they were attacked by a mob in northern Malawi while investigating a string of child murders. Having made contact with a self-confessed killer selling charms made from blood and body parts to wealthy clients, the BBC crew was set upon by an armed mob during an undercover meeting with the aforementioned killer. While the murderer managed to escape in the confusion, the film crew were accused of being vampires and stoned by the crowd. “We knew that that was the moment we were going to die. I held the hand of my producer. They were going to end our lives,” recalls undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas. Fortunately, the BBC crew was rescued by local police, but the incident demonstrates the tensions within Malawian society over this issue.

Idle hands are the devil’s playthings

Belief in vampires and witches is widespread in Malawi and many other countries in southern and central Africa, but in Malawi this phenomenon has interesting links to the agricultural cycle. Confirming the saying that ‘idle hands are the devil’s playthings’ these rumours tend to surface during lulls in the agricultural cycle, as farmers with little to do but wait for the rains to begin start spinning tall tales. At times benign, these tales help people make sense of their lives, yet problems arise when the rains are delayed and the population begins to suffer from food shortages and the effects of drought. At this point, rumours of vampires and witchcraft take on a new dimension as farmers seeks scapegoats to blame for the lack of rain.

Vampire panics tend to follow the planting and harvest seasons, as “usually these vampire rumours start at the beginning of summer and they end at the start of the rainy season. The common explanation is that it is easy for the vampires to attack their victims in the hot season because their blood circulation is very high,” remarks paramount chief Ngolongoliwa of the Lhomwe people. Extreme heat events related to climate change fit neatly into this narrative, drawing a further link between high temperatures, lack of rain, and vampire attacks.

The problem is that such superstitions are often remedies for feelings of powerless, as poor and otherwise 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.

Climate change leading to more frequent vampire panics

Consequently, despite cropping up every year, these rumours become lightning rods for anger and frustration during times of extreme weather-related stress. Climate change models and on the ground experience have shown a drying trend in annual rainfall patterns since the early 2000s in Malawi. Various models also predict an increase in the number of days over thirty degrees Celsius (a benchmark used to measure stress due to heat sensitivity in maize) of between ten to a hundred by the 2040s. A stark example of this drying trend can be seen in the state of Lake Chilwa, Malawi’s second largest lake and originally the source of thirty percent of the nation’s annual fish production.

 

Malawian punter ferries passengers across the shallow Lake Chilwa | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

 

Whereas the lake has shrunk significantly and even dried up in the past, these dry spells used to occur on a twenty to twenty-five year cycle, yet “from the 1990s, the frequency of the drying has increased and this is connected to the impacts of extreme weather events typical of climate change,” notes Sosten Chiotha, an environmental science professor who has studied the lake for the past twenty-seven years: as of late November 2018, the lake is at its driest state since 1991. Alongside declining fish production, some 1.5 million people live in the Lake Chilwa basin, making it one of the most densely populated regions in southern Africa.

I know someone who was killed simply because he was carrying a smartphone, power bank and reusable water bottle while out jogging.
— Stephan Sazuze, cross-border trader

Flash floods in 2014-2015 and a severe drought in 2016 destroyed crops in the region, which in turn led to an explosion of violence in 2017 as granaries remained barren. Similarly, early 2018 saw widespread drought in southern Malawi which in turn led an explosion in witchcraft allegations against those suspected of withholding rain. With over 700,000 farmers expected to lose around forty percent of their crops, anger and tensions have already led to deaths and attacks on many others suspected of satanic activities. “It is unfortunate that because of poverty and illiteracy people look at superstition as a way to escape from that poverty. What we have observed with the bloodsucker allegations is that innocent people have been brutally murdered with no evidence,” explains George Thindwa, executive director of the Association of Secular Humanism in Malawi.

The links between business success, technology and vampires

Despite assurances from the police and the Society of Medical Doctors in 2017 that the rumours were a hoax, social media facilitated the spread of the rumours as many Malawians do not trust official channels of communication. Malawi is ranked 170 out of 188 on the Human Development Index (HDI) and almost fifty-one percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Low educational standards and a limited exposure to modern technology predispose many rural Malawians to weave conspiracy theories incorporating both technology and the occult.

 

Satellite photographs of Lake Chilwa in 1991 (left) and 2013, showing the shrinking body of water | U.S GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

 

The power of new technology (in this case social media) is often, alongside extreme weather act as catalysts in the spread of these rumours. The associations between blood magic, business success and technology means that during times of vampire panic, possessing the latter is sometimes considered proof of the former. “I know someone who was killed simply because he was carrying a smartphone, power bank and reusable water bottle while out jogging,” notes Sazuze.

Nor are such reactions a new phenomenon, as seen by the terrible famine which hit Malawi in 1948-49. Rumours soon emerged that vampires were using (the then novel) cars and vans to move around and attack people at night. Order was only restored once the vehicles were burnt and curfews implemented by local chiefs. Similar rumours appeared in Zambia in the 1930s, with many convinced that blood was being taken from locals to make cough drops for Europeans. In recent decades, various rumours in post-colonial east and central Africa have maintained that regional governments are in league with blood suckers, selling blood in exchange for weapons.

