Superstitions spark violence against Tanzania's albinos

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — One
October night in Tanzania’s
southernmost Mtwara region, a group
of men with their faces covered
pounded on the wooden door to
Zainab Muhamed’s home and told her
to open up. They would not say what
they wanted — but it was obvious.
Muhamed had just given birth to the
second of two daughters with albinism
— a genetic abnormality resulting in an
absence of pigment in the skin, hair
and eyes that makes the bearer appear
extremely pale.
Today, many in rural Tanzania still
believe that procuring the arm, leg,
fingers, skin or hair of an albino
person and brewing it into a potion
will make them rich. Tanzania’s deep-
rooted superstitions about albinos
surfaced in 2006 as a wave of violence
against them erupted across rural parts
of the country.
Since then, “these myths have resulted
in 71 documented deaths in Tanzania,
38 attacks including deaths in other
African countries, 32 attempted
murders with some victims left
mutilated in Tanzania and other parts
of Africa,” particularly Burundi and
Kenya , according to a 2012 report by
the albino advocacy group Under the
Same Sun.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP, file
Maajabu Boaz, 20, holds the knives t
he carries for safety outside his ho
Nengo Village, Tanzania, on Sept. 8,
His fierce reputation has kept him s
far, despite children in the same vil
being attacked for their albinism.
In Tanzania, police prosecuted suspects
in just five of those 71 murder cases as
of last year.
When Muhamed gave birth to her first
albino daughter in 2007, people told
her it would bring her problems.
“My relatives were asking, you have
this daughter and you know she is
albino, why don’t you get rid of her?”
says Muhamed. “Its because albino kids
were not welcome in the community.
It was the first albino there.”
When Muhamed had a second albino
daughter two years later, her husband
left her that same day and never came
back. Within days, the strange men
arrived at her door.
“I think it's because I had two of
them,” she said. “It was too much.”
An estimated one in 20,000 Africans
are born with albinism, making its
prevalence on the continent about ten
times that of Europe and North
America .
The plight of albinos in Tanzania made
international press when word spread
of an attack on Mariam Staford, an
albino woman and mother who had
both of her arms chopped off in a
2008 attack.
“While she was in the hospital, they
attempted to attack her sisters and
they stopped attending school,” said
Anna Nyamubi, who is supporting
those two girls and is now one of
Tanzania’s foremost advocates for
albino rights.
Nyamubi helps run a boarding school
in North-Central Tanzania for 250
albino children whose parents feared
for their safety in their villages — or
who gave away their albino children
altogether.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP, file
Helen Sekalima, 40, holds her two-
old baby Jessica in Kabanga, Tanzani
Aug. 31, 2012. Of Helen's nine childr
three have albinism. "The people in
village said that the children are no
normal people, that they are like de
she said.
“There were some attempts to get the
kids. So some of the children had to
quit school,” Nyamubi said. “It was
due to traditional beliefs that you
could use parts of their bodies in
witchcraft to become rich, or if you
are a cattle keeper you could get more
cattle. Even the fishermen were using
them to get more fish, they believed.”
Those most to blame for fomenting
attacks on albinos may be witch
doctors who continue to persuade
undereducated, desperately poor
farmers that albino body parts are
powerful ingredients in muti, the
practice of spiritually based medicine
and charms . The only solution, say
advocates like Nyamubi, is to empower
rural communities to combat such
beliefs with logic.
“We say they should use reason. If it’s
a question of agriculture, if we have a
problem of drought, we have to work
together to find a solution, use proper
techniques to grow more. But don’t
think that through witchcraft we can
gain,” Nyamubi said.
Some albinos living in Dar es Salaam
say Tanzania’s cities have become more
accepting in recent years.
“Before, we couldn’t share the same
seats on a town bus for example. If I
sit here, no one will set next to me,”
said Abdilm Omari, treasurer of the
12,000-member Tanzania Albino
Society based in Dar es Salaam. Omari
says it used to be that people wouldn’t
patronize businesses owned by albinos,
or wouldn’t employ them at all.
But today, “There is less ignorance,” he
says. Discrimination toward albinos
seems to have declined drastically
since the passing of the April 2010
Persons With Disabilities Act, which
explicitly forbids employers from
discriminating against albinos and even
requires companies to allocate at least
3 percent of their positions to people
with disabilities.
That law was championed by Al-
Shaymaa Kwegyir, Tanzania’s first
albino member of parliament.
From the living room of her apartment
in downtown Dar es Salaam, Kwegyir
recalls growing up in Tanzania’s coastal
Tanga region, where children would
marvel at the color of her skin.
“Other kids they were teasing me,
pinching me, spitting on me,” she
recalls. “I asked my mother, 'Why am I
like this while my brothers are black?
Why am I white?' She said, 'It’s normal,
don’t worry, it’s just a color.'”
When Kwegyir first ran for parliament
in 2005, “people said, how can we
choose such a woman with that
color?”
Kwegyir lost the race, but was later
appointed women’s representative for
the district by Tanzania’s president,
Jakaya Kikwete. She won election to the
seat in 2010 and says that Tanzania’s
cities have progressed since the days of
discrimination she knew as a student
in a private Dar es Salaam school.
She says the most significant challenges
facing urban albinos today are no
longer societal, but medical: Most
albinos have poor vision due to lack of
melanin, or color, in their irises. Many
countries recognize albinos as legally
blind. The condition also makes one’s
skin prone to severe sunburns and
skin cancer, treatment for which is too
expensive and out of reach for many
Tanzanians.
But even here in Tanzania’s capital city,
traditional beliefs about albinos have
not yet been uprooted entirely.
The day after men came pounding on
her door, Muhamed, the mother of the
two albino girls, fled with her
daughters from their village to a slum
on the south side of Dar es Salaam
where they have lived ever since.
“I came here because over there, my
children were chased by the criminals,”
Muhamed said.
But last year, it happened here, too:
One day while Muhamed was out,
three unfamiliar men arrived here and
aggressively demanded a neighbor take
them to see the children. The neighbor
hid Muhamed’s older daughter, who
was at home, before showing the men
to the empty house. The men
eventually left, and she reported the
incident to police.
These days, she says she rarely takes
her two daughters beyond the yard of
her house for fear of attracting more
attention.