For many, ‘east or west, home is best’ is no new saying.
However, the killing of seven people in Mulanje, Nsanje and Thyolo believed to be bloodsuckers has turned homes into no-go zones to their migrant sons and daughters.
For weeks, reports have been awash of townspeople being warned against visiting their homelands after sunset.
The blood sucking rumours ministers dismissed as rumour-mongering had already gone out of hand when James Mphande got the dreaded call from home “warning me against visiting after 6pm”.
“Now, this is scary,” he wrote last week. “Having lived among the rumour mongers for years, I know that even without evidence… people believe so much in them that you cannot convince them otherwise.”
Wishing the rumours away is not an option either, said the former editor who is communications manager for Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must).
He reckons the “scary situation” requires a serious consideration because in the villagers’ ignorance and illiteracy lies a bigger problem.
The prevailing insecurity and awe has degenerated into mob justice, with some locals attacking passers-by believed to be linked to the vampires.
This stifles the right to life and freedom of movement.
However, the locals say government’s response has been slow and scanty.
They want President Peter Mutharika to visit villages unsettled by the story and clear the mist.
According to Traditional Authority (T/A) Kaduya of Phalombe, doing nothing about it may propel the security breakdown to go out of hand.
While government spokesperson Nicholas Dausi on Sunday told The Nation that the President would not make the trip, Mutharika will visit Mulanje on Friday, Phalombe on Monday and Chiradzulu on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the tales of mystic blood hunters likened to dogs and bats, has exposed the powerlessness of local leadership to deal with social crises.
Community leaders and politicians looked away as mobs mobilised themselves to maim and kill before the alleged attackers pounce.
Recently, Inspector General of Police Lexten Kachama visited affected districts and asked the villagers to stop taking the law into their own hands but take the suspects to police for questioning.
But the unsettling story keeps spreading like bushfire as attacks on strangers continue.
“When I heard the story, I summoned group village heads and told them to hear their people out on what they are experiencing,” says Senior Chief Chikumbu of Mulanje.
The traditional leader urges against mob justice.
“In my area, no single person has had blood sucked. This is hearsay. Most villagers are just retelling what they heard from their friends,” she says.
She narrated that one woman woke up and sleepwalked throughout her village, shouting she has been attacked by bloodsuckers.
“When people got to her house, they discovered that it was just a nightmare about people trying to strangle her,” recounts Chikumbu.
Dausi, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology, encourages village heads and religious leaders to help demystify the divisive beliefs.
“Government appreciates the villagers’ concerns and beliefs. But we are urging them not to kill the suspects. They are just suspects. Report the matter to police,” he says.
He reckons government is “currently praying for God’s intervention” to end the “hullabaloo”.
Recently, Mulanje has hosted several inter-denominational prayers to exorcise the feared bloodsuckers, with Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security Grace Chiumia and her Local Government and Rural Development counterpart Kondwani Nakhumwa spotted at some of them.
Chikumbu is also planning to hold prayers in her area.
This mirrors the desperation which started before Mutharika jetted back from the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
He might have said nothing about the worsening unrest, but his tour is expected to ease the crisis.
But Chief Chikumbu has doubts.
“I think he will say what others have said before. Maybe, the people just want encouragement from a very senior person. When the police boss came, it had just started and many did not get the message.”