 
 

Vampires said to be colluding with government, foreigners

Adam Ashford, a researcher from the University of Michigan working in Malawi explains that “coupled with the conviction that ‘no one gives something for nothing,’ [many are led] to conclude that the sale of blood might well underpin the wealth coming into the country from whites.” Specifically, in 2017 some Malawians claimed the government was working with international aid organizations to collect blood for vampires, with aid and medical workers coming under attack from the general population as a result. International aid workers spraying pesticides were also accused to colluding with vampires and were forced to flee the area.

 

Climate change if making Malawi hotter and drier | FUTURE CLIMATE FOR AFRICA

 

Vigilante justice and mob lynchings resulted in a a number of deaths, as those accused of being vampires or colluding with them were 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 reached new heights in 2017.

The level of unrest in 2017 was such that the United Nations pulled its staff from southern Malawi and Washington suspended Peace Corps operations: the U.S and UK embassies also instituted travel bans for their employees. Eventually, following the introduction of a curfew, Malawian authorities arrested some 200 individuals suspected of being part of the vigilante mobs that murdered several suspected vampires. At least twenty incidents of mob justice were reported in the fall of 2017 (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 was given a one year jail sentence for shouting “it is time to have blood sucked” at patrolling police officers.

 

Malawian soldiers role play as civilians during a simulated crisis aimed at improving riot management capabilities | UNITED STATES AFRICA COMMAND

 

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 cover-up as well as claims that the government is colluding with the very vampires it is ostensibly fighting.

Economic vampires in Malawi

One of the problems facing the government is that it is hampered by colonial era legislation regarding witchcraft. The 1911 Witchcraft Act provides a legal framework based on the assertion that witchcraft is not real, in stark contrast to the beliefs of the majority of Malawians. This does not mean that witchcraft ought to be considered real, but rather that the phenomenon or idea of witchcraft as a force in public opinion needs to be recognized as a potential motive for crime and instability. Under the current legislation, witchcraft is not even considered a topic worthy of the attention of the law, which in turn forces the population to resort to traditional courts and mob rule in order to get ‘justice’.

Distrust of government is endemic in Malawi as corruption and poverty have left citizens with little faith in the voices of authority. Pentecostal churches in the region also do little to diffuse panic, with many church leaders warning their congregations of the dangers, thus helping to spread rumours even farther. In the eyes of the populace, the only credible voices speaking out against the vampire panic are village leaders. While said village leaders are able to calm and even prevent such incidents, their authority only extends to their local group, so in many cases the only thing preventing the appearance of a lynch mob in one village versus another is the presence of a sceptical headman; hardly a recipe for ensuring widespread calm.

 

Too often the case in Malawi | FUTURE ATLAS

 

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 a critique for the country’s social ills. The feelings of powerlessness among the poor are compounded by their daily exposure to marked inequality and the corrosive influence of corruption. “There were no bloodsuckers [in 2017] and there is no one who is withholding rains now. These are just tricks used to steal other people’s property,” laments the headman of Nthambala village in Phalambe district, the same district which saw nine ‘vampires’ killed in 2017. Consequently, parallels are drawn between the draining of an individual’s blood, and the 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 well with superstitions about the power of blood, as ordinary citizens see the fruit of their sweat and blood siphoned off by corruption. It would not be surprising if some individuals are using the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and vigilantism to redress the imbalance caused by these ‘economic vampires’. The recurring distrust of wealthy owners of consumer technology and the persistent destruction of personal property of those accused seems to indicate that these vampire panics act as a pressure valve for simmering discontent about inequality. The fact that the nation’s poorest feel the impact of climate change the most only further demonstrates the interaction between climate change, instability and mob violence.

The Bottom Line

Local folklore and old wives tales about vampires in Malawi are increasingly morphing into a deadly rumour mill spawning lynch mobs and vigilante killings. The impact of climate change is leading to more extreme weather events in Malawi, events which are putting considerable stress on the ninety percent of the population making a living from agriculture. Farmers watching their crops - and their prospects - wither in the heat are increasingly turning to superstitions about vampires and blood magic to make sense of their dire circumstances.

 
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The detrimental impact of these rumours are dramatically amplified by the fact that ‘vampires’, do indeed exist in Malawi, albeit in the form of criminals killing Malawians to create magic charms and facilitate nefarious rituals for wealthy clients. The presence of these murderers provides the key kernel of truth which legitimises rumours of supernatural vampires and thus helps spread panic across the country.

The connections drawn between vampires, wealth and technology all reinforce suspicions not only of strangers and foreigners, but also of anyone considered to be successful. It is in this context that violence against suspected vampires and vampire collaborators takes on socio-economic connotations, with mobs seeking to redress the effects of inequality, poverty and corruption.


Title image by Justin McIntosh

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