Dozens of witchcraft-related murders of albinos in Tanzania and Burundi have left the albino populations of both nations living in fear, a report released yesterday said. The report, Through Albino Eyes, by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), found that around 300 children were hiding in schools for the disabled or emergency shelters in Tanzania.
The children are afraid that hunters employed by witchdoctors could murder them for their body parts.
“It has been a crisis for over two years, 56 albinos have lost their lives as a result of killings done by hunters,” Matthias Schmale, IFRC under secretary general for development, told journalists at the report launch.
“The report demonstrates … that thousands of albino lives in these two countries … are literally put on hold.”
There are 7,000 registered albinos in Tanzania and 1,000 in Burundi, although officials believe actual numbers are higher. According to the IFRC, these albinos are unable to live normal lives due to the threat of murder.
The attacks kicked off in 2007, and quickly spread across Tanzania – where the majority of the murders have occurred – and into Burundi.
A lull this summer led to hopes that the attacks were over, but in late October, hunters beheaded 10-year-old albino boy Gasper Elikana in front of his family in Tanzania, then made off with his leg.
Malian singer Salif Keita – himself an albino – was due to launch the report but cancelled at the last minute. However, he sent a message calling for an end to the killings. “It is my hope that the attention of the world will focus on the plight of albinos and other vulnerable people,” he said.
Tanzanian police estimate that a complete set of albino body parts – including all four limbs, genitals, ears, nose and tongue – are worth as much as $75,000 to witch doctors, who use them to concoct potions believed to bring wealth and good luck.
According to Isaac Mwaura, national coordinator for the albinism society in neighbouring Kenya, a combination of globalization-induced greed and old African superstitions is to blame for the killings, which he believes are well-planned and organized.
“Witch doctors commission people to look for these body parts,” he said. “The gangs were organized, had certain targets and certain motivation.”
Tanzania sentenced four men to hang for killing an albino in November, but Mwaura said he believed that education would be a more appropriate way to not only prevent more deaths but fight discrimination.
Both he and Schmale criticized East African governments for not doing enough to protect albinos.
Albinos lack melanin pigment in their skin, eyes, and hair. The condition comes with a host of attendant health factors, poor eyesight and susceptibility to skin cancer among them.
Many albinos living in poverty cannot afford life-saving suntan lotion, and the IFRC report found that 98% of Albinos living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania die by their 40th birthday.
Albinos also face discrimination and segregation and are often shunned by their families and communities.