Originating from the word albus, meaning white in Latin, albinism is a genetic disorder resulting in a decrease or absence of pigmentation in the hair, eyes, and skin. Albinism is considered a rare condition. Worldwide, it affects only 1 in 20,000 people. In Tanzania, the rate is much higher with 1,429 people being affected. With its scorching hot sun, the tropical climate of Tanzania puts people with albinism at increased risk for developing skin cancer at an early age. But the absence of melanin, which protects all of us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and its negative effects, is not the major threat for the albinos in Tanzania.
Throughout Africa, an indeterminate number of individuals with albinism, especially children, have been the victims of brutal attacks and murder in the name of witchcraft, superstition, and wealth. Most recently, the atrocities committed against albinos have received widespread attention because of various crimes reported, such as infanticide, kidnapping, amputations, and decapitations, committed for purposes of supplying highly valued body parts used for amulets, which are then sold in underground witchcraft markets. For example, up to $75,000 may be offered for a complete set of arms, legs, ears, and genitals from an individual with albinism.
Tanzania is at the top of this macabre chart: according to the UN nearly 80 albino have been killed since 2000. The latest victims include a one-year-old albino boy, killed in north-western Tanzania a few weeks ago.
On the 12th of March, Tanzanian authorities arrested 32 witch doctors, who were banned in January, as part of a campaign against ritual killings of albinos.
“The witch doctors were arrested in possession of different items, including potions and oil from an unknown source” the police chief in the north-western town of Geita, Joseph Konyo, told reporters.
“Some of those arrested were found in possession of items like lizard skin, warthog teeth, ostrich eggs, monkey tails, bird claws, mule tails and lion skin” police spokesperson Advera Bulimba added to the agencies.
But what are the reasons of this ‘albino-chasing’?
The main driving forces underlying these profiling crimes are ignorance, myth, and superstition, such as the belief that individuals with albinism possess superpowers or that their body parts bestow fortune and health. Thus, the stigma and atrocities affecting the albino population may be attributed to lack of familiarity and education about albinism coupled with ignorance.
Common myths and misconceptions regarding albinism include:
Weaving albino hair into a net improves the chances of catching fish
Albino body parts worn as amulets bring good luck, fortune, and health
Albino body parts are a necessary ingredient for witch doctor potions
Albinos have magical superpowers and can cure diseases
Intercourse with an albino lady will cure human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection
Spitting on an albino prevents the condition in one’s family
Mother of albino child was laughed at by an albino during pregnancy
Albinism is caused by a missing top layer of skin
Albinos and their mothers are possessed by evil spirits
The devil stole the original child and replaced it with an albino
Albinism is very contagious and spread through touching
Albinos are housed by ghosts of European colonists
Albinos have low brain capacity and cannot function at the same level as others
Mother of albino was impregnated by a white man
Although the witch doctors reportedly fueled the killings, by inducing local people to believe “magic potions” made from body parts brought good luck and wealth, banning them would not solve the problem eradicating these superstitions. Witch doctors also have a fundamental role in healthcare, providing traditional medicines especially in rural areas. Furthermore, politicians are also involved: even if in 2010 the first albino was elected to parliament, last year the United Nations warned of increased attacks on albinos in Tanzania because of the upcoming 2015 general elections, when political campaigners visit influential witch doctors to seek help in winning the election.
Beside the UN, especially the Human Rights Council, several organization are fighting for the rights of albinos in Tanzania: the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) is a key part of the albino protection movement; organisations such as National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH), Tanzania Albino Centre (TAC), Assisting Children in Need (ACN) and Under the Same Sun (UTSS).
Peter Ash, CEO at UTSS and an albino himself, states his aspirations and purpose for the project:
“I have a dream that one day in Africa, people with albinism will take their rightful place throughout every level of society, and that the days of discrimination against persons with albinism will be a faint memory!”