Deadly Skin Trade Preys on African Albinos

Theunis Bates, Sphere, November 23, 2009

East Africa’s albinos have long suffered because of the color of their skin. Some are abandoned as babies by parents who regard their lack of pigment as a curse. Many more are subjected to taunts of “zeru” (Swahili for ghost) in school and on the street. But now Tanzania and Burundi’s 8,000 albinos face a more horrible threat, fueled by a macabre combination of superstition and economics.

Over the past two years–according to a new report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies–at least 56 albinos in the two countries have been murdered, and their body parts used by witch doctors to make charms and potions. The last known killing took place on Oct. 21, when albino hunters attacked 10-year-old Gasper Elikana in northern Tanzania. A gang of men hacked the boy to death in front of his family and neighbors–who were wounded trying to protect the child–before fleeing with his severed leg.

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What’s certain is that buyers–most of whom are believed to be Tanzanian–are willing to pay a high price for these horrific charms. Police have reported albino limbs being sold by witch doctors for $200, while a full “albino kit”–consisting of limbs, nose, tongue, ears and genitals–costs $75,000. That’s an astronomical sum in a country where almost 60% of the population lives on less than $1 a day, and it has led many experts to conclude that the demand for these goods comes from the upper-echelons of Tanzanian society. “Poor people cannot afford to spend so much money on a little concoction from a witch doctor,” says the Albinism Society’s Mwaura. “The buyers must be wealthy. They are not even trying to strike it rich, they’re trying to strike it richer.”

Under pressure from campaigners at home and abroad, the Tanzanian government has started to crack down on the grim trade. In January, it revoked all traditional healers’ operating licenses. (Many, however, flouted the ban and continued to trade.) {snip}

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Despite these doubts, there’s evidence that this hard-line approach is scaring off some albino hunters. {snip}

However, it’s likely that the region’s albinos will only feel truly safe when their black-skinned neighbors regard them as ordinary people and not supernatural beings. “What’s needed is education,” says Engstrand-Neacsu. “We need to make people understand what albinism really is. Ignorance is the origin of discrimination. And ignorance has ultimately led to these crimes.”

[Editor’s Note: More information on the Red Cross report on albinos and a link to it are available here.]

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