When a Belgian couple visited Malawi last month, they wanted to experience the marvels of the highest tourist destinations in ‘the warm heart of Africa’.
As they drove past the picturesque tea fields of Lujeri at the foot of Mulanje Mountain, they did not expect to get a beating and have their vehicle damaged by some locals.
But the Belgians have become the first tourists to be attacked by locals upset by fast-spreading fears of mystic bloodsuckers who are turning Mulanje District and some southern parts of a friendly, peaceful nation into a no-go zone for visitors.
Dogged by fear
Government says it is a hoax, but villagers in Mulanje, Phalombe and Nsanje are ready to kill before they are killed by the said attackers.
They described the bloodsuckers as magical beings, satanists, witches and wizards who morph into dogs or bats when pursued.
Mulanje South legislator Bon Kalindo said it is a deadly mistake to hastily rule out the existence of the mystic bloodsuckers terrorising people day and night.
But the narrative poses a threat to freedom of movement as villagers ambush vehicles and visitors in the countryside.
The US has withdrawn Peace Corps volunteers and expatriates from Mulanje just as Belgium has stopped its citizen from going closer to Malawi’s largest overland tourist attraction and tour guides in the tea-growing district say the number of tourists visiting the highest mountain in Central Africa has declined sharply.
“Following the attack on the Belgians, it seems more tourists flying in are afraid of the situation here. Some clients phone us to ask about the situation. Others are cancelling their summer trips,” says Mulanje Porters and Guides Association chairperson Comestar Supuni.
Feeling the pinch
The guides are already feeling the pinch of endemic fear and mob justice.
According to Supuni, almost a third of the tourists have cancelled bookings to hike the island in the sky.
“For every 10 tourists, three have chosen not to come due to security concerns,” he says.
Worse still, the US has also told its staff not to visit Mulanje.
Even natives are warning their town-based sons and daughters not to go to the district after sunset.
This is a big blow to the livelihoods of over 400 porters and tour guides around Mount Mulanje.
A porter earns no less than $20 (about K14 500) to take a tourist up Mulanje.
The tour guide gets about $25 (about K18 000).
To change the situation, the porters and guides are offering civic education in communities where fear, fury and mob justice put visitors’ life at
“Ironically, no single person has provided evidence that there are bloodsuckers in Mulanje,” he says.
Similar sentiments were made by government spokesperson Nicholas Dausi, Inspector General of Police Lexten Kachama and Mulanje District Hospital staff.
Still, the prevalent panic, with six people killed by mobs so far, has led to the eroding of incomes of local tourism-related entrepreneurs, including curio makers, butchers, vegetable vendors, fruit sellers, groceries and owners of lodges and restaurants.
Tourism Association of Mount Mulanje vice-chairperson Nancy Chinyanya, put the rising number of tourists cancelling their bookings in perspective: “I think the story about the tourists who were assaulted was widely publicised globally. They know it and are afraid of meeting a similar fate. Every day, restaurants and lodges are having cancellations.
“Sadly, most tourists usually come to Malawi once a year. Any cancellation means the country has lost on expected revenue until next year. We hope they are just shunning Mulanje, but still visiting other stunning destinations in Mangochi and Salima on the shores of Lake Malawi.”
She urges the Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism Henry Mussa to speak up and restore sanity in the endangered go-to place.
Last week, Mussa was among two ministers who spoke against the unsettling phenomenon.
“The prevailing paranoia about vampires in Mulanje and surrounding areas has the potential to derail our efforts in promoting our country as a tourism destination, but also a preferred destination for foreign and direct investment,” he said.
He asked the people to stop “tarnishing the warm heart of Africa’s image” as no tourist or investor covets a country where citizens with “misguided beliefs” attack visitors anyhow. n