Albinism is a rare, non-contagious, genetically inherited difference occurring in both genders regardless of ethnicity, in all countries of the world. BOTH the father and mother must carry the gene for it to be passed on even if they do not have albinism themselves. The condition results in a lack of pigmentation in the hair, skin and eyes, causing vulnerability to sun exposure and bright light.
Life in Africa for people with albinism is hard enough at the best of times. Half of them, according to some estimates, develop skin cancer by 20 and 80 per cent by 30. The lack of, or reduced levels of, melanin in the skin creates high risk for skin cancer due to sun exposure. Combine this with the profound lack of protective sunscreens, wide brimmed hats and proper clothing in Tanzania and you find epidemic rates of skin cancer in all ages. As a result, the average life expectancy for an albino in Tanzania is 30 years, with only 2% living beyond 40 years. In countries and circumstances where adequate health care is provided and widely known, people with albinism ahave the same life expectancy as the general population. Almost all people with albinism are visually impaired, with the majority being classified as “legally blind”.
Albinism is relatively rare—perhaps one in 20,000 births overall—but worldwide in occurrence. But in East Africa, the high incidence is one birth in 1,400 or perhaps even higher. It is estimated that there are about 34,000 people living with albinism in Tanzania, with many of the attacks reported in rural areas where people are particularly vulnerable. There, people with albinism have been, and still are, subject to infanticide, ostracism, violence and murder because of it. More gruesomely, they have been dismembered—while alive or after death, their graves dug up and corpses hacked to bits—because of the conviction that their body parts, used in rituals and potions, transmit magical powers and protection to those who consume them.
Peter Ash, founded Under the Same Sun, a non-profit aiming to improve the lives of people with albinism in Tanzania, issued a report a year ago listing 129 recent killings and 181 other attacks—including mutilation and the violation of graves—in 23 African nations. Most of the victims are young, Urquhart reports, because they’re easier to attack and because—as in the sex trade—younger flesh is always more valuable. Earlier this month, Tanzanian police announced the arrest of 32 “witch doctors” implicated in the murder of 75 people with albinism since 2000.
The horror of a rapidly growing industry in the sale of albino body parts is an unimaginable evil driven by the belief (in some areas of the country) that the body parts of PWA possess magical powers capable of bringing riches if used in potions produced by local witchdoctors. A U.S. survey in 2010 found although most Tanzanians are Christian or Muslim, 60 percent believed certain people could cast spells and curses. Leaders in the albinism community believe that many of the attacks and killings remain undocumented and thus the numbers are likely much higher than our records show. While Tanzanian police first started documenting them in 2006, it is widely known that these witchcraft related assaults against PWA have been going on since time beyond memory. Reports also indicate that albino body parts are being exported outside of Tanzania. In one instance, a Tanzanian trader was caught traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the head of an infant with albinism in his possession. He told police that a businessman there was going to pay him for the head according to its weight.
In sub Saharan Africa, there has been a long standing and widespread lack of public awareness about albinism. Powerful myths surround albinism, including these:
There are many prevalent myths. People With Albinism (PWA) never die - They simply vanish - They are not human - They are ghosts. PWA are born to black women who have slept with a white man, or a European ghost. (Most women giving birth to a baby with albinism are abandoned by the father of the child. In most cases, neither parent knows that the father always carries the gene as well as the mother.) A PWA is a curse from the gods or from dead ancestors. As a result, touching a PWA will bring bad luck, sickness or even death.
As a result of these and other myths, many families do not bother to educate their children with albinism. Also, employers avoid hiring a PWA due to fears that their customers and staff will "catch" the condition, or that food would be contaminated. Sadly, in some social settings, many PWA are not offered the same kind of social & physical contact, due to this kind of misinformation.
Recently a six-year-old boy had his hand chopped off by gang members who attacked him in his own home.
“The build-up to elections in Africa seems to be something that almost all people with albinism fear. Especially if you go into the rural regions. If their country is going to the polls or close to the border where they are, they fear for their lives,” says Don Sawatzky, Director of Operations at Under the Same Sun, an advocacy group for people with albinism working in Tanzania.
“There is the belief that their body parts will make a person instantly prosperous and wealthy,” he explains, adding that people interested in political positions can often still hold these superstitions.
A complete set of body parts from a person with albinism can sell for up to $150,000 (€140,000).
The consumer of this product is wealthy,” continues Sawatzky. “The average cannot afford any of that. We have come to realise it is wealthy businessmen, they tend to be politicians. Because of the money that has gone into this trade, it has escalated.”
The practice is a very old one. People with albinism were sacrificed to volcanos in Cameroon; their heads buried with chiefs in Guinea; and up to eight buried alive in the grave of a chief to escort him to the afterlife in Tanzania.
That was to ensure success and power in heaven too. During the tribal days, these ‘powers’ were only afforded to chiefs and elders. Consent was given rarely and only to a few. Although the tribal way of life has broken down, the superstitions have remained, increasing the dangers for people with albinism.
“Some of the boundaries that contained the practice have been lost, but the belief is still there that these body parts can be valuable.”
“To date, the Tanzanian government has done little more than talk and promise,” continues Sawatzky.
Tanzanian police banned a demonstration on Monday to protest against attacks and murders of albinos, fuelling concerns that authorities are not committed to ending violence against albinos whose body parts are highly valued in witchcraft. The protest, organized by the Tanzania Albinism Society, initially received police approval amid growing anger over the lack of protection for albinos in the wake of the recent abduction and suspected killing of two albino children. A one-year-old boy, Yohana Bahati, was snatched from his home in Tanzania's northwestern Geita region last month. His body was found days later with his limbs severed. A four-year-old girl kidnapped in December in Mwanza region is still missing.
Simiyu Regional Commissioner Eraston Mbwilo has ordered release of all witchdoctors arrested by police last week in connection to PWA killings. Speaking at a public rally held at Mwabayanda village in Maswa District, Mbwilo said he had reached the decision to order the release of the traditional healers following complaints from the suspects. The police crackdown on witchdoctors is meant to stop the killings of people with albinism which has of recent resurfaced in the Lake Zone regions.
Vicky Ntetema, head of Under The Same said "When a person with albinism has been murdered or mutilated, the government is numb. You don't hear leaders from the central government decrying the kidnapping, the mutilation or the killing. Nobody at the top says anything. It's something that the government has to be ashamed of."
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