By Caitlin Moe
Vumilia Makoye was like many other Tanzanians living with albinism. Due to her severe near-sightedness as well as constant ridicule borne from her peers’ ignorance, school was a constant challenge. She dropped out by age 17. One evening, Vumilia was eating dinner at home with her family in Tanzania when men approached her hut with long knives. Her family saw the men and tried to barricade the front door, but they were overpowered. Vumilia’s family watched as the men sawed off her legs above the knee and fled with her limbs. Vumilia did not survive the attack (NY Times). In Tanzania, a growing number of persons with albinism suffered the same fate; many have been attacked, mutilated, and murdered by their fellow citizens, neighbors, or even family members, for the high price their skin can fetch in an expanding albino flesh trade.
Vumilia’s case is not uncommon for persons with albinism in East Africa, where albino body parts are highly valued for their supposed powers in a culture steeped in superstition and witchcraft. To date, the number of reported attacks on persons with albinism ranges from 70 to “hundreds,” of which only ten have survived (Tambwe 2011). This approximate range is itself considered a gross underestimate due to the simple fact that such crimes have to be reported. Even after death, grave robbing is a persistent problem. Often, the graves of albino people lie under a thick slab of concrete to protect corpses from further dismemberment by flesh traders (Dave-Odigie 2010, 71).
The stark contrast of albinos’ chalk-white skin, light hair and eyes in a society of predominantly dark-featured people, coupled with widespread ignorance of the causes of albinism, serve as a breeding ground for the many rumors surrounding albinism in Africa. Common myths and misconceptions regarding albinism include beliefs that albinos are “ghosts of European colonists,” “possessed by evil spirits,” of “low brain capacity and cannot function at the same level as others,” and, most prevalently, that “albino body parts worn as amulets bring good luck, fortune, and health” (Cruz-Inego 80). In general, albinos are viewed in African society as sub-human and undeserving of human rights. Ironically, albino people are believed to simultaneously possess deistic powers and be less than human (Aquaron 2009, 449).
Albino body parts, especially the limbs, eyes, tongues, breasts, and genitals, are sold in underground markets because they are believed to impart wealth and luck. A person seeking good fortune may visit a witch doctor who can prescribe a salve or charm incorporating albino flesh, and commission a third party to obtain the body parts. A set of arms, legs, ears, and genitals from one albino individual can cost up to $75,000 (IFRC 2009). In Tanzania, where 36% of the population lives under the poverty line, this huge sum is seen by many as a lucrative opportunity, outweighing the possibility of punishment (CIA Factbook). Economic desperation combined with deep-seated superstitious belief fuel an underground albino flesh market that has rapidly expanded from Tanzania into neighboring East African states (Allen 2010, 20). Left unchecked, these murders will proliferate across the continent and millions of albinos will be subjected to constant fear and isolation.
Albinism is a recessively inherited genetic disorder that exists globally. There is no accurate census, but estimates of albinism in Tanzania generally range from one in 1,400 to one in 3000 (Hong et al 2006 and Lund 2005). In comparison, the prevalence for the same type of common albinism is one in 36,000 in the U.S. and one in 20,000 in Europe (Grønskov 2007). While there is some debate surrounding the exact incidence of East African albinos, there is general consensus among scholars that the incidence of albinism is higher in this region. Nevertheless, albinism has been shrouded in myth and misconception throughout African history. A chronically marginalized and discriminated group, people with albinism faced difficulty living a normal life prior to the onset of the murders. Children were abandoned by their own parents or forced to hide knowing they brought shame with them wherever they went (Aquaron 2009, 451).
Albino people face serious health concerns in addition to death threats and social ostracism. Albinism is a genetic disorder where the body is prevented either partially or fully from producing melanin, which results in a decrease or absence of pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes. In addition to providing color, melanin is responsible for protecting the skin from harmful effects of UV radiation from the sun. Vision problems are associated with albinism because even though the melanocytes are present, they are dysfunctional, resulting in ocular problems, including near-sightedness (Hong 2006, 2). Most people with albinism are legally blind (NOAH 2011). In school, this proves a daunting obstacle for many albinos. Limited eyesight presents a unique barrier to education, especially considering the difficulty in obtaining visual aids in East Africa. Lack of awareness of albinism in general society means that teachers and classmates are likely unaware of problems with eyesight and as a result maintain the belief that people with albinism have lower-than-average intelligence (Lund 2005, 170). Albino students usually drop out of school (171).
