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The shocking trade of Albino body parts

 Ireland's Big Issue 23 August 2019

Fear, greed and superstition have led to horrific murders and trade of body parts of albinos in east Africa. A complete set of albino body parts can fetch up to $75,000. With many communities believing in the work and spells of witchdoctors, being an albino in certain African communities can be extremely dangerous. (1202 Words) - By Jenifer May


Ireland's Big Issue_The shocking trade of Albino body parts

 A mother and her albino child walk to a courtroom to witness the trial of three people accused of murdering an albino to sell his body parts to witch doctors: REUTERS/Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana

In Ireland, England, most of Europe and countries like Australia and America, the last three decades years have seen legislation introduced that ensures that people cannot be discriminated against. These discriminatory laws cover many factors, including age, sexual orientation, gender, religious beliefs, disability and race and go a long way towards protecting the most vulnerable in society.  However this is not the case everywhere, and in Africa, and Tanzania in particular, one group of people are suffering extreme abuse, violence and even murder, because of a congenital condition they are born with: albinism.

The smuggling of albino body parts has become a lucrative business across East Africa.

Albinism, also known as achromia, is a congenital disorder characterised by a lack of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to the defect of an enzyme that produces melanin, and is inherited through a recessive gene.  There are an estimated 17,000 albinos in Tanzania living on the periphery of a society, where people are frightened by their pale looks and believe them to be 'living ghosts'; victims of a curse.  Often shunned, abandoned at birth, unable to get jobs or marry they suffered huge prejudices in a country that is bound by old traditions and ideals.

However marginalisation is the least of their problems, for in recent years a new belief has emerged that has led to hundreds of gruesome murders within the albino population; that their body parts - hair, bones, skin and genitals - hold miraculous powers and can bring wealth if they are ground up and used in good luck potions traditionally sold by witch doctors.

In a country as poor as Tanzania, huge sums of money are to be made on the back of these beliefs, and the smuggling of albino body parts has become a lucrative business across East Africa. Miners looking for gold and diamonds will pay large sums for albino body parts as will fishermen, who believe that tying a limb to their nets, will increase the numbers of fish they catch.  An IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross) report estimated the value of a complete set of body parts - including limbs, genitals, ears, nose and tongue - at $75,000, an absolute fortune in a country where one third of the population live below the poverty line, surviving on less than $1.25 a day.

Some of the cases that have reached the media and the courts include the case of a baby girl, who, in 2007, after her mother left her alone in a hut, had both legs cut off by a group of men who then slit her throat, poured her blood into a pot and drank it. In another horrific case 13 year old Elizabeth Hussein was tempted out of her home after being told that a film about Jesus was to be screened in her village in the province of Shinyanga.  On her way home the young girl was attacked and hacked apart by a mob with machetes - her body parts were later found at the home of a witch doctor (who miraculously managed to escape arrest).  Two days later a 47 year old man was shot and then had his legs and arms hacked off near the city of Kigoma, another victim of these bizarre beliefs that are spreading throughout Africa.

In 2008 the Tanzanian Albino Society, an organization funded by the British Action on Disability & Development, in order to promote a change in public perception of the condition, accused the government of not doing enough to protect albinos. 'They are cutting us up like chickens' said Zihada Msembo, general Secretary of the Tanzanian Albino Society, told The Sun. 'Our biggest fear right now is the fear of living.   In the streets you can hear people plotting. They say "Look at the zeru (Swahili word for ghost) - we can get him. We are terrified to go outside or to get into our beds at night.'

With over 40 million people in Tanzania, it is a huge undertaking to try and change ingrained perceptions, but one woman has taken a step in the right direction.  Al Shaymaa J. Kwegyir became the first albino member of government when, in 2008, she was appointed to parliament by President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, in recognition of her campaigning on the rights of albinos in Tanzanian society.

Kwegyir was born into a family of nine children - three of whom were albino. She had a better start than most albinos in Tanzania, with parents who were loving and supportive of their children, instead of being rejected, cast out (or worse), like so many albino children.  While most albino children do not manage to get an education, with the help of her family, Kwegyir stayed at school and then got a job in the civil service.  She then began to campaign for the recognition and rights of albinos, and now with the support of government, continues to do so.

In October 2008 she staged a rally in Dar es Saalam to raise awareness of the situation, however that same evening one of the people who took part in the march was followed home and attacked, losing both arms in the vicious assault. And while there had been arrests in relation to albino killings, until 2009 no one had actually been successfully prosecuted; a shocking statistic considering how widespread these murders were.

In January 2009, following yet another murder of an albino, the Tanzanian government took the unprecedented step of revoking the licences of all traditional healers in an attempt to stop the trafficking of body parts. But most have continued to practice illegally - something that is easily done due to the clandestine nature of the business and the fear which witchdoctors can instil in whole communities, ensuring that no one speaks out against them.

Recently the government are trying to send out the right message: in September 2009, a court in the north west of the country sentenced three men to death for killing a fourteen-year-old albino boy; the first conviction for such a crime in Tanzania.  That November saw another four men sentenced to death for the murder of albino Lyaku Willy, a fifty year old man who had his head and legs removed for harvesting by unscrupulous dealers.

That only seven people have only ever come to trial for hundreds of brutal killings, is of course a travesty, however it is indicative of the beginnings of change in the way the government approaches the situation, but can it change the suspicions and beliefs of decades in a notoriously  poor and ill-educated society? It seems not, as tragically the practice is now spreading to other countries like Congo and Burundi, where at least 14 people have been murdered and their body parts stolen in less than a year.

'People believe in witchdoctors more than they believe in God because they cannot see God' said Vicky Ntetema of the human rights group, Under the Same Sun, in the wake of the murder of a five year old boy and his mother in Burundi in May of this year. 'It's going to take a long time to change people, but if we start with the young ones, then there can be change.'


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Originally published by Ireland's Big Issue. ©

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