The East African country of Tanzania is known for its natural beauty and relative stability. But recently it’s become known for something quite macabre — the killings and mutilations of members of Tanzania’s albino population. They’re spurred by a lucrative trade in albino body parts for witchdoctor rituals. The World’s Jeb Sharp reports from Dar es Salaam.
There have been more than 50 murders of albinos in Tanzania since 2007. Publicity and protests led to a flurry of police work and some convictions. And for a while there was a lull in the attacks. But then they started up again in February, according to Vicky Ntetema of the advocacy organization Under the Same Sun.
“One person, a little boy of 4 was murdered. A man lost a hand, the hand was chopped off. A little girl who is now in hospital, her hand was chopped off and there was an attack with severe injuries when a woman of 33 years of age and a little girl of 12 months old were attacked.”
Ntetema says the attackers sell the body parts to witchdoctors who use them for rituals and potions. Ntetema is a former BBC journalist whose reporting on the albino killings won her awards but also death threats. The security at her office is the tightest I encounter anywhere in Tanzania during ten days of reporting. Ntetema wants Tanzania’s witch doctors put out of business.
“These witch doctors have turned into small gods. All over the place people fear them, people believe them. People trust them. If you say to a Tanzanian you don’t have to go to witch doctor to be successful you don’t have to go to a witch doctor to solve your problems they will look at you and say are you coming from Mars? Most of them believe in witch doctors.”
A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life backs that up. 93% of the Tanzanian respondents told interviewers they believed in witchcraft. Even before this recent spate of killings, life for the estimated 200,000 albinos in Tanzania was not good. They have long been stigmatized and shunned and denied access to health care and education. Member of Parliament Al Shaymaa Kwegyir, an albino herself, is trying to change that.
I meet Kwegyir at her apartment in downtown Dar es Salaam. She’s getting ready for a trip to Zanzibar later that day to meet with albinos on the island. She’s taking boxes of sunscreen and sunglasses with her:
“Our skin is very weak its weak it doesn’t resist sun rays therefore if you get sun rays you get cancer disease.”
People with albinism lack the pigment melanin and the protection it affords against the sun. Al Shaymaa Kwegyir shows me the wide-brimmed hat she wears outside. She’s mystified by the atrocities.
“About the killings to my side, it’s really; it’s really cracking in my head so much. I wonder a person killing someone for the need of success or wealth or something like that, it doesn’t make sense in my head but this is the problem of ignorance and poverty.”
If it’s a problem of ignorance and poverty then the solution is education advocates say. The international non-profit Under the Same Sun is now offering scholarships to Tanzanians with albinism. Again, Vicky Ntetema:
“If we empower persons with albinism, it means that they will go to school, they will enjoy the same opportunities that people without albinism enjoy. They will know their rights, their responsibilities and their duties and they will be able to compete anywhere with other persons without albinism and that way, the society will see them as human beings. Because right now they don’t see them as human beings.”
“People would always look at you differently.” Abdallah Possi is a Tanzanian with albinism.
“But if you compete with them, or you do more than them, they respect you that way.”
Possi understood early on that he would have to excel to be taken seriously. He was lucky to have parents who cherished him and taught him to ignore schoolyard taunts. Today he’s a successful attorney and law professor. Possi says he doesn’t experience problems in his day to day life. But since the attacks began, he’s been fearful when he travels around the country for his work:
“You are only happy when you are around. You are within your neighborhood. But when you travel, you go into places you do not know, you don’t know what is happening. We are fearful. When you stay alone somewhere, lonely, you get some funny feelings.”
Possi wants to see more protection for people with albinism but also more services, including better health care. He and other advocates are optimistic about changing attitudes over the long term. But in the short term they fear the discrimination–and the violence–will continue.
For The World, I’m Jeb Sharp.
Tanzanian attorney and law professor Abdallah Possi talks about growing up with albinism in Dar es Salaam.
Abdallah Possi: “When I grew up it was a bit interesting because there were some funny things and some harsh realities too. There is a good thing about children when they grow up together you are all the same. You will be facing some problems if you go to another neighborhood when they see you differently. When I’m with my fellow children from the same neighborhood everything was OK. But the moment I would step to another neighborhood it would be difficult but the good thing is my friends would always be protecting me. My mother, my father, my sister would always say don’t argue with them, they have bad manners. And for us when we were a kid if Mum tells you that person has bad manners you would simply ignore that person right away because you don’t want to be like him. So it worked, but when I got to school, you know I was a bit naughty sometimes. People who would provoke me, I would fight them back. While knowing fighting’s not good but anyway it was a way of stamping my authority. The good thing is I could do some little drawings, some little paintings. I made friends that way because I could do some things that many other people could not do.”
Jeb Sharp: “Tell me a little bit about the painting you do.”
Abdallah Possi: “The painting. You see, when I was a little boy, my Mum was lecturing at the University of Dar es Salaam. She would never buy me toys. She would buy me paints. And I would paint for fun. And at times, one day when I was at the University, I decided to sell my paintings somewhere and see if they would face market. I can sell! After that I became happy so after that when I’m not very busy, when my mind is settled, I do paint.”
Jeb Sharp: “What do you paint?”
Abdallah Possi: Natural paintings. I would like to paint about natural environment. But sometimes I do kind of imaginative painting. For instance one of those paintings I just painted some trees, which were leafless. And I put some kind of golden khaki background on it, it was wonderful.