Understanding the “blood sucker” attacks in Malawi (Part 1)

20 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. 

We invited former SMP Fellow from our Scotland-Malawi Academic Exchange Programme Dr Laurel Birch Kilgore (née Birch de Aguilar) to write a blog offering some insight and interpretation - a framework to help understand the situation.  Dr Laurel Birch Kilgore is a prominent social anthropologist that has was based at Chancellor College, Zomba, for her SMP Fellowship; she is a Registered Expert on south-east Africa in the UK judiciary and was formerly an Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for African Studies.

We have also invited Malawian experts in this field for their analysis and we will continue to update this page.  Email david(at)scotland-malawipartnership.org if you would like to contribute.

 

Witchcraft and local beliefs in Malawi and southeast/ central Africa

Stories about blood suckers are not new in rural areas throughout southeast and central Africa, and are present still in rural areas in all of sub-Saharan Africa.  

So first: Malawi is not alone when it comes to local beliefs in witchcraft.

Second: mob and vigilante justice exists throughout the region as local communities take action against those believed to be thieves as well as murderers and witches

Third: witchcraft is a perceived evil in the world that is not easily denied by even the most educated Malawians

The issue is not about vampires that brings to mind our own cultural context of Dracula, though historically fears of evil bloodsuckers existed in Europe.

The issue is about perceived evil that is translated into English as witchcraft (not very helpful). Again, not witches as we imagine, but as forces of evil and people that perform evil acts. 

Marwick studied witchcraft and sorcery in Malawi, clearly separating the two kinds of evil. Sorcery, again not the way we think of wizard mythology, is a person willing to do evil for some kind of power or personal gain.  Concocting a poison to injure or kill a person in order to inherit that persons cows is an evil act of sorcery. 

Witchcraft is a pervasive evil force in the world, with perpetrators that may not even be aware of being a witch, and victims that may have no relation to the witch that harmed them. Witchcraft is pure evil. Evil exists in the world. Bad things happen to perfectly fine people. Crops are destroyed, people die for no apparent reason, babies are stillborn.  

There is no greater fear than the unknown fear and dread of unseen evil. 

Witches are known for sucking blood, eating the flesh of the dead. Great care is taken in funerals to disperse witches and bury the dead in ways witches cannot attack them. 

Witches can travel long distances, can turn victims into witches without their knowledge, are most active at night. 

How can we translate this very real fear of evil in society? 

This is not exactly translatable, but try this example: 

How is the evil of serial torturers and killers of children understood in our own society? People in positions of respect and authority by day become ‘witches’ by night capable of unimaginable horror. 

Believing a person to be capable of such evil, to suck blood from a child..... what might be the reaction of a community whose child was believed to be so abused? Vigilante justice? 

Witches are dealt with very harshly. In Karonga in northern Malawi suspected witches have been burned alive in recent years, as one example. People have taken matters into their own hands, and local communities mete out their own justice in the face of ongoing changes in law and police action that denies the reality of ‘witchcraft’ let’s say ‘real evil’ present in society.

Only a few years ago Malawi ended prison terms for suspected witches. In an imperfect justice system, where a majority feel largely disenfranchised from access to Courts and lawyers, where proof and evidence is not available, and lengthy processes leave people unprotected; perhaps vigilante actions to protect communities are more accepted. 

Let’s try another way of interpreting this. 

Christianity is the most common world religion in Malawi, followed by Islam, and perhaps Hindu faiths. However, 80 per cent of the people live in rural areas or even modern urban areas, and still practice aspects of indigenous African religions. Most marriages in Malawi are customary marriages as one example, not church or civil marriages, and most are not formally recognised in national law. 

Still customary marriages ARE valid and recognised in customary law and in common practice, according to local traditions. 

In the same way Christianity is mixed with local practices and beliefs (inculturation). Beliefs in the presence of ancestors, in metaphors of local seasons and life and death, in the presence of God in all things, in the spiritual role of traditional leadership as well as the practical and political role of traditional authorities; indigenous beliefs persist. 

Traditional authorities are tasked with protecting communities from very real evil in the world. They are expected to be guided by the wisdom of ancestors, deceased past leaders honoured in traditional rites (including Gule Wamkulu).  Leaders are chosen for moral authority to encourage good crops, rains, prosperity, and also protect the community from harm and evil forces.  Religious beliefs in local communities evoke the pervasive dread and real fear of evil that is manifestly part of African cosmology: the evil of mfiti. 

Take out the word witchcraft that has so many connotations in our society and history and replace it with the African word Mfiti. Mfiti is the dreaded unseen force of evil personified as a wicked perpetrator of undeserved harm against other people and against whole communities. It is so real even President Mutharika, PhD does not outright deny its existence. 

Defence against widespread evil is now in the hands of local leaders. What can be expected?

Local justice against those believed to embody evil, believed to be witches. Who is most likely to be accused of being Mfiti?  Those marginalised, outside society, deemed anti-social, not well integrated in the local  community. Mfiti can be elderly women on the periphery, outsiders, social outcasts, someone that is perceived as not sharing or participating, someone that seems happy or not sufficiently unhappy about a death, someone at the wrong place at the wrong time when some misfortune happens, someone that seems to have undeserved wealth for no good reason, people who suffer mental illness, orphans, yes even children can be Mfiti.

The media interest is sensational and not helpful. This immediate situational fear needs to die down so people are not being actively sought out as Mfiti. It will die down again, but the fear, dread, the ‘opsya’ will remain as it is deeply ingrained in local society. 

 

Dr Laurel Birch Kilgore, PhD