Albinos at Risk in Africa
Photo Credit: VOA
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Albinos at Risk in Africa

Jul. 09, 2018  |     |  0 comments


The recent announcement that six albinos in Malawi plan to fight the violent prejudice against albinism by contesting in next year’s elections has brought renewed attention to the plight of albinos in Malawi and other African countries. Malawi has seen “a spike in violent attacks on people with albinism since late 2014,” and “just 30 percent of the 148 attacks against albinos since 2014 have been properly dealt with.” Indeed, “of the 600 cases of violence against albinos in 28 African countries, Malawi accounted for nearly a third.”


As albinism is a genetic condition that causes the characteristic loss of pigmentation in the skin and hair and can also “lead to problems like vision loss and skin cancer,” the murders of albinos across Africa — which have been motivated by indigenous beliefs in the magical efficacy of albino body parts — represent a significant and ongoing modern-day instance of how religious belief can motivate the mass killing of disabled people.


In 2016, following a spree of killings of albinos, Ikponwosa Ero, the UN Human Rights Council’s expert on albinism, warned that the small community of albinos in Malawi faced the prospect of “total extinction.” Ero noted that “Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries and the sale of body parts of persons with albinism is believed to be very lucrative.” Of the albino survivors, many have had their limbs hacked off for sale to complicit witchdoctors (indigenous shamans). Indeed, the hunger for albino body parts is such that their remains risk getting “robbed from graveyards.”


As noted, the killing of albinos is not limited to Malawi. In 2015, Tanzania arrested over 200 witchdoctors in a crackdown following a killing spree which left almost 80 albinos dead, and the government “banned witchdoctors … as part of its efforts to prevent further attacks and kidnappings targeting people with albinism.” The demand from “businessmen, politicians and others” for magic rituals using albino body parts — which are believed to “have properties that confer wealth and good luck” — is such that witchdoctors are willing to pay criminal gangs up to USD 75,000 for every “complete set of albino body parts.” In a recent case in Mozambique, an 11-year-old albino boy was kidnapped and murdered for his ears and hair.


Apart from arresting and prosecuting the witchdoctors and gangs responsible for kidnapping, mutilating, or killing albinos, the governments concerned have also found it necessary to challenge the cultural beliefs that have created the demand for albino body parts. In Malawi, for instance, the police have recognized the “need to sensitize people that body parts of people with albinism cannot bring wealth whatsoever.” To supplement this educational campaign, Malawi’s police chief has also “issued a shoot-to-kill order against albino hunters in hopes of curbing the horrific killings.”


Writing of the archeological excavation of the infamous tzompantli of the pre-colonial Mexican sacred city of Tenochtitlan — the “enormous rack of skulls built in front of the Templo Mayor,” which the Spanish conquistadors estimated “contained 130,000 skulls” — Lizzie Wade advises us not to impose Western cultural biases on human sacrifices practiced by non-Western cultures:


“It’s hard for me to imagine that people wanted to be sacrificed, but that’s my own biases and cultural conditioning talking. How I see the world, filtered through centuries of colonial oppression and destruction, is irrelevant to understanding how they saw the world.”


While it’s true that we lack any first-hand testimonials from those who were killed at Tenochtitlan and hence cannot confirm our suspicions of what they must have felt about being the victims of human sacrifice, in the case of the albino killings we do have first-person testimonials from the survivors.



The cultural shift required to combat such notions of the magical efficacy of albino body parts requires the recognition of albinos as full human beings who are equal and valuable members of the community.



For example, Adam Abdul Wahab, an albino from Ghana, has recently recounted to the New York Times about the “several attempts by my father to kill me because I was born with albinism,” as well as how people in his community “thought I was from another world, and some spiritual people wanted to take my life.” While his grandfather managed to save him from the would-be killers, “he still remembers almost dying.”


