Albinos In East Africa
It is 2014 isn’t it? One would like to believe some degree of pragmatism and scientific thought has woven its way into the world by now right? Don’t get your hopes up too high. Allow me to tell you about life as an albino in east Africa.
Albinism is a genetic skin condition in which individuals are born without the ability to make pigment. The skin is extremely pale and the eyes tend to be a soft blue or pinkish hue. This predisposes albinos to early skin cancers and a lifetime of poor eyesight since neither the skin nor the eyes are shielded by normal pigment. Life as an albino is tough enough as it is. Now imagine you are a native African albino, standing out glaringly white against your family and community of dark skinned people.
This past month, African albinos have suffered through an especially vicious time. In Tanzania, a young albino man’s body was discovered in a swamp where someone had carved out a large patch of white skin and bore a hole in his abdomen. On Aug. 5, three machete-wielding men hacked off the right arm of a 15-year-old albino girl. They later attacked her albino uncle, but he was able to escape. Authorities arrested the men, who said a local witchdoctor was ready to pay them $6,000 in U.S. currency for the girl’s arm. On Aug. 7, armed men descended upon a 35-year-old albino woman and cut off her lower arm, but not before killing her husband, who died trying to defend her. United Nations officials reported at least five known assaults on albinos in Tanzania alone last month. Since 1998, there have been 332 documented attacks on albinos in the area. Exact numbers are elusive, however, because most occur in rural areas and often relatives of the albinos are involved in the violence.
Albino Myths And Stereotypes
Albino body parts have a long history of use in folk magic by local witchdoctors. Often the bones, skin and genitals of albinos are ground down and mixed into potions and charms. Albino hair is threaded into fishermen’s nets to ensure a good catch. Gold miners covet their bones as amulets to bring luck. Peter Ash, who heads an albinism-rights organization called Under the Same Sun, points out: “In sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a significant belief in witchcraft, which often involves the use of body parts. It has been the case long before colonization. It’s part of a deep-seated cultural, historical and spiritual practice.” Research reports that 93 percent of Christians and Muslims in Tanzania belief in witchcraft, which is at the epicenter of these crimes.
There is also a quite disturbing belief that having sex with an albino woman or virgin girl can cure HIV/AIDS.
Violence Against Albinos
The median annual income in Tanzania is $600 in U.S. currency. Partial limbs of an albino fetch hundreds of dollars on the underground market. Entire albino bodies reportedly go for $75,000 in U.S. funds. Obviously, prices like that are not supported by the impoverished rural communities. It’s widely believed that affluent members of society are behind the purchasing of these body parts and traditional witchdoctors are ever more catering to the appetites of the wealthy. It’s reported that prior to elections, attacks on albinos spike. This gives rise to the belief many politicians are unwilling to run a campaign without invoking a little folk magic on their side. And if the rulers of the country are indeed involved, it is unlikely any meaningful crackdown will come soon.
In an attempt to protect albino children, special schools and living facilities away from the public eye have been created. Critics claim they have quickly degraded into understaffed, neglectful facilities, where sexual abuse is rampant and children grow up illiterate. However bad these places may be, the albinos at least seem to be physically safe for now.
The lack of acceptance for albinos is mind boggling. When the white child is born to black parents, many suspect the mother of having copulated with a white man. It’s also possible that the child is an actual ghost of a former European colonist in this belief system. In Zimbabwe, albinos are thought to be possessed by spirits of evil and are called “sope.” Because of this attitude, many albinos are choosing to live out their lives in the protected colonies much like lepers had to do in the 19th century. Even after death, an albino doesn’t enjoy peace. Family members have been known to encase the body in cement or bury them in remote unmarked graves to thwart grave robbers. Other families simply cut out the middleman and sell off the body of the deceased to the witchdoctors directly.
There really is no shortage of human catastrophe in the news these days. Ebola has broken out of its African cage and is now on American soil; every week a journalist is beheaded by the Islamist militant group ISIS on Youtube; and in Palo Cedro we have a man accused of killing and serving his former girlfriend’s pet for dinner. But as crazy as the world seems to you and me, no one is hunting us for our body parts or grinding our children into potions and charms.