A vampire scare in Malawi has led to violence, with nine people accused of being vampires murdered since September. The attacks began in rural areas, but have since penetrated Malawi’s second largest city, Blantyre. One person was set on fire and another stoned to death. Police have stated that they have arrested 140 suspected vigilante mob members. Local authorities are further alleging that a criminal gang is piggy-backing on the activity and terrorizing residents. The violence has escalated to a critical point, leading to the removal of some of the United Nations staff from Malawi for sorcery-related safety concerns.
Misheck Nganga, a local resident, told Al Jazeera that it is “a sad situation because we live in constant fear, our movements are regulated and we cannot walk at night because even those who have been invited to patrol the villages beat everyone they meet.” President Peter Muthanka has asked any would be “vampire hunters” to turn suspects into the police as oppose to killing them. President Muthanka has also sent the military for extra security and to provide reassurance for villagers. An anonymous grandmother described to Al Jazeera how her granddaughter and son were brutally killed. The villagers did not recognize her son’s western style drink bottle and quickly accused them of being “blood suckers.” Both were beaten to death.
As evidenced by the Malawi case, not enough is being done yet to curb occurrences of witch hunting – a human rights abuse issue gaining momentum in the 21st century. At the same time, it can be argued that the practice of witch hunting is also evident in our modern society, in a less recognizable but equally concerning form. By placing blame upon witches for hardships, communities create scapegoats. Naming various sections of society as scapegoats is something that is increasingly happening in domestic and international affairs and is threatening to undermine peace. Although, we do not use the same practices in modern western societies. By blaming, for example, refugee communities for “stealing jobs” or “creating crime,” we arguably become the equivalent of witch hunters in the western developed world. Consequently, the incidents in Malawi not only call for a greater and more robust protection of accused witches, but also challenge us to reassess whether or not we are a part of a bigger global issue.
Almost all cultures throughout history have at some point in time performed witch hunts. In fact, in New Zealand the current legal system is built around the principle of the presumption of innocence. This principle in law is a relic of historic practices of witch hunters. During the Middle Ages in the European world, women who were suspected of being witches were forced to partake in trials by ordeal and no proof of guilt was required. Women were usually suspected of being witches for a myriad of reasons which included illness, mental disability and bad luck. ‘Witches’ were often blamed for things like frosts, plagues, and poor harvests. There were two methods for testing the accused witch. The first was to bind and place her into a ‘blessed body of cold water.’ If she sank, she was deemed innocent and pulled out of the water. However, this was often too late and the victim had already died. Conversely, if the accused floated, she was considered a witch and killed immediately. The alternative approach involved identifying the devil’s mark. The suspect’s body was examined and a needle was inserted into any abnormal body mark found, like birthmarks or warts. If the incision did not bleed, it was deemed to be the mark of Satan and consequent execution occurred.
Although the practice seems primitive, it is not only limited to the Western world’s past history and currently Malawi. Witch hunts are taking place across the world from India, to Papua New Guinea and Kenya. According to an Al Jazeera investigative journalist in PNG, witch hunts and sorcery killings are gaining momentum in regularity and brutality drawing condemnation from the international community. The PNG government has only just repealed the Sorcery Act that gave official recognition to sorcery and made it easier for killers of suspected witches to defend their charges. However, intensity of violence has hardly been curbed since the repeal. Additionally, thousands of women across India have been executed after being accused of sorcery according to Al Jazeera, who reported that in the region of Chhattisgarh, there have been 1,500 witch trails and 210 associated murders between 2001 to 2013. The report further noted that the courts and village heads are “often left alone to ignore the state’s Witch Craft Atrocities (Prevention) Act 2005 which criminalizes the persecution of women due to allegations of witchcraft.”
Ophthalmologist Dr Dinesh Mishra has claimed that it is likely these statistics only represent 10% of the actual figures. Kenya is also currently struggling with witch hunts, particularly in the western region, known as the Sorcery Belt, where elders and the poor are being targeted. Three months ago, Al Jazeera reported that five suspects were set on fire and subjected to torture. One male victim, Harrison Nyaribo stated that “I have never been engaged in witchcraft, all this is, is envy.” He further noted, “my children are all grown up, educated and have good jobs. I am also one of the few people who have stone buildings, this is the work of envious people.”
Witch hunting is a violation of human rights and is a practice overlooked by the international community, threatening peace and stability in many regions. Unfortunately, its assumptions and rationalizations can be seen to permeate some of our own “modern” beliefs. We must ensure we avoid scapegoating individuals and communities in our own societies to avoid perpetrating our own new version of witch hunting.