Albino skin is extremely sensitive to the sun’s radiation and in a nation situated on the equator this is of special concern. Compounding the risk of sun damage is the lack of access to sunscreen and other forms of sun protection in East Africa (Lund 2005, 169). As a result, skin cancer is very prevalent among albinos in Tanzania, and less than 2% of Tanzanian albino infants are expected to reach the age of 40 (IFRC 2009). Even if a person with albinism has finished school, they are often turned down from jobs due to their appearance or beliefs that albinism is contagious. As a result, persons with albinism are often forced to work menial jobs outdoors, searing their delicate skin. This vicious cycle means that persons with albinism face insurmountable adversity in every direction.
The plight of Tanzanian albinos in the human rights context is multi-fold. The murder and mutilation of persons with albinism constitutes a pronounced violation of fundamental human rights, as enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the UN. Article 3 of the UDHR recognizes that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” and Article 2 adds that all of the rights in the UDHR apply universally “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex…or other status,” providing a convenient “other” category for persons with albinism who cannot otherwise be easily defended against discrimination under international law (UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948). Further applications of the UDHR include protection in Article 5 from “cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment,” the Article 23 right to “just and favorable conditions of work,” and the Article 25 right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…medical care and necessary social services” (UN UDHR 1948). The human rights to life and freedom from discrimination are clearly a priority in Tanzania, but persons with albinism are also entitled under international human rights law to enhanced access to educational aides in school, sun protection, equal employment, and information about their condition so that they may better educate themselves in preventative health care.
Such a deeply rooted and multifaceted issue as the brutal persecution of persons with albinism requires a multi-pronged approach to rectify the problem. With the targeted murder and mutilation of a specific group of people, the albino killings in Tanzania are hardly questionable as gross human rights violations. This violent and effectively unchecked chain of events begs the questions of why they are occurring and have yet to be stopped.
The primary obstacle in ending albino killings in Tanzania is the lack of an integrated strategy in facing the problem multilaterally, which stems from the inability of advocates to project unity. As a result, attempts to address the problem on local, national, and international levels are uncoordinated and counterproductive.
Origins of Superstition
When trying to end a human rights violation, the most important question to ask is why and how the violation began. First is the issue of larger numbers of albinism in East Africa compared to the rest of the world and whether this should be taken into account when determining policy. Albinism, as an autosomal recessive disorder, can be inherited only when both parents carry the recessive mutant gene. If two gene carrier parents have children, their children will have 25% probability of being albino, and 67% probability of being a heterozygous carrier. As the albino gene is recessive, heterozygous carriers do not exhibit any physiological signs (Lund 2005, 168). Scholars differ on the degree to which the prevalence of the recessive gene is a result of cultural behavior, namely incest.
In an investigative study comparing the presence of the recessive albino gene in chromosomes of African people from different regions, Stevens (1996) lends empirical evidence to a theory espoused by several other scholars. Stevens finds that “the presence of the deletion mutation in unrelated [albino] individuals” from several different African states “suggests that the mutation arose before the divergence of these groups, estimated to be 2000-3000 years ago” (525).
On the other hand, Cruz-Inigo (2011) emphasizes the “encouragement of consanguineous alliances” as a causal factor of high incidence of albinism (80). Cruz-Inigo claims the influx of Arabic culture on the Tanzanian coast as an origin of inter-marriage, and albino infanticide at the hands of traditional midwives as a reason why “communities may have fewer cases to show,” both practices which “inevitably increase the incidence of albinism” (80). Previous research on the fusion of Bantu and Arabic cultures on the Swahili coast provides insight into inaccuracy in Cruz-Indigo’s argument that matrilineality and inter-marriage were results of Arabic influence on the coast of Tanzania. Specifically, “Arabic and Islamic cultures are totally opposed to this [matrilineal] feature of Swahili society which would definitely have been Bantu in origin” (Fyle 1999, 46). Furthermore, Cruz-Inigo believes albino infanticide and resulting decrease in apparent cases of albinism as a cause of higher prevalence of albinism. This argument is logically flawed, and could in fact help prove the opposite. Cruz-Inigo claims traditional practices of inter-marriage and infanticide as an excuse to promote education of communities that “are uninformed and unaware of the implications” (80). Overall, consanguineous relationships may promote the higher prevalence of albinism in Africa, but it is certainly not the main cause. Consanguinity is not only practiced in Africa and citing it as a primary cause of higher incidences of albinism is unfounded.
