Vampires are not uncommon visitors to the villages of Malawi. Historically, they have adopted different guises – Catholic priests have often been subject to accusation, water engineers and medical workers, too. In the 1980s an impending visit by Princess Anne sparked rumours: what exactly had the British Royal Family fed on to become so wealthy? Children in a school near where I lived weren’t taking any chances – they fled before her limousine had made it up the drive. Now, as the country staggers back from the brink of a major famine, the vampires have returned. It’s best not to sleep alone because their favourite trick is to enter your hut while you sleep, spray it with a chemical to make your sleep permanent, then extract your blood with a needle and syringe. When the body of a victim is found it will be grey, drained of blood, but there will be no sign of the attack other than a tiny pin-prick.
Mischeck Matchado, a schoolboy in Chief Somba’s area, lived to tell the tale. In the early hours of Sunday, 2 February, he woke to the smell of a chemical being sprayed through the window of his hut. Then he felt someone holding his hand, then the prick of a needle, ‘and that was when I realised that I was being bloodsucked.’ Mischeck survived because his brother woke up and helped him fight off the intruders – who escaped, he said, in three vehicles. Bloodsuckers always have the most up-to-date equipment; in the colonial period they were supposed to have used fire engines as well as needles and syringes. It’s a thoroughly modern, technical operation. Mischeck blamed his village headman, who, he said, was pocketing money given to him by the bloodsuckers.
Earlier attacks in December produced rather more specific allegations. Not far away, in the densely populated tea-growing district of Thyolo, survivors are convinced that their Government, headed by President Bakili Muluzi, is behind the attacks, sucking blood from its people in payment for the food aid currently being supplied by international donors. This is a theory which can only have been made more credible by the World Food Programme’s use of the word ‘pipeline’ in relation to its food distribution system. ‘Our pipeline to Malawi is currently full,’ one spokesperson was recently quoted as saying. Such pipelines, as many rural people will tell you, have two-way traffic in them. Unsurprisingly, the Government pours scorn on the bloodsucking allegations, arguing that these are unsubstantiated rumours spread by members of the opposition. ‘No government can go about sucking the blood of its own people,’ said President Muluzi. ‘That’s thuggery.’
In Poverty and Famine (1981), Amartya Sen argues that because democratically elected governments are held accountable by a free press and the threat of elections, they do not allow their people to starve (though they may allow them to go hungry). The scandal of mass starvation is something they can’t afford. But the rural poor of Malawi have a rather different theory of famine. Evidently they think they are paying an additional price for the near (and in some cases complete) starvation they suffered last year; and though the payment is being extracted by their democratically elected government, its ultimate destination is the rich countries of the North who control the aid and pull the strings.