Economic woes and unhappiness with Malawi's healthcare have contributed to the panic in the southern part of the country, says a leading clinical psychologist, after 10 people have been killed and others attacked over accusations of blood sucking. Police have made some 200 arrests of those allegedly involved in mob justice.
"It's a reflection of the way the country looks at things and makes sense of tensions and economic pressures," says Dr. Chiwoza Bandawe, a clinical psychologist and professor in the Mental Health Department at the University of Malawi in Blantyre. Social media has added to the rapid spread of misinformation, he tells RFI.
"Those explanations are often mystical, magical, because Malawi is a very superstitious and religious country. It has become some kind of a frenzied way of trying to deal with the situation or the interpretation people have."
The first blood sucking accusations in Malawi occurred in 1948 and 1949 due to inequality and economic issues, according to Catholic University assistant lecturer Sangwani Tembo, who spoke at the university on this issue last Friday.
This hunt for 'vampires' has created an atmosphere of fear in Southern Region districts of the country. While marginalized people, including widows, are typical scapegoats, accusations have been placed on the population at large, including doctors.
Those searching for alleged vampires have targeted health professionals, believing that stethoscopes, the instruments used to hear a heartbeat, could have blood sucking properties.
"It's also about trying to make sense of the western-type medical profession vis-à-vis traditional medicines, and of course the western type has the power now, and all this contributes to the tension," says Dr Bandawe, referring to the lessening role of traditional medicine.
"I think at some point also there's been some dissatisfaction with the health system itself, because it has been under resourced," he says, adding that some stories have emerged where health care workers abused patients.
"This is not a widespread issue, but has fueled the rumors in the districts," he says.
Medical practitioners are frequently on the receiving end of abuse, especially in the rural areas, says Dr. Amos Nyaka, the head of the Malawi Society for Medical Doctors in Lilongwe.
"Even when community health workers go to some areas, if someone has a grudge with them... they will accuse them of being a blood sucker," says Dr Nyaka.
Taking advantage of the poor and vulnerable
The frenzy of searching for people to attack creates fear in the communities, but it has also encouraged others, especially the accusers, to take advantage of the situation, not only attacking people, but destroying their property, says Dr Nyaka.
"They are taking advantage of the rural people who for the most part are not educated and most of them are poor, and hence their expectation and understanding of the law is a bit different," he adds. "I think that's very unfortunate."
Jealousy and lack of education comes into play as well, says Chitawira-based Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (CHREAA) Director Vincent Hango.
"We have a good number of people who are illiterate. They believe in witchcraft. It's very difficult to change their beliefs because this is what they have believed since they were born," he says.
CHREAA secured some free airtime at leading radio stations in the south in order to put out public service announcements that explain this witch hunt is against Malawian law.
The southern part of Malawi borders northern Mozambique. Mozambicans have been blamed for this surge in 'blood sucker' attacks, while Mozambicans have accused Malawians of the same.
"Although there is a boundary [between the two countries], the belief systems and cultures along the border are very similar," says Dr. Bandawe.
Earlier this month, Malawi President Peter Mutharika went to Mulanje, one of the southern districts with the highest incidents of alleged 'blood sucking'. He called on people to stop attacking others.
A few days earlier, Malawi's Gender Minister Jean Kalilani condemned the attacks, especially against the elderly.
The government has taken down roadblocks put up by the vigilantes and has enforced security in the area, but many feel that this response is not sufficient.
"We didn't like the approach which was taken by the government. The president said, 'ok, we do understand but these are these issues; these investigations are in the hands of the chiefs.' We thought that was a shortfall," says CHREAA's Hango, who was critical of the president's lack of condemnation for blood sucking.
Dr Nyaka agrees, adding that the government should have taken a stauncher response, reassuring those who felt threatened by this wave of violence.
"As a country I think we're very ashamed. How a community can get to such levels that they would be accused of silly things like vampires," says Dr Nyaka.
"But as a country, I think we'll be able to fix this, and protect our people. I think that the Malawi Society of Medical Doctors, we will take this as a challenge to communicate to our people and to reassure them that they are not blood suckers."