Generally, investigations evade the question of why this wave of albino murders is occurring in the present day. Instead, Tanzanian traditional witchcraft is often viewed as a perennial cultural element that has always stigmatized and perpetuated myths about people with albinism, and, for one reason or another, these superstitions have recently escalated in both seriousness of superstition and widespread belief. Dave-Odigie (2010) is one scholar who has thoughtfully examined what is driving this growth in albino murders. The Mwanza region of northwest Tanzania is where the majority of murders have occurred, and Dave-Odigie notes that this region is also home to more registered witch doctors—3,000—than any other region (71). Upon examination, there are several interesting characteristics about Mwanza. An impoverished rural region on the coast of Lake Victoria, Mwanza’s main industries are fishing and mining. Poverty and illiteracy rates are both extremely high, and witch doctors are viewed as local authorities, sought after for everything from treatment for sexually transmitted infections to advice on business decisions (Dave-Odigie 2010, 71). A 2009 boom in the Mwanza fishing and mining industries was attributed to the influence of witch doctors and the powers of their albino potions, which in turn bolstered the clout of the witch doctors and heightened demand for albino body parts (Dave-Odigie 2010, 72).
Bryceson further examines this combination of factors with a more nuanced argument that centers on the idea of the new albino ‘fetish’ as a result of culture clash in multiple dimensions. Domestically, Tanzania in general and Mwanza in particular experienced a societal transition where the traditional agrarian, patriarchal society was slowly taken over by new mining settlements starting in the 1980s (Bryceson et al 2010, 364). This transition represents an enormous shift in value systems from one with a power source safeguarded by elders to that of the enterprising, younger miner settlements which are strongly embedded in the global supply market. The influx of capitalist profit-maximizing values fed desires for commodity and material wealth, so competition for opportunities to accumulate wealth intensified. Traditional beliefs in the magic of ritual were replaced by beliefs in the magic of wealth. This new widespread focus on material gain at any cost eventually surpassed the concern for human life (Bryceson et al 2010, 376-377). The argument of Bryceson is based on in-depth research on the culture of witchcraft before the creation of mining settlements in Mwanza, observing that the current wave of albino killing is particularly remarkable because they “have yet to have any precedent in traditional beliefs and practices for the targeting of albinos. Historically there has been no special symbolism, nor any traditional practices to suggest that albinos would become implicated in such rituals” (Bryceson et al 2010, 367). In the broad sense, it is unlikely that one single uptick in mining and fishing profits catalyzed a movement nationwide to systemically hunt albinos. Instead, Bryceson paints a compelling argument of how the clash between traditional pastoralism and modern globalization occurred in one region of Tanzania, and albino people, an already stigmatized group, were sacrificed as the unwitting victims.
Failures of the Tanzanian Government
There is no real question of whether the albino massacres in Tanzania constitute human rights violations. Instead, the question is why these tragedies continue to occur despite being addressed at the regional, national, and international levels. The primary problem is the government’s insistence on coping with the problem unilaterally. Tanzania’s policies have repeatedly proven inadequate and inappropriate, but the lack of organization throughout the movement overall reveals the need for external intervention.
The brutal murders of albino people, especially children, were brought to the immediate attention of the international community. Resultant action was straightforward in condemning the atrocities but lacking in any realistic proposal to end them. In September 2008 the European Parliament and in March 2010 the U.S. Congress passed resolutions condemning the murders and calling on the Tanzanian government to act (European Parliament, European Parliament Resolution on the Killigns of Albinos in Tanzania 2008, 2 and U.S. Congress HR 1088 2010, 2-3). These resolutions made calls to further action by the international community, which has yet to occurr. The passing of these resolutions is important but does nothing to end the violence.
