Friday, 20 October 2017

Are you a vampire or just a bit different?

Nobody who keeps up with the news from Malawi can have failed to notice that the biggest story around just now concerns 'blood suckers'. No one quite knows what triggered the associated mob action, though some have suggested that accounts of medical staff taking blood for research may have given rise to wild and unfounded rumours of witchcraft. In various rural areas across Malawi, but principally in the south - in Mulanje, Phalombe, Chiradzulu and Machinga, all places where I have worked - these stories have resulted in horrifically violent acts against harmless individuals, perpetrated in an atmosphere of mass hysteria. One of the results has been the withdrawal of UN agencies, Peace Corps volunteers and other aid workers from the areas affected.

Witchcraft is still a powerful element in Malawian culture. Most months there are media accounts of old men and women being stoned to death or burnt alive following accusations that they have caused children or animals to die, crops to fail or lightning to burn down houses. These murderous acts do not necessarily take place in particularly remote areas. It is quite disturbing to realise, as has happened to me a couple of times, that the village where you spent the previous couple of nights has been the setting for some such horror. Indeed, yesterday's lynching of a disabled man happened on the main road in Blantyre. Just as in Europe a century or two ago, accusations of witchcraft may arise from envy of other people's success, ignorance about the causes of natural phenomena or misinterpretation of the conduct of the very old, those on the autism spectrum, or with epilepsy or other similar physical or mental disabilities.

You might expect that the arrival of nineteenth century Christian missionaries would have put paid to such beliefs. Far from it. If anything, modern Christian missionaries may have entrenched them. Deeply held beliefs in witchcraft can exist alongside conventional churchgoing and, indeed, apparently fervent adherance to the tenets of religion.

My personal view, and I may be wrong, is that such beliefs are particularly apparent in evangelical sects. Charismatic fundamentalism and Pentacostalist practices have become powerful social and indeed political forces in many parts of Africa, including Malawi. They have often emanated from other countries, for example Nigeria, South Africa and, of course, the United States. 'Prophets' perform miraculous cures in exchange for money. They may have a great deal of finance behind them from their countries of origin but they also make a lot of money from the poorly educated and gullible people who attend their gatherings. A modern form of 'indulgences'.

Whereas the Catholic Church and, perhaps the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), appear to take a more pragmatic approach to supporting and fulfilling the needs of local communities, providing valuable social and medical services and taking a lead in combating climate change and improving agriculture - living the Gospel in other words - other newer sects may focus instead on conversion, often employing very effective and persuasive tactics. Talking in tongues may be the least of it. At least it's relatively harmless. 'Casting out demons' from people whom we would regard as having physical disabilities, language and communication difficulties and emotional problems can have a much more negative impact.

Central to the deployment of psychological persuasion is the impact of literal readings of the Bible, with particular emphasis on the vengeful behaviour described in the Old Testament. and references to demons and the casting out thereof in the New Testament. While modern educated Christians will tend to interpret such Gospel miracles as spiritual 'healing' by Christ of traumatised and disturbed individuals, a way of bringing them 'peace', fundamentalists may believe that demons actually did leap out of someone's mouth when Christ spoke, enter a herd of swine and cause them to jump off a cliff. Literal readings of the Bible cannot cope with symbols, imagery or psychological, ethical or poetic truths: everything is - of course - 'literally' true. The situation is exacerbated by the very poor educational levels of many 'pastors'. Uneducated pastors may be self-identified, untutored and semi-literate. They will certainly not have had any education in critical analysis of the texts to which they refer. Expression of their beliefs may rely on decontextualised quotations.

Modern media-savvy conversion methods build on centuries-old traditional beliefs. Christianity may no longer replace a belief in demons, as it did in Mary Slessor's day. Christianity, or some branches of Christianity, may have absorbed such beliefs, certainly in Malawi.

And so we have blood suckers, what the newspapers have called 'vampires', using the European term. And there is nothing funny about them. Can you imagine the sheer horror of being torn apart by a demon-hunting mob? Of being stoned and then burnt alive, as happened yesterday to the young man with epilepsy at Chileka? The murder took place in the middle of the main road to Blantyre airport, in broad daylight. It was filmed on a mobile phone and loaded onto Facebook by means of a well-known newsfeed: Malawi Breaking News and Gossip. No doubt other newsfeeds also carried it and footage of other such murders as well. I reported the footage to Facebook as, I am sure, others did also. The video was eventually removed this morning, a full twenty four hours after it happened, by which time it was old news.

Now I am not saying that all murders committed by these mobs come about because of a belief in Christianity. What I am saying is that belief in Christianity and belief in witchcraft occur in many of the same people. There are still a small percentage of people in Malawi, about 5%, who are animists only, and do not believe in Christianity at all. Ten percent are Muslim. A few are Hindu. That leaves about 85% who are Christian and not just nominal Christians, as many are in our country, but church attenders. Atheism and agnosticism are as good as unheard of. Even the middle class embezzlers and thieves are church attenders, as in nineteenth century Britain. It is hardly surprising then, that many of those believers in witchcraft are also Christian.

