Albinos endangered by religious rituals


NAIROBI - Occultism and ritualized religious practices perpetuated by witches in the East African region, particularly Tanzania, are provoking deep fears among albinos and their families. Albinism is a genetic condition characterized by lack of a pigment called melanin in the skin, hair and eyes. It is associated with white hair, milky white skin and translucent irises. In parts of East Africa, the condition is socially isolating, yet albinism is also associated with sought-after mystical powers that have made albinos targets of human trafficking rings.

Albinos now live in constant fear of human “poachers” who have become barbaric in their efforts to capture and sell their "prey" dead or alive to witch doctors in Tanzania for a very high price. So far more than 30 people with albinism have lost their lives since March of this year in the East Africa region.

Last week a Kenyan man was sentenced to nine years in prison for trying to sell his childhood friend, who is albino, to witchdoctors in Tanzania.

A magistrate's court in northwest Tanzania sentenced 28-year old Nathan Mutei, after pleading guilty to charges of human trafficking and abduction with intention to sell his neighbor from the northwestern Kenyan town of Kitale.

Mutei lured his friend Robinson Mkwama with a job opportunity in Tanzania, when in reality he had pre-arranged a deal with witches who were to buy Mkwama for $263,000 (U.S.).

Occult practices connected to albinism are widespread in the remote northwest region of Tanzania in Mwanza and Shinyanga. Superstitious traditions in the area claim that possessing the body parts of albinos will bring great fortune to one's business ventures.

In the villages beyond vast Lake Victoria, fishermen believe that if their fishing nets are weaved together with hairs from the heads of people with albinism they will catch more fish than ever before.

The superstitions of the gold-mining areas of Mwanza and Shinyanga claim that mixing an albino's hair with albino body parts creates a kind of magic amulet. Burying the amulet in the ground where one is digging is believed to bring a great harvest of gold or other precious stones.

The spike in deaths among albinos has caught the attention of religious and social leaders in Kenya. Simon Mundu of the influential Deliverance Church Embakasi called on his congregation and all Kenyans to ignore such beliefs, saying albinos are just normal human beings like anyone else.

And in Nairobi, Dr. Prabha Choskey, a trustee of the Albinism Foundation of East Africa, told an international scientific conference last week that albinos in Kenya faced insurmountable challenges.

In a presentation at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Dr. Choskey said albinos in Kenya, like elsewhere in the region, were exposed to the harsh tropical sun and are denied opportunities in life.

“Over 90 per cent of children with albinism study in schools for the visually impaired at the primary school level, which is wrong, since they are not blind,” she said.

Kenyans with albinism have expressed fears that the number of abduction cases are likely to increase if the government does not beef up security to keep tabs on their potential abductors.

Last week, the chairman of the Nyanza Albinism Society of Kenya, and Persons with Disability, Mr. Julius Rasugu was quoted by local media asking the government to provide albino people with bodyguards to discourage possible abductors.

A group of Tanzanian albinos fled their country early this year and took refugee in Kenya’s coastal towns of Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale and Malindi and are reported to have gone underground. They remain in hiding out of a constant fear of abduction, and do not feel free to go about their daily activities.

Early this week, the United Nations Children’s Fund also called for better protection of albino children in Burundi where a six-year-old girl was murdered last weekend. Two women who were with the girl were also seriously injured and are fighting for their lives in hospital.

Media reports indicate the girl was killed in Burundi’s eastern province of Ruyigi, close to the border with Tanzania, and then her head and limbs were removed by her attackers.

Africa, SocietyChris Khisa