The Tanzanian government is primarily at fault for the continuation of albino murders. While a relatively peaceful nation, Tanzania has demonstrated low human development indices, and seemingly high prevalence of government corruption. Even though the killings were brought to the attention of the international community in 2007 when they first occurred, the Tanzanian government was slow to act in prosecuting these crimes, “despite mounting internal and external pressure” (Bryceson 2010, 372-373). The first official response of the Tanzanian government was a statement issued by Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete in spring 2009 asking citizens to report information about known albino killers. Additionally, the Tanzanian government launched a campaign to give out cell phones to persons with albinism so that they may have a direct emergency line to the police (Larson 2011, 6). This would have been a legitimate call to action, save that the reporting mechanism involved citizens writing down names on secret slips of paper and that, to date, only 200 cell phones have been distributed (Dave-Odigie 2010, 72 and Larson 2011, 6-7). These methods are inherently flawed and allow opportunities for exploitation. Additionally, the idea of cell phones as a reliable communication device in rural areas where reception is poor and police response time are slow at best reveal an enormous lack of thought put into these strategies.
Also in 2009 Tanzania banned witchcraft and revoked licenses from witch doctors, amending the Tanzanian Witchcraft Act, and made the killing of an albino a capital crime (Larson 2011 7-8). Witchcraft is a traditional element of Tanzanian custom, but the government insists that “Tanzania does not believe in Witchcraft” (8). Larson also points out that the very existence of a Witchcraft Act in the law books of Tanzania lends legitimacy to the practice (8). These actions did nothing to address problems in Tanzania and only served to push the albino hunters out of Tanzania into neighboring nations like Uganda and Burundi where they immediately resumed their trade (Dave-Odigie 2010, 72). In fact, 11 men were thereafter charged with murdering albinos in Burundi to export the body parts to Tanzania (Bryceson 2010, 373).
President Kikweke was apparently more concerned with upholding the appearance of addressing the issue rather than effecting real change. This is demonstrated by his appointment of Al Shaymaa Kwegyir, an albino, for a seat in Parliament. This largely symbolic move involves Kwegyir mostly discussing advocacy for albinos and her own foundation, which aims to raise global awareness of albinism (Larson 2011, 7). These are decent long-term goals but immediate, short-term goals such as ending ritualistic murders should be the focal point.
In March of 2009 the Tanzanian Albino Society, a domestic NGO, along with the Legal and Human Rights Centre filed a joint petition with the High Court of Tanzania accusing the Tanzanian government of “failure to protect the rights and dignity of its albino population” (Larson 2011, 9). The TAS pulled out of the suit only days after filing, amidst whispers of governmental pressure to drop (9-10). However this threat of legal action, immediately following the Burundi trial, put enough pressure on the government to initiate several murder trials. In the first two cases tried, seven men were convicted and sentenced to the death penalty (Bryceson 2010, 373).
The use of the death penalty sent shock waves through the NGO movement for human rights and fragmented an already incongruous alliance. International NGOs “were dismayed by the death penalty” but other NGOs, such as the Tanzanian Albino Society, supported its use (Bryceson 2010 373-374). Allen (2010) accurately points out that “the particular characteristics of the condition make albinism a difficult movement to organize and unite” (17). Besides the appropriateness of the death penalty in prosecuting albino murder, other areas of sharp divergence among regional movements include whether albinism should be considered a disability, and whether persons with albinism should have minority protection (20-22). Furthermore, as Bryceson (2010) reminds us, “at the local level, the checks and balances of power in Sukuma rural society, so closely linked to local diviners, are in disarray and largely unable to provide self-regulation, let alone remedially address threats to albinos’ lives” (374). Therefore, while the Tanzanian government’s response was inadequate at best, at least there was action. It is only reasonable to conclude that due to their inability to fully mobilize, local and regional organizations share some responsibility for the ongoing problem of albino murder.
How to Prevent the Social Stigma
In order to present itself as a viable and responsible member of the international community, Tanzania must act quickly and effectively to rid itself of the dark shadow cast on its reputation by the albino killings. Because albinos in Tanzania are subjected to discrimination on many levels, the Tanzanian government must institute a far-reaching, multi-pronged approach that addresses the issue from above and below.
The first priority is to protect life and limb of albino citizens. From there, policy should be implemented to address the health and social needs of persons with albinism. Specifically, a public education program should be launched to educate albinos as well as members of society as a whole on the causes and characteristics of albinism. Then, resources should be allocated to ensure that each albino person has access to sufficient amounts of sunscreen and optical healthcare so that the life of a Tanzanian albino is optimal and devoid of prosecution, threats, or any other human rights violations. Albino people are a group omitted from specific protection under human rights law and are therefore frequently forgotten. Such oppression from omission is an unfortunate result of a world caught in a volatile intermediate between new and old world orders.
Photo Courtesy of William Warby