White shadows

Albinos in Tanzania struggle against black magic, witch doctors and corrupt businessman.

tanzanian albinos521 (photo credit: Liron Shimoni)
tanzanian albinos521
(photo credit: Liron Shimoni)
In recent years more than 70 albinos have been murdered in Tanzania.
Under the direction of witch doctors, many more have had their limbs hacked off for use in black magic potions. In an effort to protect them, the government of Tanzania has established shelters where albinos can live separated from their relatives. But they remain in perpetual fear for their lives.
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital, is home to some six million people. On the corner of the street, Josephat Torner stands out from the crowd.
He greets me shyly, his eyes darting and his face scorched. Torner is one of approximately 17,000 albinos living in the East African nation.
Albinism is a hereditary, cross-cultural disease caused by a genetic defect that prevents melanocyte cells from producing the melanin pigments that provide the body with color and protect the skin from the sun’s radiation. The absence of this pigment causes albinos to have pale skin, blond hair, and eyes that are pinkish due to the reflection of blood capillaries.
In Israel and other Western nations, roughly one out of every 20,000 people is albino; Tanzania, for reasons that elude the geneticists who have studied the subject, has the world’s highest ratio at about one out of every 2,500 people.
Tanzania’s geographical location on the equator with the sun’s powerful ultraviolet radiation causes irreversible damage to albinos. The lack of the melanin pigment, which maintains the skin’s elasticity and prevents aging, causes albinos to suffer from wrinkles at a young age. Many also lose their eyesight, while others succumb to skin cancer and die before reaching the age of 30.
Torner says that right from childhood albinos suffer from social isolation. “I was born in a small village in central Tanzania and as a boy felt tremendous loneliness,” he says. “While my friends studied at school or played in the village in the afternoons, my parents forbade me to leave the house. One day I decided to go anyway to play with my friends and when I returned that evening, my eyes were scalded and my body was covered with burns and blisters. That was one of the only times I played with kids my age.”
Torner explains that the albino’s struggle actually begins at birth. Regarded as inferior, their difference in appearance causes revulsion in under-developed society, where people don’t know that albinism is a genetic disease. In the villages, they are viewed as demons or sub-human. In the past, Tanzanian police have investigated cases where albino babies were murdered, likely by their own parents, immediately after birth, because of shame and the disgrace that was liable to fall upon the family.
Black market for limbs
Scores of attacks have been perpetrated against the albinos of Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries where people exist on a meager $30 per month. The country has Africa’s largest black market for limbs. Albino body parts can fetch prices of $3,000 for a hand or foot, and up to $75,000 for a full “set” – legs, arms, head, blood from the eyes, and genitals.
Marishu Chavu, spokesperson for the Shinyanga police, says investigations into 70 cases involving the suspicious death of albinos gave rise to the suspicion that Tanzanian businessmen were involved in ordering the murder of albinos. “One individual admitted that a witch doctor recommended he bury the head of an albino in his mine and promised him he would then be able to mine more gold on his property. In the Mwanza region by the beaches of Victoria Lake, fishermen talk of a friend who became rich overnight after he wove hair from the head of an albino into his fishing nets,” says Chavu.
Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete has been working to eliminate these occurrences and even appointed an albino woman, Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer, as minister for albino affairs. Suspects involved in the murders of albinos were arrested – as were four police officers suspected of extorting money from witch doctors in exchange for not halting their black magic practices. In September 2009, three men were sentenced to death after being convicted of the murder of a young albino boy. Recently, seven more received death sentences, but it appears that they have simply joined the long list of criminals waiting to be executed since 1995.
Due to the murders, thousands of albinos have fled their homes in various villages of Tanzania, some of them lodging at the homes of friends or families in the cities while others find refuge in schools, safe havens and emergency centers established for them by the government.
Visiting one such shelter in the town of Ushirombo, in western Tanzania, I met Lazru Kiwali, a 25-year-old who fled his village after the murder of a good friend, who was also an albino.
For five months, Kiwali lived in a holding cell at the Mwanza police station until he was informed one day that he had to leave.
“In the past I would stay at home all day because of the strong sun and in the evenings would go out to have fun with friends. Now it’s too dangerous for me to be on the streets after sunset. Leaving the police station felt like a death sentence. Luckily I found a safe haven that agreed to take me in, but I can’t stay here forever,” says Lazru.
At a school for blind children in Shinyanga, in northern Tanzania, there are about 40 albino children, ranging in age from seven months to 13 years old, who were forced to leave their homes out of a fear for their lives. The children live separated from their parents in a very crowded space and under difficult conditions: a hot shower, a fixed meal and a bit of privacy are the only amenities afforded them.
At night, the children sleep in the only clothing they possess on thin mattresses on the classroom floor. Ironically, it’s the persecution of albinos and the subsequent placing of them together in schools and shelters that has led to a considerable increase in the percentage of albinos receiving education.
At the end of my visit to the shelter I stood in the courtyard and looked at the tall stone walls that surround and protect the compound, while a policeman armed with a semi-automatic weapon eyed me suspiciously. From behind the barbed wire I could hear the sound of children’s laughter from the outside world.