In an outbreak of mass lunacy the people of Malawi have been killing people accused of being blood-sucking vampires. Malawi police are reported as having arrested more than 140 people for their part in these crimes.
What is it that turns ordinary people into an insane, murderous, lynch mob? They don’t really believe in vampires, do they? Well yes they do. They believe in vampires the same way people in Nigeria believe in penis thieves. They’re not alone in this weird way, as Frank Bures writes in his book, The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes.
Bures writes about weird beliefs in a variety of cultures. I must confess to only having read snippets of his book, but I’m not really interested in non African madness. I don’t think an African belief in vampires or penis thieves can be lumped together with “hikikomori,” where people withdraw from society and become home hermits. Japanese people have their weird ways and we Africans have ours, and just because they’re weird doesn’t mean you can lump them together. ‘Weird’ is subjective.
I regard penis thieves and Malawi’s vampire killers as expressions of the malady that led the Nigerian police to arrest a goat on suspicion it was an armed robber. This action, which in the cold light of day can only be construed as collective madness, is the direct result of a belief in witchcraft. I suspect common sense prevailed at some point and they killed and ate the goat, in which case the policemen in question should have been tried for cannibalism, but I digress.
Why blame Christians for vampire deaths in Malawi? The logic is simple - in Africa it is Christians who perpetuate the belief in witchcraft, and the reality is that witches and vampires are one and the same to people who would kill them. I am Nigerian, and every Nigerian knows that the majority of Nigeria’s Christians believe in witches. It is a belief so ludicrous a Nigerian mother wouldn’t let her son read Harry Potter because he’s a wizard!
Nigerians are so superstitious they can ring up to ask for the day off with words like: ‘I need to stay home because I am very well’ - the belief being that if you say you are ill you might bring that very misfortune on your head (forgetting of course they’re already ill). They borrow money with words like: ‘I need to borrow money from you because I have too much money for my rent’ - because to say ‘I am poor’ is to risk condemning oneself to a lifetime of poverty. The people who say these things are self-professed Christians who go to church every Sunday. I’ll bet if you put a calabash (gourd) outside an African Bishop’s house, fill it with kola nuts, money, and the head of a chicken, sprinkle some blood around it, and leave it outside his front door, he’d scream and send for a Babalawo to come and take it away while he hid under the bed.
Some of you from other cultures might be thinking: I suppose you guys can’t attack the belief in witchcraft, because only a witch would say there were no witches, right? A bit like the English method of testing witches – throw them in a pond; if they float they’re witches and should be burned, if they drown they’re dead but at least they were innocent. Sorry, that’s not the reason you can’t attack witchcraft head on. The real reason is that to successfully defeat the belief in witchcraft, you must defeat the basis of its existence, which is belief itself.
I believe we all have a sense of belief because it’s an evolutionary advantage. Believe your elders when they say evil spirits lurk in the bushes at night. Those who don’t believe get eaten by cougars and don’t pass genes for scepticism on. Ancestral man who didn’t blindly believe got eaten, and his foolish lack of belief got eaten with him. It is also an evolutionary trait that our tendency to blind belief lessens as we grow older, as gullible people have discovered through the ages. Evolutionary development is why I believed in Father Christmas, juju, and witches when I was a child. It is also why I know them to be nonsense as an adult. Of course some people have belief so hard-wired in their brains they won’t believe in evolution; frankly those guys scare me, since evolution has nothing at all to do with religion, all it means is that God has a smarter way of making living things than baking creatures out of clay.
Oyinbo people taught Africans to believe what they believed: that a dead man, who was the son of a virgin, got up and was walking around three days later. Not one missionary had actually seen this; it was a passed-on inheritance of belief. In fact every part of the story of Christ is part of the myth of at least one other important person who pre-dates him – Buddha, Krishna, Odysseus, Romulus, Dionysus etc. Like converting the Romans, Africans were an easy sell. Africans, like everybody else, already had belief in divinity and the supernatural; and simply transferred the belief to this new guy. If anything, this guy was even better than the previous heroes. Like Romulus and Dionysus (750 and 1500 BC respectively) before him, Christ was the son of a virgin. He could walk on water, conjure up enough bread and fish in a desert to feed forty thousand people, fly… Okay, I made the last one up, but you get the point. How dare anybody say they believe Christian theology while suggesting that those who believe the living dead are walking among us sucking our blood are wrong? Nobody will do that, except a fool like me, who says it is all the result of a genetic trait gone haywire in a world in which it is no longer needed.
Do you want to know how to stop suicide bombers? You can’t! Just because you don’t believe they’ll go bang and wake up in heaven, don’t doubt for one instant their belief. When you take people at the top end of the belief scale, no one person’s belief is any stronger than anybody else’s. It's why we go around being nasty to foreigners, torturing and killing like people were insects. Think of the most evil, nasty, murderous bunch of people in history, and ask yourself how they could be like that. You’ll find they believed very strongly in something moronic.
I’ll bet that ninety percent of the people involved in killing ‘vampires’ in Malawi go to church on Sundays, where they kneel and pray to Jesu Kristi. The people of Malawi are just like my fellow Nigerians in this regard. To them, us, Satan is a corporeal being hiding amongst us, whispering in the ear of friends, family, and colleagues, mating with women we know, sucking our blood and stealing our penises. Satan, witches, wizards, vampires, spirits… they’re all mixed up in one unholy mess of belief. How many people arrested for killing vampires in Malawi have ever even heard of Transylvania? I’d say it was probably the same number as know there are nine orders of angel, the highest of which, the Seraphs, have six wings and must therefore be thoroughly inhuman in appearance. It makes me think that if a Seraph ever turned up in Africa to announce the resurrection, the reaction of my people would be to throw stones at it until it was dead.