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Inside Africa


Life for Africa's Albinos is Nasty, Brutal--and Short

January 11th 2010

Africa Topics - African Albino

White people no longer stand out, literally, in sub-Saharan Africa, not even in the villages and urban slums where a NGO Land-cruiser, with its White crew, is now a familiar sight. For Albino Africans it’s a different story.

The Whites are visitors, who are there usually for a specific purpose, but they won’t stay forever. An Albino may not find it easy to move out. He or she was born there and from an early age is likely to have encountered discrimination and taunts: at school, at sports and leisure, and later when looking for work.

An Albino child will very likely be rejected by his father. He will accuse the child’s mother of “infidelity”, or tell her that he, the father, is normal; there must be something wrong with the mother, and so will leave her because he doesn’t want “more children like that one”. But Albinos were left to follow their own way, a grim one in a place where the sun is bright and hot, and shines every day of the year. Despite popular misconceptions, they are not mentally-handicapped. They are intelligent and smart. They have to be; they are survivors.

That was until three years ago, when a “trade” in Albino body parts started, especially in the south-west of Lake Victoria, where Albinos are about 1 in 4,000 of the population, as opposed to the 1 in 20,000 of Europe and North America, where they are also less noticeable from their complexion.

An Albino’s life is hard. He has little or no pigmentation in his hair, skin and eyes. Instead of getting a stylish tan from being out in the sun, he will develop sores on the skin and, unless very careful and rich enough to use sun block regularly, contract skin cancer at some point in his life. He will always have poor eye-sight.

Now his life is even harder. According to the ICRC (International Red Cross/Crescent), 10,000 have gone into hiding since the killings began in Tanzania, (pop. 43.7 million, 2009, UN), which has the highest known proportion of Albinos. In the one-year period before June 2008 alone, 50 were killed in Tanzania. The authorities reacted. In April 2008, the Tanzanian president, Jakaya Kikwete, appointed 48-year old Albino, Al-Symaa Kway-Geer to parliament, part of her task being to crack down on witch-doctors who encourage the killing of Albinos. In January 2009, the Prime Minister revoked the licenses of witch-doctors, many of whom use body parts in black magic.

Why this persecution? Somewhat like when the first Whites came into the African interior, people believed they were half-men, half-gods, that they had some kind of supernatural strength, could predict the future, bring sorrow or wealth and had either good or evil powers. Since they were different, they were kept at a respectful distance. They were the “pink strangers” carrying sticks that fired and killed. The Albinos must have “powers” too, but the difference is that they are “us”, born among us.

Their body parts, particularly those considered the “most powerful”, such as the head and genitals are thought to bring good luck and transmit supernatural powers. Unscrupulous business-men have smelt money, and are known to sell a complete set of body parts for as much as $75,000. Illegal miners looking for gems use them; fishermen tie body parts like hair to their nets for “good luck” in getting a catch. Members of the business community in Mwanza, on Lake Victoria, have confessed to buying human body parts from witch-doctors. The word is spreading and traders from neighbouring countries, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and eastern Congo are cashing in. Some politicians also regularly consult witch-doctors.

In Tanzania they have been trading in Albino organs; in Uganda it is small children that are used by witch-doctors as human sacrifices. The Witchcraft Act has been in force in Uganda since 1931, but has not been implemented effectively, since some top business people and a few politicians take part in these practices to get rich and further their careers.

The law in Tanzania has been slow to act, but has now acted. As of December 1, 2009, seven people had been sentenced to death, although the death sentence has not been actually implemented in the country since 1995.

In Tanzania’s western neighbour, Burundi, Albinos have become proactive. They are demanding a census, as well as their own Member of Parliament. In the Ruyigi region of the country, a safe haven has been set up for them by Nicodeme Gahimbare, in his fortified house. Good as this initiative is, a more lasting solution is called for.

Mali, in north-west Africa, and Malawi in the south-east, however, each claim Albinos who have made it in life – both as well-known and popular musicians: Salif Keita from Mali, and Geoffrey Zigoma from Malawi. Social acceptance has proved to be possible.

The attitude towards Albinos, of fear, even loathing and their terrible treatment, is one of the paradoxes of Africa in transition, where the stranger is always welcome and rites of passage –birth, marriage and death- are accompanied by much ritual and ceremony, where abortion, euthanasia and artificial contraception are anathematized. The mixture of dark superstition and wanting to “make it” at any price is taking its toll, and the basic rights of Albinos call out to be more stringently protected and widely promoted.

Cutting Edge Africa Correspondent Martyn Drakard writes from Uganda and Kenya.

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