Aislinn Laing, Telegraph, January 14, 2015
Tanzania has announced a ban on witchdoctors who have been targeting the country’s large albino population in the mistaken belief their body parts can bring wealth, luck and power.
The country’s home affairs minister called for communities to tip-off investigators in a new taskforce set up to tackle the problem, which has resulted in at least 74 murders since 2000 and 58 brutal attacks in which people have lost limbs and been left permanently scarred.
The task force will in the next two weeks start working in areas where attacks have been most prevalent, minister Matias Chikawe said.
“We want to address the issue of abduction and killings of people with albinism once and for all by banning the activities of these unscrupulous people, who cheat others by telling them that they can get rich quickly or become members of parliament,” he said.
“People should also be repeatedly told that the only way of becoming rich is through hard work and not possessing charms.”
In the West, an estimated one in 20,000 people have some form of albinism, which is caused by a hereditary recessive gene resulting in a lack of melanin pigmentation.
But in Tanzania, and throughout East Africa, around one in 1,400 has the condition because, experts believe, of higher levels of inbreeding in remote communities.
Severin Edwards, from the Tanzanian Albino Society which will work with the government on the latest crackdown, said the country’s 35,000-strong albino population are living in fear because of a renewed appetite for their body parts, which can fetch up to £50,000.
In August last year, there were five assaults in just two weeks, including a 15-year-old girl whose arm was chopped off by men with machetes who later told police they had been offered £400 for it.
On New Year’s Eve, a four-year-old albino girl disappeared from her home in the northern Mwanza region. A total of 15 people, including the girl’s father and uncles, were arrested but she has still not been found.
Grave robberies have become such a problem that families of albinos now bury them in unmarked plots.
The attacks have brought international scrutiny from the United Nations and foreign NGOs, and prompted the government to move albino children to special schools in a bid to keep them safe.
“Children are sent to camps where they live like refugees, there are survivors who have lost limbs but can’t work or even go to the toilet,” Mr Edwards said.
“In the rural areas, if there is a person with albinism living in a family, everyone is frightened. There have been cases where relatives are killed trying to protect them.”
He said the government plan was a “good start” which he hoped would lead to “tangible” action, but added that harnessing political will had not been easy in a country where, according to a 2010 US survey, 93 per cent of people believe in witchcraft.
“The posters are still up in all the towns and cities, promising to make you more rich and intelligent,” he said. “It’s connected to big businessmen, in the fishing and mining industry, and to politicians, who want more power. It’s why there’s been no serious commitment until now.”
He linked the rise in attacks in 2009 and at present to general elections held in 2010 and this year. “Politicians who want to keep power or win it either consult a witchdoctor or pay someone to consult for them,” he said.
Witchdoctors do not dirty their own hands, he conceded, but in every documented attack, they are somehow involved.
“In every case that we have followed up, especially where suspects have cooperated, there’s a witchdoctor behind it. They either tell their customer to obtain the parts for them or they order someone else to get them,” he said.
Traditional medicine is widespread across Africa, but the majority who practise it vehemently reject associations with those who use body parts.
Phephisile Maseko, from the South Africa-based Traditional Healers’ Organisation, said witches had no place in traditional medicine and she feared reputable Tanzanian practitioners would be tarred with the same brush.
“The use of human tissue has no place in traditional medicine and cannot heal anything,” she said. “Witchdoctors are criminals and killers, and have nothing to do with us.”