Likewise, Stephane Ebongue, an albino from Cameroon, has spoken about the murder of his albino brother and his own escape to Europe following the eruption of Mount Cameroon: “It is believed that when there is an eruption it means Epasamoto, the god of the mountain, is angry. To calm him down they need the blood of an albino.” During such volcanic eruptions, Ebongue describes his community as being gripped by a “general psychosis” which forces albinos to “go into hiding.” Once he settled in Italy, Ebongue describes feeling liberated from “the people’s disgust and the fear” which had afflicted his life in Cameroon.


Ebongue returned to Cameroon several years later to produce a documentary about his experiences. One of the key moments in the documentary was his face-to-face interview with a witchdoctor. The encounter reveals the extent of the objectification suffered by albinos — how they are not valued as equal members of the community but are instead seen as collections of valuable body parts. For example, the witchdoctor recounted that “all kinds of people ask for ‘albino potions’ — from farmers hoping for a good harvest to women trying to seduce a white man.” As the witchdoctor explained matter-of-factly to Ebongue:


“You do not even know your value. How much you’re worth. Albinos are in great demand — albinos just like you. From your hair to your bones, you are so sought-after … People go in search of money. They kill albinos not for the pleasure of killing them but to make money. That is why they get killed.”


The cultural shift required to combat such notions of the magical efficacy of albino body parts requires the recognition of albinos as full human beings who are equal and valuable members of the community. The six albinos who have announced that they will be running in the 2019 elections in Malawi are hoping to achieve this. Overstone Kondowe, the director of the Association of People with Albinism in Malawi, has explained that the visibility in the media that these electoral candidates will receive will help “show the public that we are more than our skin.” Elizabeth Machinjiri, one of the six albino candidates, concurs: “We need to be represented. Other people may not understand the pain and hard things that we go through every day.”


Machinjiri’s and her fellow albinos’ intervention in politics recalls Jacques Rancière’s (1999) reading of Herodotus’ account of the ancient Scythian practice of blinding their slaves. Rancière recounts that this “normal order of things” was disrupted when “a generation of sons was born to the slaves and raised with their eyes open,” thereby allowing this new generation to realize that “there was no particular reason why they should be slaves” (p. 12). Likewise, Machinjiri and the other albinos see no particular reason why the everyday persecution they have suffered in their communities should be allowed to continue.


In the meantime, albinos across Africa have taken advantage of the opportunities presented by social media platforms such as Facebook to form “social bonds and offline friendships.” The technologically-enabled formation of social connections is especially important given how albinos — especially in rural and impoverished communities — suffer from extreme social stigmatism which has led to “severe neglect and ridicule,” including “intense name-calling.” The friendships facilitated by social media have helped members of the besieged albino community “assuage the pain and ease anxiety.” However, given that the threat of murder and mutilation is a major source of their fear, greater policing and more intense efforts at public education are needed to ensure the safety of the albino community.


References


In pictures: Hope for Tanzania’s albino attack survivors. (2015, October 8). BBC.


Pensulo, C. (2018, June 26). Six people with albinism will stand for election to fight stigma in Malawi. The Guardian.


People with albinism in Malawi face ‘total extinction’—UN. (2016, April 29). BBC.


Rancière, J. (1999). Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. (J. Rose, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Six albinos to contest Malawi’s 2019 elections. (2018, June 28). AFP.


Tanzania albino murders: ‘More than 200 witchdoctors’ arrested. (2015, March 12). BBC.


Tembe, J. (2018, January 16). Mozambique police search for albino boy’s killers. BBC.


Thompson-Hernández, W. (2018, June 9). The Albino community in Ghana: ‘I’m motivated to believe that I can survive.’ New York Times.


Wade, L. (2018, June 21). Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital. Science.


Wade, L. [lizzie_wade]. (2018, June 22). It’s hard for me to imagine that people *wanted* to be sacrificed, but that’s my own biases and cultural conditioning talking. How I see the world, filtered through centuries of colonial oppression and destruction, is irrelevant to understanding how they saw the world. [Tweet].


Winsor, M. (2016, April 21). Malawi’s ‘albino hunters’: Police launch campaign against brutal killings of people with albinism. International Business Times.


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