Thursday, May 12, 2016

Magic, murder and money in Malawi

Witchcraft is big business in Malawi and this is bad news for albinos. Since January last year, there have been 17 recorded ”ritual killings” of people born with albinism: an inherited genetic condition in which the body fails to produce enough pigment or melanin in Malawi, and 66 cases of abductions and other related crimes. Albinism affects roughly one in 17,000 people globally, but in sub-Saharan Africa, the incidence is higher, typically as common as one in 5,000. In Tanzania, it is one in 1,400. Amnesty International said in a statement earlier this year that "it is deeply worrying that there’s poor security for people with albinism in Malawi despite an increasing number of attacks against them”.

"Anyone born with albinism in this country is living in fear of attack, no matter how socially connected one is," said Chipungu, a 32-year-old civil servant, can't remember the last time he went out at night. 

People with the genetic trait often experience taunting and discrimination. They can be accused of being "ghosts" or “witches” or derided in other ways for somehow being less than human. There is also a belief in the magical properties of their bodies. Their "difference" supposedly boosts the efficacy of potions or amulets made from their hair, eyes, skin, limbs and organs. People born with albinism are hunted, killed and dismembered, or their graves dug up by criminal syndicates in search of their bones. The belief – common in so many religions – is that literal or symbolic cannibalism allows communication with spirits and deities, and is used by those wishing power and money. These "occult economies" – the use of magical means for imagined material ends – mirror the mysteries of the 21st-century market, where money flows seemingly abundantly and effortlessly. In the almost literal worshipping of wealth, people turn to familiar arcane forces for a helping hand. This ultimate commodification of the human body is big business. According to a 2009 report by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an intact body of someone with albinism in Tanzania is worth around $75,000 – suggestive of a trade only affordable for the already rich and powerful, whose wealth is probably not based on productive labour.

According to the police in Dedza, central Malawi, two "albino hunters", arrested for the kidnapping and murder of 17-year-old Davis Machinjiri, had smuggled the body across the border to Angonia in Mozambique, where they had been promised $66,000 by "witch doctors".

Jeremiah Banda, a Malawian traditional doctor, believes the wave of killings has spread from Tanzania. "The use of albino body parts in magical medicine is common among East African traditional doctors, mostly those from Tanzania, where there is a belief that albinos possess special powers and their parts can bring good luck when used in magic concoctions," he told IRIN.

Malawian police also seem eager to externalise the problem. Following the arrest of 10 men in connection with the abduction and killing of a 25-year-old woman with albinism in Lilongwe, police spokesman Kondwani Kandiado said, "our current information indicates that there is a Tanzanian link in the recent wave of albino abductions and killings in the country". Body parts are bagged, transported and sold in "underground markets".

Speaking at the end of a week-long, fact-finding mission last month, the UN's independent expert on human rights and albinism, Ikponwasa Ero, said the situation in Malawi was an "emergency" and people with albinism were threatened with systematic extinction. "The situation is a potent mix of poverty, witchcraft beliefs and market forces, which push people to do things for profit," she said in an interview. 

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