“This is possibly the worst time to be a person with albinism in Tanzania,” says Amir Manento.
In October, citizens will go to the polls to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections.
“Every election period brings with it a new cycle of killings. In between we have smaller elections translating to more abductions, more killings,” said Manento, a retired judge and human rights activist, who for decades has been at the forefront of campaigning for the rights of people living with albinism.
“We see an increase of witchcraft and the use of human body parts, particularly albino body parts, in the run-up to the general elections.”
Albino body parts are associated with good luck and, as the country gears up for the elections, the demand for good luck charms goes up. Sacrifices are thought by some to be a sure way of guaranteeing victory in the polls.
Fishing and mining communities
“Albino hunting came into the limelight around 10 years ago, particularly within the fishing and mining communities,” says Benson Bana, a political science and public administration lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam.
He believes one cause of the problem lies in the financial downturn in the area around Lake Victoria, one of the regions where there have been the most killings and abductions.
“A certain poverty touched our people after the privatisation of fishing activities in Lake Victoria,” he says. “Everything was being controlled, from where one could fish to the size of the holes in his fishing net. The result was diminished harvests.
“Every above-average catch by the little guys was then attributed to superstition. This is when witchdoctors started peddling the belief that people living with albinism, or their body parts, could be used as good luck charms.”
Bana believes this devastating association was passed on to neighbouring mining communities.
“Eventually it caught wind and was looked upon as a legitimate way of acquiring riches and power by some individuals. Hence the association with politicians.”
Others disagree, saying that medicine killings have occurred “since time beyond memory”.
Tanzania is thought to have one of the world’s largest populations of people with albinism, a congenital disorder that robs skin, eyes and hair of pigment. This community of about 30 000 has existed under the threat of abductions and ritual killings; in recent years the situation appears to have worsened.
A complete set of albino body parts – including all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose – can fetch up to $75 000, according to a report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The Tanzanian Albinism Society says it is almost impossible to know how many have been abducted or killed since the beginning of the year. But they say the number of victims will be higher than the two cases that made it into police records in 2013.
“Even last year the numbers might have been higher because these crimes are very intimate. Mostly, a close family member, even a father, is involved in the killings and abductions. In such cases silence wins; his wife will probably be an accomplice in the crime. Nothing will be said of the matter again and the police will have no chance of prosecuting anyone,” says Severin Edward, programme co-ordinator for the Tanzanian Albinism Society.
A total of 155 cases of violation of albino rights have been reported to Tanzanian authorities since 2009, according to a study released in March by Under the Same Sun (UTSS), a nongovernmental organisation working to combat discrimination against people with albinism.
“Of these cases, 75 were deaths. We have also received 18 reports of grave violations,” said Don Sawatzky, director of operations for UTSS. The study, which gathered data from 25 countries in Africa, found reports of 145 albino killings and 226 cases of violations that include mutilations and kidnappings.
UTSS has been pushing the United Nations for key resolutions aimed at ending all forms of discrimination against people with albinism.
Sawatzky argues that to describe the killings as a phenomenon propelled by recent economic hardship would be “to accept the easy answer”.
“Nobody really knows the origin of the killings, since documentation in Africa is not common other than through oral tradition. All we know for sure is that albinism has been ‘mythologised’ since time beyond memory. Muti murders, or ‘medicine’ killings, have a deep, long-standing history and are a familiar concept to most Africans,” he says.
Kenya’s first albino member of Parliament, Isaac Mwaura, says it is time that measures are put in place to end these killings and abductions, and that existing laws need to be adhered to by all affected countries.
“Kenya has strict trafficking laws, the same as Tanzania. What makes it possible for criminals to take our children, mothers, fathers or brothers across borders and sell them off like commodities to witch doctors? Enforcement of laws is one of the weakest links in this war,” says Mwaura.
“We have become the hunted. Neither we nor our children are safe. Fathers are betraying their children’s trust and selling them off like unwanted baggage. Mothers are conspiring to traffic their own flesh and blood to senseless deaths.”
Effort from government and public
In Tanzania, the government has been working with NGOs and civil society, and results are now being seen. “Never before have we seen so much effort from the government and the general public. At least we are now getting convictions, primarily because investigations are more thorough and new laws are being set up,” says Manento. “Although no executions have taken place, a total of 17 individuals have received the death sentence, some of them as recently as March, when four individuals, including the husband of the murdered victim, were convicted,” he said.
To win this war, NGOs at the forefront believe collusion must come to an end: “We must educate families to understand that having such a child is not a gateway to quick riches. We then encourage the rest of the community to speak up,” says Edward. “The society needs to be more empowered and supported to co-operate. For instance, when family members are involved in killings or abductions it is quite difficult to get witnesses because even they are not assured of their security.”
Sawatzky believes the war will be won, but not soon. “Like all forms of discrimination, it will take several generations to achieve. I will not see the war won in my lifetime. The youth and future generations are the best answer to this war,” he said.
People need to be sensitised, says Justus Kamugisha, regional police chief in Shinyanga, in north Tanzania. “We need to make our people understand there are no shortcuts to prosperity. Taking [someone’s] life, regardless of his condition, is murder, for which you will be charged.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015