A six-year-old albino girl in Burundi has been found dead with her head and limbs removed, in the latest killing linked to ritual medicine. Albinos in the region have been targeted because of a belief peddled by witchdoctors that their body parts can be used for magic potions. The girl, who was attacked, was the sixth person with albinism to be killed in Burundi since September. Armed attackers broke into the family home and tied up the girl’s parents before shooting her in the head, local officials say.
Tanzania is also a country in Africa were albinos are targeted and killed the moment they are spotted. Only the past year 25 albinos were murdered here. Since 2007, 44 albinos have been killed in Tanzania and 14 others have been slain in Burundi, sparking widespread fear among albinos in East Africa. At least 10,000 have been displaced or gone into hiding since the killings began, according to a report released this week by the International Federation for the Red Cross and Crescent societies.
The head of the Burundi Albinos’ Association, Kasim Kazungu, says people with albinism had not suffered any discrimination until other Burundians heard about the lucrative trade in albino body parts in neighboring Tanzania. Not long ago police officers in south-western Tanzania arrested a man who was attempting to sell his albino wife to Congolese traders and two mothers in western Tanzania were also attacked with machetes after gangs failed to find their albino children.
The latest victim was a seven-month-old baby. He was mutilated on the orders of a witchdoctor peddling the belief that potions made from an albino’s legs, hair, hands, and blood can make a person rich. Sorcery and the occult maintain a strong foothold in this part of the world, especially in the remote rural areas around the fishing and mining regions of Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. Once these poor albinos would seek protection from the sun to avoid skin cancer, now they have to go into hiding just to simply survive and avoid being cut in pieces.
Nobody seems to know why the killings are happening now, but Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete is now putting pressure on the police to identify where albinos live and offer them protection but it seems like it’s not going to be easy as long as the witchdoctors persuade people to bring albino body parts.
Albinism is a congenital disorder characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to absence or defect of an enzyme involved in the production of melanin. Albinism results from inheritance of recessive gene alleles and is known to affect all vertebrates, including humans. The most common term used for an organism affected by albinism is “albino”. Albinism is associated with a number of vision defects, such as photophobia, nystagmus and astigmatism and lack of skin pigmentation makes the organism more susceptible to sunburn and skin cancers.
We want your legs!
The last adult albino to be murdered was Nyerere Rutahiro. He was eating dinner outside in his rural compound, when a gang of four strangers burst in, and threatened to arrest him. As his wife Susannah looked on helplessly, the men began to hack at Nyerere’s arms and legs with machetes. “We want your legs,” they shouted, “We want your legs,” his wife recalls, still deeply traumatized by what she saw. Nyerere was targeted for being albino but he was human in the end and died a horrifying death. He was a man in his 50s, father of two and working as a farmer just like the others in the same area. His body was laid to rest in a cement-sealed grave to protect against grave robbers who often steal body parts of the dead to give to witchdoctors.
This is the work of organized gangs, according to Tanzanian police in the capital Dar as Salaam. Witchdoctors, middlemen and the clients who pay for albino body parts are among the 173 people in custody so far for these macabre killings but none has been prosecuted.
The sad reality is that albinos, who can afford it, are now flocking to urban centres where they feel a little safer. African albinos endure insults, discrimination and segregation throughout their lives. They also have a high risk of contracting skin cancer in a region where many jobs are outdoors.
Away from the wards, under the shade of a mango tree, a black woman sits with her albino daughter. Ashura and Amina, her angelic looking 9 year old. They may seem an odd couple at first, but the firm eyes of the mother reveals a woman deeply protective of her child. She is a woman who looks older than her years. Ashura and Amina now live on their own, ostracised by the rest of their family. “When Amina was born my husband and the older two children moved away,” recounts Ashura. “They were so ashamed and thought Amina would bring us bad luck, but I am not leaving her, she’s my daughter,” Ashura say.
Every parent nurturing an albino child has good reason to be frightened in today’s Tanzania. The stories of youngsters being snatched from their parents’ arms or attacked on the way to school are horrific but a part of reality.
Mary Owido, 36 years old and mother of 6 lacks pigment that gives color to skin, eyes and hair, says she is only comfortable when at work or at home with her husband and children.”Wherever I go people start talking about me, saying that my legs and hands can fetch a fortune in Tanzania,” she says. “This kind of talk scares me. I am afraid of going out alone.”
The surge in the use of albino body parts as good luck charms is a result of “a kind of marketing exercise by witch doctors,” the International Federation for the Red Cross and Crescent societies said. The report says the market for albino parts exists mainly in Tanzania, where a complete set of body parts including all limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose can sell for $75,000. Wealthy buyers use the parts as talismans to bring them wealth and good fortune.
Many fathers in denial
Almost 90 percent of albinos living in the region were raised by single mothers, because the fathers believed their wives were having affairs with white men. Some African communities believe that albinos are harbingers of disaster, while others mistakenly think albinos are mentally retarded and discourage their parents from taking them to school, saying it’s a waste of money. This resembles the witch-hunt that took place in the middle ages were women and girls would be burned at the stake accused of being witches.
Due to a lack of education, many albinos are illiterate and are forced into menial jobs, exposing them to the sun and skin cancer and those who manage to finish school face discrimination in the work place and are never considered for promotions. But one thing is positive and that is that before people would not dare to speak about albinism and would always keep silence. Today, everybody is talking about it and hopefully things will change so that these people can live as a part of the community and not as outcasts.