A critical analysis of bloodsuckers’ vigilante violence in Malawi
with Daniel Kabunduli Nkhata

Friday, 26 June, 13:00-14:00

SWOP held a webinar on “COVID testing is just like bloodsucking”: A critical analysis of bloodsuckers’ vigilante violence in Malawi with Daniel Kabunduli Nkhata of the Catholic University of Malawi.

Daniel offers a critical analysis of the rise of ‘bloodsucker violence’ targeting COVID-19 frontline workers in Malawi, drawing on his extensive work on bloodsucker violence – as a form of ‘vigilante protest’ – to understand the meanings and significance of these recent attacks.

Questions discussed include:

COVID testing is just like bloodsucking”: A critical analysis of bloodsuckers’ vigilante violence in Malawi
Daniel Kabunduli Nkhata

Giving a title to one’s work is a seemingly straightforward process, but it becomes more laborious when on-going fieldwork continues to challenge one’s ideas and beliefs. The initial title for this presentation was, “Hunters being hunted”: politics, extraction, precarity and bloodsucker violence in rural Malawi. The original talk would have been a culmination of previously unpublished manuscripts where I tried to show that the violence surrounding the phenomena of bloodsuckers in Malawi is a form of protest and a symbolic representation of life against precarity, gender oppression, perceived injustices by the extractive industry and politicians. Bloodsucker violence has become a popular cliché to define the violence (killings) by communities on people suspected to be bloodsuckers.

However, rising cases of violence that target COVID19 frontline workers engaged in community tracing and testing activities, alongside the state’s strategies in managing the pandemic and rural community responses in Malawi, have enticed me to reconsider the phenomena of bloodsuckers and include these new dimensions. Malawi has so far recorded 4 deaths and 455 positive cases (70 percent of which are in in rural areas) from 6,690 conducted tests in its 14 designated centres from a population of 17 million people. The state announced a national lockdown which was later reversed by the courts after citizens protested. 80 percent of positive cases can be traced to hundreds of deportees from South Africa.

My earlier work on bloodsucker violence (2017-2018) derived from extensive fieldwork in the Southern districts of Malawi bordering Mozambique. In this presentation I focus on the meanings and patterns of vigilante violence on perceived bloodsuckers in the Northern districts of Malawi bordering Zambia and Tanzania. Interestingly, Zambia and Mozambique have also recorded a new wave of the same bloodsucker violence along with rising cases of COVID19. Questions on the ‘transnationality’ of bloodsucker violence remains unexplored but is an important topic for future research.

Most scholars and media commentaries have dismissed the violence surrounding this phenomena as a sign of ‘rural irrationality’, primitiveness and a sign of unprogressive behaviour. In this talk I will argue that if one looks at the nature of the attacks and the victims of the violence more closely there is a pattern of what I call ‘vigilante protest’ in this violence.

The term ‘bloodsucker’ or anamapopa, as popularly known in the local language, used to classify entities that represent the ‘sucking’ nature of contemporary relations both in the rural and urban areas. The vigilante attacks on suspected bloodsuckers are hardly random, impulsive and accidental. Sucking journalism, vampire state, sucking work, sexual predators, opportunity suckers, and nature vampires are all terms used by communities to define why politicians, state security agents, journalists, whites in the extractive industry, abusive men, and white managers on tea plantations have all been attacked under the pretext of being bloodsuckers. However, recent cases of vigilantism that target strangers and outsiders reflect the increasing nature of suspicion towards outsiders in rural communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen rising cases of violence that target COVID19 frontline workers engaged in community tracing and testing activities. This raises a number of questions about growing suspicion between the state/medical field and rural communities. The culture of secrecy that surrounds the Malawian government’s management of COVID-19 has increasingly exposed health personnel to mob attacks under the pretext of bloodsuckers. The tracing and forced quarantines have functioned in a combative, militarized, ambushing and volatile space. These tactics have needlessly exposed the lives of frontline workers in communities that are already battling rumours of existing bloodsuckers Furthermore, testing (a process of drawing human fluids i.e saliva, blood) is synonymous with activities of perceived bloodsuckers while the ‘tagging’ of cases as positive or negative has become a very contested element of the medical personnel involved in COVID19 management. ‘Tagging’ of cases drastically changes the lives of poor individuals living in communal arrangements while the subsequent stigma, discrimination and isolation imposed on them are a further burden to already economically marginalised households. These socio-cultural, socio-political and socio-economic issues have complicated the government’s management of COVID19 while also increasing mob attacks on health personnel who are deemed ‘bloodsuckers’.

What should we make of this vigilante violence? In this talk I will argue that there are two faces to this violence. While it is a reflection of legitimate community concerns, on the one hand, it is also an extension of vigilantism by youth who ride on these legitimate community concerns. For communities, the violence directed at suspected bloodsuckers is collectively cathartic and an instance of retributive justice. This is especially the case when the police are viewed as an accomplice in the bloodsucking industry. The violence can also be viewed as a “smoke that calls”. It is not uncommon for state officials to only publicly acknowledge particular marginalised groups and respond to their concerns after the vigilante violence on bloodsuckers. For example, a small village in Mzimba district burned the house of a suspected bloodsucker just to have their member of parliament come to address issues of a broken and neglected borehole at a local rural clinic. Violence also acts as a form of social conflict mediation in rural areas where governance structures are repressive. There are instances where vigilante violence also reflects police-criminal “collusion” where the police have armed particular groups at the expense of others. The rise in vigilante activities can thus be seen as a parallel strategy by communities to socially control illegal policing tactics by the police. My research shows how these moments of retributive justice can positively affect the moral social fabric of closed communities that are being penetrated by state security tactics. It is, however, important to also note that the pluralisation and pervasiveness of vigilante violence around bloodsucker issues also has negative effects in these communities. I do not negate the dangers of this violence for individuals and communities.

The talk will reflect on the socioeconomic, socio-political and socio-cultural significance of the vigilante violence on suspected bloodsuckers and how these also relate to the management and ‘mismanagement’ of COVID-19 in Malawi. It will discuss the different meanings of this violence to different actors and show how this violence needs to be understood as a dynamic, multifaceted and contextual process. The talk will offer my own reflections and indicate loose ends and unanswered questions that will require further investigation.