Reflecting on these circumstances, various issues come to mind. One such issue is the sheer fear of the authorities in the face of recent communal violence. Yesterday's lynching took place at a police road block. The police initially took the victim into their building for safety. Once the mob attacked, they then ran away. To be fair to them, they wouldn't have had a hope of protecting either the victim or themselves. By midday today, the police had taken back control and arrested 140 people. The army has now been deployed to keep the peace in Chileka, Kachere and other areas of Blantyre.

There have been calls for some time for the President to take action. It has taken a long time for him even to speak about it. The government's first reaction was that it was the fault of Opposition politicians, hardly a constructive approach. Bizarrely, the President,  once a Harvard professor, publicly avowed his belief in vampires by saying he would protect people from them. One assumes that with local and by-elections imminent, he did not want to lose the votes of bloodsucker hunters. So much for the writ of national government! Eventually the President pronounced that it was the job of the traditional chiefs to deal with the blood-sucking rumours and resulting civil disorder. Although he visited the region, he did not travel as far as the actual areas where the events took place, or, indeed, speak to those caught up in them. The fear of the educated and powerful when faced with the visceral and demonic is quite remarkable.

Another issue, of course, relates to the role of education. The education system in Malawi is quite inadequate. In many rural areas, only a third or even a quarter of children who start in Primary 1 make it through to Primary 8. Tiny numbers make it through secondary school. The curriculum is heavily knowledge-based and relies on rote learning. Aspects of critical thinking and reasoning are pretty much absent.

What children should be learning and practising is consideration of cause and effect, discussing consequences, focusing on problems and coming up with different ways of solving them. They need to learn that there are often not single solutions or explanations to scientific, ethical or other issues.

Above all, what are needed are not just more effective approaches to teaching the physical sciences so that young people understand the world in which they live, but genuine emphasis on the social sciences, with debate and discussion of social issues, not just lists of things to learn. Learners need to think about and debate moral and social issues, how people relate to each other, not just be given readymade lists of political structures and summaries of Christian beliefs with little if any reference to reasoning or evidence.  Of course, there will be schools which do far more than this, but they are mostly private schools for the elite, not government-funded schools for rural communities.

Poorly educated people who do not understand the world in which they live, will tend to rely instead on magical explanations. Feeling helpless in the face of increasing poverty, totally inadequate medical care and an inability to feed and clothe their families, these people may feel the only action available to them is by means of demonic interventions. Blood sucking is said to make one wealthy. Killing albinos and child sacrifice are also said to do so. Both of these crimes are regularly reported and, indeed, said to be increasing in frequency. Only effective education can address such misconceptions. Only giving hope to people that they themselves can take practical and effective actions to address the circumstances in which they live will put an end to attempts to improve them through witchcraft. Danger to community cohesion comes from both the practice of witchcraft and the fear that others are practising it.

Mob violence of the kind observed in Malawi over the last few weeks is similar in many, though not all, respects to sectarian rampages elsewhere. Think of cow vigilante attacks in India, the burning of villages and attacks on Rohingyas in Myanmar and lynchings and other actions by American racists. Though the victims in Malawi may be fewer in number, the violent emotions unleashed are similar.

These violent emotions relate in part to the difficulty many communities have in accepting differences. In rural communities in particular, people may fear the 'other'. Some of those killed in Malawi have been 'outsiders'; others have been mentally or physically incapacitated. All are treated as scapegoats for the circumstances in which communities live and the unrelieved drudgery of their lives, fuelled, of course, as in our own country, by alcohol. Prejudice against homosexuals and those with unconventional lifestyles has also been nurtured by unscrupulous leaders and, sadly, by the Christian Church. Us and them. A focus on differences.

It is not all that dissimilar in our own country, though matters rarely get as far as lynchings. However, attacks have been carried out on Asian shopkeepers, loners suspected of being 'paedophiles', people with learning difficulties, refugees and European workers. The demonisation of the 'other', exacerbated in some cases by recent referenda, has led to a recorded increase in hate crime. We just don't put such crimes down to 'blood suckers'.

It has been interesting to read the online reactions of Malawians to recent events. Many are educated and westernised. Many, I guess, belong to the diaspora. Almost without exception the reaction has been one of embarassment, anger and shame. Naturally, educated Malawians do not like this image of their country being shared abroad. Neither would we.  Few have expressed views as to the causes of the problems, however, though some have mentioned ignorance. Interestingly, a fair number have put the events down to witchcraft. Witchcraft is therefore both cause and effect.

I dislike the sentimental cliche used of Malawi: the 'warm heart of Africa'. Yes, Malawi is an 'easy' place for westerners to visit. However, there are layers below the surface which are far more complex than the cliche implies. I wonder how many Europeans buying into the 'warm heart' ever scrape far enough below the surface to find this out.

So, after weeks of reading about vampires, it now seems that the authorities are bringing the situation under control, though only time will tell how successful they will be. It is a pity it has taken international media interest to persuade them to take events seriously. Not just the BBC but also the Guardian carried articles! One guesses that though the furore over blood suckers may die down, soon there may be other victims. As in Britain, there will always be someone who is 'different'.

You do not have to be accused of being a 'vampire' to be vulnerable.

You may also be interested in the following posts on our Ugandan blog:

Demons, ghosts and evil spirits
At last a conviction for child sacrifice!

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