People everywhere believe in crazy bullshit. I’m not talking about religious beliefs – any spiritual belief can be defended on the grounds that it’s not a statement about the physical world, and hence not testable. I mean provably false nonsense, like thinking that horoscopes predict the future (they don’t) or that vaccines cause autism (absolutely not) or that cell phones give you cancer (some people are committed enough to this one to keep running studies until they think they’ve found a risk, when really they’ve just finally hit on a false positive). Reading about pseudoscience and urban legends has always been a hobby of mine – I am fascinated the absurd stuff people believe, the reasons they believe it, and the way they react to contradictory evidence. It’s increasingly become relevant to my research as well – a lot of what I work on has to do with what people believe about the world, which often differs from the truth.
Conventional wisdom holds that the poor, and people from undeveloped countries, are ignorant: that they are more likely than people in other places to hold incorrect beliefs or not know about stuff. As I’ve noted here before, my experience is that this isn’t true. I have a previous post that points out the high levels of knowledge about HIV here in Malawi. I wrote it to explain a point that I had seen proven before but couldn’t source, which is that Malawians know more about HIV than Americans. I’ve since learned that the evidence for that is in one of kim dionne’s papers that is currently in the pipeline. Here’s her post on the topic.
In addition to knowing the basics of HIV fairly well, Malawians also don’t seem to believe the crazy shit that foreigners* think they believe. It’s quite common for discussions about HIV in Africa to turn to the “virgin cure” myth. The idea is that people think having sex with a virgin can cure HIV. As best I can tell this is a kind of meta-urban legend, a myth about the existence of a myth. I have seen survey data from Zomba District that asked about this, and about 5% of respondents said that it was true. This is fairly low for something that’s supposed to be a widespread belief and a major causal factor in the HIV epidemic; it’s almost at the point where I’d just say it’s just measurement error, for example respondents misunderstanding the question.** Moreover, at one point I read through all the citations about virgin cures on Wikipedia. There were plenty of cases of whites or African elites asserting that villagers believe in virgin cures, or blaming some horrific rape on such a belief. I came across no evidence of people actually believing in this stuff. I’ve also never seen any quotes from self-professed believers in this idea. I can find you people who will openly espouse almost any belief, on the record: that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, that we never landed on the moon, that the uterus automatically prevents pregnancy in cases of rape. But I’ve never seen someone say on record that sex with a virgin cures HIV. These people probably exist, but if so they’re rare.
On the other hand, one belief I have no trouble finding open support for is the “blood suckers” rumor. This belief, prevalent in Southern Malawi, holds that when you see white folks in a car (or maybe anyone hanging out in your village in a car) they are planning to come back at night and take people’s blood. The story I’ve heard is that the blood suckers have special pipes or tubes that can go through windows while they remain outside. This rumor first became a big deal around 2004, probably related to the Demographic and Health Surveys, which did take respondents’ blood (in small amounts, in the daytime) to test them for HIV. According to my staff, though, it goes back at least a couple of decades and is also associated with the Red Cross logo and vehicles. Many of my employees assert that blood suckers are in fact real but aren’t associated with white people, and are maybe just evil individuals. The rumor is so commonly accepted that I’ve been openly asked if I was an “opopa magazi” (“blood sucker”, in Chichewa) and had people shout it at us in our project car. It’s also often whispered in my presence, especially by kids. While most kids here are kind of scared of me (hey, I’m weird-looking, who can blame them?), some proportion simply flee in terror the moment they see me.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about writing this post. Wild rumors spread faster than the nightly brushfires here, so in the field I try to avoid even saying the words “blood sucker” (in English or Chichewa), for fear that my words would be misinterpreted. My hope is that posting this here is okay, on the assumption that anyone who believes in that bullcrap isn’t sophisticated enough to use the internet. (Maybe that’s not a safe bet. Plenty of Americans believe even crazier shit and discuss it online – the 9/11 “truth” movement comes to mind.) What I find most interesting about the blood suckers legend is its similarity to other prominent urban myths. Although the name is reminiscent of Latin America’s “goat sucker” (chupacabras) legend, the similarity there is just superficial. Instead, it strikes me as having the same essence as most myths from the US. Fear of strangers, typically characterized by senseless and often anonymous violence, is common to a huge share of American urban legends. The best example of this may be the allegation that people are sticking HIV-infected needles in the coin returns of pay phones or in movie theater seats. Another common theme is a skepticism of authority figures and a belief in conspiracies by the government to do evil things for basically no reason: think of stories about black helicopters or men in black or that weird myth about cows being dissected. Both of these fit right into the blood suckers story.
It also has an attribute in common with lots of conspiracy theories and urban legends about the US government: it adapts to contradictory facts (we’re just doing surveys, and people can see that that’s what we’re doing) by asserting that although there is a legitimate reason for what’s going on, there’s also secretly another very similar thing happening that is nefarious (the same people come back at night and suck your blood). There’s a whole insane literature about “chemtrails” espoused by Americans that asserts that the contrails that come out of jet engines in some weather conditions are really chemicals being sprayed by the government to poison people or do experiments or something. The people who adhere to this legend have had to confront the fact that contrails are real things that naturally occur sometimes. Their response, logically, is that okay, that’s true, but sometimes the government makes things that look exactly like contrails but are instead chemicals being sprayed to kill us. People actually believe this. Fervently. So it’s hard to say that the nonsense Malawian villagers believe is that much worse than what people espouse in the US.
The crazy stories here are no surprise, since they’re not that much crazier than crap that Americans believe – remember, a significant share of Americans don’t think our President was born in the United States. What I find surprising is how similar the underlying themes in the blood suckers rumor are to what I know from American myths. The underlying fears and concerns behind US urban legends might in fact be fairly universal.