January 14, 2003
Not Your Usual Vampires, but Scary Nonetheless
LANTYRE, Malawi, Jan. 10 — They wear dark clothing, it is said, and carry syringes to draw blood from their drugged victims, who sicken or die. The creatures have magical powers and a fondness for vanishing in graveyards, but no one has ever heard of them changing into bats.
"I've never heard of them drinking blood, either," said Gospel Kuseliwa, 22, who says he and his friends recently chased some bloodsuckers while patrolling in Chiradzulu, a village just 12 miles from Blantyre. The men, who had never heard of Dracula, said drinking blood sounded like a pretty bad idea anyway, particularly in this era of AIDS.
Malawi, despite the best efforts of its government, is in the grip of a form of hysteria. Vampires are attacking the villages, people say.
Men are finally fighting back. At night, when darkness shrouds the green hills and women and children hide in their huts, the patrols creep slowly through the cornfields. Twelve brave men peer behind towering anthills and whispering trees with pickaxes, knives and clubs at the ready.
Their prey, witnesses insist, are modern-day vampires: men carrying flashlights who disable their victims with sleeping gas. There have been no sightings here of caped men with sharp teeth.
The persistent complaints about vampires have outraged government officials, who describe the reports as ludicrous and issue press releases and statements to make it absolutely clear to local citizens, potential tourists and the world at large that Malawi does not have a vampire problem.
The repeated reassurances have not eased the deepening fears. Anxious crowds have already killed at least two people believed to be bloodsuckers. Several other people have been attacked, including three priests and the governor of Blantyre, who was stoned this month by a crowd of 200 people after a local chief accused him of harboring vampires in his home.
Hoping to end the mounting hysteria, the police have arrested nearly 40 people and charged them with spreading lies and falsehoods. Seven more were charged with the attack on the governor.
"We have asked those who have evidence to come forward and report to the police," said Paul Chifisi, the regional criminal investigations officer. "Some people have come forward. But when you ask, what are the injuries, what is the description of the suspect, they do not show any injuries or offer any description."
In the frightened villages, the government's opinions are dismissed. The debate here is mostly about whether bloodsuckers are spirits or human beings with magical powers. No one questions whether vampires are real.
They have smelled the acrid sleeping gas, people say. They have found abandoned syringes. Elesi Makwinja in Chiradzulu said she narrowly survived an attack and watched the vampires vanish into thin air with her own eyes. A woman in Thyolo died last month after a vampire removed her precious blood, her relatives say. "We don't know whether they are real people or spirits, but we know they are attacking," said Peter James, the brother of the middle-aged woman.
"It's been happening almost every week," said Mr. James, who says the police refused to investigate his report. "We have seen them, but we haven't got close. They were wearing dark clothes and always walking fast. I heard the government's statement on the radio, but we know that this is happening to us."
In these impoverished rural communities, which lack electricity, running water, adequate food, education and medical care, peasant farmers are accustomed to being battered by forces they cannot control or fully understand.
The sun burns crops, leaving fields withered and families hungry. Rains drown chickens and wash away huts, leaving people homeless. Newborn babies die despite the wails of their mothers and the powerful prayers of village elders.
People here believe in an invisible God, but also in malevolent forces — witches who change into hyenas, people who can destroy their enemies by harnessing floods. So the notion of vampires does not seem farfetched.
Some people speculate that villagers are dizzy with hunger and imagining things. Others blame hungry thieves for creating the havoc. President Bakili Muluzi accused the opposition of stirring up the trouble to tarnish his administration.
Then again, AIDS might be to blame. With so much shame and stigma surrounding the disease, some people might prefer to blame vampires for sickness and death. Charles Kaiya interrupts a visitor's musings over the various theories to suggest another possibility: the villagers might be right.
He remembers another vampire scare in Malawi some 30 years ago. In the end, he says, police arrested a man with who was caught with syringes and bottles of blood in his refrigerator. Everyone knows that politicians lie, Mr. Kaiya said, which is why few people trust the government's position on vampires.
Mr. Kaiya's theory? Perhaps the government has promised to sell Malawian blood to donor nations in exchange for financial aid. "Maybe it's going to Saudi Arabia to get money," he said.